John Knox: The Scottish Reformer – by Robert Turnbull

The Reformation

A little information about the famous Scottish Reformer.

John Knox: The Scottish Reformer
Extracted from Robert Turnbull’s “The Genius of Scotland.”

The character of Knox has been terribly blackened by heartless and infidel historians, and especially by sickly sentimentalists. Nevertheless he was a noble-hearted, truth-loving, shame-hating, God-fearing, self-sacrificing man; a hero in the proper sense of the word, a minister of righteousness, an angel of Reform. Not, indeed, a soft, baby-faced, puling sentimentalist; but a lofty, iron-hearted man, who “never feared the face of clay,” and did God’s will, in spite of devils, popes, and kings. His history possesses the deepest and most romantic interest. It is one of the most magnificent passages in Scottish story. Bruce battled for a crown; Knox battled for the truth. Both conquered, after long toils and struggles; and conquered, mainly by the might of their single arm. But the glory which irradiates the head of the Reformer far outshines that of the hero of Bannockburn, for the latter is earthly and evanescent; the former celestial and immortal.
John Knox was born in Haddington, not far from Edinburgh, of poor but honest parents, in the year 1505; grew up in solitude; and was destined for the church; received a thorough collegiate education; became an honest friar; wore the monk’s cowl for years; adopted silently and unostentatiously the principles of the Protestant Reformation; spent much of his time in teaching, and in the prosecution of liberal studies, of which he was considered a master; was suddenly and unexpectedly called, at St. Andrews, by the unanimous voice of his brethren, to the preaching of the Word, and the defense of their religious liberties; after a brief struggle with himself yielded to the call, nobly threw himself into the breach, at the hazard of his life, attacked “Papal idolatry” with unsparing vigor, was seized by the authorities, and sent a prisoner to France in 1547, where he worked in the galleys as a slave, but evermore maintaining his lofty courage and cheerful hope; was set at liberty two years afterwards; preached in England in the time of Edward the Sixth; refused a bishopric from the best of kings; retired to the continent at the accession of Mary, residing chiefly at Geneva and Frankford; returned to Scotland in 1555; labored with indomitable perseverance to establish Protestantism; rebuked the great for immortality, profaneness and rapacity, and succeeded in greatly strengthening the cause of truth and freedom. At the earnest solicitation of the English congregation in Geneva he went thither a second time; there he published “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regimen (Government) of Women,” directed principally against Mary, Queen of England, and Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, two narrow-minded, miserable despots; returned to Scotland in 1559; continued his exertions in behalf of Christ’s truth; did much to establish common schools; finally saw Protestantism triumph in Scotland; and died in 1572, so poor that his family had scarce sufficient to bury him, but with the universal love and homage of his countrymen, a conscience void of offence, and a hope full of immortality. “He had a sore fight of an existence; wrestling with popes and principalities; in defeat, contention, life-long struggle; rowing as a galley-slave, wandering as an exile. A sore fight, but he won it. “Have you hope?” they asked him in his last moments when he could no longer speak. He lifted his finger, “pointed upwards with his ringer,” and so died. Honor to him! His works have not died. The letter of his work dies, as of all men’s; but the spirit of it never.”
Knox has been much abused for his violent treatment of Queen Mary. His addresses and appeals to her have been characterized as impudent and cruel; but, thoroughly inspected, they will he found the reverse. Strong and startling they were, but neither impudent nor cruel. Doubtless they fell upon her ear like the tones of some old prophet, sternly rebuking sin, or indicating, the rights of God. Mary was a woman of matchless beauty; and had she been educated differently, might have blessed the world with the mild luster of her Scottish reign; but she was the dupe of bad counsels, in spirit and practice a despot, the plaything of passion, and the reckless opposer of the best interests of her country. Her beauty and sufferings have shed a false luster over her character; above all, have aided in concealing the terrible stain of infidelity to her marriage vows, and (he implied murder of her wretched husband, charges which her apologists can extenuate, but not deny. But, forsooth, it is an insufferable thing for a plain honest-hearted man like John Knox to tell the truth to such an one! She was young, beautiful, fascinating: and however recklessly, madly, ruinously wrong, he must not advise her—above all, must not warn her! Now, such a notion may possibly commend itself to you “absolute gentlemen, of very soft society, who are the card and calendar of gentry;” but it cannot be imposed upon our plain common sense. Mary was a queen, however, and John Knox a poor plebeian! Aye, aye! that is a difficulty! Kings and Queens may do what they please. The people are made for them, not they for the people. And sure enough it is a vulgar thing to oppose them in their ambitious schemes, or to tell them the honest truth betimes! Poor John Knox! thou must fall down and worship “a painted bredd” after all. A beautiful queen must be spared, if Scotland should perish. But looking at the matter from the free atmosphere of New England, we maintain that John Knox was of higher rank than Mary, Queen of Scots. He was more true, more heroic, more kingly, than all the race of the Stuarts. He had a right in God’s name, to speak the truth, “to reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all long suffering.”
Hence, though his words were stern and appalling, they were uttered with a kind and generous intention. “Madame,” said Knox, when he saw Mary burst into tears from vexation and grief, “in God’s presence I speak; I never delighted in the weeping of God’s creatures, yea, I can scarcely well abide the tears of mine own bairns, when mine own hands correct them, much less can I rejoice in your Majesty’s weeping; but seeing I have offered unto you no just occasion to be offended, I must sustain your Majesty’s tears, rather than I dare hurt my conscience, or betray the commonwealth by silence.”
Yes, he was a stern old puritan, a lion of a man, who made terrible havoc among the “painted bredds” of Popery, and turned back the fury of wild barons and persecuting priests. “His single voice,” says Randolph, “could put more life into a host than six hundred blustering trumpets.” Single handed, he met the rage of a disappointed government and an infuriated priesthood, and conquered by the silent might of his magnanimous audacity. In the wildest whirl of contending emotion, he never lost sight of the great end of his being, as a servant of God, nor swerved a hair’s breadth from truth and right.
Yet this stern old Covenanter was not without a touch of gentleness and even of hilarity. He loved his home, his children and his friends. An honest quiet laugh often man tied his pale, earnest visage. “They go far wrong,” says Carlyle, “who think that Knox was a gloomy fanatic. Not at all. He is one of the solidest of men. Practical, cautious, hopeful, patient; a most shrewd, observing, quietly discerning man. In fact, he has very much the type of character we assign to the Scotch at present: a certain sardonic taciturnity is in him; insight enough; and a stouter heart than he himself knows of. An honest-hearted, brotherly man; brother to the high, brother also to the low; sincere in his sympathy with both.
Knox, doubtless, had his faults; and what of that? He made some mistakes! and what, too, of that? Was he not a true man, and a true minister of God’s Word? Did he not accomplish a great and beneficial work of Reform; and having done this, did he not die a sweet and triumphant death? God has set his seal upon him, and upon his work; and that is enough for us.
We hesitate not, with Carlyle, to name the Reformation under Knox as the great era in Scottish history, as the one glorious event which gave life to the nation. Thence resulted freedom, activity, purity of morals, science, national and individual greatness. Previous to this event Scotland possessed only a rough, tumultuous physical life; her politics—dissensions and executions; her religion—a puerile superstition; —her literature—ballads and monkish legends; her joy— hunting, fighting, and drinking! But the Reformation breathed into her the breath of a spiritual existence. Her national prosperity dates from that era. Thence proceeded faith and order, education, industry, and wealth. “It was not a smooth business; but it was welcome surely, and cheap at that price, had it been far rougher. On the whole, cheap at any price, as life is. The people began to live; they needed first of all to do that, at what cost soever.
It has been fashionable of late, in certain quarters, to undervalue the Reformation, and contemn those great and rugged spirits by whom it was accomplished. The sentimental, baby-hearted, superstition-smitten generation, cannot appreciate those mighty men, and mightier reforms of the olden time. But how well and worthily does the large-hearted Milton speak of it: “When I recall to mind, at last, after so many dark ages, wherein the huge over-shadowing train of error had almost swept all the stars out of the firmament of the church; how the bright and blissful Reformation, by Divine power, struck through the black and settled night of ignorance and anti-Christian tyranny, methinks a sovereign and reviving joy must needs rush into the bosom of him that reads or hears, and the sweet odor of the returning Gospel imbathe his soul with the fragrance of Heaven. Then was the sacred Bible sought out of the dusty corners, where profane falsehood and neglect had thrown it, the schools opened, divine and human learning raked out of the embers of forgotten tongues; the princes and cities trooping apace to the new-erected banner of salvation; the martyrs, with the unresistable might of weakness, shaking the powers of darkness, and scorning the fiery rage of the red old dragon.” A noble testimony like this far out weighs all the cant of a whining senlimentalism. Its truth, as well as its eloquence, all must admit.