OUR attention lights, a few years after the middle of the sixteenth century, on a little independent kingdom in the northern part of the British island – a tract of country now thought romantic and beautiful, then hard-favoured and sterile, chiefly mountainous, penetrated by deep inlets of the sea, and suffering under a climate not so objectionable on account of cold as humidity. It contains a scattered population of probably seven hundred thousand – the SCOTS. A very poor, rude country, as it well might be in that age, and seeing that it lay so far to the north and so much out of the highway of civilisation. No well-formed roads in it – no posts for letters or for travelling. A printing-press in the head town, Edinburgh, but not another anywhere. A regular localised court of law had not yet existed in it thirty years. No stated means of education, excepting a few grammar schools in the principal towns, and three small universities. Society consisted mainly of a large agricultural class, half enslaved to the lords of the soil; above all, obliged to follow them in war. Other industrial pursuits to be found only in the burghs, the chief of which were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Dundee, and Aberdeen.
In reality, though it was not known then, the bulk of the people of Scotland were a branch of the great Teutonic race which possesses Germany and some other countries in the north-west of Europe. Precisely the same people they were with the bulk of the English, and speaking essentially the same language, though for ages they had been almost incessantly at war with that richer and more advanced community.
The present monarch was ‘our Sovereign Lady Mary,’ a young and beautiful woman, married to Francis II. of France. She had been carried thither in a troublous time during her childhood, and in her absence, a regent’s sceptre was swayed by her mother, a princess of the House of Guise. up to that time, Scotland, like most of the rest of Europe, was observant of the Catholic religion, and under vows of obedience to the pope of Rome. But the reforming ideas of Luther and Melanchthon, of Zuinglius and Calvin, at length came to it, and surprising were the effects thereof. As by soe magical evolution, the great mass of the people instantaneously threw off all regard to the authority of the pope, with all their old habits of worship, professing instead a reverence for the simple letter of Scripture, as interpreted to them by the reforming preachers.
This change may be considered as having been completed in August 1560, when an irregular parliament, or assembly of the Estates of the kingdom, abolished the jurisdiction of the pope, proscribed the mass under the severest penalties, and approved of a Confession of Faith resembling the articles which had been established in England by Edward VI. The chief feature of the new system was, that each parish should have its own pastor, elected by the people, or at least a reader to read the Scriptures and common prayers. The great bulk of the possessions and revenues of the old church fell into the hands of the nobles, or remained with nominal bishops, abbots, and other dignitaries, who continued formally to occupy their ancient places in parliament, while the Presbyterian clergy were insufficient in number, and in general very poorly supported.
The Scotland of that day was ruder than the England of that day, ruder than many other European states. Few persons could read or write. Few knew aught beyond their daily calling. Men carried weapons, and were apt to use them on light occasion. The lords, and the rich generally, exercised enormous oppression upon the poor. The government was a faction of nobles, as against all the rest. When a man had a suit at law, he felt he had no chance without using ‘influence.’ Was he to be tried for an offence? – his friends considered themselves bound to muster in arms round the court to see that he got fair-play – that is, to get him off unharmed if they could. Men were accustomed to violence in all forms, as to their daily bread. The house of a man of consideration was a kind of castle: at the least, it was a tall narrow tower, with a grated door and a wall of defence. No one in those days had any general conceptions regarding the processes of nature. They saw the grass grow and their bullocks feed, and thought no more of it. Any extraordinary natural event, as an eclipse of the sun or an earthquake, still more a comet, affected them as an immediate expression of a frowning Providence. The great diseases, such as pestilence,* which arose in consequence of their uncleanly habits, and the wide-spread famines from which they often suffered, appeared to them as divine chastisements;** not perhaps for the sins of those who suffered – which would have been comparatively reasonable – but probably for the sins of a ruler who did not suffer at all.
The ruling class knew no more of a just public economy than the poor. Through absurd attempts to raise the value of coin by statute, the Scotch pound had fallen to a fraction of its original worth. By ridiculous endeavours to control markets, and adjust exportation and importation, mercantile freedom was paralysed, and penury and scarcity among the poor greatly increased. The good plant of Knowledge not being yet cultivated, its weed-precursor, Superstition, largely prevailed. Bearded men believed that a few muttered words could take away and give back the milk of their cattle.*** An archbishop expected to be cured of a deadly ailment by a charm pronounced by an ignorant countywoman. The forty-six men who met as the first General Assembly, and drew from the Scriptures the Confession of Faith which they handed down as stereotyped truth to after-generations, were every one of them not more fully persuaded of the soundness of any of the doctrines of that Confession, than they were of the reality of sorcery, and felt themselves not more truly called upon by the Bible to repress idolatry than to punish witches. They were good men, earnest, and meaning well to God and man; but they were men of the sixteenth century, ignorant, and rough in many of their ways.
While, then, we shall see great occasion to admire the hardy valour with which this people achieved their deliverance from bondage, we must also be prepared for finding them full of vehement intolerance towards all challenge of their own dogmas and all adherence to alien forms of faith. We shall find them utterly incapable of imagining a conscientious dissent, much less of allowing for and respecting it. We must be prepared to see them – while repudiating one set of superstitious incrustations upon the original simple gospel – working it out on their own part in creeds, platts or schemes, covenants, and church institutions generally, full of mere human logic and device, but yet assumed to be as true as if a divine voice had spoken and framed them, breathing war and persecution towards all other systems, and practically operating as a tyranny only somewhat less formidable than that which had been put away.
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