Our present discourse is to be of the Great Man as Priest. We have repeatedly endeavored to explain that all sorts of Heroes are intrinsically of the same material; that given a great soul, open to the Divine Significance of Life, then there is given a man fit to speak of this, to sing of this, to fight and work for this, in a great, victorious, enduring manner; there is given a Hero, — the outward shape of whom will depend on the time and the environment he finds himself in. The Priest too, as I understand it, is a kind of Prophet; in him too there is required to be a light of inspiration, as we must name it. He presides over the worship of the people; is the Uniter of them with the Unseen Holy. He is the spiritual Captain of the people; as the Prophet is their spiritual King with many captains: he guides them heavenward, by wise guidance through this Earth and its work. The ideal of him is, that he too be what we can call a voice from the unseen Heaven; interpreting, even as the Prophet did, and in a more familiar manner unfolding the same to men. The unseen Heaven, — the “open secret of the Universe,” — which so few have an eye for! He is the Prophet shorn of his more awful splendor; burning with mild equable radiance, as the enlightener of daily life. This, I say, is the ideal of a Priest. So in old times; so in these, and in all times. One knows very well that, in reducing ideals to practice, great latitude of tolerance is needful; very great. But a Priest who is not this at all, who does not any longer aim or try to be this, is a character — of whom we had rather not speak in this place.
Luther and Knox were by express vocation Priests, and did faithfully perform that function in its common sense. Yet it will suit us better here to consider them chiefly in their historical character, rather as Reformers than Priests. There have been other Priests perhaps equally notable, in calmer times, for doing faithfully the office of a Leader of Worship; bringing down, by faithful heroism in that kind, a light from Heaven into the daily life of their people; leading them forward, as under God’s guidance, in the way wherein they were to go. But when this same way was a rough one, of battle, confusion and danger, the spiritual Captain, who led through that, becomes, especially to us who live under the fruit of his leading, more notable than any other. He is the warfaring and battling Priest; who led his people, not to quiet faithful labor as in smooth times, but to faithful valorous conflict, in times all violent, dismembered: a more perilous service, and a more memorable one, be it higher or not. These two men we will account our best Priests, inasmuch as they were our best Reformers. Nay I may ask, Is not every true Reformer, by the nature of him, a Priest first of all? He appeals to Heaven’s invisible justice against Earth’s visible force; knows that it, the invisible, is strong and alone strong. He is a believer in the divine truth of things; a seer, seeing through the shows of things; a worshipper, in one way or the other, of the divine truth of things; a Priest, that is. If he be not first a Priest, he will never be good for much as a Reformer.
Thus then, as we have seen Great Men, in various situations, building up Religions, heroic Forms of human Existence in this world, Theories of Life worthy to be sung by a Dante, Practices of Life by a Shakspeare, — we are now to see the reverse process; which also is necessary, which also may be carried on in the Heroic manner. Curious how this should be necessary: yet necessary it is. The mild shining of the Poet’s light has to give place to the fierce lightning of the Reformer: unfortunately the Reformer too is a personage that cannot fail in History! The Poet indeed, with his mildness, what is he but the product and ultimate adjustment of Reform, or Prophecy, with its fierceness? No wild Saint Dominics and Thebaid Eremites, there had been no melodious Dante; rough Practical Endeavor, Scandinavian and other, from Odin to Walter Raleigh, from Ulfila to Cranmer, enabled Shakspeare to speak. Nay the finished Poet, I remark sometimes, is a symptom that his epoch itself has reached perfection and is finished; that before long there will be a new epoch, new Reformers needed.
Doubtless it were finer, could we go along always in the way of music; be tamed and taught by our Poets, as the rude creatures were by their Orpheus of old. Or failing this rhythmic musical way, how good were it could we get so much as into the equable way; I mean, if peaceable Priests, reforming from day to day, would always suffice us! But it is not so; even this latter has not yet been realized. Alas, the battling Reformer too is, from time to time, a needful and inevitable phenomenon. Obstructions are never wanting: the very things that were once indispensable furtherances become obstructions; and need to be shaken off, and left behind us, — a business often of enormous difficulty. It is notable enough, surely, how a Theorem or spiritual Representation, so we may call it, which once took in the whole Universe, and was completely satisfactory in all parts of it to the highly discursive acute intellect of Dante, one of the greatest in the world, — had in the course of another century become dubitable to common intellects; become deniable; and is now, to every one of us, flatly incredible, obsolete as Odin’s Theorem! To Dante, human Existence, and God’s ways with men, were all well represented by those Malebolges, Purgatorios; to Luther not well. How was this? Why could not Dante’s Catholicism continue; but Luther’s Protestantism must needs follow? Alas, nothing will continue.
I do not make much of “Progress of the Species,” as handled in these times of ours; nor do I think you would care to hear much about it. The talk on that subject is too often of the most extravagant, confused sort. Yet I may say, the fact itself seems certain enough; nay we can trace out the inevitable necessity of it in the nature of things. Every man, as I have stated somewhere, is not only a learner but a doer: he learns with the mind given him what has been; but with the same mind he discovers farther, he invents and devises somewhat of his own. Absolutely without originality there is no man. No man whatever believes, or can believe, exactly what his grandfather believed: he enlarges somewhat, by fresh discovery, his view of the Universe, and consequently his Theorem of the Universe, — which is an infinite Universe, and can never be embraced wholly or finally by any view or Theorem, in any conceivable enlargement: he enlarges somewhat, I say; finds somewhat that was credible to his grandfather incredible to him, false to him, inconsistent with some new thing he has discovered or observed. It is the history of every man; and in the history of Mankind we see it summed up into great historical amounts, — revolutions, new epochs. Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory does not stand “in the ocean of the other Hemisphere,” when Columbus has once sailed thither! Men find no such thing extant in the other Hemisphere. It is not there. It must cease to be believed to be there. So with all beliefs whatsoever in this world, — all Systems of Belief, and Systems of Practice that spring from these.
If we add now the melancholy fact, that when Belief waxes uncertain, Practice too becomes unsound, and errors, injustices and miseries everywhere more and more prevail, we shall see material enough for revolution. At all turns, a man who will do faithfully, needs to believe firmly. If he have to ask at every turn the world’s suffrage; if he cannot dispense with the world’s suffrage, and make his own suffrage serve, he is a poor eye-servant; the work committed to him will be misdone. Every such man is a daily contributor to the inevitable downfall. Whatsoever work he does, dishonestly, with an eye to the outward look of it, is a new offence, parent of new misery to somebody or other. Offences accumulate till they become insupportable; and are then violently burst through, cleared off as by explosion. Dante’s sublime Catholicism, incredible now in theory, and defaced still worse by faithless, doubting and dishonest practice, has to be torn asunder by a Luther, Shakspeare’s noble Feudalism, as beautiful as it once looked and was, has to end in a French Revolution. The accumulation of offences is, as we say, too literally exploded, blasted asunder volcanically; and there are long troublous periods, before matters come to a settlement again.
Surely it were mournful enough to look only at this face of the matter, and find in all human opinions and arrangements merely the fact that they were uncertain, temporary, subject to the law of death! At bottom, it is not so: all death, here too we find, is but of the body, not of the essence or soul; all destruction, by violent revolution or howsoever it be, is but new creation on a wider scale. Odinism was Valor; Christianism was Humility, a nobler kind of Valor. No thought that ever dwelt honestly as true in the heart of man but was an honest insight into God’s truth on man’s part, and has an essential truth in it which endures through all changes, an everlasting possession for us all. And, on the other hand, what a melancholy notion is that, which has to represent all men, in all countries and times except our own, as having spent their life in blind condemnable error, mere lost Pagans, Scandinavians, Mahometans, only that we might have the true ultimate knowledge! All generations of men were lost and wrong, only that this present little section of a generation might be saved and right. They all marched forward there, all generations since the beginning of the world, like the Russian soldiers into the ditch of Schweidnitz Fort, only to fill up the ditch with their dead bodies, that we might march over and take the place! It is an incredible hypothesis.
Such incredible hypothesis we have seen maintained with fierce emphasis; and this or the other poor individual man, with his sect of individual men, marching as over the dead bodies of all men, towards sure victory but when he too, with his hypothesis and ultimate infallible credo, sank into the ditch, and became a dead body, what was to be said? — Withal, it is an important fact in the nature of man, that he tends to reckon his own insight as final, and goes upon it as such. He will always do it, I suppose, in one or the other way; but it must be in some wider, wiser way than this. Are not all true men that live, or that ever lived, soldiers of the same army, enlisted, under Heaven’s captaincy, to do battle against the same enemy, the empire of Darkness and Wrong? Why should we misknow one another, fight not against the enemy but against ourselves, from mere difference of uniform? All uniforms shall be good, so they hold in them true valiant men. All fashions of arms, the Arab turban and swift scimetar, Thor’s strong hammer smiting down Jotuns, shall be welcome. Luther’s battle-voice, Dante’s march-melody, all genuine things are with us, not against us. We are all under one Captain, soldiers of the same host. — Let us now look a little at this Luther’s fighting; what kind of battle it was, and how he comported himself in it. Luther too was of our spiritual Heroes; a Prophet to his country and time.
As introductory to the whole, a remark about Idolatry will perhaps be in place here. One of Mahomet’s characteristics, which indeed belongs to all Prophets, is unlimited implacable zeal against Idolatry. It is the grand theme of Prophets: Idolatry, the worshipping of dead Idols as the Divinity, is a thing they cannot away with, but have to denounce continually, and brand with inexpiable reprobation; it is the chief of all the sins they see done under the sun. This is worth noting. We will not enter here into the theological question about Idolatry. Idol is Eidolon, a thing seen, a symbol. It is not God, but a Symbol of God; and perhaps one may question whether any the most benighted mortal ever took it for more than a Symbol. I fancy, he did not think that the poor image his own hands had made was God; but that God was emblemed by it, that God was in it some way or other. And now in this sense, one may ask, Is not all worship whatsoever a worship by Symbols, by eidola, or things seen? Whether seen, rendered visible as an image or picture to the bodily eye; or visible only to the inward eye, to the imagination, to the intellect: this makes a superficial, but no substantial difference. It is still a Thing Seen, significant of Godhead; an Idol. The most rigorous Puritan has his Confession of Faith, and intellectual Representation of Divine things, and worships thereby; thereby is worship first made possible for him. All creeds, liturgies, religious forms, conceptions that fitly invest religious feelings, are in this sense eidola, things seen. All worship whatsoever must proceed by Symbols, by Idols:— we may say, all Idolatry is comparative, and the worst Idolatry is only more idolatrous.
Where, then, lies the evil of it? Some fatal evil must lie in it, or earnest prophetic men would not on all hands so reprobate it. Why is Idolatry so hateful to Prophets? It seems to me as if, in the worship of those poor wooden symbols, the thing that had chiefly provoked the Prophet, and filled his inmost soul with indignation and aversion, was not exactly what suggested itself to his own thought, and came out of him in words to others, as the thing. The rudest heathen that worshipped Canopus, or the Caabah Black–Stone, he, as we saw, was superior to the horse that worshipped nothing at all! Nay there was a kind of lasting merit in that poor act of his; analogous to what is still meritorious in Poets: recognition of a certain endless divine beauty and significance in stars and all natural objects whatsoever. Why should the Prophet so mercilessly condemn him? The poorest mortal worshipping his Fetish, while his heart is full of it, may be an object of pity, of contempt and avoidance, if you will; but cannot surely be an object of hatred. Let his heart be honestly full of it, the whole space of his dark narrow mind illuminated thereby; in one word, let him entirely believe in his Fetish, — it will then be, I should say, if not well with him, yet as well as it can readily be made to be, and you will leave him alone, unmolested there.
But here enters the fatal circumstance of Idolatry, that, in the era of the Prophets, no man’s mind is any longer honestly filled with his Idol or Symbol. Before the Prophet can arise who, seeing through it, knows it to be mere wood, many men must have begun dimly to doubt that it was little more. Condemnable Idolatry is insincere Idolatry. Doubt has eaten out the heart of it: a human soul is seen clinging spasmodically to an Ark of the Covenant, which it half feels now to have become a Phantasm. This is one of the balefulest sights. Souls are no longer filled with their Fetish; but only pretend to be filled, and would fain make themselves feel that they are filled. “You do not believe,” said Coleridge; “you only believe that you believe.” It is the final scene in all kinds of Worship and Symbolism; the sure symptom that death is now nigh. It is equivalent to what we call Formulism, and Worship of Formulas, in these days of ours. No more immoral act can be done by a human creature; for it is the beginning of all immorality, or rather it is the impossibility henceforth of any morality whatsoever: the innermost moral soul is paralyzed thereby, cast into fatal magnetic sleep! Men are no longer sincere men. I do not wonder that the earnest man denounces this, brands it, prosecutes it with inextinguishable aversion. He and it, all good and it, are at death-feud. Blamable Idolatry is Cant, and even what one may call Sincere–Cant. Sincere–Cant: that is worth thinking of! Every sort of Worship ends with this phasis.
I find Luther to have been a Breaker of Idols, no less than any other Prophet. The wooden gods of the Koreish, made of timber and bees-wax, were not more hateful to Mahomet than Tetzel’s Pardons of Sin, made of sheepskin and ink, were to Luther. It is the property of every Hero, in every time, in every place and situation, that he come back to reality; that he stand upon things, and not shows of things. According as he loves, and venerates, articulately or with deep speechless thought, the awful realities of things, so will the hollow shows of things, however regular, decorous, accredited by Koreishes or Conclaves, be intolerable and detestable to him. Protestantism, too, is the work of a Prophet: the prophet-work of that sixteenth century. The first stroke of honest demolition to an ancient thing grown false and idolatrous; preparatory afar off to a new thing, which shall be true, and authentically divine!
At first view it might seem as if Protestantism were entirely destructive to this that we call Hero-worship, and represent as the basis of all possible good, religious or social, for mankind. One often hears it said that Protestantism introduced a new era, radically different from any the world had ever seen before: the era of “private judgment,” as they call it. By this revolt against the Pope, every man became his own Pope; and learnt, among other things, that he must never trust any Pope, or spiritual Hero-captain, any more! Whereby, is not spiritual union, all hierarchy and subordination among men, henceforth an impossibility? So we hear it said. — Now I need not deny that Protestantism was a revolt against spiritual sovereignties, Popes and much else. Nay I will grant that English Puritanism, revolt against earthly sovereignties, was the second act of it; that the enormous French Revolution itself was the third act, whereby all sovereignties earthly and spiritual were, as might seem, abolished or made sure of abolition. Protestantism is the grand root from which our whole subsequent European History branches out. For the spiritual will always body itself forth in the temporal history of men; the spiritual is the beginning of the temporal. And now, sure enough, the cry is everywhere for Liberty and Equality, Independence and so forth; instead of Kings, Ballot-boxes and Electoral suffrages: it seems made out that any Hero-sovereign, or loyal obedience of men to a man, in things temporal or things spiritual, has passed away forever from the world. I should despair of the world altogether, if so. One of my deepest convictions is, that it is not so. Without sovereigns, true sovereigns, temporal and spiritual, I see nothing possible but an anarchy; the hatefulest of things. But I find Protestantism, whatever anarchic democracy it have produced, to be the beginning of new genuine sovereignty and order. I find it to be a revolt against false sovereigns; the painful but indispensable first preparative for true sovereigns getting place among us! This is worth explaining a little.
Let us remark, therefore, in the first place, that this of “private judgment” is, at bottom, not a new thing in the world, but only new at that epoch of the world. There is nothing generically new or peculiar in the Reformation; it was a return to Truth and Reality in opposition to Falsehood and Semblance, as all kinds of Improvement and genuine Teaching are and have been. Liberty of private judgment, if we will consider it, must at all times have existed in the world. Dante had not put out his eyes, or tied shackles on himself; he was at home in that Catholicism of his, a free-seeing soul in it, — if many a poor Hogstraten, Tetzel, and Dr. Eck had now become slaves in it. Liberty of judgment? No iron chain, or outward force of any kind, could ever compel the soul of a man to believe or to disbelieve: it is his own indefeasible light, that judgment of his; he will reign, and believe there, by the grace of God alone! The sorriest sophistical Bellarmine, preaching sightless faith and passive obedience, must first, by some kind of conviction, have abdicated his right to be convinced. His “private judgment” indicated that, as the advisablest step he could take. The right of private judgment will subsist, in full force, wherever true men subsist. A true man believes with his whole judgment, with all the illumination and discernment that is in him, and has always so believed. A false man, only struggling to “believe that he believes,” will naturally manage it in some other way. Protestantism said to this latter, Woe! and to the former, Well done! At bottom, it was no new saying; it was a return to all old sayings that ever had been said. Be genuine, be sincere: that was, once more, the meaning of it. Mahomet believed with his whole mind; Odin with his whole mind, — he, and all true Followers of Odinism. They, by their private judgment, had “judged “ — so.
And now I venture to assert, that the exercise of private judgment, faithfully gone about, does by no means necessarily end in selfish independence, isolation; but rather ends necessarily in the opposite of that. It is not honest inquiry that makes anarchy; but it is error, insincerity, half-belief and untruth that make it. A man protesting against error is on the way towards uniting himself with all men that believe in truth. There is no communion possible among men who believe only in hearsays. The heart of each is lying dead; has no power of sympathy even with things, — or he would believe them and not hearsays. No sympathy even with things; how much less with his fellow-men! He cannot unite with men; he is an anarchic man. Only in a world of sincere men is unity possible; — and there, in the long-run, it is as good as certain.
For observe one thing, a thing too often left out of view, or rather altogether lost sight of in this controversy: That it is not necessary a man should himself have discovered the truth he is to believe in, and never so sincerely to believe in. A Great Man, we said, was always sincere, as the first condition of him. But a man need not be great in order to be sincere; that is not the necessity of Nature and all Time, but only of certain corrupt unfortunate epochs of Time. A man can believe, and make his own, in the most genuine way, what he has received from another; — and with boundless gratitude to that other! The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity. The believing man is the original man; whatsoever he believes, he believes it for himself, not for another. Every son of Adam can become a sincere man, an original man, in this sense; no mortal is doomed to be an insincere man. Whole ages, what we call ages of Faith, are original; all men in them, or the most of men in them, sincere. These are the great and fruitful ages: every worker, in all spheres, is a worker not on semblance but on substance; every work issues in a result: the general sum of such work is great; for all of it, as genuine, tends towards one goal; all of it is additive, none of it subtractive. There is true union, true kingship, loyalty, all true and blessed things, so far as the poor Earth can produce blessedness for men.
Hero-worship? Ah me, that a man be self-subsistent, original, true, or what we call it, is surely the farthest in the world from indisposing him to reverence and believe other men’s truth! It only disposes, necessitates and invincibly compels him to disbelieve other men’s dead formulas, hearsays and untruths. A man embraces truth with his eyes open, and because his eyes are open: does he need to shut them before he can love his Teacher of truth? He alone can love, with a right gratitude and genuine loyalty of soul, the Hero–Teacher who has delivered him out of darkness into light. Is not such a one a true Hero and Serpent-queller; worthy of all reverence! The black monster, Falsehood, our one enemy in this world, lies prostrate by his valor; it was he that conquered the world for us! — See, accordingly, was not Luther himself reverenced as a true Pope, or Spiritual Father, being verily such? Napoleon, from amid boundless revolt of Sansculottism, became a King. Hero-worship never dies, nor can die. Loyalty and Sovereignty are everlasting in the world:— and there is this in them, that they are grounded not on garnitures and semblances, but on realities and sincerities. Not by shutting your eyes, your “private judgment;” no, but by opening them, and by having something to see! Luther’s message was deposition and abolition to all false Popes and Potentates, but life and strength, though afar off, to new genuine ones.
All this of Liberty and Equality, Electoral suffrages, Independence and so forth, we will take, therefore, to be a temporary phenomenon, by no means a final one. Though likely to last a long time, with sad enough embroilments for us all, we must welcome it, as the penalty of sins that are past, the pledge of inestimable benefits that are coming. In all ways, it behooved men to quit simulacra and return to fact; cost what it might, that did behoove to be done. With spurious Popes, and Believers having no private judgment, — quacks pretending to command over dupes, — what can you do? Misery and mischief only. You cannot make an association out of insincere men; you cannot build an edifice except by plummet and level, — at right-angles to one another! In all this wild revolutionary work, from Protestantism downwards, I see the blessedest result preparing itself: not abolition of Hero-worship, but rather what I would call a whole World of Heroes. If Hero mean sincere man, why may not every one of us be a Hero? A world all sincere, a believing world: the like has been; the like will again be, — cannot help being. That were the right sort of Worshippers for Heroes: never could the truly Better be so reverenced as where all were True and Good! — But we must hasten to Luther and his Life.
Luther’s birthplace was Eisleben in Saxony; he came into the world there on the 10th of November, 1483. It was an accident that gave this honor to Eisleben. His parents, poor mine-laborers in a village of that region, named Mohra, had gone to the Eisleben Winter–Fair: in the tumult of this scene the Frau Luther was taken with travail, found refuge in some poor house there, and the boy she bore was named MARTIN LUTHER. Strange enough to reflect upon it. This poor Frau Luther, she had gone with her husband to make her small merchandisings; perhaps to sell the lock of yarn she had been spinning, to buy the small winter-necessaries for her narrow hut or household; in the whole world, that day, there was not a more entirely unimportant-looking pair of people than this Miner and his Wife. And yet what were all Emperors, Popes and Potentates, in comparison? There was born here, once more, a Mighty Man; whose light was to flame as the beacon over long centuries and epochs of the world; the whole world and its history was waiting for this man. It is strange, it is great. It leads us back to another Birth-hour, in a still meaner environment, Eighteen Hundred years ago, — of which it is fit that we say nothing, that we think only in silence; for what words are there! The Age of Miracles past? The Age of Miracles is forever here —!
I find it altogether suitable to Luther’s function in this Earth, and doubtless wisely ordered to that end by the Providence presiding over him and us and all things, that he was born poor, and brought up poor, one of the poorest of men. He had to beg, as the school-children in those times did; singing for alms and bread, from door to door. Hardship, rigorous Necessity was the poor boy’s companion; no man nor no thing would put on a false face to flatter Martin Luther. Among things, not among the shows of things, had he to grow. A boy of rude figure, yet with weak health, with his large greedy soul, full of all faculty and sensibility, he suffered greatly. But it was his task to get acquainted with realities, and keep acquainted with them, at whatever cost: his task was to bring the whole world back to reality, for it had dwelt too long with semblance! A youth nursed up in wintry whirlwinds, in desolate darkness and difficulty, that he may step forth at last from his stormy Scandinavia, strong as a true man, as a god: a Christian Odin, — a right Thor once more, with his thunder-hammer, to smite asunder ugly enough Jotuns and Giant-monsters!
Perhaps the turning incident of his life, we may fancy, was that death of his friend Alexis, by lightning, at the gate of Erfurt. Luther had struggled up through boyhood, better and worse; displaying, in spite of all hindrances, the largest intellect, eager to learn: his father judging doubtless that he might promote himself in the world, set him upon the study of Law. This was the path to rise; Luther, with little will in it either way, had consented: he was now nineteen years of age. Alexis and he had been to see the old Luther people at Mansfeldt; were got back again near Erfurt, when a thunder-storm came on; the bolt struck Alexis, he fell dead at Luther’s feet. What is this Life of ours? — gone in a moment, burnt up like a scroll, into the blank Eternity! What are all earthly preferments, Chancellorships, Kingships? They lie shrunk together — there! The Earth has opened on them; in a moment they are not, and Eternity is. Luther, struck to the heart, determined to devote himself to God and God’s service alone. In spite of all dissuasions from his father and others, he became a Monk in the Augustine Convent at Erfurt.
This was probably the first light-point in the history of Luther, his purer will now first decisively uttering itself; but, for the present, it was still as one light-point in an element all of darkness. He says he was a pious monk, ich bin ein frommer Monch gewesen; faithfully, painfully struggling to work out the truth of this high act of his; but it was to little purpose. His misery had not lessened; had rather, as it were, increased into infinitude. The drudgeries he had to do, as novice in his Convent, all sorts of slave-work, were not his grievance: the deep earnest soul of the man had fallen into all manner of black scruples, dubitations; he believed himself likely to die soon, and far worse than die. One hears with a new interest for poor Luther that, at this time, he lived in terror of the unspeakable misery; fancied that he was doomed to eternal reprobation. Was it not the humble sincere nature of the man? What was he, that he should be raised to Heaven! He that had known only misery, and mean slavery: the news was too blessed to be credible. It could not become clear to him how, by fasts, vigils, formalities and mass-work, a man’s soul could be saved. He fell into the blackest wretchedness; had to wander staggering as on the verge of bottomless Despair.
It must have been a most blessed discovery, that of an old Latin Bible which he found in the Erfurt Library about this time. He had never seen the Book before. It taught him another lesson than that of fasts and vigils. A brother monk too, of pious experience, was helpful. Luther learned now that a man was saved not by singing masses, but by the infinite grace of God: a more credible hypothesis. He gradually got himself founded, as on the rock. No wonder he should venerate the Bible, which had brought this blessed help to him. He prized it as the Word of the Highest must be prized by such a man. He determined to hold by that; as through life and to death he firmly did.
This, then, is his deliverance from darkness, his final triumph over darkness, what we call his conversion; for himself the most important of all epochs. That he should now grow daily in peace and clearness; that, unfolding now the great talents and virtues implanted in him, he should rise to importance in his Convent, in his country, and be found more and more useful in all honest business of life, is a natural result. He was sent on missions by his Augustine Order, as a man of talent and fidelity fit to do their business well: the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich, named the Wise, a truly wise and just prince, had cast his eye on him as a valuable person; made him Professor in his new University of Wittenberg, Preacher too at Wittenberg; in both which capacities, as in all duties he did, this Luther, in the peaceable sphere of common life, was gaining more and more esteem with all good men.
It was in his twenty-seventh year that he first saw Rome; being sent thither, as I said, on mission from his Convent. Pope Julius the Second, and what was going on at Rome, must have filled the mind of Luther with amazement. He had come as to the Sacred City, throne of God’s High-priest on Earth; and he found it — what we know! Many thoughts it must have given the man; many which we have no record of, which perhaps he did not himself know how to utter. This Rome, this scene of false priests, clothed not in the beauty of holiness, but in far other vesture, is false: but what is it to Luther? A mean man he, how shall he reform a world? That was far from his thoughts. A humble, solitary man, why should he at all meddle with the world? It was the task of quite higher men than he. His business was to guide his own footsteps wisely through the world. Let him do his own obscure duty in it well; the rest, horrible and dismal as it looks, is in God’s hand, not in his.
It is curious to reflect what might have been the issue, had Roman Popery happened to pass this Luther by; to go on in its great wasteful orbit, and not come athwart his little path, and force him to assault it! Conceivable enough that, in this case, he might have held his peace about the abuses of Rome; left Providence, and God on high, to deal with them! A modest quiet man; not prompt he to attack irreverently persons in authority. His clear task, as I say, was to do his own duty; to walk wisely in this world of confused wickedness, and save his own soul alive. But the Roman High-priesthood did come athwart him: afar off at Wittenberg he, Luther, could not get lived in honesty for it; he remonstrated, resisted, came to extremity; was struck at, struck again, and so it came to wager of battle between them! This is worth attending to in Luther’s history. Perhaps no man of so humble, peaceable a disposition ever filled the world with contention. We cannot but see that he would have loved privacy, quiet diligence in the shade; that it was against his will he ever became a notoriety. Notoriety: what would that do for him? The goal of his march through this world was the Infinite Heaven; an indubitable goal for him: in a few years, he should either have attained that, or lost it forever! We will say nothing at all, I think, of that sorrowfulest of theories, of its being some mean shopkeeper grudge, of the Augustine Monk against the Dominican, that first kindled the wrath of Luther, and produced the Protestant Reformation. We will say to the people who maintain it, if indeed any such exist now: Get first into the sphere of thought by which it is so much as possible to judge of Luther, or of any man like Luther, otherwise than distractedly; we may then begin arguing with you.
The Monk Tetzel, sent out carelessly in the way of trade, by Leo Tenth, — who merely wanted to raise a little money, and for the rest seems to have been a Pagan rather than a Christian, so far as he was anything, — arrived at Wittenberg, and drove his scandalous trade there. Luther’s flock bought Indulgences; in the confessional of his Church, people pleaded to him that they had already got their sins pardoned. Luther, if he would not be found wanting at his own post, a false sluggard and coward at the very centre of the little space of ground that was his own and no other man’s, had to step forth against Indulgences, and declare aloud that they were a futility and sorrowful mockery, that no man’s sins could be pardoned by them. It was the beginning of the whole Reformation. We know how it went; forward from this first public challenge of Tetzel, on the last day of October, 1517, through remonstrance and argument; — spreading ever wider, rising ever higher; till it became unquenchable, and enveloped all the world. Luther’s heart’s desire was to have this grief and other griefs amended; his thought was still far other than that of introducing separation in the Church, or revolting against the Pope, Father of Christendom. — The elegant Pagan Pope cared little about this Monk and his doctrines; wished, however, to have done with the noise of him: in a space of some three years, having tried various softer methods, he thought good to end it by fire. He dooms the Monk’s writings to be burnt by the hangman, and his body to be sent bound to Rome, — probably for a similar purpose. It was the way they had ended with Huss, with Jerome, the century before. A short argument, fire. Poor Huss: he came to that Constance Council, with all imaginable promises and safe-conducts; an earnest, not rebellious kind of man: they laid him instantly in a stone dungeon “three feet wide, six feet high, seven feet long;” burnt the true voice of him out of this world; choked it in smoke and fire. That was not well done!
I, for one, pardon Luther for now altogether revolting against the Pope. The elegant Pagan, by this fire-decree of his, had kindled into noble just wrath the bravest heart then living in this world. The bravest, if also one of the humblest, peaceablest; it was now kindled. These words of mine, words of truth and soberness, aiming faithfully, as human inability would allow, to promote God’s truth on Earth, and save men’s souls, you, God’s vicegerent on earth, answer them by the hangman and fire? You will burn me and them, for answer to the God’s-message they strove to bring you? You are not God’s vicegerent; you are another’s than his, I think! I take your Bull, as an emparchmented Lie, and burn it. You will do what you see good next: this is what I do. — It was on the 10th of December, 1520, three years after the beginning of the business, that Luther, “with a great concourse of people,” took this indignant step of burning the Pope’s fire-decree “at the Elster–Gate of Wittenberg.” Wittenberg looked on “with shoutings;” the whole world was looking on. The Pope should not have provoked that “shout”! It was the shout of the awakening of nations. The quiet German heart, modest, patient of much, had at length got more than it could bear. Formulism, Pagan Popeism, and other Falsehood and corrupt Semblance had ruled long enough: and here once more was a man found who durst tell all men that God’s-world stood not on semblances but on realities; that Life was a truth, and not a lie!
At bottom, as was said above, we are to consider Luther as a Prophet Idol-breaker; a bringer-back of men to reality. It is the function of great men and teachers. Mahomet said, These idols of yours are wood; you put wax and oil on them, the flies stick on them: they are not God, I tell you, they are black wood! Luther said to the Pope, This thing of yours that you call a Pardon of Sins, it is a bit of rag-paper with ink. It is nothing else; it, and so much like it, is nothing else. God alone can pardon sins. Popeship, spiritual Fatherhood of God’s Church, is that a vain semblance, of cloth and parchment? It is an awful fact. God’s Church is not a semblance, Heaven and Hell are not semblances. I stand on this, since you drive me to it. Standing on this, I a poor German Monk am stronger than you all. I stand solitary, friendless, but on God’s Truth; you with your tiaras, triple-hats, with your treasuries and armories, thunders spiritual and temporal, stand on the Devil’s Lie, and are not so strong —!
The Diet of Worms, Luther’s appearance there on the 17th of April, 1521, may be considered as the greatest scene in Modern European History; the point, indeed, from which the whole subsequent history of civilization takes its rise. After multiplied negotiations, disputations, it had come to this. The young Emperor Charles Fifth, with all the Princes of Germany, Papal nuncios, dignitaries spiritual and temporal, are assembled there: Luther is to appear and answer for himself, whether he will recant or not. The world’s pomp and power sits there on this hand: on that, stands up for God’s Truth, one man, the poor miner Hans Luther’s Son. Friends had reminded him of Huss, advised him not to go; he would not be advised. A large company of friends rode out to meet him, with still more earnest warnings; he answered, “Were there as many Devils in Worms as there are roof-tiles, I would on.” The people, on the morrow, as he went to the Hall of the Diet, crowded the windows and house-tops, some of them calling out to him, in solemn words, not to recant: “Whosoever denieth me before men!” they cried to him, — as in a kind of solemn petition and adjuration. Was it not in reality our petition too, the petition of the whole world, lying in dark bondage of soul, paralyzed under a black spectral Nightmare and triple-hatted Chimera, calling itself Father in God, and what not: “Free us; it rests with thee; desert us not!”
Luther did not desert us. His speech, of two hours, distinguished itself by its respectful, wise and honest tone; submissive to whatsoever could lawfully claim submission, not submissive to any more than that. His writings, he said, were partly his own, partly derived from the Word of God. As to what was his own, human infirmity entered into it; unguarded anger, blindness, many things doubtless which it were a blessing for him could he abolish altogether. But as to what stood on sound truth and the Word of God, he could not recant it. How could he? “Confute me,” he concluded, “by proofs of Scripture, or else by plain just arguments: I cannot recant otherwise. For it is neither safe nor prudent to do aught against conscience. Here stand I; I can do no other: God assist me!” — It is, as we say, the greatest moment in the Modern History of Men. English Puritanism, England and its Parliaments, Americas, and vast work these two centuries; French Revolution, Europe and its work everywhere at present: the germ of it all lay there: had Luther in that moment done other, it had all been otherwise! The European World was asking him: Am I to sink ever lower into falsehood, stagnant putrescence, loathsome accursed death; or, with whatever paroxysm, to cast the falsehoods out of me, and be cured and live? —
Great wars, contentions and disunion followed out of this Reformation; which last down to our day, and are yet far from ended. Great talk and crimination has been made about these. They are lamentable, undeniable; but after all, what has Luther or his cause to do with them? It seems strange reasoning to charge the Reformation with all this. When Hercules turned the purifying river into King Augeas’s stables, I have no doubt the confusion that resulted was considerable all around: but I think it was not Hercules’s blame; it was some other’s blame! The Reformation might bring what results it liked when it came, but the Reformation simply could not help coming. To all Popes and Popes’ advocates, expostulating, lamenting and accusing, the answer of the world is: Once for all, your Popehood has become untrue. No matter how good it was, how good you say it is, we cannot believe it; the light of our whole mind, given us to walk by from Heaven above, finds it henceforth a thing unbelievable. We will not believe it, we will not try to believe it, — we dare not! The thing is untrue; we were traitors against the Giver of all Truth, if we durst pretend to think it true. Away with it; let whatsoever likes come in the place of it: with it we can have no farther trade! — Luther and his Protestantism is not responsible for wars; the false Simulacra that forced him to protest, they are responsible. Luther did what every man that God has made has not only the right, but lies under the sacred duty, to do: answered a Falsehood when it questioned him, Dost thou believe me? — No! — At what cost soever, without counting of costs, this thing behooved to be done. Union, organization spiritual and material, a far nobler than any Popedom or Feudalism in their truest days, I never doubt, is coming for the world; sure to come. But on Fact alone, not on Semblance and Simulacrum, will it be able either to come, or to stand when come. With union grounded on falsehood, and ordering us to speak and act lies, we will not have anything to do. Peace? A brutal lethargy is peaceable, the noisome grave is peaceable. We hope for a living peace, not a dead one!
And yet, in prizing justly the indispensable blessings of the New, let us not be unjust to the Old. The Old was true, if it no longer is. In Dante’s days it needed no sophistry, self-blinding or other dishonesty, to get itself reckoned true. It was good then; nay there is in the soul of it a deathless good. The cry of “No Popery” is foolish enough in these days. The speculation that Popery is on the increase, building new chapels and so forth, may pass for one of the idlest ever started. Very curious: to count up a few Popish chapels, listen to a few Protestant logic-choppings, — to much dull-droning drowsy inanity that still calls itself Protestant, and say: See, Protestantism is dead; Popeism is more alive than it, will be alive after it! — Drowsy inanities, not a few, that call themselves Protestant are dead; but Protestantism has not died yet, that I hear of! Protestantism, if we will look, has in these days produced its Goethe, its Napoleon; German Literature and the French Revolution; rather considerable signs of life! Nay, at bottom, what else is alive but Protestantism? The life of most else that one meets is a galvanic one merely, — not a pleasant, not a lasting sort of life!
Popery can build new chapels; welcome to do so, to all lengths. Popery cannot come back, any more than Paganism can, — which also still lingers in some countries. But, indeed, it is with these things, as with the ebbing of the sea: you look at the waves oscillating hither, thither on the beach; for minutes you cannot tell how it is going; look in half an hour where it is, — look in half a century where your Popehood is! Alas, would there were no greater danger to our Europe than the poor old Pope’s revival! Thor may as soon try to revive. — And withal this oscillation has a meaning. The poor old Popehood will not die away entirely, as Thor has done, for some time yet; nor ought it. We may say, the Old never dies till this happen, Till all the soul of good that was in it have got itself transfused into the practical New. While a good work remains capable of being done by the Romish form; or, what is inclusive of all, while a pious life remains capable of being led by it, just so long, if we consider, will this or the other human soul adopt it, go about as a living witness of it. So long it will obtrude itself on the eye of us who reject it, till we in our practice too have appropriated whatsoever of truth was in it. Then, but also not till then, it will have no charm more for any man. It lasts here for a purpose. Let it last as long as it can. —
Of Luther I will add now, in reference to all these wars and bloodshed, the noticeable fact that none of them began so long as he continued living. The controversy did not get to fighting so long as he was there. To me it is proof of his greatness in all senses, this fact. How seldom do we find a man that has stirred up some vast commotion, who does not himself perish, swept away in it! Such is the usual course of revolutionists. Luther continued, in a good degree, sovereign of this greatest revolution; all Protestants, of what rank or function soever, looking much to him for guidance: and he held it peaceable, continued firm at the centre of it. A man to do this must have a kingly faculty: he must have the gift to discern at all turns where the true heart of the matter lies, and to plant himself courageously on that, as a strong true man, that other true men may rally round him there. He will not continue leader of men otherwise. Luther’s clear deep force of judgment, his force of all sorts, of silence, of tolerance and moderation, among others, are very notable in these circumstances.
Tolerance, I say; a very genuine kind of tolerance: he distinguishes what is essential, and what is not; the unessential may go very much as it will. A complaint comes to him that such and such a Reformed Preacher “will not preach without a cassock.” Well, answers Luther, what harm will a cassock do the man? “Let him have a cassock to preach in; let him have three cassocks if he find benefit in them!” His conduct in the matter of Karlstadt’s wild image-breaking; of the Anabaptists; of the Peasants’ War, shows a noble strength, very different from spasmodic violence. With sure prompt insight he discriminates what is what: a strong just man, he speaks forth what is the wise course, and all men follow him in that. Luther’s Written Works give similar testimony of him. The dialect of these speculations is now grown obsolete for us; but one still reads them with a singular attraction. And indeed the mere grammatical diction is still legible enough; Luther’s merit in literary history is of the greatest: his dialect became the language of all writing. They are not well written, these Four-and-twenty Quartos of his; written hastily, with quite other than literary objects. But in no Books have I found a more robust, genuine, I will say noble faculty of a man than in these. A rugged honesty, homeliness, simplicity; a rugged sterling sense and strength. He dashes out illumination from him; his smiting idiomatic phrases seem to cleave into the very secret of the matter. Good humor too, nay tender affection, nobleness and depth: this man could have been a Poet too! He had to work an Epic Poem, not write one. I call him a great Thinker; as indeed his greatness of heart already betokens that.
Richter says of Luther’s words, “His words are half-battles.” They may be called so. The essential quality of him was, that he could fight and conquer; that he was a right piece of human Valor. No more valiant man, no mortal heart to be called braver, that one has record of, ever lived in that Teutonic Kindred, whose character is valor. His defiance of the “Devils” in Worms was not a mere boast, as the like might be if now spoken. It was a faith of Luther’s that there were Devils, spiritual denizens of the Pit, continually besetting men. Many times, in his writings, this turns up; and a most small sneer has been grounded on it by some. In the room of the Wartburg where he sat translating the Bible, they still show you a black spot on the wall; the strange memorial of one of these conflicts. Luther sat translating one of the Psalms; he was worn down with long labor, with sickness, abstinence from food: there rose before him some hideous indefinable Image, which he took for the Evil One, to forbid his work: Luther started up, with fiend-defiance; flung his inkstand at the spectre, and it disappeared! The spot still remains there; a curious monument of several things. Any apothecary’s apprentice can now tell us what we are to think of this apparition, in a scientific sense: but the man’s heart that dare rise defiant, face to face, against Hell itself, can give no higher proof of fearlessness. The thing he will quail before exists not on this Earth or under it. — Fearless enough! “The Devil is aware,” writes he on one occasion, “that this does not proceed out of fear in me. I have seen and defied innumerable Devils. Duke George,” of Leipzig, a great enemy of his, “Duke George is not equal to one Devil,” — far short of a Devil! “If I had business at Leipzig, I would ride into Leipzig, though it rained Duke Georges for nine days running.” What a reservoir of Dukes to ride into —!
At the same time, they err greatly who imagine that this man’s courage was ferocity, mere coarse disobedient obstinacy and savagery, as many do. Far from that. There may be an absence of fear which arises from the absence of thought or affection, from the presence of hatred and stupid fury. We do not value the courage of the tiger highly! With Luther it was far otherwise; no accusation could be more unjust than this of mere ferocious violence brought against him. A most gentle heart withal, full of pity and love, as indeed the truly valiant heart ever is. The tiger before a stronger foe — flies: the tiger is not what we call valiant, only fierce and cruel. I know few things more touching than those soft breathings of affection, soft as a child’s or a mother’s, in this great wild heart of Luther. So honest, unadulterated with any cant; homely, rude in their utterance; pure as water welling from the rock. What, in fact, was all that down-pressed mood of despair and reprobation, which we saw in his youth, but the outcome of pre-eminent thoughtful gentleness, affections too keen and fine? It is the course such men as the poor Poet Cowper fall into. Luther to a slight observer might have seemed a timid, weak man; modesty, affectionate shrinking tenderness the chief distinction of him. It is a noble valor which is roused in a heart like this, once stirred up into defiance, all kindled into a heavenly blaze.
In Luther’s Table–Talk, a posthumous Book of anecdotes and sayings collected by his friends, the most interesting now of all the Books proceeding from him, we have many beautiful unconscious displays of the man, and what sort of nature he had. His behavior at the death-bed of his little Daughter, so still, so great and loving, is among the most affecting things. He is resigned that his little Magdalene should die, yet longs inexpressibly that she might live; — follows, in awe-struck thought, the flight of her little soul through those unknown realms. Awe-struck; most heartfelt, we can see; and sincere, — for after all dogmatic creeds and articles, he feels what nothing it is that we know, or can know: His little Magdalene shall be with God, as God wills; for Luther too that is all; Islam is all.
Once, he looks out from his solitary Patmos, the Castle of Coburg, in the middle of the night: The great vault of Immensity, long flights of clouds sailing through it, — dumb, gaunt, huge:— who supports all that? “None ever saw the pillars of it; yet it is supported.” God supports it. We must know that God is great, that God is good; and trust, where we cannot see. — Returning home from Leipzig once, he is struck by the beauty of the harvest-fields: How it stands, that golden yellow corn, on its fair taper stem, its golden head bent, all rich and waving there, — the meek Earth, at God’s kind bidding, has produced it once again; the bread of man! — In the garden at Wittenberg one evening at sunset, a little bird has perched for the night: That little bird, says Luther, above it are the stars and deep Heaven of worlds; yet it has folded its little wings; gone trustfully to rest there as in its home: the Maker of it has given it too a home! — Neither are mirthful turns wanting: there is a great free human heart in this man. The common speech of him has a rugged nobleness, idiomatic, expressive, genuine; gleams here and there with beautiful poetic tints. One feels him to be a great brother man. His love of Music, indeed, is not this, as it were, the summary of all these affections in him? Many a wild unutterability he spoke forth from him in the tones of his flute. The Devils fled from his flute, he says. Death-defiance on the one hand, and such love of music on the other; I could call these the two opposite poles of a great soul; between these two all great things had room.
Luther’s face is to me expressive of him; in Kranach’s best portraits I find the true Luther. A rude plebeian face; with its huge crag-like brows and bones, the emblem of rugged energy; at first, almost a repulsive face. Yet in the eyes especially there is a wild silent sorrow; an unnamable melancholy, the element of all gentle and fine affections; giving to the rest the true stamp of nobleness. Laughter was in this Luther, as we said; but tears also were there. Tears also were appointed him; tears and hard toil. The basis of his life was Sadness, Earnestness. In his latter days, after all triumphs and victories, he expresses himself heartily weary of living; he considers that God alone can and will regulate the course things are taking, and that perhaps the Day of Judgment is not far. As for him, he longs for one thing: that God would release him from his labor, and let him depart and be at rest. They understand little of the man who cite this in discredit of him! — I will call this Luther a true Great Man; great in intellect, in courage, affection and integrity; one of our most lovable and precious men. Great, not as a hewn obelisk; but as an Alpine mountain, — so simple, honest, spontaneous, not setting up to be great at all; there for quite another purpose than being great! Ah yes, unsubduable granite, piercing far and wide into the Heavens; yet in the clefts of it fountains, green beautiful valleys with flowers! A right Spiritual Hero and Prophet; once more, a true Son of Nature and Fact, for whom these centuries, and many that are to come yet, will be thankful to Heaven.
The most interesting phasis which the Reformation anywhere assumes, especially for us English, is that of Puritanism. In Luther’s own country Protestantism soon dwindled into a rather barren affair: not a religion or faith, but rather now a theological jangling of argument, the proper seat of it not the heart; the essence of it sceptical contention: which indeed has jangled more and more, down to Voltaireism itself, — through Gustavus–Adolphus contentions onwards to French–Revolution ones! But in our Island there arose a Puritanism, which even got itself established as a Presbyterianism and National Church among the Scotch; which came forth as a real business of the heart; and has produced in the world very notable fruit. In some senses, one may say it is the only phasis of Protestantism that ever got to the rank of being a Faith, a true heart-communication with Heaven, and of exhibiting itself in History as such. We must spare a few words for Knox; himself a brave and remarkable man; but still more important as Chief Priest and Founder, which one may consider him to be, of the Faith that became Scotland’s, New England’s, Oliver Cromwell’s. History will have something to say about this, for some time to come!
We may censure Puritanism as we please; and no one of us, I suppose, but would find it a very rough defective thing. But we, and all men, may understand that it was a genuine thing; for Nature has adopted it, and it has grown, and grows. I say sometimes, that all goes by wager-of-battle in this world; that strength, well understood, is the measure of all worth. Give a thing time; if it can succeed, it is a right thing. Look now at American Saxondom; and at that little Fact of the sailing of the Mayflower, two hundred years ago, from Delft Haven in Holland! Were we of open sense as the Greeks were, we had found a Poem here; one of Nature’s own Poems, such as she writes in broad facts over great continents. For it was properly the beginning of America: there were straggling settlers in America before, some material as of a body was there; but the soul of it was first this. These poor men, driven out of their own country, not able well to live in Holland, determine on settling in the New World. Black untamed forests are there, and wild savage creatures; but not so cruel as Star-chamber hangmen. They thought the Earth would yield them food, if they tilled honestly; the everlasting heaven would stretch, there too, overhead; they should be left in peace, to prepare for Eternity by living well in this world of Time; worshipping in what they thought the true, not the idolatrous way. They clubbed their small means together; hired a ship, the little ship Mayflower, and made ready to set sail.
In Neal’s History of the Puritans [Neal (London, 1755), i. 490] is an account of the ceremony of their departure: solemnity, we might call it rather, for it was a real act of worship. Their minister went down with them to the beach, and their brethren whom they were to leave behind; all joined in solemn prayer, That God would have pity on His poor children, and go with them into that waste wilderness, for He also had made that, He was there also as well as here. — Hah! These men, I think, had a work! The weak thing, weaker than a child, becomes strong one day, if it be a true thing. Puritanism was only despicable, laughable then; but nobody can manage to laugh at it now. Puritanism has got weapons and sinews; it has firearms, war-navies; it has cunning in its ten fingers, strength in its right arm; it can steer ships, fell forests, remove mountains; — it is one of the strongest things under this sun at present!
In the history of Scotland, too, 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!
Well; this is what I mean by a whole “nation of heroes;” a believing nation. There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin; that will be a great soul! The like has been seen, we find. The like will be again seen, under wider forms than the Presbyterian: there can be no lasting good done till then. — Impossible! say some. Possible? Has it not been, in this world, as a practiced fact? Did Hero-worship fail in Knox’s case? Or are we made of other clay now? Did the Westminster Confession of Faith add some new property to the soul of man? God made the soul of man. He did not doom any soul of man to live as a Hypothesis and Hearsay, in a world filled with such, and with the fatal work and fruit of such —!
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 what we said, 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 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.”
Our primary characteristic of a Hero, that he is sincere, applies emphatically to Knox. It is not denied anywhere that this, whatever might be his other qualities or faults, is among the truest of men. With a singular instinct he holds to the truth and fact; the truth alone is there for him, the rest a mere shadow and deceptive nonentity. However feeble, forlorn the reality may seem, on that and that only can he take his stand. In the Galleys of the River Loire, whither Knox and the others, after their Castle of St. Andrew’s was taken, had been sent as Galley-slaves, — some officer or priest, one day, presented them an Image of the Virgin Mother, requiring that they, the blasphemous heretics, should do it reverence. Mother? Mother of God? said Knox, when the turn came to him: This is no Mother of God: this is “a pented bredd,” — a piece of wood, I tell you, with paint on it! She is fitter for swimming, I think, than for being worshipped, added Knox; and flung the thing into the river. It was not very cheap jesting there: but come of it what might, this thing to Knox was and must continue nothing other than the real truth; it was a pented bredd: worship it he would not.
He told his fellow-prisoners, in this darkest time, to be of courage; the Cause they had was the true one, and must and would prosper; the whole world could not put it down. Reality is of God’s making; it is alone strong. How many pented bredds, pretending to be real, are fitter to swim than to be worshipped! — This Knox cannot live but by fact: he clings to reality as the shipwrecked sailor to the cliff. He is an instance to us how a man, by sincerity itself, becomes heroic: it is the grand gift he has. We find in Knox a good honest intellectual talent, no transcendent one; — a narrow, inconsiderable man, as compared with Luther: but in heartfelt instinctive adherence to truth, in sincerity, as we say, he has no superior; nay, one might ask, What equal he has? The heart of him is of the true Prophet cast. “He lies there,” said the Earl of Morton at his grave, “who never feared the face of man.” He resembles, more than any of the moderns, an Old–Hebrew Prophet. The same inflexibility, intolerance, rigid narrow-looking adherence to God’s truth, stern rebuke in the name of God to all that forsake truth: an Old–Hebrew Prophet in the guise of an Edinburgh Minister of the Sixteenth Century. We are to take him for that; not require him to be other.
Knox’s conduct to Queen Mary, the harsh visits he used to make in her own palace, to reprove her there, have been much commented upon. Such cruelty, such coarseness fills us with indignation. On reading the actual narrative of the business, what Knox said, and what Knox meant, I must say one’s tragic feeling is rather disappointed. They are not so coarse, these speeches; they seem to me about as fine as the circumstances would permit! Knox was not there to do the courtier; he came on another errand. Whoever, reading these colloquies of his with the Queen, thinks they are vulgar insolences of a plebeian priest to a delicate high lady, mistakes the purport and essence of them altogether. It was unfortunately not possible to be polite with the Queen of Scotland, unless one proved untrue to the Nation and Cause of Scotland. A man who did not wish to see the land of his birth made a hunting-field for intriguing ambitious Guises, and the Cause of God trampled underfoot of Falsehoods, Formulas and the Devil’s Cause, had no method of making himself agreeable! “Better that women weep,” said Morton, “than that bearded men be forced to weep.” Knox was the constitutional opposition-party in Scotland: the Nobles of the country, called by their station to take that post, were not found in it; Knox had to go, or no one. The hapless Queen; — but the still more hapless Country, if she were made happy! Mary herself was not without sharpness enough, among her other qualities: “Who are you,” said she once, “that presume to school the nobles and sovereign of this realm?” — “Madam, a subject born within the same,” answered he. Reasonably answered! If the “subject” have truth to speak, it is not the “subject’s” footing that will fail him here. —
We blame Knox for his intolerance. Well, surely it is good that each of us be as tolerant as possible. Yet, at bottom, after all the talk there is and has been about it, what is tolerance? Tolerance has to tolerate the unessential; and to see well what that is. Tolerance has to be noble, measured, just in its very wrath, when it can tolerate no longer. But, on the whole, we are not altogether here to tolerate! We are here to resist, to control and vanquish withal. We do not “tolerate” Falsehoods, Thieveries, Iniquities, when they fasten on us; we say to them, Thou art false, thou art not tolerable! We are here to extinguish Falsehoods, and put an end to them, in some wise way! I will not quarrel so much with the way; the doing of the thing is our great concern. In this sense Knox was, full surely, intolerant.
A man sent to row in French Galleys, and such like, 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 every way! 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 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 upwards 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”) towards which the Reformer will insist that all be more and more approximated. All true Reformers, as I said, are by the nature of them Priests, and strive for a Theocracy.
How far such Ideals can ever be introduced into Practice, and at what point our impatience with their non-introduction ought to begin, is always a question. I think we may say safely, Let them introduce themselves as far as they can contrive to do it! If they are the true faith of men, all men ought to be more or less impatient always where they are not found introduced. There will never be wanting Regent Murrays enough to shrug their shoulders, and say, “A devout imagination!” We will praise the Hero-priest rather, who does what is in him to bring them in; and wears out, in toil, calumny, contradiction, a noble life, to make a God’s Kingdom of this Earth. The Earth will not become too godlike!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52