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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 77

John Knox and Liberty of Conscience: a discourse

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John Knox and Liberty of Conscience

Dunedin: N Z. Tablet Pricing & Publishing Co., Ltd.

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John Knox and Liberty of Conscience

Blessed is the man that findeth Wisdom..... Her ways are beautiful ways, and all her paths are peaceable.—Prov. iii: 13, 17.

Some short time ago a sermon on "John Knox" was preached and published in Hawera by the minister of the local Presbyterian Church. The author assures us that he respects the religious convictions of all his fellow-citizens. This assurance is, I know, quite heartfelt, and is reciprocated by all well-meaning men. His motive in making a panegyric of the "Reformer" was not to stir up religious strife, but to warn his hearers and readers against that easy-going attitude towards religious differences which leads men to believe that one religion is as good as another, and that, so long as they live a morally good life, it matters very little what form of religion they profess.

Now, no motive can be more praiseworthy than this, since it points out the danger of that Indifferentism which, becoming in many lands the parent of scepticism and unbelief, threatens to undermine religious belief altogether. For, to say that one religion is as good as another is really to say that there is no religion at all; that there is no certain body of revealed truth outside the human mind which man is bound to search after and believe. The wish to get on well with our fellow-men and help the social wheels to roll smoothly tempts us to make little of those unhappy differences that make Christianity a byword on the lips of even halfcivilised races. It is more than a common pleasure, therefore, to be warned against this temptation from an unexpected source; to be reminded that one religion is not so good as another, and that something else besides such admission must constitute the bond of friendship that binds fellow-citizens together.

Actuated by the same motive, and with a like profession of goodwill to all, I propose to throw some additional light upon the character of the Father and Founder of Presbyterianism. I am urged to this by the fact that I have been able to secure much up-to-date information on this most interesting subject, which not many in Hawera are likely to have for yet a little while, and which was certainly not in the hands of the author of the sermon now in circulation.

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Of this information, however, I shall bring forward only what I have gleaned from non-Catholic authors; for, since I am not eulogising, but criticising, a eulogy on Knox, I think it will be expected that I should bring forward witnesses who are not likely to be biassed towards Catholics, rather than follow the example of the writer of the sermon, who drew all his information from an author who was not only a pillar of the Early Free Kirk, but also a writer whose treatment of Knox shows a gentleness and a mildness altogether out of harmony with his subject. In saying this I do not wish to convey the impression that the preacher has followed an unfair course in confining himself to Dr McCrie; for, in collecting matter for a panegyric, one naturally seeks inspiration from a sympathetic source rather than from a cool, impartial, and critical historian. It would have been better, however, if he had not declared McCrie's history to be "an altogether reliable source" of information. I judge it to be the production of a strong partisan, in which the truth is too often flagrantly and dishonestly suppressed.

Reserving some points for future consideration, I propose in the present discourse to throw some light upon the statement—repeated no less than nine times in the sermon—that Knox was one of those who had laboured for liberty of conscience and freedom of worship. My only object is that the truth should be known and should make us free.

Liberty of conscience and freedom of worship are rights to love and to labour for; and he who labours and dies in their defence will have the aureole of the martyr set upon his brow by an admiring and grateful people. But such a one was not John Knox. Rather was he one who spoke and wrote and laboured strenuously to keep from others those rights which he claimed for himself, and in the name of which he apostatised from an un-divided Christendom to become a spoiler of the Church and of the Christian Commonwealth, and to leave to his countrymen at home and abroad an inheritance for which they have little reason to be proud. One who kept "The Diurnal" of such events as he deemed important, makes the following cautious record for November 24, 1572: "John Knox, minister, deceased, who had, as was alleged, the most part of the blame of all the sorrows of Scotland since the slaughter of the late Cardinal." And making this record the text of his book, "Knox and the Reformation," just published, Andrew Lang begins his first chapter thus: "The sorrows, the 'cumber' of which Knox was 'alleged' to bear the blame, did not end with his death. They persisted in the conspiracies and rebellions of the earlier years of James VI.; they smouldered through the later part of his time; they broke into far spreading flame at the touch of the Covenant; they blazed at 'dark Worcester and bloody Dunbar'; at Preston fight, and the sack of Dundee by Monk; they included the Cromwellian conquest of Scotland, and the shame and misery of the Restoration; to trace them down to our own age would be invidious."

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Had the great Scottish non-Catholic writer traced the history of his country's sorrows to the present day, every page of that history that was foul would be seen to be so through the making of the "Reformer" who urged persecution and death against Catholics, but whose own flights from suffering and the sword were as unmanly and ludicrous as they were frequent and effectual.

That the state of the times and the sins of Catholics gave Knox a pretext for his war upon the Church, and made the Church an easy prey to the violence, treachery, spoliation, and persecution which he used as the weapons of his warfare, nothing can be gained by denying. The personal character of Knox does not explain the triumph of the Revolution which he led. The hero of Presbyterianism, like the hero of every form of Protestantism, was made so by his environment rather than by his personal sanctity or zeal for souls. He marked the social condition of his age, he studied its tendency, and when the moment of crisis came, he was able to turn to the use which his fierce and relentless nature suggested, a condition of things which he himself could never have created.

There has been no religious revolution in Europe in which political interest has not had a great part. Schiller tells us that "Protestantism was helped in Germany by mistrust of the rising might in Austria, and in Holland by hatred of Spain and fear of the Inquisition. In Sweden Gustavus Vasa destroyed a dangerous conspiracy along with the old religion, and on the ruin of this same Church the British Elizabeth made fast her shaking throne. Had Schiller turned his eyes to Scotland, he would have told us that there, too, the movement was as much political as religious. A Catholic Regent in Scotland, governing the country for her Catholic daughter, and employing French Catholic advisers, could not, in the confusion of the times, be suspected of wishing to make Scotland a province of France without at the same time having her religion—which was that of the House of Lorraine—suspected and rendered odious also. In the days of Knox, Catholicity was an essential element of social and political life. One could not well be disturbed without the others, and so the desire to upset the political order of things and to rob Scotland of her independence and make her a province of England lest she should become an appanage of the King of France, was cleverly seized upon to revolutionise the religious order also.

Then the hands of the revolutionists were strengthened by the ignorance and corruption of the age. There were ignorant and corrupt nobles in Scotland in those days. And there were, no doubt, bad priests. Knox was one of them. It was inevitable that some unworthy men in such times should hold high office both in Church and State. The anarchies caused by the long minorities of the Stuart Kings and by the interminable wars with England, the difficulties of communication with Rome, and the fact that owing to his unpopularity at a time when feudalism was being discredited and overthrown, the Pope could do little or page 4 nothing in the way of correcting abuses in distant nations, gave the kings and nobles in Scotland, as elsewhere, power to rob and deprave the Church. There was no freedom of ecclesiastical election, the kings put their own creatures—though these were often only laymen—into vacant bishoprics and parishes; and the nobles in turn followed, where they had the power, the kings' example. King James V. made his illegitimate sons abbots of Holyrood, Kelso, Melrose, Coldingham, and St. Andrews; and many of the highest offices were filled by mere infants, in order that their fathers might be able to draw the revenue.

No wonder the standard of learning and morality became lowered. It was ever thus in such circumstances, and ever will be. Throughout the whole history of the Middle Ages, and in the days of the Revolution, with hardly a single exception, nations have been found to be corrupt precisely in proportion to their removal from the influence of the Pope; and wherever temporal rulers have the appointment to ecclesiastical offices, these offices will be often filled by mere favourites; and the favourites of princes become so more by subserviency than by talent or virtue. Thus, then, Knox found his pretext and his opportunity in the political unrest and in the sad condition of the Church. And the brethren and the turbulent spirits that followed him all cried out against the existing order—some against the rulers because they were Catholics, others against Catholics because they were the ruling power. But which party wished to upset which order it was hard in the confusion and anarchy of the time to discern.

But there were many only too eager to attack the Church for the sake of the spoils. Do you think that the turbulent spirits of the day cared much for the luxury of dogma-making? Dogma-making would be as dry work for the Scot of those days as of these. Do you think that their hearts were set on fire by the heartless doctrine of justification of faith, or by the denial of free-will, or by the doctrine of total depravity, or by the rejection of good works? By no means. It was a stroke of genius on the part of Knox to point to the wealth of the Church and of those who held high office in it, as it was a stroke of genius on the part of Luther to throw out the same bait to the bankrupt barons of Germany, and as it was again a stroke of genius on the part of the French Masonic sect to imagine first, and then point out, the "fabulous wealth" of the monasteries of modern France. This was the secret of the enthusiasm which dismal doctrines could never by themselves arouse. Even Dr McCrie himself would admit this contention: that political intrigue and the thirst for gold had a large share in the making of the religious revolution in Scotland. "It has often been alleged," he writes, "that the desire of sharing in the rich spoils of the Popish Church, together with the intrigues of the Court of England, engaged the Scottish nobles on the side of the Reformation. It is reasonable to think that, at a later period, this was so far true,"

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It had not hitherto been an easy matter to get a true estimate of the character and the principles of the founder of the religious revolution in Scotland. Here, history has certainly been a conspiracy against the truth. Nearly all our information has been drawn from Knox's own "History" and from those who imitated the Platonic style of thinking and writing about him introduced by Carlyle. But, thanks to the industry and researches of the great Scottish writer, Andrew Lang, Knox's "History "is entirely discredited, and we are permitted to see for the first time some of the "shocking principles" of the "Reformer." "That Knox ran so very far ahead of the Genevan pontiffs of his age in violence; and that in his 'History' he needs such careful watching, was, to me," says Lang, "an unexpected discovery. He may have been 'an old Hebrew prophet,' as Mr Carlyle says, but he had also been a young Scottish notary! A Hebrew prophet is, at best, a dangerous anachronism in a delicate crisis of the Church Christian, and the notarial element is too conspicuous in some passages of Knox's 'History.' His 'History' is not more scrupulous than that of other partisans in an exciting contest, and examples of his taste for personal scandals are not scarce."

In reference to Knox's detailed account of the truce in January, 1547, between the assassins of Cardinal Beaton and the besiegers of St. Andrew's Castle, and the alleged violation of the conditions of the truce, Lang says: "There is no proof of this accusation of treachery.... or none known to me. The constant aim of Knox, his fixed idea, as an historian, is to accuse his adversaries of the treachery which often marked the negotiations of his friends." Nor can Lang find much truth in the account of the subsequent surrender of the Castle. "Now, much of this narrative is wrong; wrong in detail, in suggestion, in omission. That a man of 50 or 60 could attribute the attacks on Beaton's murderers to mere revenge ... is significant of the spirit in which Knox wrote history. Wherever he touches on Mary of Guise, he deals a stab at her name and fame. On all that concerns her personal character and political conduct, he is unworthy of credit when uncorroborated by better authority. Indeed, Knox's spirit is so unworthy that for this, among other reasons, Archbishop Spottiswoode declined to believe in his authorship of the 'History.'... The actual facts were Not those recorded by Knox."

Knox himself gives two contradictory accounts of the destruction of the monasteries at Perth, on May 10, 1559. Only one of these accounts, of course, can be true. In the "History" he says that the rascal multitude, without the gentry and brethren, broke into the monasteries, wrecked and robbed, etc. But in a letter to his friend, Mrs Locke, he claims the honour for the brethren, who (he says) levelled to the ground the three monasteries, burned all monuments of "idolatry," and commanded the priests, under pain of death, to desist from their "blasphemous Mass."

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"If the menace against the priests and the ruin of monasteries were not seditious," asks Lang, "what is sedition? But Knox's business is to prove that the movement was not rebellious, was purely religious, and all for 'liberty of conscience'—for Protestants. Therefore, in the 'History,' he disclaims the destruction by the brethren of the monasteries—the mob did that; and he burkes the threat of death to the priests, though he told the truth privately to Mrs Locke." The learned Dr McCrie, "an altogether reliable" historian, forsooth, does not mention one word about this letter to Mrs Locke. And Professor Hume Brown, another admirer of Knox, blames the mob, and says nothing about the brethren. In fact, as Lang says, Knox must have given his biographers medicines to make them love him. A pretty sample of the loving way in which he is treated by those who would convince us that "he was a man sent from God," "appears," says Lang, "in a biography (1905) of the Reformer by a minister of the Gospel. Knox summoned the organised brethren in 1563 to overawe justice when some men were to be tried. . . No proceedings could be more anarchic, or more in accordance with the lovable customs of my dear country at that time. But the biographer of 1905, a placed minister, writes that 'the doing of it was only an assertion of the liberty of the Church, and of the members of the commonwealth as a whole, to assemble for purposes which were clearly lawful'—the purposes being to overawe justice in the course of a trial." A truly wonderful effect have these love-potions upon some historians! "Freedom from a persecuting spirit," says one, "is one of the noblest features of Knox's character." And another—the "altogether reliable" McCrie—referring to the Act of August 24, mildly remarks that "under certain penalties the celebration of the Mass was prohibited." His "loving admiration of the man," whom he wished to prove a lover of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship, made him careful not to mention the graduated scale of penalties enacted against Catholics who would worship in the old, Divinely-appointed way—for the first offence, confiscation of property; for the second, exile; for the third, death.

These same loving admirers seem not to have seen the letter from Scotland in which Knox upbraids his former congregation at Dieppe for their laxity in permitting the Catholic religion to be practised in their town. They appear not to have seen his written statement that the Mass is much more abominable in the sight of God than murder, and that he would rather face ten thousand enemies than know that one Mass was said in Scotland. They seem not to have seen his expressed and heartfelt repentance that he had not caused an armed struggle on the day when her chaplain said Mass for the faithful Queen in her own private chapel. They appear not to have seen the Knoxian assumption of the right, as a prophet, to preach treason, which appeared in his letter to the Faithful, of May, 1554: "The prophet of God sometimes may teach treason against kings, and yet neither he, page 7 nor such as obey the word spoken in the Lord's name by him, offends God." His loving admirers seem not to have seen any of these, but—"Love's blind, they say! "

There can be no doubt that this "lovable man" preached death to Catholics. "He regarded Catholics as idolaters in the same sense," says Lang, "as Elijah regarded Hebrew worshippers of alien deities, Chemosh and Moloch, and he drew the inference that idolaters, as in the Old Testament, must be put to death. Thus his was logically a persecuting religion." Here is a specific declaration in a letter of 1554, that every Protestant King should massacre all his inconvertible Catholic subjects! "Some shall demand, 'What, then, shall we go and slay all idolaters?' That were the office, dear brethren, of every civil magistrate within his realm." "To invade them (Catholics), and every one of them, to the death," was the ideal (embodied in law) of the brethren in 1560. Knox goes still further and declares it to be the duty of even private individuals to take the lives of Catholics. "I would your Honors should note for the first, that no idolater (Catholic) can be exempted from punishment by God's Law. The second is, that the punishment of such crimes as are idolatry, blasphemy, and others that touch the Majesty of God, doth not appertain to kings and chief rulers only, but also to the whole body of the people, And to Every Member of the Same, according to the vocation of every man, and according to that possibility and occasion which God doth minister to revenge the injury done against His glory, what time that impiety is manifestly known.

Who dare be so impudent as to deny this to be most reasonable and just?" Men may reason against this doctrine; but Knox replies: "When commandment is given to execute God's judgment, all creatures stoop, cover their faces, And Desist from Reasoning." This is very fine, in good sooth, coming from "a man sent from God"!

It would be easy to fill page after page with fresh evidence from Andrew Lang's book on the various points I have touched upon—viz. (1) On the untruthfulness of Knox's own "History"; (2) on the conspiracy of silence on the part of his biographers; (3) on the violence, treachery, spoliation, and persecution preached and practised by Knox in his effort to take from others that liberty of conscience which he claimed for himself; (4) on his justification of death to Catholics at the hands of the Civil ruler; and (5) even by private individuals: (6) on his open defiance of justice; and (7) his defence of treason. But I have already brought forward sufficient evidence to show that John Knox was not a man sent by God. Whatever else he did from the day on which he broke his vow of chastity and took to himself a wife, he never Spoke a word or performed a deed in favour of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship, unless it was for liberty or, as we should say, "license"—for his own miserable self. God does not send men such as John Knox—whom the famous Dr Johnson used to call "the ruffian of the Reformation"—to do page 8 His work. The virtues of the Apostles were quite other than those manifested in the life of the "Reformer," and the fruits of their labours differ from those of his by the whole range of the heavens. "We have," says Lang, "no reason to suppose that sexual morality was at all improved, though it was easy to impose Sabbath observance. A graduated scale of admonitions led up to excommunication, if the subject was refractory, and to boycotting with civil penalties. The processes had no effect, or none that is visible, in checking lawlessness, robberies, feuds, and man-slayings; and after the Reformation, witchcraft increased to monstrous proportions—at least executions of people accused of witchcraft became very numerous, in spite of provisions for sermons thrice a week, and for weekly discussion of the Word."

"Scotland," says Dr Shaw, quoted in "Christian Missions," "claims the honour of standing pretty near first in the catalogue of crime." "Nearly every tenth Scotsman," says another witness, quoted in the "Times" of July 17, 1858, "is illegitimate." The 1860 report of the Scottish Registrar-General reveals "the excessive incontinence" of this Knoxian nation and deplores that "the immorality is not confined to the humbler classes." The decaying influence of religion in Scotland, in spite of the fierce and peremptory tone of its "self-confident and pharasaical teachers," is attested by two eminent Scotchmen who were, perhaps, better qualified than most of their countrymen to speak with authority. "If we are to believe one-half of what some religious persons themselves assure us," says Lord Cockburn, "religion is now almost extinct." "A people," says Hugh Miller, "sunk into an abyss of degradation and misery, and in which it is the whole tendency of external circumstances to sink them yet deeper, constitute the weakness and shame of a country." This is being revealed by "the ominous increase which is taking place amongst us in the worst class." And again: "It is not fashionable in the present age openly to avow infidelity, save in some modified rationalistic or pantheistic form, but in no age did the thing itself exist more extensively."

The same melancholy story of the decay of faith and good morals in the land of John Knox goes on to the present day. In his best-known work, published in 1892, Dr Leffingwell—a non-Catholic and prominent member of the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography—shows, by reference to official statistics, that "every year in Scotland there are Five Times the Proportion of illegitimates that see the light in Ireland." Three years later—in 1895—the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland gave further sad evidence of the loss of moral fibre among the adherents of their faith by the publication of the report of a Committee appointed by it "to inquire into the religious condition of the people." I take the following extract from a summary of the Committee's report that appeared in the "Weekly Scotsman" of May 25, 1895: "Inquiry this year has been restricted to districts chiefly rural and agricultural. Chief page 9 of the moral blots on the face of the country is sexual immorality. The statistics from Banffshire and Wigtownshire are still too alarming to admit of any improvement being recorded. In Banffshire from 15 to 16 per cent, of the births are illegitimate, and it is reported that 'sexual immorality has so permeated family life and is so prevalent in the community that it is difficult to arouse a healthy and vigorous public opinion against it.'" Year by year the Criminal Statistics give an evil prominence to the land of "the Great Reformer." The official report issued in January of the present year, for instance, records that, "while minor crimes are decreasing, the more serious crimes are increasing." It lays special and sorrowful emphasis on the enormous number of convictions recorded against children—both boys and girls, but most especially boys. "Ireland," says the same report, has a population almost equal to that of Scotland, but in Scotland the imprisonments are nearly double those inflicted in Ireland." And this disparity is by no means to be accounted for by any supposed differences in the nature of the sentences imposed, since no such differences have been shown to exist; and, moreover, there are in Ireland an aggressively active police force, and large classes of indictable acts which are not regarded even as misdemeanors in any other country under the British flag.

This argument from results is overwhelming. "By their fruits you shall know them." "Men do not gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles" in the twentieth century any more than in the days of Christ; and flowers of eminent sanctity and rich fruits of undivided truth may not be expected from the character and teaching of Knox and the brethren. Their grand mistake was in not being able to discern the element in the Church that needed reformation. For there is one element that may not be reformed, and another that is in continual need and in continual process of reformation. There are two elements in the Church—one Divine, the other human. The Divine constitution, the Divine doctrinal and moral teaching, the divinely-appointed government and Sacraments—these, once and for all fixed by the Divine Founder of the Church, are unchangeable forever more. But the human element—the very human men and women who make up her body—these always stand in need of reformation, sometimes in very much need. But no matter how corrupt or apparently irredeemable they may be, the Church is incapable of despair in their regard. There was scarcely a spot in Europe where, in the days of Knox, bad men were not found; but let the followers of Knox look round about them and see the miracles of sanctity wrought by the legitimate reformation ever going on within the bosom of the Church. Let them compare their own country with Ireland, which should be dear to them, and let the sweet purity of that Motherland of the fore-fathers of many a Scot teach them the beauty of Catholic doctrine and of Catholic morals.

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Had Knox remained within the one Church founded for all ages, and done penance there for the sins for which he had been degraded from the priesthood, the soothing touch of the Sacraments and holy ordinances of the Church would have given peace to his troubled spirit, and calmed down those ferocious passions, and taught meekness to that befouling tongue that brought such sorrows upon his native land and left her cut off to-day from the grand unity of the faithful, with a sterile and unlovable religion as a heritage.

But no! With the Gospel, interpreted according to his own narrow fancies and turbulent passions, in one hand, and with a flaming brand in the other, this eminently bad man—sometimes the agent, sometimes the tool, but never the dupe, of others—went like a wild demagogue or maniac through his unhappy country, burning churches and monasteries as he went, reducing to ashes the grand libraries which held the accumulated treasures of Catholic days and the priceless works of Christian art, firing the rascal multitude with his own zeal for burning, and urging them on to do such sacrilegious deeds as Scotland had never witnessed before, till hearts of malice, and tongues of treachery, and hands of blood were made to stand for the essential elements of sanctity, and hatred began to scourge a land where love alone should reign.

No man knew better than Knox that there was no idolatry in the Mass; for it is not to the elements of bread and wine, but to the adorable Person of Christ believed to be present, that adoration is paid. And yet, with sublime hypocrisy, this seditious rebel to his country would misrepresent the doctrines of the Church of which he had been a member, and slander the character of the clergy which his life had first disgraced.

If the facts which I have quoted from Lang's great work are strong, and if my language is plain, I have been compelled to use them to guard you, dear brethren, and any others whom my words may reach, against the unreal picture of Knox put before us in the pamphlet now in circulation. And I have spoken, not for the sake of keeping alive religious strife, but that the truth may be known. Since the saddest truth is more desirable than the most pleasant lie, there is a duty imposed upon everyone who can do so, to contribute something towards the truth. This is why I have not felt at liberty to let the false picture of Knox go unchallenged

May the truth shine upon us all and make us free! May it strengthen us all in unity and grace! May it bind us all as is its province, in the bonds of a common brotherhood, to meet and battle with a common foe. For our brotherhood, to meet and battle with a common foe. For our warfare to-day is not with the disciples of Knox, or Luther, or of any other of the sixteenth century heresiarchs, but with a foe that is theirs as well as ours—with that infidelity that is stalking page 11 like a blighting, withering spectre, through this age. Oh! that we could all rise up as one man against it! Oh, that Presbyterians would forget Knox, or see him in his true colours! that Lutherans would forget, or once and for all make a true study of Luther! that all those who are outside the One Church of the One God would not be content with a tradition of conspiracy and deception, but would examine the sources of history for themselves and find their way back into the old paths—into the Church of the martyrs, of the saints, of the virgins, the City of Abiding Peace, where alone security can be found! Thus saith the Lord: "Stand ye on the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, which is the good way, and walk ye on it; and you shall find refreshment to your souls."


Francis. Redwood, S.M., D.D.

, Archbishop of Wellington and Metropolitan.