Scottish Reformation

Scottish Reformation - Statue of John Knox
Scottish Reformation

The Scottish Reformation was the movement in Scotland that ended the Scottish state’s traditional, formal, religious, and governmental relationship with the Church of Rome.

The Catholic Church was succeeded by a Presbyterian Church after 1560, when the Scottish parliament formally ended papal jurisdiction in Scotland, prohibited the celebration of the Mass, and ratified a Reformed (Calvinist) doctrinal document, the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), which was succeeded by the binding Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), as statements subordinate only to Holy Scripture.

The reformer most commonly associated with this movement was John Knox; other early figures of prominence include John Douglas, John Row, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, and John Winram, who were preachers and coauthors of the Scots Confession, and Andrew Melville, a primary influence on the second Book of Discipline.

The Church of Scotland’s (often referred to as “the Kirk”) major Reformation statements on church polity are the first Book of Discipline (1560) and the second Book of Discipline (1578). During the Reformation, its liturgy followed the Book of Common Order, first published by Knox in Geneva in 1556.

As in many other parts of Europe, Catholic piety before the Reformation was strong, and religious orders enjoyed popularity and influence. The progress of the Reformation in Scotland was heavily influenced by a political scene resulting from the fate of the Scottish monarchy, which in turn was heavily influenced by three centuries of conflict with England.

The fact of repeated minority succession to the Scottish throne (James V’s minority lasted from 1513 to 1528, Mary, Queen of Scots, from 1543 to 1561, James VI’s from 1567 to 1581) meant that political power in Scotland was held by various coalitions of nobles rather than by the Scottish Crown.

These nobles repeatedly disagreed about the need to pursue alliances with France or with England, and their desire for a decentralized government is paralleled in the ultimate organization of the kirk.

James V was the grandson of Henry VII of England, but his father had been defeated and killed by English troops under his uncle, Henry VIII of England, at Flodden Field (1513). James V seems to have preferred a French alliance; he made a French marriage. Support for the pro-English faction in Scotland intensified as the Reformation started on the Continent, however, and its ideas made their way to Scotland.

While popular enthusiasm for Catholic eucharistic piety was strong, hostility toward ecclesiastical government and wealth became more focused in light of events on the Continent. Anticlericalism was a frequent theme of anti-Catholic polemic on the Continent, and the same was true in Scotland.

After Henry III introduced a reformation in England, he pressured James V to do the same. James threatened the papacy with a reformation and received a number of financial and ecclesiastical concessions in return. To mobilize popular sentiment behind his pro-French position, he attacked the English and was defeated at Solway Moss in 1542 when some of his own nobles surrendered to the English; he died a month later.

The decision for the French, in combination with England’s turn toward the Reformation, made England a convenient refuge for the Scottish instigators of religious reform periodically exiled after the 1520s. John Knox, sentenced to serve as a galley slave in 1547 for his role as an associate of the murderers of the Catholic archbishop of St. Andrews, was only one of many such exiles.


The succession of James V’s infant daughter led to further jockeying between the Scottish and French parties. Gordon Donaldson has pinpointed three crisis points during Mary’s minority. In 1543, the pro-English party gained the upper hand, pledging Mary to Henry VIII’s son, the future Edward VI of England (a Protestant).

In the same year, however, her regent, James Hamilton, earl of Arran, repudiated the English treaty, after which English troops began vandalizing and occupying southern Scotland. In 1547, in return for help against the English, Scotland betrothed Mary to the French dauphin in 1548; he ascended the French throne as Francis II in 1549.

Over the succeeding years, however, Scottish sentiment turned against France as it became apparent that the French projected Scotland’s absorption into France. Moreover, the English Crown sponsored a wave of pro-English, pro-Reformation propaganda, and its preachers were sent over the border and sheltered by members of the pro-English party in Scotland.

A temporary abatement under Mary I of England ended after the succession of Elizabeth I in 1558, who agreed to support the Scottish Protestant cause against the French.

Knox had been bought out of his French enslavement under Edward VI but expelled from England under Mary; he returned to Scotland from Geneva, where he had superintended a congregation of exiles, in 1556. In 1559, he preached a sermon that sparked a pro-English rebellion.

The rebellion drew English troops into France in 1560, which in turned triggered the withdrawal of both French and English troops later in 1560. At this point the Scottish parliament, flooded for this sitting by a group of minor nobles whose participation was illegal, formally ended Scotland’s relationship with the Roman Church.

During the remainder of Mary’s reign, an ecclesiastical compromise remained in effect in which revenues were divided between remaining benefice holders and the Reformed Church, but Mary as a Catholic could not govern the church, so an alternative body, the General Assembly, which Gordon Donaldson has termed a Protestant parliament, served as the kirk’s governing body. Mary, unwise in her marriages, was forced to abdicate in 1567, when Scotland reverted to a government of Protestant regents until James VI attained majority.

The most unique feature of the new Scottish Church was its decentralized church polity, formulated in the first Book of Discipline, which also legislated on practical matters. It emphasized preaching and the distribution of the two remaining sacraments (baptism and communion).

It forbade the observance of holy days, the celebration of masses and performance of prayers for the dead, and the invocation of saints. The structure of benefices was abolished, with resulting revenues to be used for supporting the clergy, educating the faithful, and maintaining the deserving poor.

Congregations were to elect deacons and elders to work with ministers to regulate congregations and maintain church discipline. The General Assembly accepted many of the book’s prescriptions but did not institute the radical withdrawal of benefices from their holders. Notably absent in the book were prescriptions for a church hierarchy.

In 1572, the Crown tried to introduce bishops into the church’s government, but this was abandoned by 1576 and repudiated in the second Book of Discipline. This document rejected royal or episcopal supremacy over the church and placed most governmental responsibilities (interpretation of Scripture, ordination of ministers, visitation, and jurisprudence) in the hands of either individual congregations (the word presbytery is used rarely) or supercongregational assemblies (synods or the General Assembly).

The Scottish parliament never affirmed the second Book of Discipline; indeed, James VI sought repeatedly to institute Crown and Episcopal control of ecclesiastical affairs. The conflict between the Presbyterian and Episcopal models of polity became a major dynamic within both the Scottish Church and Scotland’s relationship with England for the subsequent century.