Knox, A Biography
Chapter II - Beginning of
NO external force,
political, religious, or personal, could have destroyed the Church
had it encouraged soundness of teaching and fostered purity of life;
but its corruption was beyond healing. The disease was too deep and
had lasted too long, and death was the natural and only deliverance.
The leaders of the Church were alive to the need of reform, but
their efforts were too late. Ecclesiastical Councils and Acts of
Parliament insisted upon amendment, but in vain. The laity were
crying out for the purification of the ecclesiastical life of the
day, and deplored the "opin sclander that is gevin to the haill
estates thruch the said spirituall inene's ungodly and dissollute
lives." In the opening chapters of his History of the Reformation in
Scotland Knox gives a picture of the corruptions that existed in the
Church, and particularly of the scandalous lives of the clergy,
which in graphic detail and humour has seldom been equalled.
Even if half of what
he said were true, and we know it to be essentially true, the times
were ripe for a thorough cleansing of the Augean stable. The
shameful trafficking in benefices; the large parishes entirely
neglected; the greed and wealth of the higher clergy; the perversion
of doctrine; the fostering of superstition; and the immoral and
shameless lives of the Bishops, whom Knox scathingly characterises
as "idle bellies and dumb dogs," were more than the country could
stand, and the zeal for righteousness inherent in human nature was
stirred, and cried for the reform or the abolition of a Church that
was a scandal to Christendom.
If, however, the
Church could not be reformed from within it must be defended from
without. So thought the leading ecclesiastics in Scotland. They
entered accordingly upon that course of persecution which began with
the burning of James Resby in Perth in 1407, eight years before the
martyrdom of Huss and Jerome of Prague, and which ceased not till
the burning of Walter Mill in St. Andrews in 1558. But persecution
never yet killed truth, and the martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton at St.
Andrews in 1528 centralised, so to speak, the new movement, and
imparted to it an impelling power which, outside influences being
favourable, was prophetic of victory. Indeed, Knox dates the history
of the Reformation in Scotland from Hamilton's death.
This young teacher of
the new religion was only in his twenty-fourth year when his tongue
was silenced for ever. He belonged to the patrician family of that
name, was a native of West Lothian, took Orders in the Roman
Catholic Church and became Abbot of Ferne, but receiving a taste of
the new learning and religion at St. Andrews, where he studied, he
travelled to Germany, and at the Universities of Marburg and
Wittenberg came directly under the influence of the Lutheran
theology. In his thesis, which was afterwards published under the
title of Patrick's Places, he gave the first systematised statement
of the Reformed religion by any Scotsman. Returning to his native
country he became a power. He was so gentle and winning in
character, and, for his time, so learned, that his preaching took
deep root in the hearts of those who listened to it. The Church took
alarm, and James Beaton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, the uncle of his
more famous successor, Cardinal Beaton, put Hamilton on his trial
and caused him to be condemned and burned.
The next man of
outstanding importance who appears in the history of Scottish
religious life is George Wishart. Between his death and that of
Hamilton there is a period almost of twenty years. During that
interval the Reformed views were being spread by books and
preaching, for under the Regency of Arran the Bible was allowed to
be circulated and read in the vernacular. Other influences were also
at work. Poetry and the Drama were playing their part. The Satires
of Sir David Lindsay were casting ridicule on the Church and Clergy,
and "The Gude and Godlie Ballatis" of the Wedderburns were
incorporating the new truths in a form which could be read and sung
by the common people. In keeping with this spirit, John Erskine of
Dun, one of the most notable men of the period, encouraged young
Wishart, who, like his patron, was a native of the Mearns, to teach
the Greek Testament in Montrose. This was the first time that
"Greek" was taught in Scotland. But Cardinal Beaton, who was now in
the ascendant, and who was determined to foster an alliance with
France and to crush the Reformation in Scotland, was laying violent
hands upon all who were of the Reformed ways.
Wishart took alarm
and fled to England. He afterwards travelled on the Continent,
translated into English the first Helvetic Confession, taught
theology at Cambridge University, and impressed his scholars by his
simplicity, charity, and learning. "He was a man," writes one of
them, Emery Tylney, "courteous, lowly, lovely, glad to teach,
desirous to learn."
He returned to his
native country in 1543, and began preaching in Montrose and Dundee.
He subsequently went to Ayrshire, but revisited Dundee on learning
that the plague had broken out in that city, and won the love and
reverence of the people by his devotion and self-sacrifice.
Thereafter he crossed to Leith, but his friends, the Lairds of
Ormiston, Longniddry, and Brunston, took him for greater safety to
East Lothian, and it was while there that he and Knox were brought
into personal and friendly contact. The first real glimpse we get of
the future Reformer is in the capacity of armour-bearer, going
before Wishart with the two-handed sword that was now necessary for
his protection. It was in those days that are called the "Holy days
of Yule" that Wishart came to East Lothian.
Knox displays a
marked enthusiasm in speaking of Wishart. He characterises him as "a
man of such graces as before him was never heard within this realm,
and are rare yet in any man, notwithstanding this great lyght of God
that since his days has schined unto us." There is every reason for
thinking that Knox regarded him as his spiritual father. It was
under the inspiring teaching of Wishart that the future Reformer
attained to his religious self-consciousness, came out into the
open, and determined to give himself heart and soul to the preaching
and propagation of the new religion.
disappointed at the sparseness of the audience that assembled to
hear him at Haddington, and he unburdened his soul to Knox. "Walking
up and down behind the High Altar," waiting for the hour of sermon,
he said to Knox that he "wearied of the world because he perceived
that men began to weary of God." The fact is, the people of
Haddington were intimidated by the presence in the neighbourhood of
Cardinal Beaton, and the knowledge that the preacher was a marked
Beaton's hatred of
Wishart was twofold. He saw in him an enemy not only of the Romish
Church but of himself. A plot at this time was being
hatched against the
Cardinal, and some of the very men who were aiding and defending
Wishart in his propagandism were known to be involved in it. No
proof has been adduced to show that Wishart was a party to the
scheme, which had the approval of Henry VIII. and the English
faction in Scotland. He was naturally associated in his life-work
with the Protestants in the country who both on religious and
political grounds were inimical to the Cardinal.
After sermon Wishart
returned to the house of Ormiston, and upon Knox insisting on
accompanying him, Wishart put him gently aside by saying, "Nay:
return to your bairns and God bless you." Knox obeyed reluctantly,
and, giving up the two-handed sword, parted from Wishart, whom he
was never to see again.
That night the house
of Ormiston was surrounded by the Earl of Bothwell and his
retainers, and Wishart was entrusted to their charge on the distinct
understanding that he was not to be handed over to the Civil or
Ecclesiastical authorities. But Bothwell broke his pledge. Wishart
was soon carried to the Castle of Edinburgh, and thereafter to
the-Castle of St. Andrews. All this happened early in 1546, and in
March of the same year he suffered martyrdom at St. Andrews.
Knox now found
himself a marked man, and, wearying of the persecution to which he
was subjected, he resolved to flee the country. Germany, and not
Switzerland, seemed to attract him most; but he changed his mind in
later years, and when at last he did go to the Continent it was to
Geneva and not to Wittenberg. He had by that time made deliberate
choice of the Reformed Theology. The fathers of his pupils, loth to
lose his services, persuaded him to seek refuge in the Castle of St.
Andrews, and to take his young charges with him.
Strange and even
startling things had happened in that old grey city since Knox
parted from his friend Wishart at the door of Haddington Church.
Wishart himself had been martyred, but Beaton, the prime mover in
the business, had also been slain. A band of desperate men, of whom
Melville of Carnbee, William Kirkcaldy, younger, of Grange, and John
and Norman Leslie were the chief, pledged themselves to avenge the
martyrdom of Wishart, and early on the 29th day of May, while the
Cardinal still slept in his chamber, they seized the Castle of St.
Andrews, which he thought impregnable, and ruthlessly put him to
death. "I am a priest, ye will not slay me!" cried the once great
ecclesiastic in abject terror, but the word Mercy drew no response
from those desperate men. For answer he received a sword-thrust, and
while drawing his last breath he was asked to repent of the murder
of George Wishart, "that notable instrument of God."
Beaton was the last
of the great ecclesiastical statesmen that the Romish Church
produced in Scotland, and probably the greatest. He has earned
undying obloquy by his murder of George Wishart and his persecution
of the preachers of the Reformed religion. But the historians of the
period take a wider view of his character and career, and find in
hint the ablest Scottish politician of the time. He was a patriot
inasmuch as he opposed, to the utmost, the alliance with England, in
which he thought there lay great danger to his country; and he
certainly cannot be accused of being in the pay of Henry viii., like
the Earls of Glencairn, Cassillis, and others. But his opposition to
the English alliance was dictated as much, perhaps, by his devotion
to the Romish Church as his love of Scotland, for he saw in the
policy of Henry viii. the probable future success of Protestantism.
He cultivated the friendship of France, partly, no doubt, for the
purpose of thwarting the aims of the English monarch, but in this
he, at the same time, endangered the freedom of his own country, and
did his best to perpetuate the superstition that then prevailed.
Personal ambition, perchance as much as anything, guided his public
conduct, for the policy which he pursued necessitated his own
eminence, and demanded that the leading ecclesiastic should also be
the chief statesman of the day. This policy was doomed to failure,
and whatever his more estimable qualities may have been, the popular
judgment of the country has, notwithstanding various attempts to
whitewash his character, been steadily cast against him.
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