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Chapter 9


KNOX ON THE ANABAPTISTS: HIS APPEAL TO ENGLAND: 1558-1559


While the inevitable Revolution was impending in Scotland, Knox was living at Geneva. He may have been engaged on his "Answer" to the "blasphemous cavillations" of an Anabaptist, his treatise on Predestination. Laing thought that this work was "chiefly written" at Dieppe, in February-April 1559, but as it contains more than 450 pages it is probably a work of longer time than two months. In November 1559 the English at Geneva asked leave to print the book, which was granted, provided that the name of Geneva did not appear as the place of printing; the authorities knowing of what Knox was capable from the specimen given in his "First Blast." There seem to be several examples of the Genevan edition, published by Crispin in 1560; the next edition, less rare, is of 1591 (London). {101}

The Anabaptist whom Knox is discussing had been personally known to him, and had lucid intervals. "Your chief Apollos," he had said, addressing the Calvinists, "be persecutors, on whom the blood of Servetus crieth a vengeance. . . . They have set forth books affirming it to be lawful to persecute and put to death such as dissent from them in controversies of religion. . . . Notwithstanding they, before they came to authority, were of another judgment, and did both say and write that no man ought to be persecuted for his conscience' sake. . . ." {102a} Knox replied that Servetus was a blasphemer, and that Moses had been a more wholesale persecutor than the Edwardian burners of Joan of Kent, and the Genevan Church which roasted Servetus {102b} (October 1553). He incidentally proves that he was better than his doctrine. In England an Anabaptist, after asking for secrecy, showed him a manuscript of his own full of blasphemies. "In me I confess there was great negligence, that neither did retain his book nor present him to the magistrate" to burn. Knox could not have done that, for the author "earnestly required of me closeness and fidelity," which, probably, Knox promised. Indeed, one fancies that his opinions and character would have been in conflict if a chance of handing an idolater over to death had been offered to him. {102c}

The death of Mary Tudor on November 17, 1558, does not appear to have been anticipated by him. The tidings reached him before January 12, 1559, when he wrote from Geneva a singular "Brief Exhortation to England for the Spedie Embrasing of Christ's Gospel heretofore by the Tyrannie of Marie Suppressed and Banished."

The gospel to be embraced by England is, of course, not nearly so much Christ's as John Knox's, in its most acute form and with its most absolute, intolerant, and intolerable pretensions. He begins by vehemently rebuking England for her "shameful defection" and by threatening God's "horrible vengeances which thy monstrous unthankfulness hath long deserved," if the country does not become much more puritan than it had ever been, or is ever likely to be. Knox "wraps you all in idolatry, all in murder, all in one and the same iniquity," except the actual Marian martyrs; those who "abstained from idolatry;" and those who "avoided the realm" or ran away. He had set one of the earliest examples of running away: to do so was easier for him than for family men and others who had "a stake in the country," for which Knox had no relish. He is hardly generous in blaming all the persons who felt no more "ripe" for martyrdom than he did, yet stayed in England, where the majority were, and continued to be, Catholics.

Having asserted his very contestable superiority and uttered pages of biblical threatenings, Knox says that the repentance of England "requireth two things," first, the expulsion of "all dregs of Popery" and the treading under foot of all "glistering beauty of vain ceremonies." Religious services must be reduced, in short, to his own bare standard. Next, the Genevan and Knoxian "kirk discipline" must be introduced. No "power or liberty (must) be permitted to any, of what estate, degree, or authority they be, either to live without the yoke of discipline by God's word commanded," or "to alter . . . one jot in religion which from God's mouth thou hast received. . . . If prince, king, or emperor would enterprise to change or disannul the same, that he be of thee reputed enemy to God," while a prince who erects idolatry . . . "must be adjudged to death."

Each bishopric is to be divided into ten. The Founder of the Church and the Apostles "all command us to preach, to preach." A brief sketch of what The Book of Discipline later set forth for the edification of Scotland is recommended to England, and is followed by more threatenings in the familiar style.

England did not follow the advice of Knox: her whole population was not puritan, many of her martyrs had died for the prayer book which Knox would have destroyed. His tract cannot have added to the affection which Elizabeth bore to the author of "The First Blast." In after years, as we shall see, Knox spoke in a tone much more moderate in addressing the early English nonconformist secessionists (1568). Indeed, it is as easy almost to prove, by isolated passages in Knox's writings, that he was a sensible, moderate man, loathing and condemning active resistance in religion, as to prove him to be a senselessly violent man. All depends on the occasion and opportunity. He speaks with two voices. He was very impetuous; in the death of Mary Tudor he suddenly saw the chance of bringing English religion up, or down, to the Genevan level, and so he wrote this letter of vehement rebuke and inopportune advice.

Knox must have given his biographers "medicines to make them love him." The learned Dr. Lorimer finds in this epistle, one of the most fierce of his writings, "a programme of what this Reformation reformed should be--a programme which was honourable alike to Knox's zeal and his moderation." The "moderation" apparently consists in not abolishing bishoprics, but substituting "ten bishops of moderate income for one lordly prelate." Despite this moderation of the epistle, "its intolerance is extreme," says Dr. Lorimer, and Knox's advice "cannot but excite astonishment." {104} The party which agreed with him in England was the minority of a minority; the Catholics, it is usually supposed, though we have no statistics, were the majority of the English nation. Yet the only chance, according to Knox, that England has of escaping the vengeance of an irritable Deity, is for the smaller minority to alter the prayer book, resist the Queen, if she wishes to retain it unaltered, and force the English people into the "discipline" of a Swiss Protestant town.

Dr. Lorimer, a most industrious and judicious writer, adds that, in these matters of "discipline," and of intolerance, Knox "went to a tragical extreme of opinion, of which none of the other leading reformers had set an example;" also that what he demanded was substantially demanded by the Puritans all through the reign of Elizabeth. But Knox averred publicly, and in his "History," that for everything he affirmed in Scotland he had heard the judgments "of the most godly and learned that be known in Europe . . . and for my assurance I have the handwritings of many." Now he had affirmed frequently, in Scotland, the very doctrines of discipline and persecution "of which none of the other leading Reformers had set an example," according to Dr. Lorimer. Therefore, either they agreed with Knox, or what Knox told the Lords in June 1564 was not strictly accurate. {105} In any case Knox gave to his country the most extreme of Reformations.

The death of Mary Tudor, and the course of events at home, were now to afford our Reformer the opportunity of promulgating, in Scotland, those ideas which we and his learned Presbyterian student alike regret and condemn. These persecuting ideas "were only a mistaken theory of Christian duty, and nothing worse," says Dr. Lorimer. Nothing could possibly be worse than a doctrine contrary in the highest degree to the teaching of Our Lord, whether the doctrine was proclaimed by Pope, Prelate, or Calvinist.

Here it must be observed that a most important fact in Knox's career, a most important element in his methods, has been little remarked upon by his biographers. Ever since he failed, in 1554, to obtain the adhesion of Bullinger and Calvin to his more extreme ideas, he had been his own prophet, and had launched his decrees of the right of the people, of part of the people, and of the individual, to avenge the insulted majesty of God upon idolaters, not only without warrant from the heads of the Calvinistic Church, but to their great annoyance and disgust. Of this an example will now be given.


Andrew Lang

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