Elizabeth Adamson was the wife of James Barron, a burgess of the city of Edinburgh, and a follower of John Knox. In 1555, John Knox came to Edinburgh and among his activities he engaged in house meetings. Among his listeners was Elizabeth. David Calderwood tells us that she ‘heard Mr Knox with greediness, because she was troubled in conscience, and he opened more fully the fountain of God’s mercies than did the friers, or common sort of teachers that she heard before’. Her involvement shows us that people were seeking the truth and not finding answers from the official clergy, the priests and friars.
What has come down to us is the account of Elizabeth’s deathbed. She suffered great physical pain, yet drank deeply of the comforts of the gospel. Her sisters on one occasion asked her what she thought of her physical pain in comparison to her previous spiritual distress, she replied, ‘A thousand years of this torment, and ten times more joined unto it, is not to be compared to the quarter of an hour that I suffered in my spirit. I thank my God, through Jesus Christ, that he has delivered me from that most fearful pain; and welcome be this, even so long as it pleaseth his godly Majesty to discipline me therewith.’
Some time later, her sisters and a few others were with her and she asked them to sing a psalm. One of the psalms that she requested was Psalm 103 because through it previously she had found spiritual help. She informed her companions, ‘At the teaching of this psalm, my troubled soul first began effectually to taste of the mercy of God, which now to me is more sweet and precious than were all the kingdoms of the earth given to me to possess for a thousand years.’
The account of her deathbed also includes a reference to the involvement of priests who probably came to offer her the Last Rites. On the edge of eternity, she ordered them to leave: ‘Depart from me, ye sergeants of Satan; for I have refused, and in your own presence do refuse, all your abominations. That which ye call your Sacrament and Christ’s body, as ye have deceived us to believe in times past, is nothing but an idol, and has nothing to do with the right institution of Jesus Christ. Therefore, in God’s name, I command you not to trouble me.’
Shortly afterwards she passed into the presence of the Lord. I have no idea of her age, although her husband married again and had a family of several daughters, which could point to him, and therefore her, as being young at that time.
What can we learn from her? First, the gospel can give great peace even when there is great physical agony. Obviously, she lived before the existence of terminal care and no doubt many a person, including believers, died in great physical agony. Yet it is clear that she was composed by the gospel, comforted by its content, and confident in the hope it gave her.
Second, the gospel can give great courage when there is great pressure to conform to false religion. After all, as she edged towards the Jordan, she would want to have something certain to help her wade into its waters. Such a time is not the moment to grasp at religious straws. Through the gospel, she had found the way to heaven, and she reached the desired haven.
The testimony of Elizabeth was a valued one in the past. Andrew Bonar refers to her experience in his commentary on the Book of Psalms when commenting on Psalm 103. He writes: ‘How often have saints in Scotland sung this Psalm in days when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper! It is thereby specially known in our land. It is connected also with a remarkable case in the days of John Knox,’ and he goes on to detail her experience.