When we study the Scottish Reformation, John Knox would most certainly be discussed. However, before we consider the life and impact of John Knox, it is best for us to know something about his predecessor George Wishart.

The following article on George Wishart is abridged from a booklet published by Calvary Pandan BPC entitled Martyrs of the Faith. It can be downloaded from Calvary Pandan BPC’s website.

GEORGE WISHART (Edited from Martyrs of the Faith published by Calvary Pandan BPC)


George Wishart was born in 1513, in Scotland, to James Wishart and Elizabeth Learmont. He grew up to be one of the earliest religious reformers in that land. His early studies included training in the classics at the University of Aberdeen, and in the arts at the Leuven University in Belgium. He returned to Scotland in 1538. Having settled down in Mont-rose, he taught the New Testament in Greek at a certain Grammar School which set the precedent for teaching Greek in Scotland. He was also the schoolmaster.

However, not all favoured such an important study of the Word of God in the language it was originally inspired in, as it was still illegal to read the Bible in its original languages. One of the chief opponents was the Bishop of Brechin, who persecuted Wishart on that account, causing him to flee to Cambridge. There, Wishart entered the Bennet College/ Corpus Christi College, where he came to know Hugh Latimer. His understanding of the Christian faith became more grounded in the Reformed doctrines of the faith.

At Latimer’s request, Wishart undertook the role of preacher at Bristol. He preached faithfully according to the Word of God, and spoke against the false teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In retaliation, the clergy trumped up false charges against Wishart and accused him of preaching the heresy that Christ’s death had no merit. In order not to face death, Wishart, at the advice of the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was forced to recant and had to bear the faggot (bundle of sticks used for burning heretics) twice, on 13 and 20 July 1539. Wishart then spent the next three years in Switzerland and Germany. During this time that he translated the Helvetic Confession to English. In 1542, he returned to England and studied and taught at Bennet College.

In 1543/4, Wishart returned to Scotland, and preached in Montrose, Ayrshire, Leith, throughout East Lothian, and Dundee. While at Dundee, he preached from the book of Romans, and exposed many of the heretical views and ways of the Roman Catholic Church, e.g. absolution of sins by confession to priests, prayer to the saints. Among many Biblical truths Wishart preached, the primacy of Scripture was one key doctrine. Wishart, according to this truth, challenged the people’s blind allegiance to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church which were not founded upon the Scriptures. He revealed their superstition and idolatry. This antagonized the Roman Catholic clergy, who, under the lead of Cardinal David Beaton (the Archbishop of St. Andrews), tried to silence Wishart.

After repeated attempts, Wishart was driven away to Ayr and Kyle in the west of Scotland. He preached rousing sermons in the churches there. When the churches shut their doors to him, he continued preaching in fields and market squares, and wherever people would hear him preach. Many were converted by the power of God.

Wishart was a major influence on John Knox, a most well-known Scottish Reformer, though he did not play a part towards his conversion. John Knox followed Wishart around in his preaching ministry, acting as his personal bodyguard, armed with a twohanded sword, even to the few days before Wishart’s arrest and death.

A month after Wishart left Dundee, in 1545, news came to him that a most lethal plague had broken out in Dundee. In fact, the plague had started four days after Wishart was prohibited from preaching there. Overcome by much concern for the people there, Wishart rushed straight back and preached to the people. He used this calamity to warn of the greater plague of sin which only Jesus could heal. Here we see Wishart’s great love and compassion for people, even for those who had ill-treated him, to the ex-tent that he was willing even to put himself at risk of contracting the plague. Wishart’s love for the people in the Lord Jesus Christ won their affections and they loved him deeply.

Being displeased at Wishart’s return to Dundee, Cardinal Beaton sent the priest John Weighton/Wightman to assassinate Wishart. Armed with a naked dagger, Wightman waited for Wishart after one of his preaching sessions, ready to strike when the opportunity arose. The time never came, for Wishart spotted the dagger and took it from the priest. Stunned and remorseful, the priest begged Wishart for forgiveness, which Wishart readily gave. The whole incident created a commotion, and the people around, learning of the priest’s assassination attempt, wanted to hurt him. But Wishart would not allow it and defended the priest. Again, we see Wishart’s generous and forgiving heart. Later, one of Wishart’s dying acts would be to forgive his executioner who begged for forgiveness. This Wishart learnt from his Saviour, Jesus Christ.

When the plague neared its end, Wishart headed to Edinburgh on 13 January 1546. During his journey to Edinburg to attend a meeting with the Provincial Church Synod, he stopped over in Montrose, where yet another attempt was made on his life that was masterminded by Cardinal Beaton. However, by God’s mercies, Wishart discovered the plot on time. He later predicted that his eventual death at the hand of Beaton.

From Montrose, Wishart travelled to Edinburgh, where he stayed with James Watson of Invergowrie. One night, he suddenly went to the yard and prayed very intensely. This was witnessed by some of the people of the household. When questioned the next day, Wishart initially declined to explain his actions. After much pressing and persuasion, he finally revealed to them that it was because he knew his end was near. He was praying that he would not compromise on his faith when this spiritual battle was the most intense. On top of that, he assured the people that after his death God would send the people spiritual light.

Not dismayed by his impending death, Wishart pressed on in God’s work. He moved around preaching, at Leith, Inversek, Tranent, and Haddington. He came into contact with three faithful men, Alexander Crichton of Brunstone, Hugh Douglas of Longniddry, and John Cockburn of Ormiston. These were men who were known as firm opposers against the Roman Catholic Church. Wishart eventually found his lodging with Cock-burn, but before he went to Ormiston, he stopped John Knox from following him this time, saying “One is enough for a sacrifice at this time”, alluding to his near death.

As planned, the Provincial Church Synod met, but Cardinal Beaton post-poned the session to after Easter. Within that timeframe, he promised to hand a certain church heretic to them, referring to George Wishart. After locating Wishart’s whereabouts, Beaton sent the Earl of Bothwell to John Cockburn’s house to arrest Wishart. As a dutiful host and friend, it was only upon promise of safe passage for Wishart from the governor and the cardinal, and with Wishart’s permission, that Cockburn allowed for Wishart’s removal. Wishart had granted it, saying, “God’s will be done.” Bothwell, on the other hand, had no integrity. He first housed Wishart in Ephinstone Tower, but later broke his promise of protection, and handed him over to the governor in Edinburgh Castle and later to Cardinal Beaton in St Andrew’s Castle, who locked him up in the castle prison dungeon.

During the trial, Wishart was accused of preaching heresy. With John Lauder at the helm, 18 articles were brought against him, examples of which were: preaching against the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, against purgatory and against Papal power, against transubstantiation, and against free will. However, none could righteously fault and condemn Wishart for teaching wrong doctrines. Quoting from Scripture and explaining from Scripture, the solid ground upon which his teachings stood, Wishart proved that he had not departed from the Holy Scrip-tures in his preaching and teaching. Nevertheless, the hardened clergy condemned Wishart as a heretic and sentenced him to death. They were like those who demanded that Jesus be crucified, even though none could find Him guilty of any wrongdoing. Throughout the whole process, Wishart never moved in his convictions, and never recanted.

At breakfast on 1 March 1546, Wishart, using the wine and bread at the table, taught the Lord’s Supper for about half an hour before administering it to those present. Then, he was taken away by two men to the execution ground. Bound with a thin rope around his neck, chains about his waist, hands behind his back, and bags of gunpowder around his body, Wishart stood at the stake ready for death. Before his death, Wishart encouraged the people to hold on to the Word of God and to fear God rather than man. Then, he commended his spirit to God’s hands, and prayed for forgiveness for his accusers. He was hanged and burnt outside St Andrew’s Castle where Beaton watched from his window. Alas, Beaton himself was murdered by dissenters three months later.

George Wishart uncompromisingly preached the truth, and lived it out in his own life. He was eloquent and fierce for the truth from the pulpit, but also kind, gentle, courteous, humble, meek, teachable, and eager to learn. He lived for God, and never indulged himself in a life of extravagance. On his 400th death anniversary, the spot he died at was marked with the letters “GW” in cobblestones. A nearby plaque commemorates his death and his name is also recorded on Martyr’s Monument at St Andrews.

Charles Rogers, in his Life of George Wishart, said of the man, “In his blood the Scottish Church took root, and so long as his countrymen cherish Protestantism, and love liberty, his memory will be fragrant.”