III. JOHN KNOX: 1505–59

The propaganda of reform was already a hundred years old in Scotland. In 1433 Paul Crawar was accused of importing the doctrines of Wyclif and Huss; he was convicted by the Church and burned by the state. In 1494 thirty “Lollards of Kyle” were summoned before the Bishop of Glasgow on charges of repudiating religious relics and images, auricular confession, priestly ordination and powers, transubstantiation, purgatory, indulgences, Masses for the dead, clerical celibacy, and papal authority;13 here was almost a summary of the Reformation twenty-three years before Luther’s Theses. Apparently the accused men recanted.

Soon after 1523 the writings of Luther entered Scotland. A Scots translation of Wyclif’s New Testament circulated in manuscript, and a cry arose for a Christianity based exclusively on the Bible. Patrick Hamilton went to Paris and Louvain, studied Erasmus and Greek philosophy, went on to Wittenberg, returned to Scotland swelling with the new dogmas, preached justification by faith, was invited by James (uncle of David) Beaton, then Archbishop of St. Andrews, to come and explain himself, came, stood his ground, and was burned (1528). Two other “professors,” as the early Scottish reformers called themselves, were burned in 1534. Four men were hanged, and one woman was drowned, in 1544; according to the not always reliable Knox, she went to her death with a sucking babe at her breast.14

These murders had been too scattered in time and place to arouse any powerful public reaction; but the hanging of George Wishart touched the souls of many, and was the first effective event of the Scottish Reformation. About 1543 Wishart translated the First Helvetic Confession; unfortunately this Protestant declaration ordered secular powers to punish heretics.15 From that time the Swiss forms of Protestantism—at first humanely Zwinglian, then rigorously Calvinist—more and more displaced Lutheranism in the Scottish movement. Wishart preached in Montrose and Dundee, bravely tended the sick in a plague, and expounded the new faith in Edinburgh at a time when David Beaton was holding a convocation of Scottish clergy there. The Cardinal had him arrested and tried for heresy; he was convicted, strangled, and burned (1546).

Among his converts was one of the most powerful and influential figures in history. John Knox was born between 1505 and 1515 near Haddington. His peasant parents destined him for the priesthood; he studied at Glasgow, was ordained (c. 1532), and became known for his learning in both civil and canon law. His autobiographical History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland says nothing of his youth, but suddenly introduces him (1546) as the ardent disciple and fearless bodyguard of GeorgeWishart, bearing a heavy two-handed sword. After Wishart’s arrest Knox wandered from one hiding place to another; then, at Easter of 1547, in the castle of St. Andrews, he joined the band that had killed Cardinal Beaton.

Feeling a need for religion, the hunted men asked Knox to be their preacher. He protested his unfitness, and consented, and they soon agreed that they had never heard such fiery preaching before. He called the Roman Church “the Synagogue of Satan,” and identified her with the awful beast described in the Apocalypse. He adopted the Lutheran doctrine that man is saved “only by faith that the blood of Jesus Christ purges us from all sins.”16 In July a French fleet sailed up and bombarded the castle. For four weeks the besieged held out; finally they were overpowered, and for nineteen months Knox and the others labored as galley slaves. We have few details of their treatment, except that they were importuned to hear Mass, and (Knox tells us) stoutly refused. Perhaps those bitter days, and the cut of the overseer’s lash, shared in sharpening Knox’s spirit to hatred and his tongue and pen to violence.

When the captives were freed (February 1549), Knox took service as a Protestant clergyman in England, on a salary from the Somerset government. He preached every day in the week, “if the wicked carcass would permit.” We of today, who do not often enjoy sermons, can but faintly imagine the hunger that the sixteenth century felt for them. The parish priests had left preaching to the bishops, who had left it to the friars, who were occasional. In Protestantism the preachers became journals of news and opinion; they told their congregation the events of the week or day; and religion was then so interwoven with life that nearly every occurrence touched the faith or its ministers. They denounced the vices and errors of their parishioners, and instructed the government as to its duties and faults. In 1551 Knox, preaching before Edward VI and Northumberland, asked how it was that the most pious princes had so often the most ungodly councilors. The Duke tried to silence him with a bishopric, but failed.

Mary Tudor was more dangerous, and after some cautious dallying Knox fled to Dieppe and Geneva (1554). Calvin recommended him to an English-speaking congregation at Frankfurt, but his code and countenance proved too severe for his hearers, and he was asked to leave. He returned to Geneva (1555), and we may judge the force of Calvin’s character from the influence that he now exerted upon a personality as positive and powerful as his own. Knox described Geneva under Calvin as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles.”17 Calvinism suited his temper because that faith was sure of itself, sure of being inspired by God, sure of its divine obligation to compel the individual in conduct and creed, sure of its right to direct the state. All this sank into Knox’s spirit, and through him into Scottish history. Anticipating with horror the rule of Catholic Mary Stuart in Scotland, he asked Calvin and Bullinger whether a people might righteously refuse to obey “a magistrate who enforces idolatry and condemns true religion.” They would not commit themselves, but John Knox knew his own mind.

In the fall of 1555, now presumably fifty years old, he showed the tender side of a rough character by returning to Mary Tudor’s England, going to Berwick, and marrying Margaret Bowes because he loved her mother. Mrs. Elizabeth Bowes had five sons, ten daughters, and a Catholic husband. She was won to Protestantism by Knox’s preaching; she confided her domestic troubles to him; he found pleasure in advising her, and comfort in her friendship, and apparently the relationship remained spiritual to the end. When Margaret married Knox, Mrs. Bowes left her husband and went to live with her daughter and her confessor. The wife died after five years of marriage. Knox married again, but Mrs. Bowes remained with him. Rarely in history has a mother-in-law been so loving and so loved.

The strange trio went on to Scotland, where Mary of Lorraine still found tolerance useful in winning the support of the Protestant faction in the nobility. He praised the Regent as “a princess honorable, endowed with wisdom and graces singularly.”18 He organized Protestant congregations in Edinburgh and elsewhere, and made such influential converts as William Maitland, Laird of Lethington, and Mary Stuart’s illegitimate brother, James Stuart, destined to be regent as Earl of Murray or Moray. An ecclesiastical court, disliking this development, summoned Knox to give an account of his doings. He chose discretion, and slipped out of Scotland with his wife and her mother (July 1556). In his absence the ecclesiastical court burned him in effigy. This painless martyrdom ennobled him in the eyes of the Scottish Protestants, and from that moment, wherever he was, he was accepted as the leader of the Scottish Reform.

In Geneva, as pastor of an English congregation, he developed the full Calvinist program of ministerial supervision over the morals and manners of his parishioners. At the same time he invited Mrs. Anne Locke, whom he had converted in London, to leave her husband and come with her daughter to live near him in Geneva. He wrote her irresistible letters:

Dearest sister, if I could express the thirst and languor which I have for your presence, I shall appear to pass measure. Yea, I weep and rejoice in remembrance of you; but that would evanish by the comfort of your presence, which I assure you is so dear to me that if the charge of this little flock here, gathered in Christ’s name, did not impede me, my presence should anticipate my letter.... Were it not that partly ye be impeded by your head [husband]... in my heart I would have wished, yea, and cannot cease to wish, that it would please God to guide you to this place.19

Over the opposition of her “head” Mrs. Locke left London and arrived in Geneva (1557) with a son, a daughter, and a maid. The daughter died a few days later, but Mrs. Locke remained near Knox, and helped the aging and now less comforting Mrs. Bowes to minister to the preacher’s needs. We have no evidence of sexual relations, and we hear of no complaint from Mrs. Knox; we hardly hear of her at all. The old home-breaker would be mothered, and had his way in Christ’s name.

He had his way in almost everything. Like so many great men, he was physically small, but his broad shoulders warned of strength, and his stern visage announced certitude and demanded authority. Black hair, narrow forehead, dense eyebrows, penetrating eyes, intrusive nose, full cheeks, large mouth, thick lips, long beard, long fingers—here were incarnate devotion and will to power. A man of fanatical energy, who liked to preach two or three times a week for two or three hours at a time, and, in addition, governed public affairs and private lives—no wonder that “in twenty-four hours I have not four free to natural rest.”20 His courage was tempered with timely timidity; he had the good sense to flee from imminent death; he was accused of urging Protestants to perilous revolution in England and Scotland while himself remaining at Geneva or Dieppe; yet he faced a hundred dangers, denounced the corrupt Northumberland to his face, and would later proclaim democracy to a queen. No money could buy him. He thought or claimed that his voice was the voice of God. Many accepted his claim, and hailed him as a divine oracle; hence when he spoke, said an English ambassador, “he put more life in us than 500 trumpets blustering in our ears.”21

The Calvinist creed was one source of his strength. God had divided all men into the elect and the damned; Knox and his supporters were of the elect, and were therefore divinely destined to victory; their opponents were reprobates, and sooner or later hell would be their home. “We are persuaded,” he wrote, “that all which our adversaries do is diabolical.”22 For such God-damned opponents no Christian love was due, for they were sons of Satan, not of God; there was no good in them whatever, and it would be well to exterminate them completely from the earth. He rejoiced in that “perfect hatred which the Holy Ghost engendereth in the hearts of God’s elect against the contemners of His holy statutes.”23 In conflict with the reprobate all methods were justified—lies, treachery,24flexible contradictions of policy.25 The cause hallowed the means.

Yet Knox’s moral philosophy, on its surface, was precisely the opposite of Machiavelli’s. He did not admit that statesmen should be freed from the moral code required of citizens; he demanded that governors and governed alike should obey the precepts of the Bible. But the Bible to him meant chiefly the Old Testament; the thundering prophets of Judea were more to his purpose than the man on the cross. He would bend the nation to his will or burn it with flaming prophecies. He claimed prophetic power, and correctly predicted Mary Tudor’s early death and Mary Stuart’s fall—or were these wishes luckily fulfilled? He was an undeceivable judge of other men’s characters, sometimes of his own. “Of nature I am churlish,” he handsomely confessed; 26 and he attributed his flight from Scotland to human weakness and “wickedness.” 27 There was a rough humor behind his growl, and he could be gentle as well as violent. He gave himself in full-blooded sincerity to his task, which was to set up the sway of a cleansed and learned priesthood over mankind, beginning with the Scots. He argued that a virtuous priesthood would be inspired by God, so that in a society so administered God and Christ would be the king. He believed in a theocracy, but did more for democracy than any other man of his time.

His writings were no literary exercises; they were political thunderclaps. They rivaled Luther’s in vigor of vituperation. The Roman Church was to him, as to Luther, a “harlot... altogether polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication.” 28 Catholics were “pestilent papists” and “Mass-mongers,”29 and their priests were “bloody wolves.”30 No man of that eloquent age was more eloquent. When Mary Tudor married Philip II, Knox burst out in A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England(1554): Has not Mary shown herself

to be an open traitress to the Imperial Crown of England... to bring in a stranger and make a proud Spaniard King, to the shame, dishonor, and destruction of the nobility; to the spoil from them and theirs of their honors, lands, possessions, chief offices, and promotions; to the utter decay of the treasures, commodities, navy, and fortifications of the Realm; to the abasing of the yeomanry, to the slavery of the commonalty, to the overthrow of Christianity and God’s true religion; and finally to the utter subversion of the whole public estate and commonwealth of England? .. . God, for His great mercy’s sake, stir up some Phinehas, Elijah, or Jehu, that the blood of abominable idolators may pacify God’s wrath that it consume not the whole multitude! 31

But now and then, though more rarely, he wrote passages of tenderness and beauty worthy of St. Paul, who inspired them, as in A Letter . ., to His Brethren in Scotland:

I will use no threatenings, for my good hope is that ye shall walk as the sons of light in the midst of this wicked generation; that ye shall be as stars in the night season, who yet are not changed in the darkness; that ye shall be as wheat amongst the cockle... that ye shall be of the number of the prudent virgins, daily renewing your lamps with oil, as they that patiently do abide the glorious apparition and coming of the Lord Jesus, whose omnipotent spirit rule and instruct, illuminate and comfort your hearts and minds in all assaults now and ever.32

More characteristic was the First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, written at Dieppe in 1558 against what seemed to Knox a plague of women rulers in Europe—Mary Tudor, Mary of Lorraine, Mary Stuart, and Catherine de Médicis. We can understand his horror at Mary Tudor’s application of his principles. But even if Mary had not persecuted, Knox would have considered her a monster, a political freak, violating the normal rule that men should govern states. He began:

Wonder it is that amongst so many pregnant wits as the Isle of Great Britain hath produced, so many godly and zealous preachers as England did sometime nourish, and amongst so many learned, and men of grave judgment, as this day by Jezebel [Mary Tudor] are exiled, none is found so stout of courage, so faithful to God... that they dare admonish the inhabitants of that Isle how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traitorous and bastard; and what may a people or nation left destitute of a lawful head do by authority of God’s Word in electing and appointing common rulers and magistrates.... . We hear the blood of our brethren, the members of Christ Jesus, most cruelly to be shed, and the monstrous empire of a cruel woman... we know to be the only occasion of all those miseries....

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 the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.... . For who can deny but it is repugnant to Nature that the blind shall be appointed to lead and conduct such as do see? That the weak, sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the whole strong? And finally that the foolish, mad, and phrenetic shall govern the discreet, and give counsel to such as be of sober mind? And such be all women, compared unto men in bearing of authority.... Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.33

For this Knox quoted indisputable Scriptural authority; but when he passed to history, and sought for examples of states ruined by women rulers, he was evidently perplexed to find their record much better than that of the kings. Nevertheless he concluded with confident damnation:

Cursed Jezebel of England, with the pestilent and detestable generation of papists, make no little bragging and boast that they have triumphed not only against Wyatt, but also against all such as have enterprised anything against them.... I fear not to say that the day of vengeance, which shall apprehend that horrible monster Jezebel of England... is already appointed in the council of the Eternal.... . Let all men be advertised, for the Trumpet has once blown.34

Knox took the manuscript of his Blast to Geneva, had it printed secretly and without his name, and sent copies to England. Mary banned the book as an incitation to rebellion, and made its possession a capital crime.

Knox returned to the attack in An Appellation to the Nobility and Estates of Scotland (July 1558):

None provoking the people to idolatry* ought to be exempted from the punishment of death.... The same ought to be done wheresoever Christ Jesus and His Evangel is so received... that the magistrates and people have solemnly avowed and promised to defend the same; as under King Edward of late days was done in England. In such place, I say, it is not only lawful to punish to the death such as labor to subvert the true religion, but the magistrates and people are bound to do so unless they will provoke the wrath of God against themselves.... I fear not to affirm that it had been the duty of the nobility, judges, rulers, and people of England not only to have resisted and againstanded Mary, that Jezebel... but also to have punished her to the death.36

Knox urged the people of Scotland to apply this doctrine of legitimate rebellion to Mary of Lorraine. He complained that the Regent had surrounded herself with French courtiers and soldiers who were eating the spare substance of the Scots:

While strangers are brought in to suppress us, our commonwealth, and posterity; while idolatry is maintained, and Christ Jesus His true religion despised, while idle bellies and bloody tyrants, the bishops, are maintained and Christ’s true messengers persecuted; while, finally, virtue is contemned and vice extolled .... what godly man can be offended that we shall seek reformation of these enormities (yes, even by force of arms, seeing that otherwise it is denied us)? .... The punishment of such crimes as are idolatry, blasphemy, and others that touch the majesty of God, doth not appertain to kings and chief rulers only, but also to the whole body of that people, and to every member of the same, according to that possibility and occasion which God doth minister to revenge the injury done against His glory.37

There is a strange mixture of revolution and reaction in Knox’s appeals. Many thinkers, including French Huguenots like Hotman and Jesuits like Mariana, were to agree with him on the occasional justification of tyrannicide. Yet his conviction that those who were sure of their theology should suppress—if necessary, kill—their opponents harked back to the darkest practices of the Inquisition. Knox took the thirteenth chapter of Deuteronomy as still in force, and interpreted it literally. Every heretic was to be put to death, and cities predominantly heretical were to be smitten with the sword and utterly destroyed, even to the cattle therein, and every house in them should be burned down. Knox confesses that at times these merciless commandments appalled him:

To the carnal man this may appear a rigorous and severe judgment, yea, it may rather seem to be pronounced in rage than in wisdom. For what city was ever yet in which... were not to be found many innocent persons, as infants, children, and some simple and ignorant souls who neither did nor could consent to... impiety? And yet we find no exception, but all are appointed to the cruel death. But in such cases God wills that all creatures stoop, cover their faces, and desist from reasoning when commandment is given to execute His judgments.38

We must not try Knox by our own frail standards of tolerance; he voiced with hard consistency the almost universal spirit of the time. His years in Geneva, where Servetus had just been burned, confirmed his own tendency toward stern literalism and proud certainty; and if he read Castellio’s plea for toleration, he was presumably reassured by Bèze’s answer to it. Yet an obscure Anabaptist in those same years penned a criticism of Calvinism, under the title of Careless by Necessity; Scottish Protestants sent it to Knox to be confuted, and for a moment the voice of reason whispered amid the war of faiths. The author wondered how the Calvinists, after knowing Christ’s conception of a loving Father, could believe that God had created men whose eternal damnation he had foreseen and willed. God, said the Anabaptist, had given men a natural inclination to love their offspring; if man was made in the image of God how could God be more cruel than man? Calvinists, the author continued, did more harm than atheists, for “they are less injurious to God who believe that He is not, than they which say that He is unmerciful, cruel, and an oppressor.” Knox replied that there are mysteries beyond human reason.4’The pride of those shall be punished who, not content with the will of God revealed, delight to mount and fly above the skies, there to ask the secret will of God.” “Nature and reason,” he wrote elsewhere, “do lead men from the true God. For what impudence is it to prefer corrupt nature and blind reason to God’s Scriptures?” 39

Unconvinced by reason, and believing himself faithful to the spirit of Christ, Knox in 1559, when England was under a Protestant queen, sent to its people A Brief Exhortation advising them to atone for the Marian persecution by making the Calvinist creed and its moral discipline compulsory throughout the land. England rejected the advice. In that year Knox returned to Scotland to preside over the ideology of its revolution.

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