An Unsung Hero and an Explosion of Light

Patrick Hamilton, 1504-1528

Mark Twain said, “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.”

Like the seasons, there are patterns and cycles in history that don’t require us to be particularly spiritual or prophetic, simply observant.

As the world emerges from a season of global lockdown and upheaval, many church leaders are revisiting vision. Listening for the voice of God, yes. But also, like the men of Issachar, seeking to ‘understand the times.’

In this place of looking and listening, stirred by a dream of an explosion of light across our land, I have found myself, in recent weeks, tracing events in my city and nation that once lit up the entire world.

Let me take you, incredibly briefly, to where it has led me.

The Industrial Revolution

Perhaps the greatest explosion of ingenuity, enterprise and labour that history has ever witnessed was the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent age of scientific discovery of the 18th and 19th centuries, as mankind shifted from hand-tools to machines and prepared for the 20th century. This dizzying period of history was squeezed disproportionately into the Central Belt of Scotland, from men like James Watt with his steam engine to James Clerk Maxwell, the genius of electromagnetic theory upon whose shoulders Albert Einstein claimed to stand.

For Industrial Revolution, read Works.

Paul tells us that we are the workmanship of Christ, created in Him for good works which He prepared beforehand for us to walk in! Jesus Himself, telling us that we are the light of the world, equated our light with works, telling us to let our light shine before men in such a way that they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. The Father of lights is the one and only Source of every good work this world has ever seen.

What was God thinking when He made you? What good works did He have in mind? Paul goes on to tell us that, though were not saved by works, we were most certainly saved for them. We only adequately discover and begin to walk in our God-works in – and out of – communion with Him.

But the Industrial Revolution in the Scottish Lowlands didn’t just happen; it flowed out of perhaps an even more remarkable period of our little nation’s history.

The Enlightenment

Late 18th century French philosopher Voltaire said, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.” In the mid-1700s, while England’s only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, had become intellectually stagnant, Scotland’s five universities led Europe and the world through the influence of men like Thomas Reid, father of the Common Sense school of philosophy in Aberdeen, naturalistic philosopher David Hume in Edinburgh, and the grandfather of economic theory Adam Smith whose work, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, shaped global capitalism more than any other book.

But the Scottish Enlightenment was only possible because Scotland had emerged from being Europe’s most under-developed hinterland to become the most educated country in the world. This was due to a school system that would go on to produce a 99% literacy rate by the outbreak of World War I (– If only, today!). That didn’t happen by accident either, and I’ll come to the reason for it shortly.

But first, for Scottish Enlightenment, read Words.

The Psalmist declares that the entrance of the word brings light. Paul tells us that the god of this world has blinded the eyes of the unbelieving, that they might not see the gospel of the glory of Christ. The greatest light that has ever exploded in all of history is the Gospel. It illuminates. It transforms. It elevates.

And it’s always accompanied by works. Always. Preach and heal, Jesus told His disciples. Words and works. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not only accompanied by signs and wonders – and their impact can be truly explosive – but by acts of kindness, enterprises of charity and breakthroughs of world-changing invention and industry, in the arts and science, in industry and commerce, in every possible sphere of human development.

Christian sociologists have long since observed the phenomenon of ‘redemption lift’. When the Gospel brings spiritual awakening, there is nowhere it doesn’t reach. It always leads to social, economic and political elevation, as Kingdom ambassadors are turned loose on the cosmos. When men and women are connected to heaven, everything on earth changes.

The challenge of the ‘generation after the blessing’ is never to forget, or deny, the true Source. This is where philosophers, from as early as David Hume at the height of Edinburgh’s ‘enlightenment’, departed, and the tide, from very early on, was already preparing to ebb.

And it’s why today’s political, media and academic worlds, inheritors of an almost embarrassing measure of historic blessing, have allowed an airbrushing the Source. These as much as the marginalised and destitute, must hear Gospel words, see Gospel works, and be called to repentance and faith once again.

We long for an explosion of light that will mark the return of a tide that surely cannot recede much further; not a return to the past but in a new world with a new culture and new mission field.

And yet, what is really new? What has truly changed under the sun?

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

Just as the Industrial Revolution flowed out of the Enlightenment, so neither of these were accidental either. Scotland didn’t just happen to have the most literate population on earth by the mid-1700s.

Visionary Leadership

As early as the 1560s, John Knox and his fellow reformers trumpeted the vision of ‘a school for every parish’. An educate system was to be set up, overseen by the church, in every parish of the land, run by highly and broadly educated school masters. The aim was to produce universal literacy with one overriding purpose: the propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (This is why, to this day, Religious Education is the one subject whose provision is not just protected but compulsory in the Scottish curriculum.)

The Scottish population had been abused by corrupt rulers for far too long, and nothing would empower and liberate the common man from their clutch, in every sphere of life, more than access to the Book of Life. The revelatory and revolutionary Bible truths prised from Latin vaults through the Scottish Reformation caused an explosion of spiritual light such as few nations have ever known.

In 1382, an Englishman called John Wycliffe, the ‘morning star before dawn’, had translated the Scriptures into the English language for the first time. But what use was that, when there was no means of distributing the text?

In 1452, a German called Johannes Guttenberg launched the world’s first printing press and, three years later, published 180 copies of the Guttenberg Bible, in the language of the people. But what use was that, when most people couldn’t read and wouldn’t have been allowed a copy anyway?

Let’s bring it home to why Scotland became so disproportionately blessed as a nation.

In 1633, the Scottish Education Act commanded the funding of Knox’s vision – a school for every parish – with the explicit objective of giving the Scriptures to the common man. The most literate people on earth were primarily to be versed in the Scriptures, in a country where compulsory primary education was eventually in place seventeen years before England by the late 18th century.

Read the final verse of this hymn (1882) by James Clerk Maxwell, the polymath voted the third greatest physicist of all time by scientists:

Give me love aright to trace Thine to everything created

Preaching to a ransomed race by Thy mercy renovated,

Till with all Thy fulness sated I behold Thee face to face

And with ardour unabated sing the glories of Thy grace.

The great encouragement for us is that Scotland’s explosion of words and works began in a dark place. A very dark place.

A Dark Place

The point of ignition that once set Scotland alight and eventually produced a people that American historian Arthur Herman (2002) credited with “inventing the modern world”, was perhaps, for those of us who cannot airbrush God from history, the last day of February 1528.

Scotland’s greatest unsung hero could well have been a 24 year-old disciple of noble birth called Patrick Hamilton, his heart aflame with the Gospel, who was burned at the stake in St Andrews for declaring salvation through faith in Jesus alone, as he preached across the land: “Christ is your righteousness, your goodness and satisfaction.”

Hamilton came first. Then another martyr, George Wishart, the fiery John Knox and many others followed.

As it was with Jesus, a ruling culture that hated Hamilton became the people who literally struck the match that the wind of the Spirit blew upon, setting the following centuries alight.

As I’ve glanced back at the past half millennium, I’ve been re-inspired by a vision that belongs not to history, but to eternity.

Wouldn’t you just love to see something that rhymes with this?

  • Identify a dark land and a downtrodden people.
  • Captivate hungry hearts by a passion for Jesus and His Gospel.
  • From among these, empower visionary leaders with revelatory truth.
  • Release the church in the power of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by wonders of transformation and works that invade every sphere of public life.

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