Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges


John Knox


John Knox, on the occasion of his first appearance in public, carried a two-handed sword. Up to that moment, he had lived for forty years in obscurity, after that he lived for twenty-five years in public activity.

In 1505, when Knox was born, Henry the Seventh was king of England; Cranmer was a college student in Cambridge; Luther, in that very year, entered the monastery. Calvin was not born till 1509. There was already much dissatisfaction with the condition of religion, but there had been no great changes. The world was still in the Middle Ages.

Knox was born at Haddington, due east from Edinburgh, between the hills of Lammermoor and the Firth of Forth. When the wind blew from the south, it brought the breath of the hills; when it blew from the north, it brought the breath of the sea. The town was small, but it contained three monasteries. It was devoted to the old ways. Whoever looked in any direction in the streets saw a monk or a friar in his gown of black or gray. The principal church was called the "Lamp of Lothian." There was born the man who became the Lamp of Scotland.

Knox's parents were plain people, perhaps farmers. He was always a countryman; he loved the open fields and disliked cities. He spoke of the crowded population of great towns as the rascal multitude.

Having studied in the schools at home, he went, at the age of seventeen, to the University of Glasgow, where a Haddington man, John Major, was a professor. Thus he became a priest. It was a time when almost all work which demanded intelligence of the scholarly kind was done by priests. Knox was both a lawyer and a schoolmaster. He lived as a tutor, now in this great house and now in that, and taught the children. Thus he continued in peace and quiet till he was forty.

But the Reformation was coming on. Luther nailed his these to the door, and the sound of his hammer was heard all over Europe. Henry the Eighth destroyed the monasteries. Earnest men in Scotland were considering what to do. And Knox was reading the seventeenth chapter of St. John. This we know because when Knox was in his last illness, and one who stood by read that chapter at his request, "Here," he said, "I first cast anchor." "This is life eternal," it says there, "to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent." The words seemed to clear away all the old complications of religion, and to make the long services and the many priests unnecessary.

Under these conditions, the Reformation blazing in Germany and England, and scattering cinders over Scotland, and the hearts of men beginning to burn within them, the crisis came in two tragedies. One was the martyrdom of George Wishart, who was burned alive at St. Andrews by the order of Cardinal Beaton, for teaching the Greek Testament, and supporting the new opinions. The other was the assassination of Beaton by the friends of Wishart, who burst in upon him, stabbed him in his palace, and seized the cathedral of St. Andrews.

With these tragedies, the obscurity of Knox ended, and his public activity began. For Wishart was Knox's friend. The house in which he was arrested, and from which he was carried to the stake, was the one in which Knox was living as a tutor. As the enemies of the reformer had increased, and it had become plain that he was in peril of death, the tutor had become his body-guard. That was why Knox had the two-handed sword. But Wishart would not let him use it. "One," he said, "is sufficient for a sacrifice."

When the cardinal was killed, Knox joined the garrison at St. Andrews, taking his pupils with him. There he taught the gospel of St. John, not only to his pupils, but to an increasing company. It was plain that he had learning, and eloquence, and courage. Then, one Sunday in the church, the minister, in the midst of his sermon, called on Knox to become a leader and a preacher. The appeal had been planned beforehand, but Knox knew nothing of it. The time was one of excitement and great danger. Everybody in the church knew that before many days the place would be besieged, by an army, to avenge the murder of the cardinal. They had committed the murder; they had done a thing which could not be forgiven. The preacher in the pulpit was afterwards burned at the stake, and the man at whom he pointed his finger and called him to stand up and speak, knew that the summons was like the sending of a soldier into the danger of death.

At first, Knox, in his surprise, rose up and went out and hid himself in his room, and there stayed for some days praying. Then he came back, and went into the pulpit, and preached so that the ears of the hearers tingled. Men said, "Wishart himself never spoke so plainly." They said, "Others snipped the branches; this man strikes at the root."

The twenty-five remaining years of Knox's life fall into two clearly marked and even divisions. During the first part of this time he lived mostly in exile; during the second part, he lived in Scotland.

He went immediately into exile. The Catholics did not sit silent and suffer their cardinal to be killed in peace. They got help from France, and a French fleet besieged St. Andrews, and the garrison had to surrender. The reformers were put into the galleys, and there, in chains, served at the oars, and there, in chains, served at the oars, as slaves under the whip. In after years, Knox rarely spoke of this bitter experience. But two incidents are remembered.

One time, he said, a priest who ministered to the prisoners carried about among them the image of a saint for them to kiss, but one of them seized the image and flung it overboard, crying, "Let us see if she can swim: she is light enough!"

Another time, the ship sailed near the coast of Scotland, and there in the distance were the spires of St. Andrews. Knox was very ill, so that they doubted if he would recover, but they pointed out the land, and asked him if he recognized it. "Yes," he said, raising himself on his elbow, "I know it well; for I see the steeple of that place where God first, in public, opened my mouth to His glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak so-ever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His godly name in the same place."

Somehow this pain came to an end; probably because of the Protestant supremacy in England under Edward the Sixth. In 1549, the year of the first English Prayer-book, Knox was preaching, by Cranmer's appointment, at Newcastle. Two years later, he was one of the king's six chaplains, and might have been a bishop, if he would. Then Mary came to the throne, the whole state of religion was changed, and Knox, with other reformers, fled to the continent. There he ministered, at first in Frankfort, then in Geneva.

At Frankfort, the refugees were of two parties, moderate and radical. The moderate reformers wished to use the Prayer-book, which represented the English Reformation. The radical reformers, led by Knox, desired to depart from the old order completely. One party was of the mind of Cranmer, the other was of the mind of Calvin. The moderates prevailed, and Knox, after a visit to Scotland, settled in Geneva.

"Geneva," he said, "is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places, I confess, Christ is to be truly preached; but manners and religion as truly reformed have I not seen in any other place." There he published a book on predestination, filled with the theology of Calvin. There he published also a book entitled "A First Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment [—Government] of Women," declaring that it was a horrible thing, contrary to Nature and to the will of God that a woman should sit upon a throne. The particular woman whom he had in mind was Queen Mary, but unhappily for him she was followed by Queen Elizabeth, who so disliked the book that she would never permit the writer to set foot again in England.

Nevertheless, the accession of Elizabeth ended the exile of Knox. He returned to Scotland.

Scotland is a land of picturesque beauty, full of lakes and hills, and moors covered with heather; and it has for its capital one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The land is rich in memories of heroes, sung in ballads; and it has been glorified in the pages of one of the greatest of novelists, Sir Walter Scott. But its history is hard to read. This is mainly for lack of central interest. In the old contention between the barons and the kings, the kings were victorious in Scotland. Scotland was, therefore, a land of barons, where a thousand little wars were waged between castle and castle. The history is for the most part like a canvas crowded with small figures. Carlyle said that it contained nothing of world-interest but the reformation by Knox.

The events which followed the return of Knox were of world-interest because, for the moment, the destinies of the whole reforming movement depended on Scotland. On one side were Catholic France and Spain; on the other side were Protestant Germany and England. And the two sides were evenly matched. Scotland, therefore, held the balance. If it declared itself Protestant, the Reformation was saved; if it continued Catholic, the Reformation was endangered, if not lost.

To this situation dramatic interest was added by the appearance on the stage of affairs of the strong, distinct, and contrasted figures, John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots. The whole world looked on at the contention of these two.

Mary was by temperament and training a French woman. She was beautiful in appearance, but her chief charm was in her manner. She had a fascinating influence over all who knew her. She was gay and clever, graceful and accomplished. And she was a Catholic, devoted to the Catholic cause.

Knox was fifty-six years old when Mary, at the age of nineteen, returned from France to Scotland. He was a stern-faced man, with a long beard. Of the graces and amusements of life he had had no experience. Born on a farm, chained to an oar in a French gallery, the neighbor and disciple of Calvin, his ideas of life were totally different from Mary's. He was not disposed to soften or disguise the difference. He had a terrific plainness of speech. And he was devoted, heart and soul, to the Protestant cause.

Knox had the advantage of appearing first upon the scene. He found Scotland in the midst of civil war. Protestants and Catholics were fighting for supremacy. One day, in Edinburgh, after Knox had preached against idolatry, a priest began to say the mass. And a boy threw a stone against the altar. Thereupon the congregation rose up in riot, and having destroyed the images in the church, went out and pulled down three great monasteries. And what was done in Edinburgh was done in other places also. The splendid churches were defaced; the ancient services were stopped. One side called for help from France; the other side called for help from England. The voice of Knox, it was said, was more terrible than the sound of five hundred trumpets.

For a year, between the death of Mary of Lorraine and the coming of Mary Queen of Scots, the throne was empty, and the power was in the hands of a parliament. The parliament adopted a Confession of Faith, which was composed by Knox, and was according to the doctrines of Calvin. They abolished the authority of the pope in Scotland. They forbade attendance at the service of the mass, and declared that anybody who was three times convicted of this offense should be put to death. Thus in the place of the old Catholic intolerance, they introduced a Protestant intolerance.

Meanwhile, the reformers were gathering congregations, sometimes in the parish churches, sometimes outside of them; and now representatives of these societies were summoned to meet in a General Assembly. They adopted a Book of Discipline. It was provided that ministers should be appointed, not by the bishops, but by the people. It was arranged that in Scotland, as in Geneva, everybody's daily conduct should be watched and directed. The ministers were to see to it that the people neither drank too much nor ate too much, that they were honest in their business, and sober in their conversation. If any man refused to obey the minister, nobody was allowed to speak to him, except his wife, his family, and the minister. It was arrange also that the minister and his wife and children should be subject to the judgment of the congregation. Attention was to be paid to the way in which the minister spent his salary: he must neither spend too much nor save too much. The ministers were directed to meet together every week and discuss each other's conduct. Each in turn was to be frankly criticised by his brethren.

The Book of Discipline taught also that out of the tithes or taxes the state should pay, not only preachers, but teachers and relieve the poor. There were to be public schools and universities for the instruction of all the youths of the country, to be paid for out of the lands and other possessions of the Catholic Church. But this the lords and nobles declined to undertake, preferring to keep these lands and treasures for themselves, as had been done in England.

Only one thing was now needed to make Scotland like Geneva. The Confession of Faith had substituted the theology of Calvin for the theology of the past; the Book of Discipline had substituted the New Presbyterianism for the old Episcopacy; and now the Book of Common Order did away with the ancient services, and put preaching and extempore prayer in the place of them.

Thus, when Mary came she found herself the Catholic Queen of a Protestant nation. The rain was falling heavily on the day when she landed in Scotland, the sky was dark, and everything had a dismal and forbidding look. The land seemed very different from France, and she disliked it greatly. Immediately, she found herself in contention with her people.

On the Sunday after her arrival, the mass was said in her chapel at Holyrood. Knox, in his sermon at St. Gile's, declared that one mass was more dangerous to the country than an invading army of ten thousand men. The Queen called the preacher to the palace. "It seems," she said, "to be your purpose to make my subjects obey you rather than me." Knox answered that his purpose was to lead both princes and subjects to obey God. Thus the two first met. "Think ye," said Mary, "that subjects, having power, may resist their princes?" "If their princes exceed their bounds, Madam," answered Knox, "they may be resisted, and even deposed."

The Queen held a ball at Holyrood, in celebration—it was said—of a victory of the Catholics over the Protestants in France. And Knox preached about it. When the Queen called him to account, he told her that she had been misinformed. If she would come to church, he said, she would know what was being preached.

Meanwhile, the young queen was making friends. Some of them liked the pleasures of the court, where there were good thing to eat and drink, and plenty of music and dancing. These were young people, to whom Knox and the ministers, with their hard rules and stern questions, and their long prayers and sermons, seemed out of all sympathy with the natural desires of youth. Other friends liked the ancient Church and its rich services, the candles and the singing, the colors and the ceremonies. They felt that it was unjust to forbid them to say their prayers in their own way. They hoped that Mary would succeed till all the new fashions in religion should be abolished, and Knox should be sent back to Geneva.

It is possible that these hopes might have been fulfilled, if Mary had been wise. Already, the mass was being said, in spite of the law, not only at court, but in some of the great houses of the nobility. And it was reported that the queen was about to marry the son of the Catholic king of Spain. It was plain that such a marriage, bringing the power of Spain to reinforce the Church, would be the end of the authority of Knox. He preached about it, and again the queen called him to the palace.

"What have you to do with my marriage?" she cried. "I have borne with you in all your rigorous manner of speaking, yea, I have sought your favor by all possible means, and yet I cannot be quit of you. I vow to God I shall be revenged."

And she turned upon him, in tears and great anger. "What are you within this realm?"

To which Knox answered, "A subject born within the same."

Thus he declared the right of the people to rule themselves. Because he represented the people, though he was but a farmer's son, he stood on an equality with kings.

Whatever influence the queen had gained, she lost it by her own folly. She married her cousin, Henry Darnley, and within a year showed such favor to a young Italian, Rizzio, that Darnley stabbed him to death in the queen's room. Then she fell in love with the young Earl of Bothwell, and, within a year of the murder of Rizzio, Darnley was killed; the house in which he slept being blown up by gunpowder, exploded—it was believed—by the hands of Bothwell. Three months afterwards, Mary married Bothwell. But this was more than the country could endure. She was seized by the people and compelled to resign her crown. After one decisive battle, in which great numbers of the nobility fought upon her side, she was compelled to flee to England, where she lived for twenty years, till, in the contentions of the time, accused of conspiracy against Elizabeth, she was beheaded.

Great Britain was made Protestant by the action of two queens. The people were slow to change from the old religion to the new. The Reformation was finally established in Scotland, when the people came to hate the Catholic Church because of the follies of Mary Queen of Scots. It was finally established in England, when the people came to hate the Catholics because of the cruelties of Bloody Mary. The two Marys were mainly responsible for it: one of them by marrying Bothwell, the other by burning Cranmer.

Knox preached at the coronation of Mary's infant son, King James. The pulpit of St. Giles resounded with his sturdy sermons. One time when the French ambassador complained to the Town Council that Knox had denounced the king of France, the Council said, "It is very likely. We cannot prevent him from denouncing us." Being driven out of Edinburgh, for a time, by enemies, he went to St. Andrews. One describes how the old man went on preaching-days to the parish church, fur about his neck, a staff in his hand, and his servant, Richard, helping him along. "Then, by the same Richard and another servant, he was lifted up to the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entrance; but, ere he had done with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous that he was like to ding the pulpit in blads and fly out of it." To "ding the pulpit in blads" means to break it in pieces. It is an interesting picture of Knox preaching.

Returning to Edinburgh, he was strong enough to preach a fierce sermon about the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. His last public appearance was at the installation of his successor. Out he went, after the service, leaning on his staff.

Beside the grave of John Knox the Earl of Morton said, "Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man."