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John Knox

Library of Alexandria
THE SCHOLAR AND PRIEST: HIS ENVIRONMENT The century now closing has redeemed Knox from neglect, and has gathered around his name a mass of biographical material. That material, too, includes much that is of the nature of self-revelation, to be gleaned from familiar letters, as well as from his own history of his time. Yet, after all that has been brought together, Knox remains to many observers a mere hard outline, while to others he is almost an enigma—a blur, bright or black, upon the historic page. There is one real and great difficulty. For the first forty years of his life we know absolutely nothing of the inner man. Yet at forty most men are already made. And in the case of this man, from about that date onwards we find the character settled and fixed. Henceforward, during the whole later life with its continually changing drama, Knox remains intensely and unchangeably the same. It is the contrast, perhaps the crisis, which is worth studying. The contrast, indeed, is not unprecedented. More than one Knox-like prophet, in the solemn days of early faith, 'was in the desert until the time of his shewing unto Israel'; and not the polished shaft only, but the rough spear-head too, has remained hid in the shadow of a mighty hand until the very day when it was launched. But each such case impels us the more to inquire, What was it after all which really made the man who in his turn made the age? This early blank in the biography raises questions, some of which will never be answered. We do not know at all when Knox took priest’s orders. It was almost certainly not before 1530, for it was only in that year that he became eligible as being twenty-five years old. It may possibly have been as late as 1540, when his name is first found in a deed. In that and the two following years he seems to have resided at Samuelston near Haddington, and may have officiated in the little chapel there. But he was also at this time acting as 'Maister' or tutor to the sons of several gentlemen of East Lothian, and he continued this down to 1547, the time of his own 'call' to preach the Evangel. Nor do we know whether the change in his views, which in 1547 was so complete, had been sudden on the one hand or gradual and long prepared on the other. Knox’s own silence on this is very remarkable. A man of his fearless egoism and honesty might have been expected to leave, if not an autobiography like those of Augustine and Bunyan, at least a narrative of change like the Force of Truth of Thomas Scott, or the Apologia of John Henry Newman. He has not done so; indeed, the author who preserved for us so much of that age, and of his own later history in it, seems for some reason to have judged his whole earlier period unworthy of record—or even of recal. For we find no evidence of his having been more confidential on this subject with any of his contemporaries than he has been with us. This certainly suggests that the change may have been very recent—determined, perhaps, wholly through the personal influence of Wishart, whom Knox so affectionately commemorates. Or, if it was not recent, it is extremely unlikely that it can have been detailed, vivid, and striking, as well as prolonged. Knox was not the man to suppress a narrative, however painful to himself, which he could have held to be in a marked degree to the glory of God or for the good of men. But whatever the reason was, the time past of his life sufficed this man for silence and self-accusation. We may be sure that it would have done so (and perhaps done so equally), no matter whether those twenty years had been spent in the complacent routine of a rustic in holy orders; in the dogmatism, defensive or aggressive, of scholastic youth; in fruitless efforts to understand the new views of which he was one day to be the chief representative; or in half-hearted hesitation whether, after having so far understood them, he could part with all things for their sake. Which of these positions he held, or how far he may have passed from one to another, we may never be able to ascertain. But there is one too clear indication that Knox disliked, not only to record, but even to recal, his life in the Catholic communion. His greatest defect in after years, as a man and a writer, is his inability to sympathise with those still found entangled in that old life. He absolutely refuses to put himself in their place, or to imagine how a position which was for so many years his own could be honestly chosen, or even honestly retained for a day, by another. This would have been a misfortune, and a moral defect, even in a man not naturally of a sympathetic temper. But Knox, as we shall see, was a man of quick and tender nature, and had rather a passion for sympathising with those who were not on the other side of the gulf he thus fixed. And this one-sided incapacity for sympathy must certainly be connected with his one-sided reticence as to the earlier half of his own autobiography. Incapacity to sympathise with persons entangled in a system is one thing, and disapproval of that system, or even violent rejection of it, is another. Knox, as is well known, broke absolutely with the church system in which he was brought up. What was that system, and what was Knox’s individual outlook upon the Church—first, of Western Europe, and secondly of Scotland