This series has three easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Scotland’s Prophet.
Knox was imprisoned by the French (1547-1549), was released, and for two years preached at Berwick. For several years now he lived a life of many vicissitudes, partly in Great Britain and partly on the Continent, and by his sermons and writings powerfully influenced the growth of the Protestant faith.
This selection is from On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle published in 1841. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Thomas Carlyle was the great Scottish historian who believed that writers should immerse the readers in the subject. People either love his style or hate it.
Time: 1559 to 1572
In the history of Scotland I can find properly but one epoch: we may say, it contains nothing of world-interest at all but this Reformation by Knox. A poor, barren country, full of continual broils, dissensions, massacrings; a people in the last state of rudeness and destitution, little better perhaps than Ireland at this day. Hungry, fierce barons, not so much as able to form any arrangement with each other how to divide what they fleeced from these poor drudges; but obliged, as the Colombian Republics are at this day, to make of every alteration a revolution; no way of changing a ministry but by hanging the old ministers on gibbets: this is a historical spectacle of no very singular significance! “Bravery” enough, I doubt not; fierce fighting in abundance, but not braver or fiercer than that of their old Scandinavian Sea-king ancestors, whose exploits we have not found worth dwelling on! It is a country as yet without a soul: nothing developed in it but what is rude, external, semi-animal. And now, at the Reformation, the internal life is kindled, as it were, under the ribs of this outward material death. A cause, the noblest of causes, kindles itself, like a beacon set on high; high as Heaven, yet attainable from Earth, whereby the meanest man becomes not a Citizen only, but a Member of Christ’s visible Church; a veritable hero, if he prove a true man!
But to return: This that Knox did for his Nation, I say, we may really call a resurrection as from death. It was not a smooth business; but it was welcome surely, and cheap at that price, had it been far rougher. On the whole, cheap at any price — as life is. The people began to live: they needed first of all to do that, at what cost and costs soever. Scotch Literature and Thought, Scotch Industry; James Watt, David Hume, Walter Scott, Robert Burns: I find Knox and the Reformation acting in the heart’s core of every one of these persons and phenomena; I find that without the Reformation they would not have been. Or what of Scotland? The Puritanism of Scotland became that of England, of New England. A tumult in the High Church of Edinburgh spread into a universal battle and struggle over all these realms; there came out, after fifty years’ struggling, what we all call the “Glorious Revolution,” a Habeas Corpus Act, Free Parliaments, and much else! Alas, is it not too true, that many men in the van do always like Russian soldiers, march into the ditch of Schweidnitz, and fill it up with their dead bodies, that the rear may pass over them dry-shod, and gain the honor? How many earnest, rugged Cromwells, Knoxes, poor Peasant Covenanters, wrestling, battling for very life, in rough miry places, have to struggle, and suffer, and fall, greatly censured, bemired — before a beautiful Revolution of Eighty-eight can step over them in official pumps and silk stockings, with universal three-times-three!
It seems to me hard measure that this Scottish man, now after three hundred years, should have to plead like a culprit before the world; intrinsically for having been, in such a way as it was then possible to be, the bravest of all Scotchmen! Had he been a poor Half-and-half, he could have crouched into the corner, like so many others; Scotland had not been delivered; and Knox had been without blame. He is the one Scotchman to whom, of all others, his country and the world owe a debt. He has to plead that Scotland would forgive him for having been worth to it any million “unblamable” Scotchmen that need no forgiveness! He bared his breast to the battle; had to row in French galleys, wander forlorn in exile, in clouds and storms; was censured, shot at through his windows; had a right sore fighting life: if this world were his place of recompense, he had made but a bad venture of it. I cannot apologize for Knox. To him it is very indifferent, these two hundred and fifty years or more, what men say of him. But we, having got above all those details of his battle, and living now in clearness on the fruits of his victory, we, for our own sake, ought to look through the rumors and controversies enveloping the man, into the man himself.
For one thing, I will remark that this post of Prophet to his Nation was not of his seeking; Knox had lived forty years quietly obscure, before he became conspicuous. He was the son of poor parents; had got a college education; become a priest; adopted the Reformation, and seemed well content to guide his own steps by the light of it, nowise unduly intruding it on others. He had lived as Tutor in gentlemen’s families; preaching when any body of persons wished to hear his doctrine: resolute he to walk by the truth, and speak the truth when called to do it; not ambitious of more; not fancying himself capable of more. In this entirely obscure way he had reached the age of forty; was with the small body of Reformers who were standing siege in St. Andrew’s Castle — when one day in their chapel, the preacher, after finishing his exhortation to these fighters in the forlorn hope, said suddenly, That there ought to be other speakers, that all men who had a priest’s heart and gift in them ought now to speak; which gifts and heart one of their own number, John Knox the name of him, had: had he not? said the preacher, appealing to all the audience: what then is his duty? The people answered affirmatively; it was a criminal forsaking of his post, if such a man held the word that was in him silent. Poor Knox was obliged to stand up; he attempted to reply; he could say no word; burst into a flood of tears, and ran out. It is worth remembering, that scene. He was in grievous trouble for some days. He felt what a small faculty was his for this great work. He felt what a baptism he was called to be baptized withal. He “burst into tears.”