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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter II - Beginning of Mission


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.

Wishart was 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 man.

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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