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The Scottish Reformation
Chapter I.—The Hamilton Period, a. d. 1515—1543.
Section 5. Struggle for the use of the Vernacular Scriptures 1532—1534


"Is not my Word like a fire, saith the Lord, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" Such it had shown itself to be in Scotland since 1526, when Tyndale's New Testament began to circulate through the realm. Fire-like, it had kindled a blaze of religious fervour in the breasts of many and hammer-like, it had begun to smite with crushing blows the errors and corruptions of the Church. What were the clergy to do. A crisis had come. They must either put down the Word of God, or the Word of God will put down their abuses, They must either frankly accept the teaching of the Bible, and consent to a reformation, or else they must wage open war with the Bible, and endeavour by violence to suppress its testimony. Compelled to choose between these alternatives, the Scottish Bishops did not shrink from the impiety of preferring the latter. In 1532, they published a proclamation, prohibiting the sale, possession, and use of copies of the Scriptures translated into the English or Scottish tongues, and denouncing the censures of the Church on all who should dare to violate the prohibition. This edict has not been recorded by any of our historians, but we have the best evidence of its having been issued in the existence of several controversial tracts of the years 1533 and 1534, which were called forth by that event. Curiously enough, the controversy was waged not in Scotland, but in Germany; and the combatants were Alexander Alesius and John Cochlaeus.

After many wanderings, which we cannot here recount, in Denmark, France, Belgium, and Germany, Alexander Alane, or Alesius, the exile and wanderer—for such is the significance of the new name which he now assumed—had at length arrived in Wittemberg towards the end of 1531. He was anxious to study there, at the fountain head, the theology of the Reformation, and to accomplish himself in the Greek and Hebrew languages, a knowledge of which he now felt to be indispensable to an evangelical divine. Attaching himself with peculiar sympathy and affection to Melancthon, he had been admitted to the friendship and familiar intercourse of that distinguished scholar and teacher; and in full possession of all the advantages of a University which was now the best theological school in Europe, he had already made rapid advances in knowledge, when, towards the close of 1532, he had intelligence from Scotland of the publication of the clergy's wicked edict The same message brought him tidings. of personal wrongs which his persecutors had recently inflicted upon him. They had exhibited articles of heresy against him before the ecclesiastical tribunals, some of which were entirely false, and others much exaggerated ; and they had procured sentence of condemnation to be passed upon him, in absence and without a hearing, by which he was degraded from the priesthood, and doomed to perpetual banishment from his country. He resolved not to be silent under such heavy injuries inflicted upon himself and his fellow-countrymen; and he immediately penned and printed a Latin epistle addressed to the Scottish king, in which he warmly protested against the tyranny of the Bishops, and earnestly entreated the King to come to the succour and defence of his afflicted subjects. He said little in the letter of his own private grievances; he generously threw these into the shade; but he expatiated at considerable length, and with great force of reasoning and eloquence, upon the impiety of debarring the people from access to the vernacular Word of God. What Make that a crime against the Church, which God has commanded man to do as a duty to Himself and to their own souls? It was a thing unexampled in the whole history of the Church. If such an edict had proceeded from Pagans or Turks, it would not have been surprising; but for men calling themselves Christian bishops, to take out of the mouths of their famishing flocks the very bread of life,—could such men be true pastors of the sheep of Christ or could the king, who was the father of his people, see such a cruel tyranny perpetrated upon them and not interpose his authority to put a stop to it? Besides, how great would be the benefit and blessing to his subjects, if the Word of God were to be read in every house, and were diligently taught by every parent to his children and household! How else indeed could anxious souls be led into the way of truth and attain to spiritual peace and comfort, than by the study of the Scriptures in their own homes. For the Bishops, whose duty it was to preach God's Word, were unable or unwilling to preach it; and the friars, to whom they delegated that function, preached nothing but idle and foolish legends, or doctrines which, instead of ministering peace and consolation to the soul, kept it, and were meant to keep it, perpetually in a condition of tormenting doubt and fear.

This eloquent epistle was published at Wittemberg with the author's name, and copies of it were despatched into Scotland by a special messenger. Whether it ever came under the eye of the king himself, we are not informed ; but that it reached the hands of his courtiers and chief officers of state is attested by the antagonist whom it instantly brought into the field against its author.

This, as already intimated, was John Cochlaeus, the well-known opponent of Luther and Melancthon. He had recently succeeded Emser in his canonry at Meissen, by the favour of Duke George of Saxony, and he repaid the patronage of his zealous prince by a pertinacity of antagonism to the Wittemberg divines, which never suffered his pen to rest for a moment, and by a violence of abuse which defied all the laws of decency and shame. No sooner had he read the epistle of Alesius, than he resolved to answer it in a counter-epistle to the Scottish king. He suspected another hand in the tract than that of the Scottish exile, and he began his reply to it by expressing his doubt whether Alexander Alesius Scotus was not a mere man of straw, and whether the real author was not Philip Melancthon himself, "that Coryphaeus of heresy, that architect of lies." Alesius having alluded in his letter to the king's interposition at St. Andrews on his behalf, Cochlaeus has the effrontery, while confessing his entire ignorance of the facts, to deny that the king ever could have so interposed, inasmuch as such an interference with the action of his prelates would have been a stretch of kingly power altogether unbecoming so Christian a prince. At all events, he urged that the bishops had done well and wisely in the publication of the edict. There was nothing contrary to Scripture in an act prohibiting the use of Scripture to the laity. The act was entirely agreeable to the teaching of Scripture itself, which told men to "hear the Church," and to learn wisdom and knowledge from "the priest's lips." Nothing but evil and mischief to Church and State, and to men's immortal souls, could result from the practice of laymen reading the Word of God in their own houses; and every man presuming to interpret it for himself. Such a practice would only make men bad Christians and bad subjects. So it had resulted in Germany, and so it would result in Scotland, if the king took the advice of this apostate exile, and interfered with the pious proceedings of his prudent bishops. The simple truth was, that Alesius, if indeed there was any such person, was a Lutheran, and wanted to make all Scotland Lutherans like himself. But let the king take warning from the example of Germany; what tragedies, what tumults, what lamentable disasters had flowed in that empire from the heresies of one man—that impious apostate, Luther. If the bishops and princes of Germany had only been more watchful and severe at first, the empire would have been spared all these miseries. Their mistaken clemency to one or two bad men had been the cause of calamity and death to thousands. No! let the edict of the bishops remain in full force; let the king confirm, not annul it; and let both king and bishops take care that it does not remain a dead letter. Let them execute the edict with firmness and rigour. The punishment of a few will prevent the perdition of thousands.

Before sending off copies of his epistle for the hands of James and his bishops, Cochlaeus took the precaution of fortifying himself with recommendatory letters from King Ferdinand, brother of the Emperor Charles V., and from Erasmus. These letters have not been preserved, but the replies of the Scottish king both to Ferdinand and Erasmus are still extant. It is a fact new to history, that Erasmus brought his influence to bear upon the ecclesiastical affairs of Scotland at this crisis; and it is a sad instance of his revolt from a cause which he had once done so much to promote, that he should have given the support of his illustrious name to a writer so virulent and sophistical as Cochlseus, and to an edict so opposite in its spirit to some of his own writings as that of the Scottish bishops.

It was impossible, of course, that Alesius could be silent under such an attack. He lost no time in committing to the press a "Reply to the Calumnies of Cochlaeus," addressed as before to the Scottish king; and in which he enters into a detailed account of all the circumstances which had led to his flight from St. Andrews, in order both to show that he was no man of straw, as Cochlseus had pretended, and to bring out to view the characters of the prelates who were the authors of his misfortunes. These personal incidents and recollections give great historical value to the tract, and throw much light upon the period of the Reformation immediately subsequent to the death of Hamilton. Into the rest of its contents we cannot here enter; it must suffice to state that it contained a renewed and powerful remonstrance against the tyranny of the clergy, a lengthened reply to the reasoning and declamations of Cochlseus in their defence, and a fuller statement than before of the author's views of the need of a comprehensive scheme of ecclesiastical reform.

Cochlseus, however, was determined to have the last word. In August, 1534, he published at Leipzig "An Apology for the Kingdom of Scotland against the masked Scotsman Alexander Alesius." Instead of defending his own good name from the heavy charges laid against him by his opponent as a calumniator and a sycophant, Cochlaeus coolly assumes in this tract the office of defending the fame of the Scottish kingdom against the attacks, as he chooses to regard them, of one of its own citizens. He repeats his assertion that Melancthon is the real author of both the epistles; he upbraids. Alesius with putting lies into the mouth of a foreigner to the disadvantage of his native country; and he roundly tells him that he would gladly send him back to Scotland with his hands tied behind his back, to be ignominiously punished as a public slanderer, and a traitor to his country. Alesius's minute narrative of facts avails nothing; Cochlaeus pronounces it absurd and incredible, and endeavours to convict him of contradiction in his statements. He forgets, in his excitement, that the king was better able to judge of the truth of the narrative ot Alesius than he could pretend to be, and that it would have been extreme folly in Alesius to have laid a false statement on such a subject before the royal eye. Luther, Melancthon, and Alesius are all loaded by turns with violent abuse, and then, in the end, he gravely assures the king that he is so far from feeling any hatred to their persons, that he would willingly travel on foot, and at his own charges, to Rome, or Compostella, to pray for them at the shrines of St. Peter and St. James, if only he could hope to bring them back from their heresy into the unity of the Church.

It was not without an eye to some substantial reward, that Cochlaeus volunteered in this violent controversy; and he was not disappointed. The archbishops of St. Andrews and Glasgow testified their gratitude for his timely and much needed services by sending him liberal presents. The king wrote him a letter—a cotemporary transcript of which is still extant—assuring him of his princely favour; and the lord treasurer dismissed the servant who had brought copies of his first epistle, with a gift of fifty pounds Scots.

As for Alesius, he had no other reward than that of having sowed good seed in the Scottish soil, which afterwards bore abundant fruit He got no redress from the king of his personal wrongs. He demanded a hearing for his cause in vain. He was allowed to continue unavenged in unjust exile. But he had earned for himself the glory of being the first Scotsman who stood forth to defend by argument and learning the Christian right of his countrymen to read the Word of God in their mother tongue. Nor does it diminish in the least the honour of such a service, that in rendering it he availed himself of the assistance of his great master Philip Melancthon. Cochlaeus uttered a calumny when he asserted over and over again that Melancthon, and not Alesius, was the author of these epistles. But he would not have exceeded the truth, if he had been contented with alleging that Alesius had had the advantage of Melancthon's aid. It is not difficult to discover in these tracts occasional traces of that elegant pen which was the admiration of all Europe, and to the rhetorical power of which even Cochlaeus is compelled to do homage. It was no unusual thing for Melancthon to look over the Latin compositions of his friends, and to put in touches here and there, before they were recited in public, or committed to the press. Melancthon, as well as Erasmus, bore a part in this long-forgotten but justly memorable struggle. While the scholar of Basle gave his support to Cochlaeus, the scholar of Wittemberg lent a helping hand to Alesius; and it is certainly a remarkable instance of the important omissions of historians, that neither of these two illustrious names has ever been named before in the history of the Scottish Reformation.


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