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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter VIII - Visits Scotland


IT will thus be seen that the time was not unfavourable for Knox's visit. Some suppose that he went to Scotland on the invitation of the leading men who favoured the Protestant cause, but there is no good ground for this opinion, and he himself gives no countenance to it. On the contrary, he distinctly declares that his visit was entirely due to the entreaties of Mrs. Bowes. "You alone," he remarks, "God made the instrument to draw me from the den of my own ease, you alone did draw me from the rest of my quiet study." As a matter of fact Knox came home to be married, and although there is no record of it, it is generally held that the wedding took place on his arrival at Berwick, where Mrs. Bowes and her daughter Marjory were then residing. The betrothal very probably took place before Knox left England for the Continent, and under the circumstances we can quite well understand Mrs. Bowes' "entreaties" and Knox's response.

He did not stay long in Berwick, for we find him almost immediately in Edinburgh, and the reception accorded to him in the capital was not only a surprise but a great joy to Knox. In writing to his mother-in-law he says he was startled by the welcome he received among brethren who with "fervent thirst were night and day groaning and sobbing for the bread of life." "Oh! sweet were the death that should follow such forty days in Edinburgh as here I have had three;" and again, "If I had not seen it with my eyes in my own country I would not have believed it." On arriving in the capital he was received as a guest in the house of one James Syme, "that notable man of God," and there he preached to all who cared to hear him.

Fresh courage would be given him on finding among his hearers some of the best-known men in the country. A question was at this time troubling the minds of the new converts to the Protestant Faith, and it was one which in the eyes of Knox had a far-reaching consequence. It was as to whether they might attend the services of the Reformed religion and at the same time privately partake of the Mass. Knox had only one opinion about the matter. He at once made the absolute statement that "nowise it was lawful to a Christian to present himself to that idol." A memorable discussion regarding this question took place at a supper-party in the house of Erskine of Dun. In some respects it was the most important supper-party that had up till that time been held in Scotland, for it settled the character of the Reformation and disowned any compromise with the Romish Church, and declared that the new movement must be thorough.

The chief among those invited to meet Knox on this occasion, and to take part in the debate, were John Willock, Maitland of Lethington, and Erskine of Dun himself. These three were prominent public characters, and took a leading part in subsequent events. They were brought into very close contact with Knox during the years which followed his final arrival in the country, and it may not, accordingly, be inappropriate to give a passing glance at each.

John Willock was an Ayrshire man, and he began his public career as a Franciscan friar. On renouncing the Romish Church he fled to England, and afterwards took up residence in Friesland. In both countries he occupied important positions, and was noted for his piety, learning, and prudence. After the Reformation he became Superintendent of the West, and he held this position while he was at the same time a beneficed clergyman of the Church of England. W e have already indicated the important part he played in aiding the new movement in Scotland during Knox's absence on the Continent. The latter held him in high esteem, and both cooperated in the most cordial fashion for the attainment of the end which they had in view.

Maitland of Lethington was, next to Knox, the ablest man of the time in the country. Randolph, the English Ambassador, in a letter to Cecil draws his portrait thus: "Lethington bath a crafty wit and a fell tongue;" and at a later date he added, "He is more given to policy than to Master Knox's preachings." He was held in high regard by Mary of Lorraine, and also by her daughter, the Queen of Scots, under whom he became Secretary of State. Queen Elizabeth once described him as the "finest wit of any in Scotland," and Knox as "a man of good learning and of sharp wit and reasoning." He never really became a thorough convert to the new religion, but he judged of the movement entirely on its political side. He was one of the leaders of the English party, and it was because he saw in the Reformation a powerful agent, which could be used in support of his policy, that he gave it his countenance. As Mr. Andrew Lang puts it, "He was a modern of the moderns, cool, witty, ironical, subtle, and unconvinced." Knox and he had many an intellectual bout and trial of wit, and although they differed on many points they always maintained a qualified respect for each other.

Erskine of Dun was the one layman of that period for whom we feel the deepest regard. If any man was governed by unselfish motives in adopting and aiding the new faith, it was surely he, for there was nothing of a worldly nature that he could possibly gain by becoming a Protestant, and there was much that he might lose, even life itself. He was one of those naturally able, level - headed, kind - hearted, patriotic, and God-fearing men, that have from time to time adorned the eldership of the Church, and Knox was fortunate indeed in having him on his side, for his name was of great influence among the best men in Scotland. Erskine, who was a man of means and of an ancient stock, belonged to Forfarshire; he was well educated, and had travelled extensively on the Continent. Strange to say the first glimpse we get of him is in the Bell Tower of Montrose, where, in early manhood, he struck a priest to death. The reason we know not. He was the first to introduce the study of Greek into Scotland; he stood by Wishart in his evil hour, and clung steadily to the Reformed Faith during the dangerous time that followed the murder of Beaton; and now we see him welcoming Knox and giving him every encouragement in preaching the Reformed doctrines in Scotland.

In the discussion to which we have referred the case of Paul was adduced, who, to conciliate the other Apostles, paid a vow in the Temple. Knox said there was every distinction between paying a vow and bowing before an idol, nor would he admit that Paul's conduct on this occasion was prompted by the Holy Spirit, and he drove his argument home by referring to the unhappy consequences which pursued the Apostle on this occasion. There could be no opposing masterful argument of this kind, and so Lethington exclaimed, "I see perfectly that our shifts will serve nothing before God, seeing that they stand in so small stead before man."

In the opinion of some this discussion struck the keynote of the Reformation. It differentiated between the old religion and the new, showed how they were radically opposed, and made clear that between them there could be no compromise whatsoever. Knox in the discussion emphasised the position for which he had always contended, that the new movement was Church-Reforming, that it struck at the element of worship, brushed aside all image worship or anything that flavoured of idolatry. 'This, as we have seen, was the radical feature of the Reformed Theology as compared with the Lutheran, which struck as its keynote Justification by Faith. This, also, was the reason why Knox saw in one Mass a greater danger than ten thousand armed men marching down the streets of Edinburgh. He saw clearly that unless the worship of the Mass, with all that it signified, was stamped out, the new Scottish Church would be no better than the ecclesiastical "mingle-mangle" which he found and condemned in England.

After his stay in Edinburgh Knox went to the Mearns as the guest of Erskine of Dun. He stayed a month, and preached with great acceptance. The district was favourable to the Reformation, for was it not in Montrose and its neighbourhood that Wishart had done some of his best work? He afterwards accepted an invitation to Calder House, the residence of Sir James Sandilands. The Sandilands were a notable family, strong supporters of the new movement, and at Calder House now, and at a later date, Knox preached not only to the members of the family but to many distinguished visitors from Edinburgh and elsewhere. To this house came Lord Erskine, the Earl of Mar, Lord Lorne, and Lord James Stuart, Prior of St. Andrews. The last of these, who made Knox's acquaintance in London in 1552, was born for great things. He was an illegitimate son of James v. by Lady Margaret Douglas, sister of Lord Erskine. His father meant him for the Church, and at the early age of five appointed him Prior of St. Andrews. He never, however, took Orders, preferring a political to an ecclesiastical career. Although now in his twenty-fourth year only, he had already given proof of those qualities which were soon to make him the leading man in the State, and the chief assistant of Knox, on the political side, in carrying through the Reformation. Unlike Maitland of Lethington, he put his religion before his politics, and in taking a leading part in the revolution which was impending he was absolutely sincere. His ambiguous position as a member of the royal family, near the throne and yet separated from it by an impassable gulf, made him reserved and cautious, and gave a colour to the charge of subtlety and equivocal dealing which has been made against him. By his ability, character, and devotion to the interests of the country he not only gained the

highest position then open to him in the State, by becoming Regent, but, what is of more consequence, the affections of the people. He was known at his death, and has ever since remained in the hearts of all Scotsmen, as the "Good Regent."

Knox on leaving Calder House visited Ayrshire, where he spent three months of active and successful work. The Earl of Glencairn invited him to Finlayson, where he dispensed the Communion after the Reformed fashion. He again returned to Calder House, and once more repaired to Dun, every stage of his progress being marked by fresh adherents to the new opinions. The Church became alarmed, and summoned him to Edinburgh on the 15th of May to give an account of himself. Knox, accompanied by Erskine of Dun and other leading men, was determined to meet any charges that might be made against him. The Bishops and others who ought to have taken part in the trial failed to put in an appearance, and they contented themselves by excommunicating and burning him in effigy after he had left the country. Glencairn and others advised Knox at this time to write a letter to the Queen Regent, in the hope that she might be persuaded to favour the new religion. Mary of Lorraine accepted the epistle, and handed it with a joke to the Archbishop of Glasgow, saying, "Please you, my Lord, to read a Pasquil." Knox on hearing of this was roused to resentment, and in publishing the letter with additions and an introduction he gave free vent to his indignation. It has to be admitted that his outburst of wrath and scorn reads much better than the original epistle. The fire and vigour of the former contrast favourably with the somewhat timid and formal tone of the latter. Knox did not shine as a courtier, his role was that of a Jeremiah.

Just at the moment when the work would seem to be progressing most favourably, Knox received a letter from the English congregation at Geneva "commanding him, in God's name, as he was their chosen pastor, to repair unto them for their comfort." He did not feel at liberty to resist this appeal, and having sent on his wife and mother-in-law before him to Dieppe, he soon afterwards followed. It was rather a strong step for Mrs. Bowes to take, seeing that she was a wife and the mother of twelve children, but her departure may have made things easier at Norham Castle.

Knox's visit to Scotland at this time gave a great impetus to the Reformation; it drew together and gave a lead to those who were its prime movers, and before and after his departure he laid down some rules for their guidance. 'Those who were associated with him while he was in Edinburgh and in other parts of the country preaching the Reformed doctrines were, as we have seen, certain members of the nobility and gentry, and on the first blush it may seem strange that the chief movers in the impending revolution were found in that class. We naturally associate attempts of this kind with the people. It may of course be true that the Commons of Scotland had not as yet attained to true consciousness, and that it was the Reformation itself which was to accomplish this for them ; besides, the people of Scotland had never hitherto taken action in matters of this kind. The country was practically governed by the nobles.

While this may be true, it is not at all unlikely, as has been alleged, that the nobles were troubled by an itching palm. The wealth of the Church they well knew to be enormous, and even before this date the revenues of the great abbeys and priories were held in comendam by laymen whose services to the State were thus rewarded. The Regent Arran, who was not supposed to be a political wiseacre, hit the truth when he said to Sadler that "unless the sin of covetousness brought them to it he saw no chance of reformation" through the nobles. What Hallam says of the English nobility was equally true of the Scotch. "According to the general laws of human nature they gave a readier reception to truths which made their estates more secure." Dr. Hume Brown is at considerable trouble to explain that those who afterwards were known as the Lords of the Congregation were unselfish men, entirely actuated by the highest religious motives. This may be true of Erskine of Dun and one or two more, but facts are against its general acceptance, and he really gives his case away when he asks, "What were these men to gain by heading the Reformation? Would it not have paid them much better to have supported the Queen Regent in her policy of suppression?" It is only necessary to reply to this that by standing loyally to the Queen Regent they would have been no better off materially than they were before, and from the pensions that many of them were not ashamed to accept from the English Government it is clear that they were poor, and that what they chiefly desired was an addition to their resources. What greater temptation, then, could be offered to such men than the Church lands, which covered the half of Scotland? And when the hour of trial came they did not for a moment hesitate to seize the opportunity which it gave them to enrich themselves at the expense of the Church and Nation. Knox himself was deceived in them. If he co-operated with them to carry out his religious policy, they certainly took advantage of him to gain their own selfish ends.

But what were the people thinking and saying all this time? Had they no share at all in the movement? In the fourteenth century, when the followers of Wycliff came to Scotland, it was the commons and peasants of Ayrshire who were moved to revolt against the Papacy, and to imbibe the doctrines of a purer faith. George Wishart, too, found a ready response among the working men of Dundee and Montrose. Had these working men and peasants now become silent? We shall see on Knox's return to Scotland that this was far from being the case, and we have evidence that, at the very time of which we are speaking, they were being stirred to throw off the rule of a Church which had become corrupt beyond all remedy. If the better educated looked with contempt upon the ignorant priests, who could not even read their own Church Catechism in the Scottish language, the common people laughed in the face of those clerics who tried to awe them by superstitions which were now exploded. Carlyle complains that no clear view is given of the travail of the common people at this time. What he wished to know was what they were thinking and not what their betters were doing. The information which lie desired may not be so full as we might wish, but information there happens to be.

Knox in his History gives an amusing and significant account of an incident which shows the contempt with which the people were now regarding some of the sacred customs of the Church. A renegade priest inveighing against his brethren pours ridicule on the "curse" which had once been so effctive. "When the vicar," he said, "rose on Sunday and cried, "One hath tint a spurtell, there is a flail stolen from them beyond the burn; the goodwife on the other side of the gate hath lost a horn spoon, God's curse and mine I give to them that knoweth of this gear and restores it not," the people laughed in his face. This shows what they were thinking. The denunciations of the Church had become a farce which provoked ridicule. "Will they not give us a letter of cursing for a plack," continues this same renegade priest, "to last for a whole year, to curse all that looks over our dyke, that keepeth our corn better than the sleeping boy who will have three shillings in fee, a sark and a pair of shoon in the year."

Another indication of the mind of the people is found in the " Gude and Godlie Ballatis " of the brothers Wedderburn. These rhymes were printed on broad sheets and scattered over the country; they were hymns translated in great part from the German, and they reflect the aspirations of the middle and lower classes. The common people, whatever they may have become afterwards, were not at this time greatly enamoured of Doctrinal Theology, and if the Reformation among them had to be effected by such works as that of hnox on Predestination, for instance, they would even yet, we fear, be in the "puddle of papestry." If the songs of a people are an index to their life and history, then these "Gude and Godlie Ballatis" give us sonic idea of what the people were thinking. They were set to popular airs and were sung on Sunday and Saturday, and being moulded on the Reformed lines, throwing ridicule on Popish doctrines and pointing to the new faith, they did more to spread the movement than could ever have been done by the theological works of Calvin or, as some think, by the preaching of Knox himself.

Here is a specimen. It is a denunciation of prayer to Saints

"To To pray to Peter, James and Johne,
Our Saulis to saif, power haif they none,
For that belangs to Christ allone,
He deit thairfoir, He deit thairfoir."

Purgatory, too, and the exactions of the Church in freeing the soul therefrom were also vigorously attacked:

"Of the fals fyre of Purgatorie,
Is nocht left in ane spunk;
Thairfoir sayis Geddie woe is me,
Gone is Priest, Freir and Monk.

The reik [smoke] sa wounder deir they solde
For money, gold and landis:
Quhill half the ryches on the molde
Is seasit in their handis."

Other leading doctrines of the Reformation, both of a destructive and constructive nature, found homely expression in these popular "Ballatis." During the next two years they played their part in preparing the soil for the revolution which was accomplished in 1560. Knox on his next appearance had not to seek for an audience in the house of James Syme, "that notable man of God," in Edinburgh, for in Perth, St. Andrews, and latterly in the capital itself, he found ready to his hand the "rascal multitude," as he calls them, who were prepared, not only to listen to his preaching, but to carry that preaching far beyond the limits that he aimed at.


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