We remember every four years a man we should never forget
My lord, if ye burn any more, except ye follow my counsel, ye will utterly destroy yourselves; if ye will burn them, let them be burnt in hollow cellars; for the smoke of Master Patrick Hamilton hath infected as many as it blew upon.
--John Lindsay, associate of persecutor of Protestants James Cardinal Beaton
Today is more than merely "Leap Day." It's the anniversary of the death of a man who deserves to be far better remembered than he is: Scottish Lutheran theologian and martyr Patrick Hamilton.
Hamilton was born into the Scottish royal family, the grandson of King James II. He was appointed titular abbot of Fearn Abbey, Ross-shire, in 1517, the same year that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Hamilton first came across the teachings of Luther as a student at the University of Paris. He returned home first to study at and later to teach at St. Leonard's College at St. Andrews University. An accomplished musician, while at St. Andrews Hamilton conducted a mass of his own composition.
Hamilton's Lutheran convictions soon attracted the attention of James Cardinal Beaton, a notorious persecutor of Protestants who would eventually be lynched in a popular uprising against his crimes. Beaton ordered that Hamilton be tried for heresy. As a result, Hamilton fled to the Continent, studying under both Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg before enrolling at the University of Marburg.
Late in 1527 Hamilton returned to Scotland, conscious that he might well be going to his death. There, he was allowed to preach unmolested for a time while Beaton gathered evidence against him. Finally Beaton- conscious of Hamilton's popularity, and desiring to avoid violence- invited him to a conference at St. Andrews. Again, he was allowed great freedom to preach and to teach- and thus to supply additional evidence against himself for his inevitable trial.
Hamilton was the author of Patrick's Places (Loci communes), a systematic exposition of Reformation teaching including the following on the distinction between Law and Gospel:
The law saith to the sinner. Pay thy debt; the Gospel saith, Christ hath paid it. The law saith, Thou art a sinner, despair, thou shalt be damned; the Gospel saith, Thy sins are forgiven thee, be of good comfort, thou shalt be saved. The law saith, Make amends for thy sins; the Gospel saith, Christ hath made it for thee. The law saith, The Father of heaven is angry with thee; the Gospel saith, Christ hath pacified Him with His blood. The law saith, Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction? The Gospel saith, Christ is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction. The law saith, Thou art bound and obliged to me, to the devil, and to hell; the Gospel saith, Christ hath delivered thee from them all.
Summoned before a panel of prelates presided over by Beaton, Hamilton was placed in military custody after a promise that he would be released unharmed to his friends. But Beaton broke his word. A sham disputation with a Friar Campbell ended in his being seized and taken to a plaza outside St. Salvador's Church, where he shown the stake and wood already waiting for him. Offered his life if he would recant, he replied,
As to my confession, I will not deny it for awe of your fire, for my confession and belief is in Christ Jesus. Therefore I will not deny it; and I will rather be content that my body burn in this fire for confession of my faith in Christ than my soul should burn in the fire of hell for denying the same. But as to the sentence pronounced against me this day by the bishops and doctors, I here, in the presence of you all, appeal contrary the said sentence and judgment given against me, and take me to the mercy of God.
It was rainy and windy. The wood was green, and there was not nearly enough of it. In agony, Hamilton pled for "more fire." Bags of gunpowder tied beneath his armpits merely singed his face when they exploded. His body was not consumed by the fire until six in the evening; it had been lit at noon. Yet according to an eye-witness, in all that time “the martyr never gave one sign of impatience or anger, nor ever called to heaven for vengeance on his persecutors. So great was his faith, so strong his confidence in God!”
Foxe's Book of Martyrs recalls,
The fire burning slow put him to great torment; but he bore it with Christian magnanimity. What gave him the greatest pain was, the clamor of some wicked men set on by the friars, who frequently cried, "Turn, thou heretic; call upon our Lady; say, Salve Regina, etc." To whom he replied, "Depart from me, and trouble me not, ye messengers of Satan." One Campbell, a friar, who was the ringleader, still continuing to interrupt him by opprobrious language; he said to him, "Wicked man, God forgive thee." After which, being prevented from further speech by the violence of the smoke, and the rapidity of the flames, he resigned up his soul into the hands of Him who gave it.
Hamilton's last words were, “How long. Lord, shall darkness overwhelm this kingdom? How long wilt Thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
Years later, the greatest figure of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox, wrote,
When those cruel wolves had, as they supposed, clean devoured the prey, they found themselves in worse case than before; for then, within St Andrews, yea, almost within the whole realm, who heard of that fact, there was none found who began not to inquire, wherefore Mr Patrick Hamilton was burnt; and when his articles were rehearsed, question was holden, if such articles were necessary to be believed, under the pain of damnation? And so, within short space, many began to call in doubt, that which before they held for a certain verity, insomuch that the University of St Andrews and St Leonard’s college, principally by the labourers of Mr Gavin Logy, the novices of the abbey, and the subprior, began to smell somewhat of the verity, and to espy the vanity of the received superstition; yea, within few years after, began both black and grey friars publicly to preach against the pride and idle life of bishops, and against the abuses of the whole ecclesiastical estate. Amongst whom was one called William Arithe, who, in a sermon preached in Dundee, spake somewhat more liberally against the licentious life of the bishops, than they could well bear. The bishop of Brechin having his parasites in the town, buffetted the friar, and called him heretic. The friar passed to St Andrews, and did communicate the heads of his sermon to Mr John Mair, whose word was then holden as an oracle, in matters of religion; and, being assured of him that such doctrine might well be defended, and that he would defend it, for it contained no heresy, there was a day appointed to the said friar, to make repetition of the same sermon; an advertisement was given to all such as were offended at the former to be present. And so, in the parish church of St Andrews upon the day appointed, appeared the said friar, and had, amongst his auditors, Mr John Mair, Mr George Lockhart, the abbot of Cambuskeneth, Mr Patrick Hepburn, prior of St Andrews, with all the doctors and masters of the universities. Shortly after this, new consultation was taken there, some should be burnt; for men began liberally to speak. A merry gentleman, named John Lindsay, familiar to James Beaton, standing by when consultation was had, said, “My lord, if ye burn any more, except ye follow my counsel, ye will utterly destroy yourselves; if ye will burn them, let them be burnt in hollow cellars; for the reek (smoke) of Master Patrick Hamilton hath infected as many as it blew upon.”
Today Hamilton's monogram is set in brick on the spot where he was burned. Though doubtless Hamilton would have disapproved, students at St. Andrews superstitiously avoid stepping on it, for fear that if they do they will fail their exams.
Under Knox's leadership, the Scottish Reformation ultimately took a Calvinistic turn, and Prebyterianism rather than Lutheranism became its ultimate form. But as a Lutheran of Scots-Irish descent, Patrick Hamilton has a special significance for me personally. And he deserves to be remembered by Lutherans and Christians of all ethnicities, for all that his feast day comes only once every four years.
Photo of the spot of Hamilton's martyrdom by Remi Mathis