Andrew Melville: Father of Presbyterianism

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

Although some time ago we spent time in England in the early days of the Reformation, we left England after meeting only a few men and returned to the continent of Europe to talk with men there, men who were deeply involved in the Reformation in Switzerland, Germany, and the Lowlands. It is time now to return for a while to the British Isles, only this time we shall travel to the northern part, that part called Scotland.

We have already been there once, briefly, to meet John Knox, the father of the Reformation. We return now to meet his successor, Andrew Melville.

Background

There are a few things to know as far as the Reformation in Great Britain is concerned to understand the work there and the men whom God used in the work.

The Reformation in the British Isles differed from that on the continent in the first instance in that, while on the continent the Reformation churches left the Roman Catholic Church to form new denominations, in the British Isles the Reformation attempted to reform the Roman Catholic Church itself so as to create a Protestant church out of the old institution. This always made complete Reformation very difficult; and, indeed, in England the Anglican Church emerged as the Protestant Church, an Anglican Church which retained a great deal of Romish liturgy and church government.

In Scotland this same method was followed; and the result was a profound struggle which lasted for over a century. The struggle was chiefly between a basically Roman Catholic church government and a genuine presbyterian church government. It was in this struggle that Andrew Melville played an important role.

Melville’s youth and education

Andrew Melville was the youngest of the nine sons of Richard Melville. Richard Melville lived on a small estate on the banks of the South Esk near Montrose, a city on the east coast of Scotland about halfway between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Andrew was born in the year 1545.

Tragedy entered his life early. At the age of two he lost both parents. His father was killed in the battle of Pinkie and his mother died later the same year. Because Andrew was now an orphan, his oldest brother, a minister in Maritoun, assumed responsibility for Andrew’s education.

Though of a somewhat delicate constitution, Andrew proved to be an exceptionally good student. He was educated till 14 years old in the grammar school in his home town; and, after completing his work there, he went to St Mary’s College at St. Andrews, a bit to the south, for four more years of study.

He proved to be such an excellent student that he soon gained a reputation for-being the best philosopher, poet, and Greek scholar among all Scotland’s university students. The rector of the school took a special interest in him and said to him when he left the college to pursue his studies elsewhere: “My silly fatherless and motherless boy, it’s ill to wit what God may make of thee yet.”

At the age of 19, his studies led him overseas, first to Paris for two years and then to Poitiers, both cities of France. He determined to study law, not because he had any intention of entering the legal profession, but because of the mental discipline which studies in law required. But his reputation preceded him at Poitiers, and no sooner had he arrived than he was asked to take a professorship. After he was there for three years, troubles between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics made it advisable for him to go elsewhere. He chose Geneva and in 1567 began a seven-year stay which was perhaps the most happy and carefree time of his life. Beza, Calvin’s successor and rector at the Academy, offered him a professorship in the Humanities, and in Geneva he enjoyed his work, his surroundings, his students, and his contacts with the great men of the Calvin Reformation. Here he would have liked to stay; but an urgent call from his friends in Scotland persuaded him that God had assigned him a place and a work in his homeland from which he could not turn away.

The beginning of the struggle

The first General Assembly’ had met in 1560 under the leadership of John Knox. That General Assembly had adopted a confession and prepared a book on Church Order. Knox spent all his later years struggling to establish a church in Scotland which would be Calvinistic in doctrine, liturgy, and church government. But the forces opposed to him, especially in the areas of liturgy and church government, were strong. The ruling monarch, Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scats, was a perpetual obstacle.

By the time Melville returned to Scotland, Knox had been dead two years, James VI2 sat on the throne3, and the church was governed by a sort of highbred polity composed of elements of presbyterianism and prelacy.4

Melville’s considerable ability was soon recognized, along with his devotion to Presbyterianism and his threat to prelacy. Morton, regent of the king, understood perhaps better than anyone else what a threat Melville could be. Upon Melville’s arrival, Morton offered Melville a position of private tutor in the court of the regent, with promises of good wages and advancement. If Melville had accepted, it would probably have happened that Melville would have become an enemy to the church of Christ in his land. But he saw the danger and instead accepted the position of principal at Glasgow College, offered him by the General Assembly of the church. That began his active work in his homeland.

Soon he was deeply involved in the affairs of the church. He reorganized the college of which he was principal; was, as professor of divinity, present at ecclesiastical assemblies; and was involved in conferences within the church and conferences between the church and Parliament, or the church and the king.

Melville’s stay in Geneva where biblical principles of church polity had been developed and practiced by Calvin and the Company of Pastors had convinced him that Presbyterianism5 was the only biblically sanctioned system of church government, and he began now to exert all his efforts to establish such a biblical system in Scotland. But this brought him into direct conflict with the king and his court. And Morton, who had originally offered Melville a lucrative place in the court, now became Melville’s bitterest enemy.

But Melville’s courage was well known in the land. On one occasion, when Morton threatened Melville in an extraordinarily menacing way (and Morton’s threats had before made bold men quail), Melville responded: “Tush, man! threaten your courtiers so. It is the same to me whether I rot in the air or in the ground; and I have lived out of your country as well as in it. Let God be praised; you can neither hang nor exile his truth!”

It would carry us too far afield to describe in detail the long struggle between the king and the church with Melville at its head. The issue was not only whether prelacy or presbyterianism was to be the government of the church; the question was also whether James Stuart, king of Scotland and England, was to rule in the church of Christ. Just as in England the king (or queen) was the, head of the church, so also James insisted that the king in Scotland be supreme in all matters of church government. That principle could not be tolerated by men concerned that Christ rule in the church as the church’s only Head.6

I am personally convinced7 that the relation of the church to the secular government as defined by the Presbyterians in Scotland was not in all respects biblical.8 Nevertheless, in their firm insistence that not King James but Christ is the Head of the church, they were absolutely correct. Melville himself set forth the principle in words that have become famous. Melville was chosen as a leader of a delegation to bring to the king the protest of the Synod of Fife against royal encroachments on the church’s autonomy. James was not impressed. After the king had expressed his displeasure, Melville said: “Sirrah, ye are God’s silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is king James, the head of the commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the king of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, not a lord, not a head, but a member.”

In 1584 matters came to something of a head. Melville was summoned before the Privy Council for preaching a sermon at the General Assembly of the church in which he condemned the tyrannous measures of the court. He was cited for high treason and threatened with imprisonment. Although Melville appeared as directed, he denied the Privy Council the right to try him until he had been tried by an ecclesiastical court. This so infuriated the head of the Privy Council that he completely lost his temper. Melville, unmoved, took his Bible from his belt and put it on the table, telling his accusers: “These are my instructions: see if any of you can judge of them, or show that I have passed my injunctions.”

Although in 1578 the Second Book Of Discipline which sanctioned a pure Presbyterianism was adopted by the General Assembly, and although this became the standard in the Presbyterian churches and was sworn to in the National League and Covenant of 1581, James VI won the battle over Melville. The success of Presbyterianism had to wait for a better day.

When James was in London he summoned Melville to London with guile and, at the first opportunity, had him imprisoned. Four years Melville was kept in the tower of London, famous for the imprisonment and torture of reformers who suffered for the cause of the gospel. The first year was the worst, for he was deprived of all opportunities to communicate with others. But the rigors of his confinement were relaxed a bit and he was permitted to have visitors and to correspond from prison with his colleagues in the ministry. Men of prominence consulted him and he could use his imprisonment, as Paul did, for the extension of the gospel (Phil. 1:13, 14).

At the age of 66 Melville was released. Though his heart cried out for Scotland, and though he wanted to have his bones laid to rest in his homeland, the king adamantly refused, and Melville was forced to go to France to spend his last years in exile. There history lost him and, though we know that he died somewhere around 1622 at approximately 77 years old, nothing is known of his last days or the .date of his death. He died alone, an exile in the cause of the gospel, with no one to mourn his passing.

One of his biographers summed up his life. Though he was short of stature and physically somewhat frail,

As a preacher of God’s Word, he was talented in a very high degree—zealous, untiring, instant in season and out of season, and eminently successful—and as a saint of God, he was a living epistle, of the power of religion on the heart. Sound in faith, pure in morals, he recommended the Gospel in his life and conversation—he fought the good fight; and as a shock cometh in at its season, so he bade adieu to this mortal 1ife ripe for everlasting glory. If John Knox rid Scotland of the errors and superstitions of popery, Andrew Melville contributed materially, by his fortitude, example, and counsel, to resist, even to the death, the propagation of a form worship uncongenial to the Scottish character.

Some noble men of God have died unknown and unrecognized in their own lifetime, especially when evil men come to power, but the legacy of their works has survived the centuries and has come down to us as a sacred trust.


1 The broadest assembly of the church, comparable to a Synod in Reformed churches. 

2 Later James I of England, the one for whom the King James Version of the Bible was named. 

3 Although Scotland was also ruled, as England was, by a Parliament, just as in England so also in Scotland there was a constant struggle for power between the king and parliament. 

4 Prelacy was the form of church government favored by James. It was similar to Roman Catholic church government, without the pope. It had its archbishops, bishops, and lower levels of clergy. 

5 Presbyterianism is that form of church government which is rule by elders. It is the basic form of church government followed by all Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

6 Our own Church Order devotes an article to this truth—Article 28. 

7 Some of my good Presbyterian friends differ with me on this point. 

8 The Scottish Presbyterians believed that if the king ruled in violation of the law of God, the members of the commonwealth had the right to overthrow the government. 

9 He became king of England as well as Scotland and has gone down in history as James I of England.