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First Reformation General Overview/Background


Sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland was almost totally based on farming and the land. It had a small population of less than a million people, most of whom lived in the country. Only a very small percentage of people lived in towns. If the year’s harvest failed, it would mean disaster for the nation.

Until the time of Andrew Melville, Scotland and England had separate kings and queens. However after the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603, James VI of Scotland became king of England (where he was known as James I) as well. He believed in the ‘Divine right of kings’ that kings should have complete control over everything, including religion.

Below are some of the types of clothes that the ordinary people would have worn. The clothes the Reformers wore would have depended on their background. Some, such as John Knox and Walter Mill started out as priests, while Andrew Melville was an academic who became a university principal and Patrick Hamilton was related to the king.

A Peasant or Farm Hand   A Country Girl   A Market Woman
A Peasant or Farm Hand
A Country Girl
A Market Woman
(Source: lepg.org)

The first coins were introduced to Scotland by the Romans. The first Scottish coins appeared around the 12th century and in 1539 king James V issued the first Scottish coin (or ‘ducat’) with a date on it. Below is a gold coin issued by James VI.


Spiritually, the country was in darkness. The church was Roman Catholic, and didn’t let the people read the Bible. Church services were in Latin, a language the people couldn’t understand. Church leaders showed by the way they lived their lives that they didn’t love God. They also built up huge amounts of money and the poor people didn’t trust them. The people were told that they could get to Heaven by doing good works and doing what the church told them - they weren’t told that they needed to trust in Jesus.

However, across Europe, God was raising up men who would lead the Reformation of the church – who would bring it back to the teachings of the Bible so that people would know the true way of eternal life. These men were ready to willing to die for what they believed.


The first man to die for his faith during the Reformation in Scotland was Patrick Hamilton. He was converted in Europe through the teachings of Martin Luther, and returned to Scotland and began to preach the gospel. This soon got him in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church however and he was burnt at the stake in St Andrews in 1528, aged 24. The second martyr of the Scottish Reformation was George Wishart, who was burnt at the stake in St Andrews in 1546. However through his preaching he had helped move the Reformation forward. Wishart also had a big influence on a man called John Knox, who would go on to become the most famous Scottish reformer. God used Knox’s preaching to bring about the Reformation in 1560. The years from Knox’s death in 1572 to 1637 were years of struggle between Presbyterianism (the form of church government the Reformers believed was set out in the Bible) on the hand, and Episcopalianism and Erastianism (state control of the church) on the other. The driving force behind much of this was king James VI. These struggles were seen by the Reformers as an attempt to move back towards Rome, and indeed, in 1618 the Five Articles of Perth forced five Roman Catholic practices on the church.

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