Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Reformation
By William Robertson (1721–1793)
From History of Scotland

FROM the death of Cardinal Beaton, nothing has been said of the state of religion. While the war with England continued, the clergy had no leisure to molest the Protestants; and they were not yet considerable enough to expect anything more than connivance and impunity. The new doctrines were still in their infancy; but during this short interval of tranquillity, they acquired strength, and advanced by large and firm steps towards a full establishment in the kingdom. The first preachers against popery in Scotland, of whom several had appeared in the reign of James V., were more eminent for zeal and piety than for learning. Their acquaintance with the principles of the Reformation was partial and at second-hand; some of them had been educated in England; all of them had borrowed their notions from the books published there; and, in the first dawn of the new light, they did not venture far before their leaders. But in a short time the doctrines and writings of the foreign reformers became generally known; the inquisitive genius of the age pressed forward in quest of truth; the discovery of one error opened the way to others; the downfall of one imposture drew many after it; the whole fabric, which ignorance and superstition had erected in times of darkness, began to totter; and nothing was wanting to complete its ruin, but a daring and active leader to direct the attack. Such was the famous John Knox, who, with better qualifications of learning, and more extensive views than any of his predecessors in Scotland, possessed a natural intrepidity of mind, which set him above fear. He began his public ministry at St. Andrews in the year one thousand five hundred and forty-seven, with that success which always accompanies a bold and popular eloquence. Instead of amusing himself with lopping the branches, he struck directly at the root of popery, and attacked both the doctrine and discipline of the established church with a vehemence peculiar to himself, but admirably suited to the temper and wishes of the age.
  An adversary so formidable as Knox would not easily have escaped the rage of the clergy, who observed the tendency and progress of his opinions with the utmost concern. But, at first, he retired for safety into the castle of St. Andrews; and while the conspirators kept possession of it, preached publicly under their protection. The great revolution in England, which followed upon the death of Henry VIII., contributed no less than the zeal of Knox towards demolishing the popish church in Scotland. Henry had loosened the chains and lightened the yoke of popery. The ministers of his son Edward VI. cast them off altogether, and established the Protestant religion upon almost the same footing whereon it now stands in that kingdom. The influence of this example reached Scotland, and the happy effects of ecclesiastical liberty in one nation inspired the other with an equal desire of recovering it. The reformers had hitherto been obliged to conduct themselves with the utmost caution, and seldom ventured to preach but in private houses and at a distance from court; they gained credit, as happens on the first publication of every new religion, chiefly among persons in the lower and middle ranks of life. But several noblemen of the greatest distinction having, about this time, openly espoused their principles, they were no longer under the necessity of acting with the same reserve; and with more security and encouragement they had likewise greater success. The means of acquiring and spreading knowledge became more common, and the spirit of innovation, peculiar to that period, grew every day bolder and more universal.  2
  Happily for the reformation, this spirit was still under some restraint. It had not yet attained firmness and vigour sufficient to overturn a system founded on the deepest policy, and supported by the most formidable power. Under the present circumstances, any attempt towards action must have been fatal to the Protestant doctrines; and it is no small proof of the authority, as well as penetration, of the heads of the party, that they were able to restrain the zeal of a fiery and impetuous people until that critical and mature juncture, when every step they took was decisive and successful.  3
  Meanwhile, their cause received reinforcement from two different causes whence they could never have expected it. The ambition of the house of Guise and the bigotry of Mary of England hastened the subversion of the papal throne in Scotland; and, by a singular disposition of Providence, the persons who opposed the reformation in every other part of Europe with the fiercest zeal, were made instruments of advancing it in that kingdom.  4

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