Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
John Knox (c. 1505–1572)
[John Knox was born in Haddingtonshire in 1505, eight years before Flodden Field. He studied at the infant University of Glasgow; took pupils at St. Andrews and elsewhere; attached himself to George Wishart, the martyr; and came prominently into public notice through acting as preacher to the refugees who held St. Andrews Castle after the assassination of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. On the capture of the castle by the French he was sent to the galleys. Released in 1549 he went to England; preached and found a wife at Berwick, and was chosen one of Edward the Sixth’s chaplains. He had considerable influence in the preparation of the Articles of Religion, and refused a bishopric. In 1554, after the accession of Queen Mary, he retired to the Continent, and was welcomed at Geneva by Calvin and his circle. After a short ministry at Frankfort, he paid, in 1555, a visit to Scotland of some importance, confirming the faith of the growing party of reform. While there he received and accepted a call to the English Church at Geneva. He came back to Scotland in 1559, and the rest of his history is inseparable from that of his country. He was not only the ecclesiastical leader in the struggle that laid the foundation of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but had wide political influence, advising, and doing much to secure the alliance with England that ensured the success of the Reforming party. During the last years of his life, as minister of Edinburgh, he came into close personal contact with the Court; and his various interviews with Mary Queen of Scots are among the most striking incidents of the Reformation. He died in 1572, two months after the massacre of St. Bartholomew.  1
  Knox’s principal works are his Admonition, addressed to “faithful Christians” in London, Newcastle, and Berwick (1554); another Admonition “to the professors of God’s truth in England” (1554); the First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regimen of Women (1558); various sermons, epistles, and expositions; and the History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland. The First Book of Discipline was composed in 1560 by a Commission of which Knox was the leading member.]  2
THE NAME of John Knox is a household word among his countrymen, and is universally identified with the triumph of the Reformation in Scotland. It cannot be said that his writings have contributed much to his fame. Luther belongs to history and to literature alike: his translation of the Bible is sufficient to perpetuate his memory, for it remains the first model of German prose style. The Institutes of Calvin are the main source from which a great branch of the Christian Church still draws its systematic theology. Knox, like the other principal Reformers, was a busy writer. His works, in the excellent edition of David Laing, fill six bulky volumes. His History possesses special interest and value as the production of a man of letters who was also a man of action. But his fame does not rest upon his History, or, in any great degree, upon his writings at all. These were mere instruments to an end. When he penned the comforting epistles or stern admonitions which make up the list of his minor works, his only object was the immediate object of consolation or warning. When he wrote his History his ambition was, not to give a philosophical narrative of events, but “to advance God’s glory, and to edify this present generation and the posterity to come.” Such distinction as his writings possess is due to the sincerity and force of the writer, and not to the conscious exercise of literary art.  3
  In one respect the part which Knox played in the all-absorbing religious controversies of his day powerfully affected the literary form of his compositions. His resistance to Rome was based almost exclusively upon an appeal to the text of the Bible, and this fact is prominent on every page he wrote. For any further explanation of the man and of his works we must look to the special circumstances of his life and of the Scottish Reformation, and above all to his own remarkable gifts. Neighbourhood and kinship might have been expected to direct the Reformation in Scotland on the lines it followed south of the Tweed. And although the model set in France and Switzerland was ultimately adopted, yet the early English translations of the Bible had a powerful influence on Scottish thought and feeling; while the Lollards of Kyle, following Wycliffe, and the disciples of Wishart, the Cambridge student, could not but owe much of their inspiration to English sources. There is little in the form or style of Knox’s writings that is distinctively Scottish.  4
  It is especially to Knox’s personal qualities, however, that we must look for the explanation of his wonderful authority. In his case, if in any, the style is the man, and, as has been indicated above, the chief interest of his books is the manner in which they reveal his character. The impression which they leave upon a reader is that of a man, within his lights, absolutely straightforward and sincere; intensely convinced, in his own person, of the power of sin and the need of repentance; determined to bring home the same conviction in all those whom he could reach; and certain that salvation was to be found by no mechanical or ceremonial means of grace, but only by a penitent and humble faith. Believing, as he did, in the literal inspiration of Scripture, and in his ability, as one of God’s messengers, to interpret it aright, he was ready, in hours of exaltation, to assume the positive tones of a Hebrew prophet, and to anticipate the rewards and the vengeance of God in language which, on other lips, would have implied a claim to supernatural powers. As a prophet, he could not recognise degrees of conformity: a thing was right or it was wrong. For such a man compromise was impossible, toleration was a trial of patience. To his friends he was a tower of strength; but to cross his path was to vex the Almighty. His gift of language, and especially of denunciation, was immense and, backed by a fearless temperament, was never known to fail him. He does not attract by the humane breadth of wisdom and simple-hearted gaiety which make of Luther such a typical Christian. An unpleasant vein of bitterness crosses most of his writings. But it is proper to remember that this man’s spiritual father, Wishart, was burnt alive; that he served a hard apprenticeship amid the horrors of the French galleys; that many of his best years were spent in exile; that he suffered much from ill-health; and that at least part of his vehement temper belongs to his time and to his country rather than to himself.  5
  There is scarcely a page of Knox’s writings which does not testify to his sense of the deep sinfulness of human nature, and the necessity of an inward change of mind as the preliminary to salvation. A tinge almost of misanthropy pervades his views on this head. He excelled in depicting the miserable and hopeless state of the sinner. “When he entered to application,” says James Melville, “he made me so to grew [thrill] and tremble that I could not hold a pen to write.” In the Queen’s antechamber, dismissed from a stormy interview, he found relaxation in addressing the ladies-in-waiting after this fashion:—“O fair ladies, how pleasing was this life of yours, if it should ever abide, and then in the end we might pass to heaven with all this gay gear. But fie upon that knave Death, that will come whether we will or not! and when he has laid on his arrest, the foul worms will be busy with this flesh, be it never so fair and so tender; and the silly soul, I fear, shall be so feeble that it can neither carry with it gold, garnishing, targetting, pearl, nor precious stones.” It is fair to add that there is abundant evidence that Knox was as stern toward his own imperfections as to those of the rest of the world. He repeatedly acknowledges that he deserves damnation.  6
  His knowledge of the Bible was profound, and he could quote from it precedents for every situation, individual or political. In this respect, indeed, the Reformers and the Humanists were much alike; the former looked to the Bible, the latter to the classical writings, for their final authorities, and the opinion expressed by Erasmus, that the study of Hebrew would promote Judaism and the study of philology revive Paganism, was singularly verified by the result. For Knox, at any rate, Scripture was all-sufficient. In a striking passage he accounts for the confident tone of the predictions which he hazarded from time to time, and which gave rise, in that superstitious age, to rumours that he was supernaturally gifted with a knowledge of the future. “Ye would know the grounds of my certitude. God grant that, hearing them, ye may understand and stedfastly believe the same. My assurances are not the marvels of Merlin, nor yet the dark sentences of profane prophecies; but the plain truth of God’s word, the invincible justice of the everlasting God, and the ordinary course of His punishments and plagues from the beginning, are my assurances and grounds. God’s word threateneth destruction to all inobedient; His immutable justice must require the same. The ordinary punishments and plagues show examples. What man, then, can cease to prophesy?”  7
  His History is written throughout in the spirit of a censor. The other side is not allowed to possess a shred of honesty. Its supporters are “perfect hypocrites,” “bloody worms,” or worse. There is something ignoble in the sense of almost personal triumph which he exhibits in recounting the death of Cardinal Beaton, or the last days of Mary of Guise. One may doubt if, in the whole range of literature, there are to be found more dramatic illustrations of the gulf which difference of character and training can create between two human minds than the celebrated dialogues with Mary Queen of Scots, which fill the most picturesque pages in the History. For Knox, Mary was a veritable daughter of Heth. “Her common talk was in secret, that she saw nothing in Scotland but gravity, which repugned altogether to her nature, for she was brought up in joyeuseté; so termed she her dancing and other things thereto belonging.” Mary made vain efforts to browbeat him. “Yon man,” she said, “made me greet [weep] and grat never a tear himself; I will see if I can cause him greet.” She failed Knox kept a bold countenance. “Why should the pleasing face of a gentlewoman fear me? I have looked in the faces of many angry men, and yet have not been afraid above measure.” Some have believed she was more successful in the alternative course of blandishment. But there is no clear sign that Knox ever bowed before the charms of her whose—
                    “face was worth
All that a man may think to give
          On earth;”
and the language in which he permitted himself to speak of her has procured for him the cordial abuse of Mary’s champions during three centuries.
  It is difficult not to think that Knox must sometimes have regretted the violence with which he had expressed his sentiments. In his Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England, written in 1554, he applied epithets to Philip and Mary and their chief minister which almost invited persecution, and which his rivals hastened to affirm had a direct influence in aggravating the repressive policy of Mary’s reign. Another instance is better known. Knox’s most notorious work, the Trumpet Blast against the Monstrous Regimen of Women, was aimed, like the Admonition, against Mary of England. Unfortunately its main argument was equally applicable to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth never forgave the author. When it became important to conciliate the English Sovereign Knox wrote a letter intended to be apologetic, but which only illustrates the stiffness of his mental fibre, and his utter incapacity to make a graceful retreat. It drew a characteristic reply from Cecil beginning, “Master Knox, Non est masculus neque femina; omnes enim, ut ait Paulus, unum sumus in Christo Jesu.” The letter to Elizabeth is a proof of what is otherwise manifest, that a strong perception of the humorous where his own actions were concerned was not among Knox’s gifts. On a similar occasion, when he wished to excuse his unlucky treatise in an interview with Mary, he assured the Queen of Scots in all seriousness that “if the realm finds no inconvenience from the regimen of a woman, that which they approve shall I not farther disallow than within my own breast, but shall be as well content to live under your Grace as Paul was to live under Nero.” Such little touches are full of significance as indications of character. In one of his letters to Mrs. Bowes, his mother-in-law, he refers to a conversation (on the subject of his marriage) with her kinsman Sir Robert Bowes, “whose disdainful, yea despiteful, words have so pierced my heart, that my life is bitter unto me. I bear a good countenance with a sore troubled heart, while he that ought to consider matters with a deep judgment is become not only a despiser, but also a taunter of God’s messengers—God be merciful unto him.” There are many such ejaculatory utterances in Knox’s writings: their form is that of a prayer, but their spirit is not pure benevolence.  9
  The most famous of Knox’s works during his life was the Blast; but it is by his History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland that he lives in literature. That book is akin to the French type of memoirs rather than to regular history. The freedom of its sentiments and the efforts made in England during the reign of Mary’s grandson to prevent its publication in its original shape, earned for it a reference in Milton’s Areopagitica. “The licensers of the press,” he says, “if there be found in a book one sentence of a venturous edge, uttered in the height of zeal (and who knows whether it might not be the dictate of a divine spirit?) yet, not suiting with every low decrepit humour of their own, though it were Knox himself, the reformer of a kingdom, that spake it, they will not pardon him their dash: the sense of that great man shall to all posterity be lost for the fearfulness or the presumptuous rashness of a perfunctory licenser.” The History was not correctly issued in a complete form till 1732. The style is homely, the wording is not choice, the tone of the preacher is always felt. But the situations are masterfully grasped and placed before the reader in a series of dramatic touches, often with a wealth of detailed and vivid description which reminds one of Bunyan or Defoe. If Knox had any model, it was the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. He regarded himself as a St. Paul among idolaters. The narrative alternates, like that of the Acts, between the third person and the first. The direct form of speech is generally used in reporting conversations and discussions, and to this preference we owe the numerous dialogues which the book contains. It is our chief source of information about the Scottish Reformation and its heroic leader. Many of its pages have become classical, if to be invariably quoted in connection with particular occurrences is a title to that name. The interest of Knox’s other writings is mainly theological. But the most cursory notice would be incomplete without a reference to the Book of Discipline, an outline of the ecclesiastical polity through which Knox and his associates hoped to educate the Scottish nation to the temper of a genuine theocracy. Although their ideal was too uncompromising to bear literal translation into fact, its authority has always been great. The constitution of the Reformed Church of Scotland, as settled after his death upon the basis of Presbytery, varied in few substantial points from the sketch which Knox had drawn. The ends that he indicated were those which the Church sought to achieve in its relations with the people and with the secular authorities. It was thus Knox’s rare fortune to maintain an ascendancy which had dominated his contemporaries, and to impress upon later generations of Scotsmen the image of his own strong character.  10

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