“Much of what we take for granted in Scotland today, such as the free national education system, the National Health Service, human rights and modern democracy, came about from Christian movements of the past.”
– Paul Griffiths, Famous Lives in Edinburgh, 16.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, most dramatically captured in the radical, spiritually infused sociopolitical act of my namesake, Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517. As a Lutheran teacher headed for a spiritual retreat, this is a good time for me to pause and remember my heritage. Certainly HKIS as a school established by the Lutheran church is an outgrowth of the Reformation impulse to improve society through education. Enroute to a week with my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault on a small island in western Scotland, I was given the unexpected opportunity yesterday to join a tour in Edinburgh by Paul Griffiths, Reformation scholar and church leader, on the gifts that the Scottish Reformation has given not only Scotland but the world. I certainly leave Edinburgh this morning with a deeper respect for my own spiritual heritage.
The Gifts of the Scottish Reformation
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile features two statues of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Adam Smith and David Hume, whose ideas changed the world. Smith’s capitalism and Hume’s secular skepticism have become indelible marks of the modern project.
In contrast to these widely recognized heralds of contemporary thought, Paul’s tour revealed example after example of how Scottish men, guided by a Christian worldview, brought manifold gifts to not only their home country, but introduced concepts and social reforms that have been widely accepted as ideals in many societies around the world. Yet it seems that their very success has undermined the memory of their spiritually inspired countercultural innovations.
These achievements, it needs to be remembered, came at the price of the lives of many martyrs; more than 110 Edinburghers were hung at the location below for their reforms that empowered the poor and disenfranchised at the expense of the ruling elite.
More generally, over 18,000 Scottish Covenanters (those who supported freedom of conscience) were murdered by the Royal Crown from 1670 until the Glorious Revolution of 1688. If nothing else, I realized that the social conscience work that I do in Hong Kong was pioneered by these reformers at a cost that I simply cannot imagine.
Let me share some of the gifts that Scottish reformers brought to the world, which Paul generously shared with me in my private two-hour tour of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
- Care for the Poor and Free Education: These two core Protestant beliefs were radical at a time when the world was divided between rulers and ruled. Taking the Bible’s plain truth seriously, the reformers passionately exercised care for the poor. In addition, Scottish reformers believed that all citizens had the right to learn freely, including instruction in the Christian faith. Combined with the desire to care for the poor, then, the concept of free education for all was introduced and implemented. As Paul writes about leading reformer Thomas Guthrie (1792-1873), “In Dr. Guthrie’s time Edinburgh, particularly around the Royal Mile, was filled with vice, drunkenness, disease, and illiteracy. He set up ‘Ragged Schools’ for the sake of the poorest children.” Inspired by these twin Protestant imperatives, Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) – about whom the famous Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce declared “all the world is wild about” – were educational leaders in 19th century Scotland. According to Paul, Chalmers established what became the state education system; “by using the churches in those parishes he ensured that most of children in Edinburgh had an education.”In a related impulse, Christian scholar George Buchanan tutored King James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England. One of his reign’s achievements was commissioning the Authorized King James Bible translation, a landmark for literacy and moral development. Paul comments, “Everywhere in Scotland this book became the authority for belief and behavior, so much so that centuries later Scotland was called ‘the land of the book.’ The Bible therefore became foundational for Scottish civilization and for reforms in education and social conditions.”
- Human Rights and Democratic Governance: The theologian Alexander Henderson (1583-1646) was the first person in world history, according to Paul, to publish a petition and solicit citizens to sign. In contrast to the famed Magna Carta, which was a conservative move to protect the rights of English barons, Henderson’s grass roots petition gave birth in time to a global march for human rights, which came to greater fruition in the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, and in the universal declaration of human rights in the 20th century. When I sign a petition of the online advocacy group Avaaz, I should remember that this concept was birthed in Edinburgh during the Scottish Reformation.
- Medical Care: Inspired by Jesus’ own healing ministry, Scottish reformers believed that everyone should be given access to medical care. Edinburgh was a world center for medicine, which is one of the reasons Charles Darwin came here to study in the mid-19th century. The “workshop” of this health care reform was the Magdelen Chapel in Edinburgh, which in time gave birth to a system that in 1952 became the UK’s National Health Services, the first free health care system in the world. Paul cited numerous examples of leaders in the field of medicine whose advances reduced suffering, such as the work of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who pioneered the work of developing and bringing antiseptics into medical practice in the 19th century. Paul writes, “His antiseptics methods spread like wildfire throughout Europe; for example, in Munich the death rate of patients after surgery dropped dramatically from 80% to almost zero. Queen Victoria was so grateful to him that he was made the first Lord in medical history.”The church’s role in health outreach is evidenced by the many medical doctors who were trained and dispatched by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society to locations around the world.
- Scientific Discoveries: The church founded the famed center of learning, Edinburgh University, and many churchmen were leaders in fields of scientific inquiry. Paul highlights the role of influential Christian scientists in advancing understanding of the physical world: the mathematician and astronomer John Napier (1550-1617); the physicist, professor of medicine and investigator of the Rosetta Stone, Thomas Young (1773-1829); the pioneer of what would later become laser technology, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868); and James Clerk Maxwell, Scotland’s greatest scientist who is known today for his ground-breaking work on electromagnetism, paving the way for Einstein’s breakthrough in the theory of relativity. For these leading scientists, faith and reason supported each other in the quest for a better life in society.
Given my debt to Paul for the content of this blog, I leave it to him to summarize the contributions of Scottish Protestant to society: “Jesus Christ told his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves. Over the centuries Christians have been at the forefront of education and social reform all over the world, seeking to care for their fellow human beings in many practical ways. Here in Scotland the Church led the way in education and social reform and established a model for many other nations to copy. Edinburgh was especially at the forefront of this kind of work.”
My own journey as a Christian Lutheran teacher has been profoundly shaped by the Protestant Reformation. In listening to Paul speak so eloquently in his tour about many Reformation ideals that I too highly value – intellectual inquiry; God’s preferential option for the poor; application of knowledge for the public good; dialogue between faith and science for holistic understanding; finding inner peace in one’s relations with God and fellow humans – I realize that I have been relatively unconscious of how the values given to me in my heritage have informed my teaching in Hong Kong. In the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation and our own 50th anniversary of HKIS as a school, I am grateful for Paul’s bringing to my awareness the great social benefits that exploded into Scottish society and onto the world scene by the Reformation movement that began in the 16th century.
Paul’s tour ended for me, however, on a sobering, provocative note. A century ago 75% of the citizens in Edinburgh went to church, but today that number has fallen to a mere 3%. I am challenged as an educator to consider what has happened to cause a vibrant heritage that fused faith, science, and social good to be unable to hold the attention of 21st century citizens. As much as I realize the empowerment that my own Christian worldview has given me in my teaching in Hong Kong, I am equally aware that this belief system does not speak to the vast majority of my students.
While Paul’s great gift to me has been a greater appreciation of my own heritage, I have to ask what needs to be done to bring about a cosmovisionary story that stirs contemporary culture to advance civilization and support a flourishing life in all its manifold facets.
And with that, then, I am off today to spend the next 6 days with my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault as we study the life and work of Jesuit priest and French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Only now in the 21st century, suggests Cynthia, are we coming to understand that his science-spirituality vision offers the world a new story of the cosmos, and a corollary understanding of our dynamic place in it. Leaving Edinburgh this morning, I take with me a greater appreciation for my Reformation roots as well as a desire to make sense of science, faith, and social development for 21st century students as I travel to our retreat location, Holy Isle on the west coast of Scotland.
I highly recommend Paul Griffith’s tours for anyone interested in this topic. He is highly knowledge, responds to questions with both a scholar’s breadth and a heart for Christian ministry to all. You can find out more on his website – or visit these comments on TripAdvisor about his tours.