The Epic of George Wishart: Exile and Return

The story of George Wishart reads like an epic adventure of super heroes and villains. It’s short and sketchy at best but filled with the kind of plot twists and surprises that make it a page turner. Wishart was probably a text book hero by modern terms but a rather unlikely one in the times in which he lived. Born into a wealthy Scottish family in 1512 he took up a profession that most scions of wealthy Scottish families took up; he began to teach Greek. Wylie says he was the first to teach Greek in Scottish grammar schools. Whatever the case may be he chose a quiet, circumspect and impossibly respectable profession as befitted a gentleman of his rank and social standing.

The respectability of rank and profession, however, couldn’t shield him from the inevitable infamy that followed everyone who chose to take up Lutheranism which he did, embracing the cross and despising the shame. Being suspected of heresy he fled to England and spent some time at Cambridge where he became friends with Hugh Latimer. It wasn’t long before the respectable heretic was in trouble again, this time skipping the British Isles altogether and finding himself in Switzerland which at that time was a safe haven for every Protestant man worthy of the name.

While in Switzerland he spent time with Bullinger the successor of Zwingli in Zurich and then on to Geneva where he spent time with John Calvin himself. Then back to England for a small stint teaching at Cambridge from 1542-1543 before returning to Scotland in 1543. Wishart’s time in England and Switzerland had such a profound impact in shaping his understanding of the truth and how he presented it to others. We are as much the product of the influence of those around us as we are our own choices. The men that Wishart chose to surround himself with proved to be some of the greatest minds Christendom has ever seen. They were not just men who had a knowledge of the truth, they were also men who had a deep connection with God and the kind of sterling characters that were able to shape the circumstances around them whatever they may have been.

Isaac Newton once said, “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This was true of Wishart, who chose to surround himself with spiritual giants and became one as a result. Sometimes we underestimate the power of the influence that those around us can have over us and we get careless about who and what we choose to surround ourselves with. Take a moment to remember George Wishart; the power of influence can define who and what you become faster than you think.

The Romans Revival

After returning to Scotland, Wishart began preaching the gospel in his old hunting grounds at Montrose. What was remarkable was that he used the techniques that Calvin and Zwingli had used in their preaching and instead of choosing to preach on a string of seemingly unrelated topics he chose to take the book of Romans and teach it chapter by chapter to his audience. He brought the entire book to life by demonstrating that it unfolded a single unified, detailed, systematic picture of the gospel. His audience was spellbound, never had they heard such teaching before, never in their wildest dreams had they looked that the bible in this way before. No one who listened to Wishart left the same way they came in; his preaching changed their lives.

Beaton Takes Note

Nothing good lasts forever and the sheer goodness that emanated from Wishart’s preaching should have been the writing on the wall that spelled its imminent doom. Cardinal David Beaton, a somewhat cruel and acerbic character, who also happened to be the head of the Papal establishment in Scotland, soon got wind of the work that was taking place on his very doorstep and would sooner have conducted himself to the very gates of hell than allow it to continue unhindered.

From Montrose Wishart went to Dundee and while he was preaching there Beaton arrived with the Governor and a train of field artillery in tow. They believed, possibly rightly so, that the town was full of Lutherans and they had come to besiege it and duly route out the heretics. The people of the town quietly left before they could get there, taking their preacher with them and leaving the gates of the city open so that Beaton and his crew could have ready access. When Beaton and his men had left the flock returned with Wishart in tow and he took up his sermon from where he had left off before they had been so unexpectedly interrupted. But Beaton was determined and threatened to swoop down on the town and crush its inhabitants if they didn’t get rid of the preacher. Wishart left more for the safety of the people than himself.

The Gospel Preached in Scotland

Soon after Wishart left Dundee the plague swept through it leaving most of the town dead or dying. The plague was not something to mess with in those days of almost pre historic medical advancement. Death was tangible, imminent and genuinely feared. Wishart returned to the plague infested town and began to nurse the sick and preach to the entire population both healthy and infirm. Above and beyond anything else that could be offered to these people who were staring death squarely in the face, Wishart knew the gospel of Jesus was the only thing that could give them the kind of hope they needed. 

While in Dundee during this period of time he had a near brush with death himself but not by means of the plague. Cardinal Beaton had hired a priest to assassinate Wishart and one day the man was standing at the bottom of a stairway that Wishart was meant to descend. He was wearing cloak which concealed a naked dagger that he had in his hand but Wishart figured out what was going on by the look on the man’s face and walking up to him unexpectedly put his hand upon the assassin’s arm, disarming him. 

Needless to say, the crowd outside was ready to dispose of the would-be assassin but Wishart put himself between the man and the mob and saved his life. 

The End

Towards the end of his life, Wishart met John Knox who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures of the Scottish Reformation. Knox started out as a bodyguard for Wishart, carrying a sword with him as he traveled.

In 1546 Wishart was apprehended by Beaton’s men and thrown in the Seatower at St. Andrews. Knox wanted to go into captivity with the man who had become his friend and mentor but Wishart turned him back with the words “One is enough for a sacrifice”. He was tried on the 28th of February and sentenced to death by burning at the stake the next day. He was just 33 years old.

The story of George Wishart has an almost movie-like quality about it. The tale of a young, well-to-do, Scottish man chased tirelessly by the gnarled old villain as he hops valiantly across the countryside only to finally meet his doom at the hands of his relentless assailant. But Wishart’s story has an added dimension to it that sets it apart from the common, cliched storylines we’re fed in the age of the slick superhero blockbuster. Wishart’s story is defined by the words of Leonard Ravenhill in his book “Why Revival Tarries” where he writes “Spiritual expansion is expensive and at times excruciating…there are no reduced rates for a revolution of the soul”. Maybe that’s why Wishart’s story is so compelling because it is the story of a man who was willing to pay the ultimate price for the revolution of his own soul and the spiritual expansion of his countrymen. Ravenhill continues “ If you only want to be saved, sanctified and satisfied, then the Lord’s battle hath no need of thee”. Wishart longed for more and so did Knox after him, they battled because nothing but the spiritual Reformation of their homeland could ever satisfy them. Ravenhill concludes “are you prepared for vision at this top-price demand?” By God’s grace may we all be.