The unforgivable offence in him is, that he wished to set-up Priests over the head of Kings.
Today’s installment concludes John Knox and Scotland’s Reformation,
our selection from On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle published in 1841.
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Previously in John Knox and Scotland’s Reformation. Now we continue.
Time: 1559 to 1572
A man sent to row in French Galleys, and suchlike, for teaching the Truth in his own land, cannot always be in the mildest humor! I am not prepared to say that Knox had a soft temper; nor do I know that he had what we call an ill temper. An ill nature he decidedly had not. Kind, honest affections dwelt in the much-enduring, hard-worn, ever-battling man. That he could rebuke Queens, and had such weight among those proud, turbulent Nobles, proud enough whatever else they were; and could maintain to the end a kind of virtual Presidency and Sovereignty in that wild realm, he who was only “a subject born within the same”: this of itself will prove to us that he was found, close at hand, to be no mean, acrid man; but at heart a healthful, strong, sagacious man. Such alone can bear rule in that kind. They blame him for pulling down cathedrals, and so forth, as if he were a seditious, rioting demagogue: precisely the reverse is seen to be the fact, in regard to cathedrals and the rest of it, if we examine! Knox wanted no pulling-down of stone edifices; he wanted leprosy and darkness to be thrown out of the lives of men. Tumult was not his element; it was the tragic feature of his life that he was forced to dwell so much in that. Every such man is the born enemy of Disorder; hates to be in it: but what then? Smooth Falsehood is not Order; it is the general sum total of Disorder. Order is Truth — each thing standing on the basis that belongs to it: Order and Falsehood cannot subsist together.
Withal, unexpectedly enough, this Knox has a vein of drollery in him; which I like much, in combination with his other qualities. He has a true eye for the ridiculous. His History, with its rough earnestness, is curiously enlivened with this. When the two Prelates, entering Glasgow Cathedral, quarrel about precedence; march rapidly up, take to hustling one another, twitching one another’s rochets, and at last flourishing their crosiers like quarter-staves, it is a great sight for him everywhere! Not mockery, scorn, bitterness alone; though there is enough of that too. But a true, loving, illuminating laugh mounts up over the earnest visage; not a loud laugh; you would say, a laugh in the eyes most of all. An honest-hearted, brotherly man; brother to the high, brother also to the low; sincere in his sympathy with both. He had his pipe of Bourdeaux too, we find, in that old Edinburgh house of his; a cheery social man, with faces that loved him! They go far wrong who think that this Knox was a gloomy, spasmodic, shrieking fanatic. Not at all: he is one of the solidest of men. Practical, cautious-hopeful, patient; a most shrewd, observing, quietly discerning man. In fact, he has very much the type of character we assign to the Scotch at present: a certain sardonic taciturnity is in him; insight enough; and a stouter heart than he himself knows of. He has the power of holding his peace over many things which do not vitally concern him — “They? what are they?” But the thing which does vitally concern him, that thing he will speak of; and in a tone the whole world shall be made to hear: all the more emphatic for his long silence.
This Prophet of the Scotch is to me no hateful man! He had a sore fight of an existence; wrestling with Popes and Principalities; in defeat, contention, life-long struggle; rowing as a galley-slave, wandering as an exile. A sore fight: but he won it. “Have you hope?” they asked him in his last moment, when he could no longer speak. He lifted his finger, “pointed upward with his finger,” and so died. Honor to him! His works have not died. The letter of his work dies, as of all men’s; but the spirit of it never.
One word more as to the letter of Knox’s work. The unforgivable offence in him is, that he wished to set-up Priests over the head of Kings. In other words, he strove to make the Government of Scotland a Theocracy. This indeed is properly the sum of his offences, the essential sin; for which what pardon can there be? It is most true, he did, at bottom, consciously or unconsciously, mean a Theocracy, or Government of God. He did mean that Kings and Prime Ministers, and all manner of persons, in public or private, diplomatizing or whatever else they might be doing, should walk according to the Gospel of Christ, and understand that this was their Law, supreme over all laws. He hoped once to see such a thing realized; and the Petition, Thy Kingdom come, no longer an empty word. He was sore grieved when he saw greedy, worldly Barons clutch hold of the Church’s property; when he expostulated that it was not secular property, that it was spiritual property, and should be turned to true churchly uses, education, schools, worship; and the Regent Murray had to answer, with a shrug of the shoulders, “It is a devout imagination!” This was Knox’s scheme of right and truth; this he zealously endeavored after, to realize it. If we think his scheme of truth was too narrow, was not true, we may rejoice that he could not realize it; that it remained, after two centuries of effort, unrealizable, and is a “devout imagination” still. But how shall we blame him for struggling to realize it? Theocracy, Government of God, is precisely the thing to be struggled for! All Prophets, zealous Priests, are there for that purpose. Hildebrand wished a Theocracy; Cromwell wished it, fought for it; Mahomet attained it. Nay, is it not what all zealous men, whether called Priests, Prophets, or whatsoever else called, do essentially wish, and must wish? That right and truth, or God’s law, reign supreme among men, this is the Heavenly Ideal (well named in Knox’s time, and namable in all times, a revealed “Will of God”) toward which the Reformer will insist that all be more and more approximated. All true Reformers are by nature of them Priests, and strive for a Theocracy.
This ends our series of passages on John Knox and Scotland’s Reformation by Thomas Carlyle from his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History published in 1841. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.