It is instructive to compare the history of Scotland’s struggle with the experiences of other countries where the same religious conflicts had successively arisen.
Continuing Scotland’s Presbyterian Reformation,
our selection from John Knox: A Biography by P. Hume Brown published in 1895. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Scotland’s Presbyterian Reformation.
Time: 1559 to 1572
Thus apparently had Knox and his fellow-workers attained the end of all their labors; and it is instructive to compare the history of their struggle with the experiences of other countries where the same religious conflicts had successively arisen. In Germany the terrible Peasants’ War had been the direct result of Luther’s revolt from Rome; and in England the ecclesiastical revolution had been followed by the religious atrocities of Henry VIII, by the anarchy under Edward VI, and by the remorseless fanaticism of Mary Tudor. While the Congregation was in the midst of its struggles with Mary of Lorraine, Philip II was dealing with heresy in Spain. How effectually he dealt with it is one of the notable chapters in the histories of nations. Here it is sufficient to recall a single fact in illustration of the relative experiences of Scotland and Spain. In 1559 Philip and his court, amid the applause of a crowd of above two hundred thousand from all parts of Castile, sanctioned with their presence the burning at Valladolid of a band of persons, mostly women, accused of the crime of heresy. In France the appearance of a new religion had evoked passions, alike among the people and their rulers, which were to give that country an evil preeminence in the ferocity of national and individual action. The chambre ardente, the Edict of Chateaubriand (1551), the massacre of Amboise (1560), the thirty years of intermittent civil war (1562-1592) — these were the events of frightful significance that mark the development of religious conflict in France. Compared with the tale of blood and confusion that has to be told of Germany, France, England, and Spain, the history of the Reformation in Scotland is a record of order and tranquility.
What is thrust upon us by the narrative of events in Scotland is the singular moderation alike of the representatives of the old and the new religion. Heretics had been burned indeed, but the number was inconsiderable compared with that of similar victims in other countries; and, even in the day of their triumph, the Scottish Protestants, in spite of the stern threat of their legislation, were guiltless of a single execution on the ground of religion. What is still more striking is, that difference of faith begot no fanatical hate among the mass of the people. In France and Spain men forgot the ties of blood and country in the blind fury of religious zeal, but in Scotland we do not find town arrayed against town and neighbor denouncing neighbor on the ground of a different faith. That this tolerance was not due to indifference the religious history of Scotland abundantly proves. It was in the convulsions attending the change of the national faith that the Scottish nation first attained to a consciousness of itself, and the characteristics it then displayed have remained its distinctive characteristics ever since. It is precisely the combination of a fervid temper with logical thinking and temperate action that have distinguished the Scottish people in all the great crises of their history.
It soon appeared that the Protestant triumph was not so complete as it might have seemed. Those who saw furthest — and none was more keenly alive to the fact than Knox — were well aware that many a battle must yet be fought before the new temple they had built should stand secure against the assault of open enemies and equivocal friends. The inherent difficulties of the situation became speedily manifest. Mary and Francis refused to ratify the late measures — a fact, says Knox, “we little regarded or do regard.” What he did regard, however, was the continued alliance and support of England; and he was now to learn that, having attained her own objects, Elizabeth was not disposed to be specially cordial in her future relations to the Protestants in Scotland. It had been for some time in the minds of the Protestant leaders that a marriage between Elizabeth and the Earl of Arran would be an excellent arrangement for both countries; and in October a commission was actually sent to make the proposal. The reply of Elizabeth was that “presently she was not disposed to marry.” An important event made this rebuff additionally unwelcome: on December 5th, Francis II, the husband of Mary Stuart, unexpectedly died. Had her husband lived, Mary might have continued to live in France, which had been so long her home, and Scotland might have been left in large degree to settle its own affairs. Now the probability was that Mary would return to her own country, and with all the authority and prestige of a legitimate sovereign renew the battle that had been lost by her mother. It was, therefore, with gloomy forebodings that all sincere well-wishers to the Reformed Church in Scotland saw the close of this year of their apparent triumph.
If there were these apprehensions from enemies, there was likewise a growing alarm from the attitude of lukewarm and dubious friends. The sincerity and good faith of all who had taken part in the late revolution were about to be subjected to the most stringent of tests. By the enactments of the preceding year the ancient Church had been swept away; but the work of rearing a new edifice in its place still remained to be accomplished. With this object the Protestant ministers had been entrusted with the task of drafting a constitution for a new church which should take the place of the old. The ministers had discharged their trust, and the result of their labors was laid before the estates which met in Edinburgh on January 15, 1561.
The document presented to the estates was the famous Book of Discipline — the most interesting and in many respects the most important document in the history of Scotland. If any proof were needed that the revolt against the ancient Church was no ill-considered act of irresponsible men, we assuredly possess that proof in this extraordinary book. Though in its primary intention the scheme of its ecclesiastical polity, it is in fact the draft of a “republic,” under which a nation should live its life on earth and prepare itself for heaven. It not only prescribes a creed, and supplies a complete system of church government: it suggests a scheme of national education, it defines the relation of church and state, it provides for the poor and unable, it regulates the life of households, it even determines the career of such as by their natural gifts were especially fitted to be of service to church or state. As we shall see, the suggestions of the Book of Discipline were to be but imperfectly realized; yet, by defining the ideals and molding the temper and culture of the prevailing majority of the Scottish people, it has been one of the great formative influences in the national development.