There are few places which fans of a sport will travel to in order to be at its birthplace. Where is the ‘home’ of soccer, baseball, or hockey? Towns may have their claims, but no place is as closely connected to a sport as St Andrews is to golf. But St Andrews’ Old Course and its storied ‘cow pasture’ wasn’t always famous for a mere game. It was the place of a young man’s horrific execution which tilted the direction of an entire nation toward the Reformation.

Why Kill a College Student?

Patrick Hamilton was just out of college when he was burnt at the stake for heresy on leap day, February 29, 1528. The execution took place at the front gate of St Salvator’s College in St Andrews, but it didn’t happen quickly. Contemporary reports said that there had been a lack of wood and gunpowder placed at the base of execution stake. As a result, when the fire was lit, the blustery North Sea wind eventually blew out the flames. Hamilton wasn’t killed at first, but slowly roasted.

Why would a young man be executed at a time when there was no significant dissenting theological positions in existence in Scotland? The Lollards influence was only mildly felt in Scotland in the years after John Wycliffe’s passing. The Church of Rome held a powerful grip on the religious and political life of Scotland. How could a college grad be seen as a threat in any way to this nearly monolithic Catholic establishment?

The answer comes from seeing who Patrick Hamilton was, and how he became a martyr for the Protestant Reformation cause.

A Young Nobleman

Patrick was part of the ruling class in Scotland. This meant that Patrick had an outsized influence in all that he did and said. If he was just a local tradesman, it is likely that he would have been harassed a bit and then largely ignored. If he wasn’t from the nobility he would have been arrested and no one would have given him much notice.

But Patrick was a nobleman. Like others of his class, he went to college and studied in France at the greatest University of the time, the University of Paris. When he arrived home, something happened, which isn’t clear. It seemed like he needed to get out of town quickly. Had Patrick started to hold views that were contrary to the established authorities? It wouldn’t be the last time that a university student had radical ideas that got him into trouble.

To Luther’s Wittenberg

Of all the places which Hamilton could have gone, he chose Germany, which was embroiled in upheaval due to an Augustinian monk who was challenging the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Church of Rome. That monk was Martin Luther.

It isn’t clear whether Hamilton met Luther, but the Scot was in Luther’s town of Wittenberg at one point and eventually, Hamilton went back to school to study at the newly formed, explicitly Protestant, University of Marburg.

While in this hotbed of German Protestant teaching, Hamilton wrote a systematic theology for his thesis. It was in the format of a series of propositions or ‘common places’ which stated theological truths in the typical scholarly pattern of the day. However like Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, which was only written a few years earlier in 1521, there really wasn’t a lot of Protestant systematic theology in existence yet.

So the significance of Patrick Hamilton starts to take shape. He was a young, intelligent nobleman with direct connections to the royal court. He had the best schooling available at the time. And he was a published apologist and systematic theologian for the Protestant Reformation, learning that theology in Germany where the Reformation was just getting started.

Returning to Scotland

Patrick could have stayed away from Scotland, keeping to the safety of newly Protestant rulers like Philip of Hesse on the Continent. But Patrick chose to return to his home country where there would be no allies, no home church, no freedom of religion and no one else who was likeminded with him in his Protestant convictions.

It doesn’t take too much psychologizing to speculate how difficult Patrick’s choice must have been, yet his conviction to hold fast to the truth was proven by the things that happened when he got back home.

After a short season of preaching near his hometown of Linlithgow, Patrick was summoned by the Roman Catholic Archbishop James Beaton to come to St Andrews. But Patrick wasn’t invited there to swing a nine iron.  While Hamilton was there, Beaton hatched a plan to entrap him.

A Gospel Witness

Since Patrick would invite Roman Catholic priests to visit him and talk theology, Beaton had some of the priests document the statements which Patrick was making. For a month Hamilton was permitted to teach in public at the University or in private settings. Beaton wanted evidence in order to press heresy charges on Hamilton.

One of the priests, a man named Alexander Ales, listened intently to Patrick’s Protestant arguments. Later, Ales would become a Protestant and attributed his new faith to the gospel witness of the young Hamilton.

Beaton moved quickly to snuff out ‘Lutheranism’ in Scotland and had Hamilton arrested. They quickly put on a ‘show trial’ like something from the 20th century Soviet Union. Hamilton was charged with anti-Catholic teaching. He affirmed the now classic Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Of course, Hamilton had already published his Latin book on the topic, in what came to be known in English as “Patrick’s Places.”

Beaton saw the threat to Catholicism in Scotland in the form of a young royal courtier and systematic theologian promoting Protestant ideas. By comparison today, think of a Prince like a William or Harry if he was godly like Robert Murray M’Cheyne and had the theological ability of Sinclair Ferguson. Hamilton’s proximity to both political and ecclesiastical power combined with his new Protestant convictions made him a revolutionary threat. But there was only one of him and Beaton aimed to cut any Reformation off at the knees.

Smells Like Reformation

The hasty trial led to the hasty execution plan. While the young Patrick was slowly roasting, more wood was being searched for to end the agony. It took six hours to kill the young man.  For Beaton, the unintended consequence was to make Hamilton a powerful symbol and martyr for the Reformation cause.  As one unsympathetic observer famously put it, “the reek of Master Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon.”

It would be years before Scotland would see George Wishart and then his bodyguard John Knox bring a Scottish Reformation to light. But it cannot be doubted that the early witness of a young man who stood for the gospel of Jesus Christ made way for the spread of truth in the years that followed.

So if you take that golf course vacation to St Andrews, don’t forget the smell. Patrick Hamilton’s gospel-witnessing ‘reek’ ought to be well remembered today.

For further reading on Patrick Hamilton, his theology, his trial and execution see the St Andrews Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research website.

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Clint Humfrey

Clint Humfrey is the Lead Pastor of Calvary Grace Church in Calgary, Alberta. Prior to planting Calvary Grace (2006), Clint was a professor of Greek at Toronto Baptist Seminary (2003-2006). Clint has studied at Toronto Baptist Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Prairie Bible College and The Master’s College. Clint blogs at Cowboyology and has written for National Post.

Born in Alberta, Clint grew up on the family farm and competed in rodeo. He is blessed to be married to Christel. Together they raise three cowboys, Hunter, Knox and Winston.

Clint is an original Council Member for TGC Canada.

You can follow him on twitter @clinthumfrey