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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter IX - Political Writings


KNOX left Scotland in July 1556, and on the 13th of September he was formally admitted member of the English congregation in Geneva, along with his wife and his mother-in-law. At the annual election of ministers on the 16th of December, Knox and Goodman were re-elected.

The Reformer now entered upon the most peaceful and, in some respects, the most fruitful period of his labours. In Geneva he was the head of a congregation entirely to his mind, and he used an order of service composed on the lines for which he contended at Frankfort. A special church, the "Temple de Notre Dame la Neuve," was set apart for the joint use of the Italian and English refugees, and here Knox, with his colleague Goodman, conducted services and preached sermons absolutely devoid of any taint of Popery. The "Church Order" which they used was afterwards introduced by Knox himself into the service of the Church of Scotland, and continued for many years as the Directory of Public Worship in the country. We shall refer to it later on, meanwhile it is enough to say that it was probably the first Service Book drawn up on Calvinistic lines ever used by an English-speaking congregation. Of course at Frankfort the Service Book of the French Protestants (1554) was used by Whittingham, but it was printed in Latin, and it never met with general acceptance.

Geneva at this time, in its civil, social, and religious aspects, presented a pattern which the exiles who gathered there would like to have seen copied by their respective countries. It was a theocracy with Calvin at its head. However serviceable it may have been at the time as a necessary agent in establishing the Reformation, we cannot, with the best intentions in the world, wish that it had been perpetuated. "In other places," says Knox, "I confess Christ to be truly preached, but manners and religion so sincerely reformed I have not yet seen in any other place."

Knox's work must have been very congenial to him. His sermons would take up a considerable portion of his time, for he had to preach frequently, and among his audience were some of the most learned men in Europe. He must also have been hard at study acquiring a knowledge of Hebrew, and repairing those defects in his education which he himself regretted. Nor was his pen idle, for during his stay on the Continent he wrote many letters and pamphlets, and their contents, as indicating his political and theological outlook, were more important and significant than anything found in any previous publications by him. Besides, he was in the midst of the most congenial society. The distinguished Reformers who from England and elsewhere found refuge in Geneva would be his daily companions. In his household was there not his wife Marjory Bowes, who earned the praise of Calvin as one of the "sweetest" of women. It may be true that his mother-in-law was a tax on his patience, for her religious morbidness, tending almost to melancholia, demanded the constant attention of her son-in-law, and not the least remarkable trait in his character was the resignation with which he bore her religious querulousness and tried to meet her spiritual difficulties at every point.

Calvin, of course, was the chief attraction, but Knox did not go to Geneva to learn from him. He cultivated his friendship because of intellectual and spiritual sympathy. Knox's mind, as we have seen, had been made up on all the great questions of the time before he ever saw Calvin, and so far as his political views were concerned he was a long way ahead of the man of Geneva.

"It was there, and at this time," says the late Professor Mitchell in his able and interesting Baird Lecture on the "Scottish Reformation," "it was there that Puritanism was organised as a distinct school, if not also as a distinct party, in the Church. There," he continues, "was first clearly proclaimed in our native language those principles of constitutional government and the limited authority of the `upper powers' which are now universally accepted by the Anglo-Saxon race. There was first deliberately adopted, and resolutely put in practice among British Christians, a form of Church constitution which eliminated Sacerdotalism and taught the members of the Church their true dignity and responsibility as priests to God and witnesses for Christ in the world." Carlyle's panegyric on Puritanism is well known. To it he attributes the moral and intellectual energy of England and Scotland. Compared with Anglicanism and Lutheranism it was "a faith or religion which came forth as a real business of the heart, indeed the only phasis of Protestantism that ever got to the rank of being a faith."

That is great praise, nor is it altogether unmerited, but the point which ought to be noted in this connection is the form which that faith took in Scotland as compared with England. In the latter country it remained a doctrine, which during the Commonwealth attained its highest results in the thoughts and actions of Cromwell and his followers. But in Scotland it became established as the national religion, grew into a form of Church government, and embodied itself in that Presbyterianism which has preserved it as a vital force in the life of the people. This, we think, was Knox's great achievement. Grant that the political circumstances of the two countries were different, and that those of England rendered such an achievement on the part of Hooper, for instance, impossible, still Knox's triumph was none the less; and however we may view his work in itself, the fact that he successfully guided the religion of the country along the lines which he favoured, and got that religion legalised by the State, was no mean victory.

While the Reformer was thus enjoying his life and work in Geneva, a letter was brought to him from Scotland, in May 1557, demanding his presence there. This letter came from the leading Protestant nobles, Glencairn, Argyle, Erskine, and James Stuart, Prior of St. Andrews. It indicated that the prospects of the Reformed religion were most hopeful, and that all that was now necessary was Knox's presence among them. This letter was laid before Calvin and his brother ministers, in accordance with the law of Geneva, and they all with one consent said that he could not refuse that Vocation unless he would declare himself rebellious unto his God and unmerciful to his country." Knox, however, would not appear to have been in any hurry to depart, for although he received the letter in May he did not leave until towards the end of October.

On arriving at Dieppe he was not a little disgusted to find two letters "not very pleasing to the flesh," probably inspired by those who afterwards became the Lords of the Congregation, stopping his farther progress, alleging the time was not ripe for the projected revolution. Knox wrote to these same Lords, speaking his mind very freely to them, with the result that they drew up a "bond" or godly covenant, the first of the kind, to further the Reformation. He felt ashamed to go back to Geneva after the solemn farewells which had taken place, but there was no help for him, and return he did, to spend one more year of peaceful and happy labour there. It would seem all the same that he was not very eager to venture to Scotland at this time, for in a private letter to a Mrs. Guthrie he confesses as much, and gives as his reason the fear of heading a revolution which might end in serious bloodshed. Knox did not love civil war, nor did he ever encourage bloodshed. Quite the contrary. His aim all through was to carry out his far-reaching political and religious schemes by constitutional means if possible, and only when these failed to have recourse to arms.

It was during his forced stay at Dieppe that he wrote most of those important letters and pamphlets to which we have referred, so that his residence there, however disagreeable to himself, was fruitful in other respects. True, he did not neglect his special vocation, for he seized every opportunity of preaching in the town and rallying the small and somewhat disheartened congregation that he found there. He put new life into it. It grew in numbers and spirit, and afterwards took an important part in the defence of Protestantism, under Admiral Coligny and the Prince of Conde.

We shall now take up his literary productions at this time, and discuss the political and religious programme which they forecast.

One result of the Reformation was to make men think. It forced them to consider their relations not only to the Church but to the State. It also gave them a new sense of their rights as responsible human beings. One of the first things that followed it was a transference of ecclesiastical power from the Pope to the reigning monarch. This took place particularly in Germany and in England. The power of the individual State as represented by the Crown was thereby increased. In England the King was put into the position formerly occupied by the Pope, and he thus became the head of the Church. A considerable section of the people, however, in almost every country where the Reformation became a force, carried its doctrines considerably farther, and demanded a fuller recognition of their personal rights as thinking agents. Hence there sprung up a body called Anabaptists, who were the free-thinkers and also the free-livers of the period. Rejoicing in their emancipation from the bondage of Roman Catholicism, they carried their principles to extremes, and revolted against all law and order, human and divine. Their liberty degenerated into licence.

The Reformers looked upon these sectaries with strong disapproval, for they saw them not only violating the doctrines of the Christian religion but bringing the Reformation itself into contempt. How could statesmen, responsible for the government of a nation, favour a revolution which threatened to produce nothing but anarchy? Both Luther and Calvin set their faces against these extreme adherents of the new religion, and did their best to restrain them. The Peasants War in Germany, which was the result of the teaching of these fanatics, caused general dismay, and no one was so forward as Luther himself in putting it down. But Knox was not driven into meaningless conservatism by the dread of such upheavals. We saw that he had been brooding over the questions which go to the very foundation of civil and religious right and liberty. He did not find much encouragement from Calvin and Bollinger in solving the problems which the new condition of things raised. But he was not the man to be influenced by anyone, let his authority be never so high. During these months of retirement in Dieppe, while fuming against the slight which the Scottish nobles had done him, and pondering on the political outlook, he put into writing, in the series of letters which he then and shortly afterwards despatched to Scotland, thoughts that were now thoroughly matured into convictions, and which were afterwards to be carried out, almost to the letter, in the revolution that was impending. In each of these letters a distinct question is raised and solved.

In the first, addressed to his "Brethren in Scotland," the problem of the Relation between Creed and Conduct emerges. We have just referred to the abuses which followed on the Reformation chiefly in Germany, but the country of Luther was not exceptional in this respect. Those who can be classed under the general title of Anabaptists were found in England and Scotland as well. It had come to Knox's ears that some of those who in his native country had made the loudest profession of faith in the new religion had fallen away, and were bringing disgrace not only on themselves, but on their fellow-Protestants and on Protestantism itself. The opponents of the new religion were not slow to take advantage of this and they began to ask if that religion could be divine which produced or was associated with such immoral conduct ? This naturally put Knox and the leaders of the Reformed views in a very awkward position, for one of the chief grounds of their attack on the Roman Catholic Church was the shameless lives of those who ought to have set a higher example to the people. "The Romish Church bore corrupt fruit, therefore let it be cut down," but —and this was the difficulty—the Protestant religion was no better, seeing that the lives of some of its professors were equally corrupt.

To this Knox replied that "the life and conversation of man is no assured note, sign, or token of Christ's visible Church." But if that were so, what need was there for a Reformation at all? let the Roman Catholic Church remain. Knox then goes to the root of the matter by declaring that, apart from conduct altogether, true belief is of vital importance. Whatever might be said of the lives of the members of the Catholic Church, the doctrines of that Church were corrupt beyond all remedy, and on that account the Reformation, which he was heading, was an absolute necessity. We do not for a moment dispute Knox's contention. The position which he maintains is one that has to be defended by the modern minister and missionary, for they are sometimes told that the lives of the heathen compare favourably with those of Christians. They, too, are asked, "What is the use of introducing the Protestant Religion into countries where the moral conduct of the people is in many respects so blameless?" We cannot separate Creed and Conduct all the same. Truth is truth whatever its outward fruits may be, and no case of special pleading, such as that we have just referred to, can be accepted as a reason for not proclaiming it. But the weakness which these early opponents of the Calvinistic theology discovered in that system, is one which has proved a weakness ever since, for there has always been a temptation on the part of those who have prided themselves on their "true views" to neglect the weightier matters of the law which make for righteousness. Their conduct has not always squared with their creed, and they have not infrequently been content with the latter to the exclusion of the former. It is this that brings religion into contempt even now, and gives a handle to those who are unfriendly to it.

The second letter, the one which he addressed to the "Professors of the Truth in Scotland," discusses another problem, namely, the Limits of Obedience, or the Lawfulness of Rebellion. Knox, we saw, favoured the policy of carrying out the religious revolution by constitutional means if possible. That, however, could take place only in those countries where the Government or reigning prince was friendly; but in Scotland at this time both were opposed to the new religion, hence Knox's duty to guide the Professors of the Truth aright. The views which he advocates may be said to form the stepping-stone from his more conservative position of earlier days to the one which he shortly afterwards found himself compelled to adopt. He does not counsel open rebellion; on the contrary, he advises his readers to be obedient as far as possible to the powers that be, but—and here is the important point—if they found their brethren for conscience' sake being tyrannised over by an unregenerated authority they would be justified in defending them. While advising them to submit in all things not repugnant to God, "ye lawfully may," he says, "attempt the extremity which is to prove whether the authority will consent or no, that Christ's evangel may be truly preached, and His Holy Sacraments rightly ministered unto you and to your brethren, the subjects of that realm ; and further, ye lawfully may, yea and thereto are bound, to defend your brethren from persecution and tyranny, be it against princes or emperors, to the uttermost of your power."

The next production in which we find an expression of his opinions is in a "Letter to the Queen Regent with Additions," and in it he boldly Justifies the Relit ions Revolution. The original letter, we saw, was a formal and courteous production, but Knox had learned a few things since then, one of them being Mary of Lorraine's veiled hostility to the Reformation, and another her contemptuous treatment of his own production. We cannot help thinking that the sting in the "Additions" may be explained on personal grounds; all the same Knox now openly declares himself, and brushes aside the arguments of those who would characterise the uprising of a people in defence of their religion as "sedition." He quotes Isaiah against such reasoning, to the effect that "all is not reputed before God sedition and conjuration which the foolish multitude so esteemeth; neither yet," he continues, "is every tumult and breach of public order contrary to God's commandment"; and in support of this he quotes Christ Himself, who came not to send peace but a sword, and the Prophets and Apostles who turned the political and religious world of their day upside down. There can be no doubt now as to the tendency of Knox's political thinking.

In the fourth of these publications a question is raised which has been more fruitful of controversy than almost any other that has agitated the Church. We mean the question of the Duty cf the Civil Magistrate. In his "Appellation to the Nobles and Estates of Scotland" Knox gives expression to views which are thoroughly Erastian. In setting before them their duty he says: "I am not ignorant that Satan of old time for maintenance of his darkness bath obtained of the blind world two chief points. Former he bath persuaded to Princes, Rulers, and Magistrates that the feeding of Christ's flock appertaineth nothing to their charge, but that it is rejected upon the Bishops and estate ecclesiastical: and secondly that the reformation of religion, be it never so corrupt, and the punishment of such as be sworn soldiers in their kingdom are exempted from all civil power and are reserved to themselves and to their own cognition. But that no offender can be justly exempted from punishment, and that the ordering and reformation of religion, with the instruction of subjects, doth especially appertain to the Civil Magistrate, shall God's perfect ordinance, His plain Word and the facts and examples of those that of God are highly praised, most evidently declare." He then goes on, as is customary with him, to support this proposition by examples from the Bible, and he points to Moses, who united in himself both civil and religious power. He was primarily a magistrate in the full significance of that term, but God also commissioned him with the due ordering and observance of religion. This conception of Knox of the relation between Church and State was afterwards embodied in the Confession of Faith of 1560, and it was inserted, even in stronger terns, in the Westminster Confession. From the days of Melville until our own the question has cropped up in various forms, but Knox and those who thought with him had no notion of a religion which was not national, and they never dreamt of any separation between Church and State. To divorce the one from the other they felt would be degrading to both. The union of the two gave stability and independence to the Church, and to the State sanctification.

The last of these letters, which has now to be considered, is in some respects the most important of all. In it he addresses directly the People of Scotland, or, as he calls them, "his Beloved Brethren the Commonalty of Scotland." This is the first occasion on which Knox speaks to them, and the fact that he now regards them as worthy of consideration shows the position which they were beginning to hold in national affairs. Froude's Lecture on the "Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character" is well known, and Carlyle's remarks on the same subject are equally familiar. Both these great writers hit the mark in declaring that the Reformation created the Commons of Scotland. Previous to that time they had no voice, as we have already indicated, in the government of the country. As a political force they did not exist. The ruling and governing class was the nobles, and the rest of the people were practically their retainers, who had no independence whatsoever.

But the Reformation brought these men to self-consciousness; they were made to think, to consider their relations as responsible individuals to Church and State alike. The books that were being brought into the country teaching the doctrines of the Reformed religion, the popular ballads and the preacher's voice, were putting a new life into the middle and lower classes, and preparing them for that part which they took in the Reformation, when all but they had practically deserted the cause. It was upon them in the end that Knox depended for carrying through the work to which he had put his hand, and now at the very beginning of the great task that awaited him he addresses the common people and gives them a conception of their manhood, their rights, their responsibilities, and their duties as citizens, not only of the Kingdom of Scotland but of the Kingdom of Heaven, which to them must have been a perfect revelation. Had Knox never done any more for his native country than this he would deserve its undying gratitude. Modern Scotland, with its teeming cities, its enterprise, its energy and its intelligence and wealth, is practically his creation.

This is how he addresses them: "Neither would I that ye should esteem the reformation and the care of religion less to appertain to you because you are no kings, rulers, judges, nobles, nor in authority. Beloved brethren, ye are God's creatures, created and formed to His own image and similitude, for whose redemption was shed the most precious blood of the only beloved Son of God. . . . For albeit God hath put and ordained distinction and difference between the king and subjects, between the rulers and the common people in the regimen and administration of civil policies, yet in the hope of life to come He bath made all equal." 'Then he goes on to point out to them what their duty is in view of the present crisis. If in God's eyes they are of equal value with the greatest noble in the land, then they must be ready to discharge the duties which this equality demands. The practical task that lies before them is to maintain the true Church and to unite in the defence of it, and he hints that if the clergy fail to reform religion they should bring them to their senses by refusing to support them. He says: "Ye may, moreover, withhold the fruits and profits which your false Bishops and clergy most unjustly receive of you unto such time as they be compelled faithfully to do their charge and duties."

We know how the common people acted on this advice, and how after the lapse of twelve years only, the change in their character and condition became so marked that Killigrew, the English Ambassador in Scotland, wrote as follows to Cecil: "Methinks I see the nobleman's great credit decay in this country, and the barons, burrows, and suchlike take more upon them." That was really so, and as the years advanced they still took more upon them, until the balance of power was reversed and they became, through their parliamentary representatives, the real governors of the nation.

These letters of Knox would no doubt play their part in helping on the Reformation. They would be passed from hand to hand among those to whom they were specially addressed, and all who were in sympathy with the new views would receive light and encouragement from them. They would also afford guidance to the leaders and give them a definite policy. The seeds of the revolution had now been sown, and it only required time and careful husbandry to bring them to full growth.

But the work which at the time created the greatest stir and caused the most noise has still to be mentioned. We refer to The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. The title is sufficiently striking, and on the first blush would seem to imply that Knox had but a poor opinion of the weaker sex. This, as we know, was far from being the case. Very few men have been so fortunate as he, not only in the number of their female friends but in their devotion. In England, in Scotland, and on the Continent he was surrounded by female admirers who constantly sought his advice, and when absent corresponded with him, laying before him their doubts and difficulties, and beseeching him for godly counsel. It is remarkable how sympathetic he was in dealing with the tender consciences of these women, and at what pains he instructed and cheered them; indeed his letters to them form not the least interesting bit of his biography, and reveal a side of his character which is certainly not that of popular tradition.

But this blast of the trumpet was blown not against women, but against what he characterised as their "monstruous regiment," or rule. There can be no doubt that it was immediately inspired by what was taking place at that very time in England and Scotland. Here was he at Dieppe, eager to cross the Channel in order to aid the Reformation in Scotland and in England, but it was impossible for him to do it in either country. He was in this French seaport on the invitation of the leading men in his native land, and he was unable to proceed farther because of the government of Mary of Lorraine, who made it dangerous for him to appear in Scotland at that time. He had taken a solemn farewell of his congregation and friends at Geneva, and, entirely owing to these two women, Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise, he was compelled not only to delay his journey but to return to the Swiss town. His mind, too, we have seen, had been brooding over the rights of subjects in relation to their rulers, and the duty which they owed, in defiance of all authority, to their religion and their God. His schemes of reform grown to maturity he published in those letters which we have just discussed. Why, then, should he not bring his whole argument to a point, and find the ground of all for which he was contending in the unjust and cruel government of these two queens?

Indeed, John Aylmer, one of the English exiles who wrote a reply to Knox's book, is candid enough to find a justification for the latter's vehemency in what was taking place at the time. "For I have that opinion," he says, "of the man's"—that is Knox's —"honesty and godliness that he will not disdain to hear any reasons nor be loth to be taught in anything he misseth. So this author," he continues, "seeing the torments of martyrs, the murdering of good men, the imprisonment of innocents, the racking of the guiltless, the banishing of Christ, the receiving of Anti-Christ, the spoiling of subjects, the maintenance of strangers, the moving of wars, the loss of England's honour, the purchasing of hatred where we had love, the procuring of trouble where we had peace, the spending of treasure where it was needless, and, to be short, all out of joint, he could not but mislike that Regiment from whence such fruits did spring."

Knox did not publish his book until the following year, 1558, and it came out anonymously. He explains this exception to his general rule of putting his name to all he wrote, by saying that he was going to blow the trumpet thrice, and that the name of the author would appear on the title-page of the third blast. But another reason which he does not mention may have influenced him, and that was that neither Calvin nor Bullinger considered the course which he was taking to be expedient. It will be recollected that shortly after his first arrival in Geneva he had consulted these two leaders on this and other subjects, and while both approved generally of the abstract question regarding female rule, neither of them thought it advisable to interfere with existing Governments of which a woman was the head. Knox, however, was not convinced. He took his own way, but to prevent any contretemps in the happy relations that existed between him and his friends in Geneva he sent it forth anonymously. Calvin afterwards practically disowned the book. On sending a copy of his Commentary on Isaiah to Queen Elizabeth, he found that it was very coldly received, and he learned that the cause was his having permitted the publication at Geneva of Knox's First Blast. Calvin declared that he knew nothing about it for a whole year after it was given to the world, and hinted that if he had known he would have prevented it. Knox possibly never learned this, for his relations with Calvin remained unbroken to the end.

But he made a greater enemy than ever Calvin would have been by his publication, no other than Queen Elizabeth herself. Indeed, his work was most untimely, and, with regard to the end which he had in view, most unfortunate. Had he known that Mary Tudor would have died shortly after the publication of his book, and that Elizabeth would succeed her on the throne, it would probably have never seen the light, for his policy was to bring about a union between England and Scotland, and nothing afterwards stood more in his way than his First Blast against the 1iIonstruous Regiment of Women. Elizabeth was mortally offended by it, and could never afterwards tolerate Knox. On his final departure from Geneva she refused him liberty to pass through England, and were it not that she saw that the interests of her country lay in a friendly understanding with Scotland, she would never have favoured the policy which Knox advocated, but which, after all, was the wisest and best for both countries.

It is unnecessary to deal with the pamphlet as a whole, one or two sentences from it will give an indication of its general contents. "To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city, is repugnant to nature, contumilie to God, a thing most contrary to His revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice." He then proceeds with great vigour, and not a little incoherence, as if the book after all were a hurried performance, to prove this by quoting the Bible, Aristotle, Justin, the Pandects, the Digest, Tertullian; Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Basil. "There, and nowhere else in his books," says Carlyle, "have we direct proof of how studiously and profitably his early years up to the age of forty must have been spent, a man of much varied, diligent, solid reading and inquiry as we find him here, a man of serious and continual meditation we might already have known him to be." Still Carlyle regrets that this is the only one of his books which is accessible to English readers, for it is written not in the Scottish but in the common English dialect. It is not by any means the best of his books, far otherwise, in style, in argument, and in temper. Its value lies in testifying to the courage and self-reliance of the man, to his discharge of an imperative duty in defiance of all consequences, and, further, in the indication which it gives of his political policy; for beneath the question of the right of women to rule there was the far deeper question of the right of rulers to govern in defiance of true religion. If the "Regiment" of women was a violation of Scripture, and therefore should be put down, much more ought those rulers to be overthrown, whether they were men or women, who were governing contrary to the Word of God.

Here really lies the sting of the whole argument and its significance. The pamphlet accordingly is not an unworthy completion to that series of productions which Knox wrote in Dieppe. When they are taken together, and studied as a whole, they will be found to contain the sum and substance of his political thinking.


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