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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 4 — Knox's call to the ministry and first sermon

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On Saturday morning, the 29th of May, the Castle of St. Andrews was surprised by Norman Leslie and his accomplices, and Cardinal Beaton slain. This was a violence which the Reformation did not need, and from which it did not profit. The cardinal was removed, but the queen-dowager, Mary of Guise, a woman of consummate craft, and devoted only to France and Rome, remained. The weak-minded Arran had now consummated his apostasy, and was using his power as regent only at the bidding of the priests. Moreover, the see which the dagger of Leslie had made vacant was filled by a man in many respects as bad as the bloodthirsty and truculent priest who had preceded him. John Hamilton, brother of the regent, did not equal Beaten in rigor of mind, but he equaled him in profligacy of manners, and in the unrelenting and furious zeal with which he pursued all who favored the Gospel. Thus the persecution did not slacken.

The cardinal's corpse flung upon a dung-hill, the conspirators kept possession of his castle. It had been recently and strongly repaired, and was well mounted with arms; and although the regent besieged it for months, he had to retire, leaving its occupants in peace. Its holders were soon joined by their friends, favorers of the Reformation, though with a purer zeal, including among others Kirkaldy of Grange, Melville of Raith, and Leslie of Rothes. It had now become an asylum for the persecuted, and at Easter, 1547, it opened its gates to receive John Knox. Knox had now reached the mature age of forty-two, and here it was that he entered on that public career which he was to pursue without pause, through labor and sorrow, through exile and peril, till the grave should bring him repose.

That career opened affectingly and beautifully. The company in the castle had now grown to upwards of 150, and "perceiving the manner" of Knox's teaching, they "began earnestly to travail with him that he would take the preaching place upon him," and when he hesitated they solemnly adjured him, as Beza had done Calvin, "not to refuse this holy vocation." The flood of tears, which was the only response that Knox was able to make, the seclusion in which he shut himself up for days, and the traces of sore mental conflict which his countenance bore when at last he emerged from his chamber, paint with a vividness no words can reach the sensibility and the conscientiousness, the modesty and the strength of his character. It is a great office, it is the greatest of all offices, he feels, to which he is called; and if he trembles in taking it upon him, it is not alone from a sense of unfitness, but from a knowledge of the thoroughness of his devotion, and that the office once undertaken, its responsibilities and claims must and will, at whatever cost, be discharged.

Knox preached in the castle, and at times also in the parish church of St. Andrews. In his first sermon in the latter place he struck the key-note of the Reformation in his native land. The Church of Rome, said he, is the Antichrist of Scripture. No movement can rise higher than its fundamental principle, and no doctrine less broad than this which Knox now proclaimed could have sustained the weight of such a Reformation as Scotland needed.

"Others sned [lopped] the branches of the Papistrie," said some of his hearers, "but he strikes at the root to destroy the whole." [1] Hamilton and Wishart had stopped short of this. They had condemned abuses, and pointed out the doctrinal errors in which these abuses had their source, and they had called for a purging out of scandalous persons — in short, a reform of the existing Church. Knox came with the ax in his hand to cut down the rotten tree. He saw at once the point from which he must set out if he would arrive at the right goal. Any principle short of this would but give him an improved Papacy, not a Scriptural Church — a temporary abatement to be followed by a fresh outburst of abuses, and the last end of the Papacy in Scotland would be worse than the first. Greater than Hamilton, greater than Wishart, Knox took rank with the first minds of the Reformation, in the depth and comprehensiveness of the principles from which he worked. The deliverer of Scotland stood before his countrymen. But no sooner had he been revealed to the eyes of those who waited for deliverance than he was withdrawn. The first gun in the campaign had been fired; the storming of the Papacy would go vigorously forward under the intrepid champion who had come to lead. But so it was not to be; the struggle was to be a protracted one. On the 4th of June, 1547, the French war-ships appeared in the offing. In a few hours the castle, with its miscellaneous occupants, was enclosed on the side towards the sea, while the forces of Arran besieged it by land. It fell, and all in it, including Knox, were put on board the French galleys and, in violation of the terms of capitulation, borne away into foreign slavery. The last French ship had disappeared below the horizon, and with it had vanished the last hope of Scotland's Reformation. The priests loudly triumphed, and the friends of the Gospel hung their heads.

The work now stood still, but only to the eye — -it was all the while advancing underground. In this check lay hid a blessing to Scotland, for it was well that its people should have time to meditate upon the initial principle of the Reformation which Knox had put before them. That principle was the seed of a new Church and a new State, but it must have time to unfold itself. The people of Scotland had to be taught that Reformation could not be furthered

by the dagger; the stakes of Hamilton and Wishart had advanced the cause, but the sword of Norman Leslie had thrown it back; they had to be taught, too, that to reform the Papacy was to perpetuate it, and that they must return to the principle of Knox if they were ever to see a Scriptural Church rising in their land.

To Knox himself this check was not less necessary. His preparation for the great task before him was as yet far from complete. He wanted neither zeal nor knowledge, but his faculties had to be widened by observation, and his character strengthened by suffering. His sojourn abroad shook him free of those merely insular and home views, which cling to one who has never been beyond seas, especially in an age when the channels of intercourse and information between Scotland and the rest of Christendom were few and contracted. In the French galleys, and scarcely less in the city of Frankfort, he saw deeper than he had ever done before into the human heart. It was there he learned that self-control, that parlance of labor, that meek endurance of wrong, that calm and therefore steady and resolute resistance to vexatious and unrighteous opposition, and that self-possession in difficulty and danger that so greatly distinguished him ever after, and which were needful and indeed essential in one who was called, in planting religion in his native land, to confront the hostility of a Popish court, to moderate the turbulence of factious barons, and to inform the ignorance and control the zeal of a people who till that time had been strangers to the blessings of religion and liberty. It was not for nothing that the hand which gave to Scotland its liberty, should itself for nearly the space of two years have worn fetters.

It was another advantage of his exile that from a foreign stand-point Knox could have a better view of the drama now in progress in his native land, and could form a juster estimate of its connection with the rest of Christendom, and the immense issues that hung upon the Reformation of Scotland as regarded the Reformation of other countries. Here he saw deeper into the cunningly contrived plots and the wide-spread combinations then forming among the Popish princes of the age — a race of rulers who will remain renowned through all time for their unparalleled cruelty and their unfathomable treachery. These lessons Knox learned abroad, and they were worth all the years of exile and wandering and all the hope deferred which they cost him; and of how much advantage they were to him we shall by-and-by see, when we come to narrate his supreme efforts for his native land.

Nor could it be other than advantageous to come into contact with the chiefs of the movement, and especially with him who towered above them all. To see Calvin, to stand beside the source of that mighty energy that pervaded the whole field of action to its farthest extremities, must have been elevating and inspiring. Knox's views touching both the doctrine and the polity of the Church were formed before he visited Calvin, and were not altered in consequence of that visit; but doubtless his converse with the great Reformer helped to deepen and enlarge all his views, and to keep alive the fire that burned within him, first kindled into a flame during those days of anguish which he passed shut up in his chamber in the Castle of St. Andrews. In all his wanderings it was Scotland, bound in the chains of Rome, riveted by French steel, that occupied his thoughts; and intently did he watch every movement in it, sometimes from Geneva, sometimes from Dieppe, and at other times from the nearer point of England; nor did he ever miss an opportunity of letting his burning words be heard by his countrymen, till at length, in 1555, eight years from the time he had been carried away with the French fetters on his arm, he was able again to visit his native land.

Knox's present sojourn in Scotland was short, but it tended powerfully to consolidate and advance the movement. His presence imparted new life to its adherents; and his counsels led them to certain practical measures, by which each strengthened the other, and all were united in a common action.

Several of the leading nobles were now gathered round the Protestant banner. Among these were Archibald, Lord Lorne, afterwards Earl of Argyle; John, Lord Erskine, afterwards Earl of Mar; Lord James Stuart, afterwards Earl of Murray; the Earl Marischall; the Earl of Glencairn; John Erskine of Dun; William Maitland of Lethington, and others. [2] Up to this time these men had attended mass, and were not outwardly separate from the communion of the Roman Church; but, at the earnest advice of the Reformer, they resolved not to participate in that rite in future, and to withdraw themselves from the Roman worship and pale; and they signalized their secession by receiving the Sacrament in its Protestant form at the hands of Knox. [3] We see in this the laying of the first foundations of the Reformed Church of Scotland. In the days of Hamilton and Wishart the Reformation in Scotland was simply a doctrine; now it was a congregation.

This was all that the times permitted the Reformer to do for the cause of the Gospel in Scotland; and, feeling that his continued presence in the country would but draw upon the infant community a storm of persecution, Knox retired to Geneva, where his English flock anxiously waited his coming. But on this second departure from Scotland, he was cheered by the thought that the movement had advanced a stage. The little seed he had deposited in its soil eight years before had been growing all the while he was absent, and now when a second time he goes forth into exile, he leaves behind him a living organization

— a company of men making profession of the truth.

From this time the progress of the Reformation in Scotland was rapid. In the midland counties, comprehending Forfar, Fife, the Lothians, and Ayr, there were few places in which there were not now professors of the Reformed faith. They had as yet no preachers, but they met in such places, his such times, as circumstances permitted, for their mutual edification. The most pious of their number was appointed to read the Scriptures, to exhort, and to offer up prayer. They were of all classes — nobles, barons, burgesses, and peasants. They felt the necessity of order in their meetings, and of purity in their lives; and with this view they chose elders to watch over their morals, promising subjection to them. Thus gradually, stage by stage, did they approach the outward organization of a Church, and at it is interesting to mark that in the Reformed Church of Scotland elders came before ministers. The beginning of these small congregations, presided over by elders, was in Edinburgh. The first town to be provided with a pastor, and favored with the dispensation of the Sacraments, was Dundee, the scene of Wishart's labors, of which the fruits were the zeal and piety that at this early stage of the Reformation distinguished its citizens. [4] Dundee came to be called the Geneva of Scotland; it was the earliest and loveliest flower of that spring-time. The next step of the "lords of the Congregation" was the framing of a "band" or covenant, in which they promised before "the Majesty of God and his Congregation" to employ their "whole power, substance, and very lives" in establishing the Gospel in Scotland, in defending its ministers, and building up its "Congregation." The earliest of these "bands" is dated the 3rd December, 1557; [5] and the subscribers are the Earls of Argyle, Glencairn, Morton, Lord Lorne, and Erskine of Dun. Strengthened by this "oath to God" and pledge to one another, they went forth to the battle.

The year that followed (1558) witnessed a forward movement on the part of the Protestant host. The lords of the Congregation could not forbid mass, or change the public worship of the nation; nor did they seek to do so; but each nobleman within his own jurisdiction caused the English "Book of Common Prayer," together with the lessons of the Old and New Testament, to be read every Sunday and festival-day in the parish church by the curate, or if he were unable or unwilling, by the person best qualified in the parish. The Reformed teachers were also invited to preach and interpret Scripture in private houses, or in the castles of the reforming nobles, till such time as the Government would allow them to exercise their functions in public. [6] The latter measures in particular alarmed the hierarchy.

It began to be apparent that destruction impended ever the hierarchy unless speedy, measures were taken to avert it. But the priests unhappily knew of only one weapon, and though their cause had reaped small advantage from it in the past, they were still determined to make use of it.

They once more lighted the flames of martyrdom. Walter Mill, parish priest of Lunan, near Montrose, had been adjudged a heretic in the time of Cardinal Beaten, but effecting his escape, he preached in various parts of the country, sometimes in private and sometimes in public. He was tracked by the spies of Beaton's successor, Archbishop Hamilton, and brought to trial in St. Andrews. He appeared before the court with tottering step and bending figure, so that all who saw him despaired of his being able to answer the questions about to be put to him. But when, on being helped up into the pulpit, he began to speak, "his voice," says Knox, "had such courage and stoutness that the church rang again." "Wilt thou not recant thy errors?" asked the tribunal after he had been subjected to a long questioning. "Ye shall know," said he, looking into the faces of his enemies, "that I will not recant the truth, for I am corn and not chaff. I will not be blown away with the wind, nor burst with the flail, but I will abide both."

He stood before his judges with the burden of eighty-two years upon him, but this could procure him no pity, nor could his enemies wait till he should drop into the grave on the brink of which he stood. He was condemned to the flames. A rope was wanted to bind the old man to the stake, but so great was the horror of his burning among the townsmen that not a merchant in all St. Andrews would sell one, and the archbishop was obliged to furnish a cord from his own palace. When ordered by Oliphant, an officer of the archbishop, to mount the pile, "No," replied the martyr, "I will not unless you put your hand to me, for I am forbidden to be accessory to my own death." Whereupon Oliphant pushed him forward, and Mill ascended with a joyful countenance, repeating the words of the Psalm, "I will go to the altar of God." As he stood at the stake, Mill addressed the people in these words: "As for me, I am fourscore and two years old, and cannot live long by course of nature; but a hundred better shall rise out of the ashes of my bones. I trust in God that I shall be the last that shall suffer death in Scotland for this cause. [7] He expired on the 28th of August, 1558.

These few last words, dropped from a tongue fast becoming unable to fulfill its office, pealed forth from amid the flames with the thrilling power of a trumpet. They may be said to have rung the death-knell of Popery in Scotland. The citizens of St. Andrews raised a pile of stones over the spot

where the martyr had been burned. The priests caused them to be carried off night by night, but the ominous heap rose again duly in the morning. It would not vanish, nor would the cry from it be silenced. [8] The nation was roused, and Scotland waited only the advent of one of its exiled sons, who was day by day drawing nearer it, to start up as one man and rend from its neck the cruel yoke which had so long weighed it down in serfdom and superstition.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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