A Bible scholar who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland ministered God’s word to our church recently. As a young man, he committed his life to the service of Christ while at university. He also met and married his wife in the context of a vibrant, gospel-preaching church in Edinburgh. Today he fulfills his calling as a professor of theology.
Nearly three centuries earlier, a shepherd boy embarked on a most unusual adventure one evening in 1738. Leaving his flock secured for the night on the hills above Abernethy, Scotland, 16 year-old John Brown (1722-1787) set out on a 24-mile trek to the storied university town of St. Andrews.
Two-hundred years earlier, a young man named Patrick Hamilton (1503-1528) had lectured as a post-graduate student at St. Andrews. Recently returned from studies at the prestigious University of Paris, Hamilton’s heart had been set aflame by his studies in the Greek New Testament. Convinced by Scripture that forgiveness of sin and a right standing with God could be found through faith alone in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Hamilton lectured passionately and courageously, bearing witness to the saving power of the Gospel independent of the established church.
The religious authorities at St. Andrews were deeply troubled by such notions— particularly as expressed by so fervent and gifted a teacher. They encouraged Hamilton to continue lecturing, but only so as to collect evidence against him. Although he taught only what he read in the New Testament and testified only to his own spiritual awakening in consequence of these teachings, Hamilton was charged with heresy and sentenced to death.
Just 25 years of age, his young wife with child, Hamilton was tethered to a stake. As he awaited the executioner’s torch, he raised an impassioned lament, which observers recorded: “How long, O Lord, how long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men?” With his dying words, Hamilton pleaded for the day when the Scottish people would be free to read the Bible, to follow its light and to proclaim its truth.
As the fire’s stench rode the winds off the North Sea over St. Andrews, a revolution was ignited. Others would be executed at St. Andrews for their zeal to proclaim the New Testament teachings for which Hamilton gave his life. But God eventually heeded Hamilton’s lament. Dramatic political changes swept over Scotland during the next three decades, resulting in the free distribution of New Testaments throughout the realm.
None of this history was lost on the shepherd boy who made his all-night, barefooted trek from Abernethy to St. Andrews. A tile mosaic bearing Hamilton’s initials marked the spot in the town where Hamilton was martyred (a memorial that remains to this day). Like his fellow Scotsman and spiritual hero, Patrick Hamilton, an inextinguishable fire for God’s word burned in John Brown’s heart.
Upon reaching the city in the early morning hours, John entered Alexander McCulloch’s book shop — in that day a popular haunt of well-dressed scholars. Clad in homespun clothes, unkempt from his all-night journey and quite apparently uneducated, John’s presence at the counter troubled the suspicious clerk, who inquired what on Earth the boy could possibly want. To the clerk’s astonishment, John announced he would like to purchase a Greek New Testament.
As providence would have it, a professor of Greek at St. Andrews, Francis Pringle, was in the shop at the time. Overhearing the lad’s request, Pringle stepped forward, pointed at a passage in the text and said: “Boy, read this, and you shall have the book for nothing.”
The leather bound volume was placed in John’s hands. He focused his eyes on the page opened before him and to the wonder of all read the text and earned his treasure. Unbeknownst to the astounded Greek professor, the shepherd boy in Mr. McCulloch’s shop that day was a prodigy who had taught himself to read Greek, would master Greek, Latin, and Hebrew by age 20, and would become a revered Scottish scholar and pastor.
By that afternoon John was back among his sheep, having walked 48 miles since the previous evening to obtain a New Testament. Like Patrick before him, John had discovered that God’s written word is “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey from the comb” (Psalm 19:10).
Five hundred years ago Hamilton died for the truth he discovered in that book. Over 200 years ago Brown faithfully ministered it’s message for decades at St. Mary’s Church, Haddington — a short distance south of St. Andrews and a shorter distance east of Edinburgh. And today a biblical scholar from Edinburgh teaches God’s word in our community, on the wings of a martyr’s prayer. Thanks be to God.