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§ 88. John Knox.


Besides the works of Knox, the excellent biography of M'Crie, and Lorimer's monograph quoted in the preceding section, comp. Froude's Lecture on The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character, 1865 (in Short Studies on Great Subjects, Vol. I. pp. 128 sqq.), and an exceedingly characteristic essay of Thomas Carlyle on the Portraits of John Knox, which first appeared in Fraser's Magazine for April, 1875, and then as an appendix to his Early Kings of Norway. London, 1875 (pp. 209–307), and New York (Harper's ed. pp. 173–257). Brandes follows M'Crie very closely. Laing, in the first vol. of his edition of Knox's History of the Reformation (pp. xiii.–xliv.), gives a convenient chronological summary of the chief events of his life.


John Knox (1505–1572), the Luther of Scotland, was educated in the University of Glasgow, and ordained to the Romish priesthood (1530), but became a convert to Protestantism (1545, the year of Wishart's martyrdom12981298   This is the date given by Laing, while M'Crie assigns Knox's conversion to the year 1542. through the study of the Bible and the writings of Augustine and Jerome. He went at once to the extreme of opposition, as is often the case with strong and determined characters of the Pauline type. He abhorred the mass as an 'abominable idolatry and profanation of the Lord's Supper,' and popery as the great anti-Christian apostasy and Babylonish harlot predicted in the Bible.12991299   His first Protestant sermon in the parish church at St. Andrew's was on Dan. vii., to prove that the pope was the last beast, the man of sin, the Antichrist. Some of the hearers said: 'Others hewed at the branches of papistry, but he struck at the root to destroy the whole.' Calderwood, Vol. I. p.230; Knox's Works, Vol. I. p. 192.


After preaching awhile to the Protestant soldiers in the garrison of St. Andrew's, he was taken prisoner by the French fleet (1547), and made a galley-slave for nineteen months, 'going in irons, miserably entreated and sore troubled by corporal infirmity.' Regardless of danger, he remained true to his faith. When called upon to kiss an image of the Holy Virgin, he declared that it was 'no mother of God, but a painted piece of wood, fit for swimming rather than being worshiped;' and he flung the picture into the river Loire.

On obtaining his liberty, he labored five years (1549–1554) in England as a pioneer of English Puritanism. He preached in Berwick, on the borders of Scotland, in Newcastle, and in London. He was elected one of the six chaplains of Edward VI. (1551), was consulted about the Articles of Religion and the revision of the Liturgy, and was offered the bishopric of Rochester, which he declined from opposition to the large extent of dioceses, the secular business, vestments, and 'other popish fooleries remaining.'13001300   His labors in England, and the reasons for his nolo episcopari, are fully described by Dr. Lorimer, in part from unpublished sources.

After the accession of Bloody Mary he fled among the last, at the urgent request of friends, to the Continent, and spent five years (from January, 1554, to January, 1559, interrupted by a journey to Scotland, November, 1555, to July, 1556), at Frankfort-on-the-Main, and especially at Geneva. Here he found 'the most perfect school of Christ that ever was since the days of the Apostles.' Though four years older, he sat an admiring pupil at the feet of John Calvin, and became more Calvinistic than the great Reformer. He preached to a flock of English exiles, took part in the Geneva version of the Bible, and aided by his pen the cause of evangelical religion in England and Scotland.

The accession of Queen Elizabeth opened the way for his final return and crowning work, although she refused him passage through her dominion, and never forgave him his 'blast' at the dignity and ruling capacity of her sex.13011301   Before his return, while the fires of Smithfield were still burning, he had published anonymously his 'First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [i.e., regimen or government] of Women,' 1558, which was aimed at the misgovernment of Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise. This singular and characteristic but unfortunate book begins with the sentence, 'To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire, above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance, and, finally, it is a subversion of all equity and justice.' He appealed to the creation, to the Jews, to St. Paul, to ancient philosophers and legislators, to the fathers, to the Salic and French law. His error was that from some bad examples he drew sweeping conclusions, which were soon confirmed by Mary Stuart, but disproved by Elizabeth (as they are in our day by the reign of Victoria). No wonder that Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were incensed at what they regarded a personal insult. Knox himself foresaw the bad consequences, and expected to be called 'a sower of sedition, and one day perchance to be attainted for treason,' but he was too manly to retract, and retained his opinion to the last, but, not wishing to obstruct the path of Elizabeth, he never published the intended Second and Third Blast. See M'Crie's J. Knox, pp. 141–147 (Philadelphia ed.), and Carlyle, l.c. pp. 230 sqq.


The remaining twelve years of his life were devoted to the fierce struggle and triumph of the Reformation in his native land, which he has himself so vividly, truthfully, and unselfishly described in his History.13021302   Knox wrote four Books of his History of the Reformation, down to 1564, at the request of his friends. The Fifth Book is not found in any MS. copy, and was first published by David Buchanan in 1644; it relates the affairs of the most controverted period in Scottish history, from Sept., 1564, to Aug., 1567, when Queen Mary abdicated. Laing thinks that it is mostly derived from Knox's papers by some unknown hand (Works, Vol. II. p. 468). Carlyle regrets that this 'hasty and strangely interesting, impressive, and peculiar History has not been rendered far more extensively legible to serious mankind at large.' Laing has added a vocabulary. Shortly before his death he heard the news of the terrible massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's night, and summoning up the remainder of his broken strength, he thundered from the pulpit in Edinburgh his indignation and the vengeance of God against 'that cruel murderer and false traitor, the King of France' (Charles IX.). His last sermons were on our Lord's crucifixion, a theme on which he wished to close his ministry. He presided at the installation of Lawson as his colleague and successor, and made an impressive address and prayer. As he left the church a crowd of people lined the street and followed him to his house to take farewell of their pastor. He found his last comfort in the sacerdotal prayer, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and some psalms, 'hearing' what was read, and 'understanding far better.' He died, weary of life and longing for heaven, in the sixty-seventh year of his age, in peace, without a struggle, lamented by the clergy, the nobles, and the people (Nov. 24, 1572). He could conscientiously say on his death-bed, before God and his holy angels, that he never made merchandise of religion, never studied to please 676men, never indulged his private passions, but faithfully used his talents for the edification of the Church over which he was called to watch. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Giles's; no monument was erected; a plain stone with his name marks the spot.

Knox was the greatest of Scotchmen, as Luther the greatest of Germans. He was the incarnation of all the noble and rugged energies of his nation and age, and devoted them to the single aim of a thorough reformation in doctrine, worship, and discipline, on the basis of the Word of God.13031303   Thomas Carlyle, himself a typical Scotchman, calls Knox 'the most Scottish of Scots, and to this day typical of all the qualities which belong nationally to the very choicest Scotsmen we have known, or had clear record of: utmost sharpness of discernment and discrimination, courage enough, and, what is still better, no particular consciousness of courage, but a readiness in all simplicity to do and dare whatsoever is commanded by the inward voice of native manhood; on the whole, a beautiful and simple but complete incompatibility with whatsoever is false in word or conduct; inexorable contempt and detestation of what in modern speech is called humbug, . . . a most clear-cut, hardy, distinct, and effective man; fearing God, and without any other fear.' He severely characterizes the patriarchal, long-bearded, but stolid picture of Knox in Beza's Icones (Geneva, 1580), and in Laing's edition, and represents the 'Somerville portrait,' with a sharp, stern face, high forehead, pointed beard, and large white collar, as the only probable likeness of the great Reformer. In genius, learning, wealth of ideas, and extent of influence, he was inferior to Luther and Calvin, but in boldness, strength, and purity of character, fully their equal.13041304   M'Crie (p. 355) well compares him with the three leading Reformers: 'Knox bore a striking resemblance to Luther in personal intrepidity and in popular eloquence. He approached nearest to Calvin in his religious sentiments, in the severity of his manners, and in a certain impressive air of melancholy which pervaded his character. And he resembled Zwinglius in his ardent attachment to the principles of civil liberty, and in combining his exertions for the reformation of the Church with uniform endeavors to improve the political state of the people. Not that I would place our Reformer on a level with this illustrious triumvirate. There is a splendor which surrounds the great German Reformer, partly arising from the intrinsic heroism of his character, and partly reflected from the interesting situation in which his long and doubtful struggle with the Court of Rome placed him in the eyes of Europe, which removes him at a distance from all who started in the same glorious career. The Genevese Reformer surpassed Knox in the extent of his theological learning, and in the unrivaled solidity and clearness of his judgment. And the Reformer of Switzerland, though inferior to him in masculine elocution and in daring courage, excelled him in self-command, in prudence, and in that species of eloquence which steals into the heart, convinces without irritating, and governs without assuming the tone of authority. But although "he attained not to the first three," I know not, among all the eminent men who appeared at that period, any name which is so well entitled to be placed next to theirs as that of Knox, whether we consider the talents with which he was endowed, or the important services which he performed.' He was the most heroic man of a heroic race. His fear of God made him fearless of man. Endowed with a vigorous and original intellect, he was eminently a man of action, with the pulpit for his throne and the 677word for his sword. A statesman as well as a theologian, he possessed rare political sagacity and intuitive knowledge of men. Next to Calvin, he is the chief founder of the Presbyterian polity, which has proved its vitality and efficiency for more than three centuries. Like St. Paul and Calvin, he was small in person and feeble in body, but irresistible in moral force.13051305    'Haud scio an unquam majus ingenium in fragili et imbecillo corpusculo collocarit.' Principal Smeton, as quoted by M'Crie, p. 355. 'He put more life into his hearers from the pulpit in an hour than six hundred trumpets.'13061306   So the English embassador, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, wrote to Cecil. When old and decrepit, leaning on his staff and the arm of his faithful servant, he had to be lifted to the pulpit; but before the close he became so animated and vigorous that he seemed 'likely to ding the pulpit in blads [to beat it in pieces] and flie out of it.'13071307   Thus his eloquence was described, in 1571, by James Melville, then a student and constant hearer of Knox. A lively Frenchman, in the Journal des Debats, gave the following amusing version of this account: 'A Presbyterian fanatic named Knox, . . . old and broken down, . . . began his sermon in a feeble voice and slow action; but soon heating himself by the force of his passion and hatred, he bestirred himself like a madman; he broke his pulpit, and jumped into the midst of his hearers (sautoit au milien des auditeurs).' M'Crie, p. 325. Well did the Earl of Morton, the newly elected regent, characterize him over his open grave in that sentence which has since been accepted as the best motto of his life: 'Here lies he who never feared the face of man.'13081308   Or, in the less graceful but more expressive original phrase, as given by James Melville (the only authority for it), 'He neither feared nor flattered any flesh.' And in a different spirit, James VI paid the same tribute to his fearless character, when with uplifted hands he thanked God that the three surviving bairns of Knox were all lasses; 'for if they had been three lads,' he said to Mrs. Welch, 'I could never have bruiked [enjoyed] my three kingdoms in peace.'13091309   Mrs. Welch was a daughter of Knox, and gained admission to the King, in London, 1622, to ask his permission for the return of her sick husband (a worthy Presbyterian minister, who had been exiled for his resistance to the re-establishment of episcopacy) to his native Scotland. James at last yielded on condition that she should persuade him to submit to the bishops; but the lady, lifting up her apron and holding it towards the King, replied, in the genuine spirit of her father, 'Please your Majesty, I'd rather kep [receive] his head there.' Mr. Welch died in London soon after this singular conversation; his widow returned to Ayr, and survived him three years, 'a spouse and daughter worthy of such a husband and such a father.' M'Crie, p. 362. Knox was twice married and had two sons by his first wife, Marjory Bowes, of London, and three daughters by his second wife, Margaret Stewart, of a high noble family in Scotland. The sons were educated at Cambridge, but died young, without issue.


Knox had the stern and uncompromising spirit of a Hebrew prophet. He confronted Queen Mary as Elijah confronted Jezebel, unmoved by her beauty, her smiles, or her tears. He himself relates the four or five interviews he had with that graceful, accomplished, fascinating, but ill-fated lady, whose charms and misfortunes still excite fresh feelings of sympathy in every human heart. It is difficult to imagine a more striking contrast: Knox the right man in the right place, Mary the wrong woman in the wrong place; he intensely Scotch in character and aim, she thoroughly French by education and taste; he in the vigor of manhood, she in the bloom of youth and beauty; he terribly in earnest, she gay and frivolous; he a believer in God's sovereignty and the people's right and duty to disobey and depose treacherous princes, she a believer in her own absolute right to rule and the subject's duty of passive obedience; he abhorring her religion as idolatry and her policy as ruin to Scotland, she fearing him as a rude fanatic, an impertinent rebel and sorcerer in league with Beelzebub.13101310   Carlyle thus speaks of this remarkable chapter in the Scotch Reformation: 'The interviews of Knox with the Queen are what one would most like to produce to readers; but unfortunately they are of a tone which, explain as we might, not one reader in a thousand could be made to sympathize with or do justice to in behalf of Knox. The treatment which that young, beautiful, and high chief personage in Scotland receives from the rigorous Knox, would to most modern men seem irreverent, cruel, almost barbarous. Here more than elsewhere Knox proves himself,—here more than any where bound to do it,—the Hebrew Prophet in complete perfection; refuses to soften any expression or to call any thing by its milder name, or in short for one moment to forget that the Eternal God and His Word are great, and that all else is little, or is nothing; nay, if it set itself against the Most High and His Word, is the one frightful thing that this world exhibits. He is never in the least ill-tempered with her Majesty; but she can not move him from that fixed centre of all his thoughts and actions: Do the will of God, and tremble at nothing; do against the will of God, and know that, in the Immensity and the Eternity around you, there is nothing but matter of terror. Nothing can move Knox here or elsewhere from that standing-ground; no consideration of Queen's sceptres and armies and authorities of men is of any efficacy or dignity whatever in comparison; and becomes not beautiful, but horrible, when it sets itself against the Most High.' We must not judge from his conversations with the Queen that he was a woman-hater: he respected right women in their proper sphere, as he was respected by them, and his correspondence reveals a vain of tenderness and kindly genial humor beneath his severity.13111311   See his letters of comfort to Mrs. Bowes, his mother-in-law, who suffered much from religious melancholy, in Works by Laing, Vol. III. pp. 337–343, and Vol. VI. p. 513; also in Lorimer, pp. 39 sqq. But in this case he sacrificed all personal considerations to what he believed to be his paramount duty to God and his Church.


The pulpit proved mightier than the throne. The suicidal blunders of the Queen, who had more trouble from her three husbands—two of them handsome but heartless and worthless ruffians and murderers—than her grand-uncle Henry VIII. had from his six wives, are the best vindication of the national policy, if not the personal conduct, of the Reformer. Had Mary's popish policy triumphed, there would have been an end to Protestantism and liberty in Scotland, and probably in England too; while Knox, fighting intolerance with intolerance, laid the solid foundation for future liberty. He felt at that turning-point of history that, what is comparatively harmless now, 'one mass was more dangerous to Scotland than an army of ten thousand enemies.'13121312   Froude says: 'Toleration is a good thing in its place; but you can not tolerate what will not tolerate you, and is trying to cut your throat. . . . The Covenanters fought the fight and won the victory, and then, and not till then, came the David Humes with their essays on miracles, and the Adam Smiths with their political economies, and steam-engines, and railroads, and philosophical institutions, and all the other blessed or unblessed fruits of liberty' 1.c. pp. 148, 149).

If Knox lacked the sweet and lovely traits of Christian character, it should be remembered that God wisely distributes his gifts. Neither the polished culture of Erasmus, nor the gentle spirit of Melanchthon, nor the cautious measures of Cranmer could have accomplished the mighty change in Scotland. Knox was, beyond a doubt, the providential man for his country. Scotland alone could produce a Knox, and Knox alone could reform Scotland. If any man ever lived to some purpose, and left the indelible impress of his character upon posterity, it was John Knox. His is to this day the best known and the most popular name in Scotland. Such fearless and faithful heroes are among the best gifts of God to the world.

We need not wonder that Knox, like the other Reformers, was pursued by malignant calumny during his life, and even charged with unnatural crimes, which would make him ridiculous as well as hideous. But those who knew him best esteemed him most. Bannatyne, his faithful clerk, calls him, in his journal, 'the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Church, the mirror of godliness, the pattern of all true ministers in purity of life, soundness of doctrine, and boldness in reproving wickedness.' James Melville, who heard his last sermons, speaks of him as 'that most notable prophet and apostle' of Scotland.13131313   Beza also calls him 'Scotorum apostolum.' 680Posterity has judged differently, according to the religious stand-point. To some he still appears as a semi-barbarous fanatic, a dangerous heretic, or at best as a 'holy savage;' while Froude regards him as 'the grandest figure in the entire history of the British Reformation,' and Carlyle as 'more than a man of genius—a heaven-inspired prophet and heroic leader of men.'

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