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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VII. Reformation and Renascence in Scotland

§ 6. John Knox

To the year 1548 belongs the first production of John Knox, who was to be at once the chief leader of the Scottish reformation and its chief literary exponent. The work is entitled An Epistle to the Congregation of the Castle of St. Andrews: with a Brief Summary of Balnaves on Justification by Faith, and, as its author informs us, was written in Rouen, while he was “lying in irons and sore troubled by corporall infirmitie, in a galley named Nostre Dame.” Like all the other works of Knox, it was prompted by an immediate occasion and was directed to an immediate practical purpose. So closely linked, indeed, are the six volumes of his writings to his public career, that they are virtually its running commentary. From first to last his one concern was to secure the triumph of reformation doctrine, as he conceived it, and it would be difficult to find a sentence in his writings which does not bear more or less directly on this object. To all secular interests, except so far as they touched religion, he displays the indifference of an apostle; though, like the reformers of every type, he had a profound conviction, as his action was notably to prove, that education was the true handmaid of piety. His eulogy on his countryman, the humanist George Buchanan, shows that a pietas literata was no less his ideal than it was that of Melanchthon. “That notable man Mr. George Buchanan,” he writes, “remains to this day, the year of God, 1566 years, to the glory of God, to the great honour of the nation and to the comfort of them that delight in letters and virtue.” A religion based on the Bible, as he understood it, and a national system of education which should provide for every grade of study and utilise every special gift for the general well-being—such were the aims of Knox’s public action and the burden of his testimony in literature.

With one great exception, no productions of Knox possess more than a historical interest as the expression of his own mind and temper and of the type of religion of which he was the unflinching exponent. Mainly controversial in character, neither by their literary quality nor by their substance were they found of permanent value even by those to whom they made special appeal. The long list of his writings, which had begun with The Epistle on Justification, was continued in England, where, for five years, we find him acting as an officially commissioned preacher of the reformation as it was sanctioned by the government of Edward VI. The titles of the pieces which he threw off during this period sufficiently indicate their nature and scope: A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry (1550), A Summary according to the Holy Scriptures of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (1550), A Declaration of the True Nature and Object of Prayer (1553) and The Exposition upon the Sixth Psalm of David (1554). The accession of Mary Tudor in July, 1553, made England an impossible place for protestants like Knox, and his next five years, with the exception of a brief visit to Scotland, were spent on the continent, mainly in Geneva, where Calvin had already established his supremacy.

Knox’s exile on the continent gave occasion to another series of productions, all prompted by some pressing question of the moment. The protestants in England had to be comforted and encouraged during their trying experiences under the government of Mary Tudor, and this end he sought to accomplish in his Two comfortable Epistles to his afflicted Brethren in England (1554) and in his Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England (1554)—the latter of which, however, by its ill-timed attack on the existing authorities in England, did not improve the position of those for whose good it was intended. In 1554, Knox was appointed to the charge of a congregation of English exiles in Frankfort-on-the-Main, but, within a year, there arose such a storm of controversy on points of doctrine and ceremonies that he was fain to demit his charge and retire to Geneva. In his Narrative of the Proceedings and Troubles of the English Congregation at Frankfurt on the Maine, 1554–5, Knox gave his story of the controversy, the historical interest of which is that out of it grew the two parties which were eventually to divide the Church of England—the party of puritanism (of which Knox is to be regarded as one of the chief founders), and the party which accepted Elizabeth’s policy of compromise.

The condition of the protestants in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine evoked another series of long epistles, the burden of which was an arraignment of the policy of the government and an exhortation to the faithful to look confidently forward to a day fast coming when the true religion would prevail. From 1555 to 1559, with the exception of a visit to Scotland during part of the years 1555 and 1556, Knox made his home in Geneva, where he acted, for a time, as co-pastor to a congregation of English exiles, more in harmony with his own opinions than that of Frankfort. His passionate desire, however, was to preach his gospel in England and Scotland, but this desire he saw thwarted by the two female rulers who now governed these countries. It was out of the indignation of his baffled hopes, therefore, that, in 1558, he published his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, which of all his works had the widest notoriety in his own day. From the classical writers, the Roman law, the Bible and the Fathers, he supports the argument for which he vehemently contends—that “to promote a Woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion, or empire above any Realme, Nation or Citie is repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance.” In his main contention, Knox was at one with the most influential writers of the sixteenth century, Jean Bodin among others, but, even by divines of his own way of thinking, his pamphlet was generally regarded as a hasty and ill-considered performance. In 1559, it was answered by John Aylmer, one of the Marian exiles, subsequently bishop of London, in his Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjectes agaynst the late blowne Blaste concerning the Government of Women, in which the most effective point made is that, as a limited monarchy, England is specially guarded from the drawbacks incident to female sovereignty. But the course of public events proved to be the most stringent commentary on the contention of the Blast. At the close of the very year of its publication Mary Tudor died and the protestant Elizabeth succeeded to the throne of England—an event which Knox was bound to recognise as the happiest dispensation for the welfare of his own cause.

While still in Geneva, Knox produced another work, of less resounding notoriety than the Blast, but a more solid and careful performance. This was his Answer to a great Nomber of blasphemous cavillations written by an Anabaptist and adversarie to God’s eternal Predestination. Like all his more important works, it was prompted by the circumstances of the moment. The dogma of predestination was the foundation of the theological system of Calvin, to whom Knox looked as his spiritual father, but the doctrine had been impugned by many, and notably by Sebastian Castalio, who had been expelled from Geneva for the general heterodoxy of his opinions. From the protestants in England, also, there came a request to their brethren in Geneva that they would prepare a reply to a book which had recently been written against the same dogma, and to Knox was assigned the task. The result was his lengthy treatise on predestination which fills one volume of the six that comprise his published works. It is Knox’s most elaborate effort in constructive theology, but, strenuous and dexterous though he is in meeting the arguments of his adversary, he possessed neither the self-control nor the systematising genius which made his master, Calvin, the lawgiver of reformed doctrine. It is to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and not to Knox’s treatise, that the followers of both must have recourse for the magistral statement of the constitutive dogma of their theological system.

The triumph of the reforming party in Scotland in 1559 at length restored Knox to his native country, where his presence was to be the dominating fact in the political and religious situation, and where he was to produce the work which is the great literary monument of the time. As the immediate result of the victory of protestantism, appeared the First Book of Discipline, of which Knox was not, indeed, the sole author, but which bears his imprint on every page, and is the brief summary of his ideals in religion and education. Here, as directly connected with the literary history of Scotland, we are only concerned with the scheme of national instruction which the book sets forth with detailed precision. In every parish there was to be a school and in every important town a college, from which the aptest scholars were to be sent to the three universities—attendance in all three grades being exacted by state and church. The poverty of the country and protracted civil commotions prevented the scheme from being realised; but an ideal had been set forth which never passed out of sight, and, during successive centuries, the parish schools of Scotland were the nursing-homes of her most vigorous intellectual life.