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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter XIV - Reconstruction of Church
II. The Book of Discipline


The next meeting of the Scottish Estates did not take place till January of the following year. Knox in the interval was not idle. Along with the same men who had assisted him in preparing the Confession of Faith he was busy drawing up what is known as the First Book of Discipline. This task, we have seen, had been allotted to him in April of 1560 by the Protestant Lords, and the commission had been renewed and the work completed by the autumn of that year.

The events which marked the period that lapsed between the close of the first Parliament of Protestant Scotland and the second could not have been altogether of a reassuring nature to Knox. Mary and Francis steadily refused to ratify the Acts of the Parliament to set up the Reformed religion. Knox did not, however, attach much importance to this, for the Parliament was a free and properly constituted one; and, besides, it mattered not to him whether the Queen assented or not, for the new faith he believed to be the true doctrine of God, and it was the Creed of the people. Queen Elizabeth, although outwardly friendly, was unwilling to form a closer alliance between Scotland and England than what existed, for she refused to marry the Earl of Arran, a union on which the Scottish nobles had set their heart.

The sudden death of Francis ii., the husband of Queen Mary, lifted a load off Knox's mind, for he had the fear that she was only waiting until she returned to Scotland in order to overthrow Protestantism and re-establish the Romish Church; but with the death of Francis, Mary's power in France would cease, and with it would vanish the influence of the House of Guise. The danger then from that quarter was not so imminent, but an event of a more personal and domestic nature happened to Knox at this time, in the death of his wife, Marjory Bowes. We have only occasional glimpses of her, but these are all of a favourable character, and we can well believe him when he says that he was in "no small heaviness" by reason of her death. Little time was given him to mourn his loss, for the preachers, he remarks, "vehemently exhorted us to establish the Book of Discipline by an Act and public law." The Church had got its creed, but it was without a policy. The ministers were permitted to preach, but they were without assured sustenance. Something must be done, and done speedily, for they affirmed that "if they suffered things to hing in suspense, when God had given unto them sufficient power in their hands, after they should sob for it but should not get it."

The Book of Discipline is admitted by competent authorities to be the most important production of the Reformation time in Scotland. Compared with the Confession of Faith it is more of a native growth, and bears the stamp of original conception. Books dealing with the government and policy of the Reformed Church had seen the light in Germany, France, Switzerland, and England. Knox and his colleagues had these books before them, and made use of such parts as suited their purpose. But their work, all the same, has many special features for which they themselves were responsible. They give an outline of their views regarding the future of the Church which is broad and judicious, and which, if carried out, would have put a new face on Scottish religious and national life. The Book of Discipline consists altogether of nine heads, but we think it better in place of following these in detail to arrange their contents according to subjects. Though the book as a whole possesses a unity of conception, the arrangement is not altogether such as one could desire.

The first three heads deal with topics, such as the Sacraments, that are fully discussed in the Confession of Faith, and it is not necessary to refer to them in this connection. The first main subject treated is the government of the Church. The Reformers make it perfectly clear that to their mind presbyter and bishop, as used in Scripture, are convertible terms; and although Presbyterianism, as we know it, was of later growth, the lines originally laid down in the Book of Discipline inevitably led up to it. The office-bearers of a permanent character, recognised by Knox, were the pastor, the doctor, the elder, and the deacon. The chief place, of course, was given to the first, and his main function was preaching. The elder and deacon were to be chosen annually from the most godly men in the Church, and the duty of the former was to assist the minister in the exercise of discipline, and, generally, in the management of the affairs of the Church. But it would seem that he was to keep an eye not only on the flock, but on the pastor himself, and was even enjoined to reason with him if he failed in his duty.

It is probable that in this we see a reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, where the clergy were altogether independent, and being without any check on the part of the laity they sank to the lowest level. The duty of the deacons was to collect and distribute the funds for the poor. Other two classes of office-bearers find a place in the Book of Discipline, but it is perfectly clear that their office was only of a temporary nature. These were the readers and superintendents. The need for both arose from the ecclesiastical conditions of the time. There were only a few Reformed ministers for the hundreds of parishes that existed, and it was accordingly impossible to find a pastor for every cure. Knox and his colleagues could not contemplate the idea of the majority of parishes being without some spiritual guide, so they instituted these two orders until such time as a sufficient number of ministers could be reared to meet the spiritual wants of the whole country. To those parishes where there were no minister a reader was appointed, and his duty was to read the Common Prayers and the Scriptures in the parish church. He very often acted as schoolmaster, and he might in time develop into a minister by taking advantage of the weekly meetings which were held in those districts which afterwards became Presbyteries, and at which the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church were freely discussed and handled.

The superintendents were also appointed because of the exigencies of the time. It would hardly have done to have left a vast number of parishes to the spiritual care of the readers, who were not educated men or fully qualified to act in all things on their own responsibility. They could not preach, nor administer the Sacraments, but it occurred to Knox that he might adopt a system which was first of all recommended by John Alasco, and appoint superintendents for each of the ten or twelve districts, or provinces, into which the country was divided. These men, while nominally stationary in one town, were appointed to preach as often as possible in every parish kirk within their province, to see to the exercise of discipline, the administration of the Sacrament, preside at meetings and Synods and at the examination and admission of readers and ministers, and generally to supervise the religious and ecclesiastical life of their district. They did not hold a position above their brethren, for an ordinary minister could discharge their duties, and they might, like the rest of their brethren, be taken under discipline and, if necessary, deposed. Like the readers, their office ceased whenever a sufficient number of ministers was forthcoming to take charge of every parish in the land.

It has been remarked that in the Book of Discipline the one court which is conspicuous by its absence is the Presbytery. The General Assembly, the Synod, and the Session were recognised by Knox, and although the Presbytery had not as yet taken shape, we have seen how it gradually sprung into being. It was a gradual and necessary creation, and in 1581 Scotland was divided into Presbyteries. It is now, next to the General Assembly, the chief court of the Church, and the Synod, which in the days of Knox was of so much importance, has shrunk almost into a shadow. The Kirk Session in later times became the governing body in the parish. It has been stripped of many of its original functions, but it still holds an honoured place in the constitution of the Church. The General Assembly is the one court that has never varied in popularity and power. Not only is it the last court of appeal, but it is the legislative body from which spring all ecclesiastical enactments. Its representative character has kept it in favour with the people, and its free and open discussion of the important questions which come before it has enabled it to maintain its high position.

The next main subject discussed is the discipline and organisation of the Church. This, in some respects, is the most significant and characteristic part of the whole document, and the lines laid down were more perfectly followed than those of other parts of the book. It was the aim of Knox to recreate in Scotland the primitive Church, in doctrine, in worship, in government, and in discipline. In all these respects the Roman Catholic Church had sunk to a very low level. No impartial observer, on comparing the Apostolic with the Romish Church, could see much, if any, resemblance between them. Knox was perhaps deficient in historical perspective, and failed to appreciate the causes which led to such degeneracy. He may also have overlooked the good which the pre-Reformation Church had done during those long centuries, how it had kept religion alive and imparted the spirit of Christianity to the nations of Western Europe.

It is easy for us to think of all these things now. We stand at so great a distance from the time of Knox, and are able to take a full view, but we must remember the state of matters which faced him. If we were brought into actual contact with similar religious corruptions our attitude could not be very different from his. We have seen from our review of the Confession of Faith that the exercise of discipline is regarded as one of the marks of a true Kirk. It had existed in the Early Church; in the Romish Church of Knox's day it was unknown. The Reformer's idea of the Church was the same as the politician's conception of the State. It must be an orderly institution, and there can be no order without discipline. Laxity in the ecclesiastical is as fatal as in the political sphere; and it was quite in keeping with Knox's thoroughness and statesmanlike qualities that he should determine that the Reformed Church of Scotland should be a well-governed and disciplined body. r1he regulations he laid down had for their aim the preservation of the Church from the intrusion of the vicious, the preventing of the evil from contaminating the good, and the bringing sinners to repentance.

The Kirk Session and Presbytery records have been ransacked, to discover the methods which were employed by the Church to effect these ends. Choice extracts have been culled, and delicious tit-bits of discipline published, for the delectation, chiefly, of English readers; and stern Presbyters have been held up to scorn for their narrowness and for the superstition which made them parties to the infliction of grotesque penances and the burning of witches. Here, again, we have to reason with those whose chief delight it would seem to be to make capital out of the practices of their forefathers. No one can defend the burning of witches any more than one can defend many of the absurd and inhuman practices of earlier and later times, but it would be folly to expect that the Church should be so much ahead of the times as to anticipate the gentler code which regulates our conduct. The belief in witchcraft was popular and widespread, and was held by the Romish Church as strongly as by the Protestant. It was a superstition of the times. The surprising thing is that the Reformation Church should, almost at a bound, have outgrown so many of the gross superstitions of the Romish Church, and should have displayed so great enlightenment and attained to so great freedom. The age of Knox is indeed a new heaven and a new earth compared to the previous century, and it is surely the most perverted criticism to condemn him and his immediate successors for not having fully realised the-measure of truth and charity of which we now boast. It is not at all unlikely that the unhistorical student of a coming age, may turn round on ours, and condemn us, for what we may regard with complacency and even approval.

Such critics ought to consider what the condition of Scotland would have been if Knox had not put into force his Church discipline. Are they prepared to advocate that the laxity which prevailed before the Reformation should have been permitted to continue ? Do they believe that the nation would have reformed itself without the warnings, checks, and incitement which the discipline of the Church gave? If they are not prepared to take up this position they have no case. Besides, as a matter of fact, we know what the ecclesiastical discipline of the Reformed Church has accomplished for Scotland, and if that discipline can now be relaxed it is a sign that it has done its work. When that work is fully completed, and we have a perfect Church in a perfect State, but not till then, can it be entirely abolished.

If the discipline of the Church seems to us in some respects to have been severe, there were compensations. Greater liberty was given to the members than they now possess, and they enjoyed privileges which are denied to the laity of our day. They chose their own minister, and they had the opportunity at the weekly meetings of airing their gifts and giving voice to their opinions. Basing his policy in this particular instance on a certain passage on prophesying in St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, the members of the Reformed Church were, with their ministers, invited to meet once a week to discuss the questions which then agitated the religious mind. "Every man," it is stated, "shall have liberty to utter and declare his mind and knowledge to the comfort and consolation of the Kirk." May we not see in these early conferences the beginning of that interest in, and knowledge of, theological subjects which for generations characterised the Scottish nation. Latent talent would be revealed, the doctrines of the Church would be spread, and the most capable men among the laity would be discovered and their services utilised for the benefit of the Church. The very fact of these meetings and discussions is also an answer to those who maintain that Calvinism was forced upon the people. Much more likely is it that the particular form of the Protestant Faith which became the note of the Scottish Church was freely accepted by the people. They chose it of their own accord, and the task of Knox and his colleagues was to interpret it to the popular mind.

The late Dr. John Service, one of the most original thinkers that the Church of Scotland produced during the last century, held that the privileges which the Church of Knox's day enjoyed ought to be restored to its members. He did not approve of the custom, which now universally prevails, of the laity sitting at all the services in silence. lie believed that at one diet of worship, at least, the opportunity should be granted of expressing their opinions, discussing the sermon, revealing their doubts, and asking for that guidance in their difficulties which the minister or some other member of the church might be able to afford. This was regarded as an original suggestion on the part of Dr. Service, but we have seen that it emanated first from the brain of the Apostle Paul, and was, after the lapse of centuries, caught up by John Knox and embodied in his policy of the Church. We seriously think that it might be revived in our day with very great advantage to all concerned. Inside the churches there are many to whom the privileges of such a meeting would be of inestimable value; and outside the churches there are men belonging to all ranks, classes, and professions, who are earnest-minded, sober, and upright, but who shrink from becoming members of the Church because of certain doubts and difficulties that might be dissipated and dispelled if, on the floor of the church, they were allowed to thrash out, in a respectful and serious manner, the views and the questions that disturb them. The great cry of our day is the lapsing from the Church and the refusal of others to join it. It seems to us that if the Church trusted the people more, and granted them those privileges which are theirs by right, the relation between it and the whole body of the people would be closer.

That part of the Book of Discipline for which Knox has received the greatest praise is the one which deals with education. The leaders of the Reformed Church on the Continent and in England were equally interested in the subject, and had devised means by which it might be furthered; but none of them reached the high ideal which Knox conceived, for his scheme embraced the whole nation, and provided training for the young from their earliest years until such time as they were ready to take their place as fully educated members of the Commonwealth.

Beginning with elementary schools, which should be found in every parish, he arranged for secondary schools in every town and cathedral city; and these in turn were to lead up to the Universities, which were to be so equipped as to prepare the students for the learned professions and the highest offices in the State. After the rudiments of education were taught the pupil passed on to the study of grammar and the Latin tongue, and in the higher-class schools or colleges to logic, rhetoric, Latin and Greek. These higher grade schools, as they might be called, prepared the pupil for the University, where his education would be completed. The wealthier parents were to pay the expenses of the education of. their sons, and funds in the shape of bursaries and scholarships were to provide for the education of poorer. children. No parent could dispose of his children as he liked. Education was to be compulsory.

"All must be compelled to bring up their children in learning and virtue." The schools were to be inspected every quarter by competent examiners, and the sharper boys were to be selected and made to continue their education, so that "the Commonwealth may have some comfort of them." Three of our four Universities, St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, were then in existence, but their resources were limited. Provision, however, was to be made for their full equipment, and a detailed scheme of study for each College and Faculty was drawn up.

We have travelled a long way in many things from the days of Knox, but the scheme of education which he conceived for the nation has not yet been fully carried out. The resources which he thought would be at his disposal were denied him, and for that reason the plan broke down; but the very fact of the conception was in itself an inspiration, and the love for knowledge, of which the Scottish people had never been destitute, was fired by the new religion and the proposals and zeal of the Reformer. The Church did its best, and it is owing to it that the parish schools of Scotland became famous, that the young of the nation were taught, and that the people were known all the world over for their intelligence and enterprise. In these days of boasted enlightenment and rapid strides in the institution of educational agencies, it might be well to reflect on the simple, consistent, and noble scheme of Knox.

The last part of the Book of Discipline which we have to consider is the provision that was to be made for the poor. Fancy pictures have been drawn of the easy and comfortable life which the less-favoured members of the Commonwealth enjoyed under the Romish Church. It is popularly supposed that their existence was one of peace and plenty. "The Beggars' Summonds," which has already been referred to, is proof sufficient of the absurdity of such notions; and the poems of Sir David Lindsay, in which the exactions of the Church are exposed and the tyranny of the priest satirised, confirm the main charges which that revolutionary manifesto made against the Romish clergy. If there is one part of all Knox's writings, or a single act in his whole life, which reveals the innate humanity of the man, it is his single-minded concern for his poorer brethren; and the policy which he devised for their relief is perhaps his most lasting monument. It is no wonder that the peasants and commons of Scotland rallied round the new religion, for they perceived that its spirit was one of divine charity, and human brotherhood, and that it aspired to carry out in practice the tender compassion of the Master for the infirm and destitute. Knox would make no terms with the sturdy beggar, he would compel him to work, but every poor person who was unable to labour was to be provided for by the Church of his own parish. The proprietors of the laird were also invoked to deal with their tenants in a more lenient fashion than had been the wont of the Papists, who "spoiled and oppressed them"; and the rumour that some of these lay proprietors were no better than their clerical predecessors kindled Knox's indignation. It reflects the highest honour on the ministers of the Reformed Church that in their policy they thought not so much of themselves as of the youth and the poor of the nation. Their patriotism was equal to their religious devotion, and their ambition was to see in their native land a Christian Commonwealth.

The first question that will occur to most minds is, What means had Knox at his disposal for carrying out the great scheme which the Book of Discipline contained? A national Church, a national system of education, and ample provision for the poor, meant a large annual expenditure, and Scotland of itself was too poor at that time to provide for all these schemes. But Knox was no visionary. He saw where the money was to come from, and up to the last he believed that it would be forthcoming. The revenues of the Disestablished Church were enormous. Competent authorities maintain that it possessed half the wealth of the country, and Knox and those who acted with him believed that this wealth would be nationalised and devoted to the great purposes which he sketched in his policy of the Kirk.

Unfortunately only a fraction of what he reasonably calculated on was ultimately granted, and the major part of his proposals necessarily fell to the ground. Indications of the manner in which the scheme would be accepted by the Estates were given before their meeting on the 15th of January 1561. The Book was ready before that time, and was privately examined by many of the nobles and others interested. "Some approved it," says Knox, "and willed the same to be set forth by a law. Others, perceiving their carnal liberty and worldly commodity somewhat to be impaired thereby, grudged insomuch that the name of the Book of Discipline became odious unto them. Everything that was repugnant to their corrupt affections was termed in their mockage `devout imaginations." Accordingly when the book came before the Convention it was "vehemently debated," and never became law. Several of the nobles subscribed it on condition that the clergy of the old Church were to retain their benefices, provided they maintained Protestant ministers in their respective districts.

As a matter of fact the nobles, Protestant as well as Catholic, saw in Knox's scheme the frustration of all their hopes. There is no doubt whatsoever that many of them favoured the Reformation because of the promise which it gave of adding very materially to their rent rolls. Even previous to the Reformation the authorities of the Church, seeing what was impending, disposed of much of the Church lands, which they held in trust, to their own relatives and friends; and when these lands after the Reformation passed to the Crown, they were freely gifted to greedy barons, some of whom had already laid hands on them, and an Act of Parliament was passed by the interested parties themselves ratifying the legal theft. To have agreed to the Book of Discipline would be sounding their own death-knell as large and wealthy proprietors, and their concern for themselves being much greater than for religion or education, or the poor, they determined to grab what they could, and not to let go their hold. Knox was greviously disappointed and indignant. He thundered from the pulpit against "the merciless devourers of the patrimony of the Church." "Nothing," he cried, "can suffice a wreche"; and again, "the belly has no ears"; and he declared that there "were none within the realm more unmerciful to the poor ministers than they were who had greatest rents of the Church."

There are those who think that Knox's whole policy was a failure because he was not able to carry out the great scheme adumbrated in the Book of Discipline, and to transfer for the noble purposes sketched therein the wealth of the ancient Church. But let it be remembered that the Parliament of that day was not the representative body which it now is. It was composed chiefly of interested parties, of the noble and powerful, whose hearts for a long time had been set on the patrimony of the Church, and the last thing they contemplated was the giving up of what they had already seized or being denied what they had their eyes on. Knox fought valiantly in the interests of the nation, but he had no voice in the deliberations of the highest court in the realm, and he was only one man against many. It has been suggested that he ought to have appealed to the people, that he should have thrown himself upon their sympathy and support and threshed out the great cause in their hearing. He was quite capable of doing this, for it was mainly by popular preaching up and down the country that he stirred the people and accomplished the Reformation. But it ought to be remembered that although he might have secured the support of the nation it would have availed him nothing, for the people had not the power of sending representatives to Parliament, and to have moved them greatly would have meant a second revolution. It is not difficult to foresee what the results of such a movement would have been. We can only conceive it as national chaos.


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