John Craig (1512-1600): From Roman Convict to Scottish Reformer (With Some Help from a Dog)

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John Craig might hold first place among unjustly forgotten figures of the Scottish Reformation. Craig merits attention not only for the noteworthy contribution he made to the progress of Protestantism in his native country following its official embrace of reform in 1560, but also for his rather remarkable biography. Indeed, Craig may very well possess the most interesting story of any Protestant reformer, Scottish or otherwise, that I have ever met with.

Craig was born in 1512 in a small north-eastern village near Aberdeen, and lost his father at the Battle of Flodden one year later. He earned his M.A. at St. Andrews sometime around 1530, and after a brief stint as a tutor to the children of nobility, returned to St. Andrews and joined the Dominican Order. In 1536 he made his way to England with the apparent hope of securing a teaching post at Cambridge. Failing in this, he traveled to Rome, where he made a good impression on Cardinal Reginald Pole and managed to secure a position as Master of Novices to the Dominicans in Bologna.

Craig's teaching role in the Dominican monastery granted him access to the library of the Roman Inquisition, and at some point in the 1550s, while taking advantage of that privilege, he stumbled across an early edition of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Craig read Calvin's work and embraced the doctrine he found therein, which, needless to say, put him in an awkward spot. Sometime shortly after this he apparently confessed his evangelical convictions to an elderly monk in his order. The aged monk responded that he shared Craig's sympathy towards reforming ideas, but encouraged Craig to keep his mouth shut for his own safety.

But Craig, rightfully overjoyed at his new-found understanding of the gospel, couldn't quite manage that task. His desire to tell others what he had discovered eventually led to his arrest and trial at the hands of that very institution -- the Roman Inquisition -- that had unwittingly provided him access to the reforming views of Calvin. Craig was found guilty of heresy and imprisoned in a cell in the basement of the Roman Palazzo dell' Inquisizone. The Palazzo apparently bordered the Tiber, which at that time lacked the stone embankments which today keep the river in check, and Craig's cell, according to one source, regularly filled with waist-high water, adding considerably (one imagines) to the unpleasantness of imprisonment and impending death.

Following nine months of imprisonment, Craig's execution date was set for August 19th. The evening before he was scheduled to die, however, Pope Paul IV, who had been instrumental in the establishment of the Roman Inquisition in the 1540s and had, as Pope, considerably inflated its authority and activities, died. Paul IV was a decidedly unpopular person in Rome, not least because of the far-reaching powers he had given the Inquisition. As news of his death circulated, the Roman people naturally convened outdoors to celebrate. They subjected Paul IV's recently erected statue in the Piazza del Campidoglio to a mock trial and, having found the same guilty of one thing or another, decapitated the marble Pope, dragged his body through the streets, and finally cast him into the river. Their taste for rioting and revenge having merely been whetted, they then sacked (and eventually burned) the Palazzo dell' Inquisizone, murdered the resident Inquisitor and beat up his underlings, and freed seventy-plus persons who were currently imprisoned in the Palazzo's cells, including Craig.

Thus freed from prison in the nick of time, Craig sets his sights on Italy's northern border. Eventually he reached Vienna, helped on his way there by two remarkable persons. The first was a soldier who stumbled on Craig and other refugees of the Inquisition hiding in an abandoned building in the Roman suburbs. This particular soldier had spent time in Bologna some years earlier after receiving wounds in battle, and had at one time approached Craig for help and had received considerable kindness from him. He immediately recognized Craig, and though he should by all rights have arrested him, instead helped him on his way. The second - a "person" in the loose sense of the word -- was a dog who approached Craig in northern Italy while he was resting by a small pool in the woods. Rather unexplicably, the dog was carrying a small purse full of gold coins in its mouth, and delivered the same to Craig as if on a mission. Craig employed these funds to complete his escape over the Alps. (Somewhat intriguingly, a late sixteenth-century Roman Catholic polemicist named John Hamilton recounted this story in a smear campaign he waged against Protestant Reformers. He added some detail, claiming that Craig's canine benefactor was completely black, and therefore most clearly an incarnation of the devil. Who else, after all, would come to the assistance of a Dominican-turned-Calvinist on the run from the Roman church?)

After a short time in Vienna recuperating, Craig made his way back to Scotland via Germany and England. He arrived shortly after his native country had officially embraced Protestantism, and immediately offered his services to the newly Reformed Kirk. In 1561 Craig was installed as Minister of Holyrood Palace. Several months later Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland and took up residence in the same. Given Mary's preference for Roman Catholicism (albeit reluctance to reverse the Kirk's recent reforms), one presumes that Craig's services were rarely requested in Holyrood. The following year he received a charge as Assistant Minister of St. Giles in Edinburgh, and served alongside John Knox there for nine years. He subsequently held charges in Montrose and Aberdeen, but in 1579 he returned to Holyrood to serve as King James VI's chaplain. He eventually died in Edinburgh in 1600, at the ripe age of 88.

Craig's influence on the course of reform in Scotland extended far beyond his ministerial charges. In 1580 he authored, at King James's request, the "King's Confession" (a.k.a. "Negative Confession"), a short declaration of Protestant convictions vis-a-vis Roman Catholic errors that eventually served as the basis of the National Covenant in 1638. He also authored numerous catechisms. The most famous of these, published in 1581 and titled "A Shorte Summe of the Whole Catechisme," eventually rivaled Calvin's catechism for popularity and use in Scotland, at least until the 1640s when the Westminster Shorter Catechism effectively rendered Craig's catechism and others obsolete.

Craig's catechisms would merit a modern edition. They are noteworthy, particularly in comparison to the WSC, for the conciseness of both their questions and answers, and for the color of Craig's prose. They reflect the spirit and matter of that book which so profoundly changed the course of Craig's life in Bologna in the 1550s, Calvin's Institutes. Here's a brief sample, in which Craig discusses union with Christ and its benefits:

Q. What is the first fruit of our faith?

A. By it we are made one with Christ our Head.

Q. How is this union made, and when?

A. When we are made flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones.

Q. Was not this done when he took our flesh?

A. No, for he only then was made flesh of our flesh.

Q. When are we made flesh of his flesh?

A. When we are united with him spiritually, as lively members with the head.

Q. What thing get we by this union?

A. We are made partakers of all his graces and merits, and our sins are imputed to him and abolished.

Q. What thing followeth upon this in special?

A. Perfect justification, and peace of conscience.

Amen to that.

Posted January 7, 2016 @ 2:08 PM by Aaron Denlinger

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