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John Knox, A Biography

THIS book needs no introduction to the public from me, being, as well as I can judge, an excellent piece of biographical literature — clear, compact, impartial — which can stand securely on its own merits. Nor does the subject of it require that any one Scotsman need vindicate any other's right to take a share in the general tribute to the illustrious memory of John Knox.

In Scotland at least, and in this year which (according to general tradition) sees the 400th anniversary of his birth, none will think the tribute undeserved or mistimed. Columba, when looking for the last time on the humble scenes of his apostolic life and labours, foretold, with a manly confidence in the worth of the work he had done, that "small and mean" although Iona appeared, it yet would be held in reverence by many races and rulers of men. The Christianity and civilisation of the realms of Scotland, of Northumbria and of Wales, have borne witness to his prophetic truth. The second great champion of the Northern Church, with a like lofty consciousness of having done his duty to his fatherland, said, ere his course was finished, "What I have been to my country although this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth."

We are not unthankful, and we need no compulsion to prompt us to bear our testimony, of gratitude and veneration, to the stoutest assertor of the religious liberties and civil rights of the people of Scotland. But yet one is tempted to ponder whether his honoured name is as familiar to us as it was to our forefathers: whether his words, "half battles of the free," ring with as clear a challenge as of yore to "the help of the Lord against the mighty": whether the example of his high-hearted patriotism is still felt to be as inspiring as it was in the old time before us. If, in answering this question, our mind is in any way clouded with a doubt, it is high time we examined ourselves on our relation to the memory of John Knox. Why should his memory appeal to our sentiments of patriotism, of religion, of love of liberty, as that of no other Scotsman does? I think we find convincing answer in the records of his life, as set forth in these pages.

The story of that life has been often told, both by friend and foe. It has also been rehearsed by writers who sometimes almost appear to be moved by a personal ill-will, or a distorting fanaticism, which forbade their seeing clearly or interpreting candidly his principles and actions. But it is remarkable that the general consent of impartial students of history has always awarded to Knox a place second to none in the Scots' Valhalla of the great and good—"the one Scotsman," says Carlyle, "to whom, of all others, his country and the whole world owe a debt." It is well that this Anniversary should not be suffered to pass into the silence and the darkness, wherewith our life is bound, without some record of our loyalty to the name, which is more inseparably associated than any other with the establishment of Scottish Protestantism and the assertion of Scottish Nationality. The two causes are of a unity so absolute that the one cannot be severed from the other without loss of life to both, any more than the bleeding half of a dismembered body can survive its wound.

Knox's well-known belief in a policy of Union between Scotland and England may seen to discredit this assertion—but only to the superficial observer. When he came in 1560 from Geneva to take the lead in the social, political, and religious revolution that was then hastening to its crisis in his native country, he found the Kingdom weltering in a chaos of discordant elements. The Crown was in the hands of a foreign regent, and the nobles, who should have been its strength and stay, were for the most part a selfish gang, greedy of place and power, seeking in the general turmoil whatever spoil they could lay their hands on. The politicians were men of shifty principles, now intriguing for the good-will of England, now for the friendship of France. The middle class of burghers and traders, men of sounder morals and better education than the lairds, had not yet gained the firm hold, which their intelligence and wealth afterwards won for them, on the mind of their compatriots and on the course of public affairs. Everywhere the body politic was infected with disorder, discontent, unrest, and suspicion. The Church, by its own acknowledgment, was flagrantly corrupt—the lives of the Clergy, from the Archbishop to the Deacon, shamelessly immoral and scandalously depraved: the seculars ignorant, rude, and flagitious; the regulars wasting their substance in riotous living, or in luxurious sloth, in their magnificent monasteries. The keen eye of the Reformer saw, through the gloom and confusion, one clear ray of hope which might brighten into a perfect day when Scotland should be orderly, united, educated, delivered from superstition, and blessed with freedom: and that hope was to be realised through English help. There was no desire to surrender Scottish Nationality. On the contrary, there was the desire for the salvation of all that, was worth saving in the National life of Scotland. For a time the nominal Nationality might appear to lose or veil its rugged features, but the real Nationality—the stubbornness, the fidelity to the highest and the best, the honesty, the bravery, the patient loyalty, which had survived all the malign influences of generations of misrule—these, which lay near the roots of the Scottish character, would remain and would assert themselves in a free and friendly alliance with the sister power of England. To gain that alliance, and to maintain it, Knox saw was the truest patriotism: but absolutely irreconcilable with this was the continued supremacy of the Roman Church, which from the days of Margaret had held Scotland in a bitter spiritual bondage.

The first essential for reformation — in every department of life, domestic, social, industrial, political—was a Revolution in Religion. Without that no reform was possible, or even conceivable. The paralysing hand of the Church must be unclasped, its ruthless interference with all liberty of thought and action must be defied, its irrational dogmas dislodged from their high places, its idolatries and superstitions dragged into the light of day and trampled in the dust. There was nothing else for it; no via media, no temporising readjustments would serve the cruel need. The Revolution must be complete, in doctrine, in practice, in ritual, in government. As is evident from his History, Knox took the weapons with which he was to lead it to victory from the armoury of Geneva, whence Calvin guided and inspired the campaign of freedom against tyranny. We may mark, with some regret, how far Calvin's mind dominated his, and Calvinistic doctrine reproduced itself in his theology. But in the revolt from Rome, and in the suspicion of even the modified sacramentarianism of Luther, no system less thorough-going than Calvin's could satisfy a man like Knox, with his inveterate hatred of idolatry and passionate devotion to what he believed to be the Divine and righteous will :—passionate devotion of this sort, and passionate conviction of the inherent right of every human creature to have its own immediate access to the very throne of God, by the "new and living way," unaided, or unhindered, by any services or devices or mediations of men or churches.

As far as help from outside—from England or elsewhere—went, Knox for long owed it but little. The Tudor Autocrat could not forget or forgive the obloquy he had poured on "the Monstrous," the "Monstruous," the "Monstriferous" Regiment of Women; and she watched Knox's career with a vindictiveness which would, if she could, have hampered every e$ort her advisers made to lend English aid to the Scots Reformers: but the battle was practically won, speedily and essentially without external succours.

Knox spoke his prophet's message to the Scots, and the Nation rallied to his call. They had never forgotten him, all the time he had been away in the accursed French galleys, in England, in Dieppe, in Frankfort and Geneva, with but brief returns to the North; and they recognised their Leader now. The Man needed for the time had come, his voice putting more heart into them than "five hundred trumpets blustering in their ears"; a sermon from him worth a squadron of cavalry, the man of their own blood and class, yet not ashamed to stand before kings, and to tell the honest truth to any man; not afraid to say to the Privy Councillors who had his life in their hands, "I am in the place where I am demanded by conscience to speak the truth, and therefore the truth I speak, impugn it whoso list." He never paltered with the truth, or sought fine phrases to mislead his hearers or veil his meaning. "I call," said he, "a fig a fig and a spade a spade." His language was plain and strong, homely and racy, yet now and again soaring to flights of impassioned eloquence or pathetic pleading that swayed all hearts like a wheat-field before a gale. His sarcasm, his humour, his invective, were biting and brilliant, but no written record can convey the vivid impression his speech produced. It was the impetuous force and burning conviction which urged his words, joined to the commanding personality of the man, that bore all before him.

Some disorder and violence accompanied a few of his earlier denunciations and appeals; but he gave this no encouragement or approval. The popular hatred and contempt spent themselves chiefly on the Monastic establishments, whose hoarded wealth and idle luxury had long provoked the jealousy and resentment of the unruly populace, ever ready to make a pernicious profit out of sources of religious or secular unrest. But Knox was incapable of playing on the passions of "the rascal multitude." On the occasions when he appeared before the Court or the Privy Council, he spoke with a gravity, a weight, a self-respect which compelled respect in its turn. "Who are you," asked Mary, "that interfere with my government within this Realm?" "Madam," he replied, "a subject born within the same." The whole claims of the rights of religion and of personal liberty were summed up in the words, lifting, as they did, the matter in hand out of all meaner relations to the broad platform of public right and justice,—from the question of what was due to the Crown from the subject, to the larger one of what was due to the subject from the Crown.

In all his interviews with the Queen he stands before the beautiful Mary, in his Geneva gown, a somewhat grim but yet a stately figure, austere, incorruptible, with a rigid persuasion of the righteousness of the cause which he felt he was commissioned to uphold. To him that cause was nothing less than God's, of whose immediate sovereignty over the realm of Scotland he, John Knox, and not Mary Stuart, was the representative. His faith in his own office as the Messenger of a New Covenant with Scotland, which should establish God's Kingdom there on a divine foundation never to be shaken,—foundation of a pure evangel — of an Apostolic Church—of a free and godly people,—was as profound as his belief in the unchangeable and inscrutable Decree which had fixed his destiny from all Eternity. It was a stern belief, but, to the children of the Covenant, a hopeful one, as they saw the Lord's work prospering in their hands, and hailed it as a sign that they were of the Elect, their righteousness inflexible as that of God Himself. A creed less absolute in its moral standard, less assured of its foothold within the veil, would not have been the fortress which Knox and men like him needed in those days of storm and stress. No doubt of his commission ever darkened his mind. No fear of man ever unstrung his nerve or daunted his resolution. For the Scottish Nation, wearied of falsehood and faction, with its life degraded and its conscience demoralised, he created a soul "under the ribs of death"; roused it to a sense of its responsibility to God, awoke its benumbed love of liberty to a determination to assert the sacred rights of freedom.

All this was a work not done easily, or in a hurry. Year after year he fought his battles and won his victories. "This that Knox did for his Nation," says Carlyle, "we may really call a Resurrection as from Death."

John Knox's teaching and discipline (of which his Confession of Faith and First Book of Discipline were the embodiments) laid down the principles, and inspired the practices, which, in the words of an historian of the time, changed the Scots from being "one of the rudest, most ignorant, indigent, and turbulent of peoples, into one of the most civilised, educated, prosperous, and upright, which our family of Nations can show." And yet not all his noble ideas were realised. A ,just provision for the Clergy, who took the place of the former priests and Churchmen, was pared down to a beggarly pittance; and the wolfish rapacity of the "nobles" clutched also the wealth of the monks and friars on its way to the support of the poor and the endowment of colleges and schools. His wholesomest and most statesmanlike schemes for the general welfare were thwarted and sneered at as "devout imaginations" by those who had it in their power to direct, for a time, the public policy, to the lasting detriment of Church and State. We are still trying, by belated legislations, to effect social, economical, and educational reforms which would have been achieved four hundred years ago, if only Knox had had full freedom to act. The great body of the people stood by him and were thoroughly loyal to him. The aristocracy was not. Half-hearted support, wavering allegiance to the cause, shuffling sympathy with its Champion, disparagement of his motives, mendacious aspersion of his character, misrepresentation and abuse — these were common and current among the classes who loved the old Faith and the young Queen, and those who at bottom, caring little for either, hated Knox's discipline and hungered for the spoils of the Kirk.

The discipline no doubt was stern (the Puritanic element showed itself distinctly in Knox's character and ecclesiastical economy), but it was of a higher strain at any rate than could consort with the dissolute manners of the wanton Court. At the head of the Court, and of the political party identified with it, was the uncompromising enemy of the Reformed Religion, the most fascinating woman of her time; and Knox knew, and she knew, that between her influence and his the struggle was for life or death. In the Queen's Mass in the Chapel Royal Knox saw nothing but rank idolatry and National downfall and disgrace. He would have none of it. He was "intolerant," undoubtedly: but could he be otherwise? Could he be tolerant of that ungodly power which for four hundred years had sucked the blood of Scotland, had slain her martyrs, had burned her witnessess of the Truth, had held down her people in Spiritual darkness and made religion a byword in the land?

There are some things in the world that no free and honest man can, or ought to, tolerate. And the Scoto-Roman Church in the reign of Mary Stuart was one of them. If Scotland was to live, it must die. Knox dealt it its deathblow: and with him, after a tough contest, remained the victory of liberty and Truth. It was not an absolute triumph. Ere he was in his grave the forces of reaction had begun to raise their noxious heads; to rebel against the Church's "godly discipline," and seemly order; to stumble into the crooked paths of Prelacy, and the superstitions of Sacerdotalism and Sacramentarianism. Yet it was but for a time. The new faith and order of the Presbyterian Kirk—a free Church in a free State—were too firmly planted in the minds and consciences of an enfranchised people to be shaken by the temporary success, or failure, of ecclesiastical factions or political parties. For four hundred years they have stood as on a rock.

And the Church of Scotland—Apostolic, National, Reformed—will continue so to stand as long as Scotsmen are faithful to the trust which Knox bequeathed to them. Let them not forget or misunderstand what it is—the Custody of the Faith once delivered to the. Saints; the unbroken Tradition of the primitive Church; the Ideal of that city of God which is Eternal in the Heavens.

R. H. S.

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