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John Knox

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Scotch Protestant leader, b. at Haddington, Scotland, between 1505 and 1515; d. at Edinburgh, 24 November, 1572. All the older biographies assign his birth to 1505, but recent authorities (Lang, Hay Fleming, etc.) give grounds for the latter date from contemporary evidence, and from certain facts in his career. Nothing authentic is known of his ancestry or kinsfolk, excepting that his mother was a Sinclair; his father was probably a small farmer. Educated at the Haddington burgh school, he is not known to have graduated at any university, though both Glasgow and St. Andrews have claimed him. His own writings testify to his knowledge of Latin and French, and his acquaintance with the works of some of the Fathers, and he seems to have acquired a smattering of Greek and Hebrew in later life. His mastery of vernacular Scotch is shown in his "History", as well as the fact that he had studied law, for his citations from the Pandects are apt and not infrequent. We know from his own words that he was a priest — "one of Baal's shaven sort", as he expresses it — and practised as a notary by ecclesiastical authority. In a still extant document, he is styled "Johannis Knox, sacri altaris minister, sancte Andreæ diocesis auctoritate apostolica notarius." Nothing whatever is known of his ecclesiastical career; and we can only surmise that he had already begun to doubt, if he had not actually repudiated, the Catholic tenets by 1540, when we first find him engaged as private tutor to certain "bairns", a profession in which he continued until 1547. The names of some of his pupils have come down to us, but we know nothing of the details of his life until 1545, when his own "History of the Reformation", written some eighteen years later and largely autobiographical in character, first brings him before us.

The most prominent exponent of the new doctrines in Scotland at this time was George Wishart, who had come home from his travels in Germany a confirmed Protestant, and was expounding his tenets in Haddington and other parts of the Scottish Lowlands. Bitterly hostile to Cardinal Beaton, the great champion of the Catholic cause, Wishart (whose most devoted adherent and disciple at this time was Knox) was deeply involved in the intrigues of the Protestant party with Henry VIII of England for the kidnapping or murder of the cardinal. Wishart was arrested in January, 1546, and burned at St. Andrews on 1 March; and on 29 May Beaton was murdered at the same place in revenge for Wishart's death. The assassination was approved and applauded by Knox, who describes the deed with a gleeful and mocking levity strangely unbecoming in a Christian preacher, though his panegyrists speak of it merely as his "vein of humour". Some months later we find him, with his pupils, shut up in the castle of St. Andrews, which Beaton's murderers and their friends held for some months against the regent Arran and the Government. On 31 July, 1547, the besiegers being reinforced by a large French fleet, the castle was surrendered, and Knox was imprisoned with some others for nineteen months on board the French galleys and at Rouen. His captivity, however, was not rigorous enough to prevent him from writing a theological treatise, and preaching to his fellow prisoners.

In 1549 Knox was free to return home; but he preferred to stay for a time in England, where, under Edward VI, he would feel himself secure, rather than to expose himself to fresh arrest in Scotland. He received a state license to preach at Berwick, where he remained two years, and was then transferred to Newcastle, and at the same time appointed a royal chaplain. He preached at least twice before the young king, and in October, 1552, was nominated to the Bishopric of Rochester, which he refused, declining also a benefice in the city of London. His own alleged reason for declining these preferments was that he thought the Anglican Church too favourable to Roman doctrine, and that he could not bring himself to kneel at the communion service. When Edward VI was succeeded in July, 1553, by his Catholic sister Mary, Knox continued his preaching for a time, and, as long as he remained in England, took care not to attack the new sovereign, for whom indeed he published a devout prayer. But early in 1554 he thought it prudent to take refuge in Dieppe, having meanwhile gone through a form of marriage with Marjorie, fifth daughter of Mrs. Bowes, a Calvinistic lady of his own age living in Newcastle, who had taken him as her spiritual adviser. From Dieppe he went to Geneva, partly to consult Calvin and other divines as to the lawfulness and expediency of resisting the rule of Mary Tudor in England and Mary of Guise, just appointed Regent, in Scotland; but he got little satisfaction from his advisers. In September, 1554, he accepted the post of chaplain to the English Protestants at Frankfort; but his Puritanism revolted against the use of King Edward's prayer-book and of the Anglican ceremonial. Schism arose in the congregation: Knox's opponents accused him of comparing the Emperor Charles to Nero in a published tract; he was ordered by the authorities to leave Frankfort, and returning to Geneva he ministered for a time to the English congregation there. In August, 1555, however, an urgent summons from his mother-in-law, Mrs. Bowes, caused him (as he says, "most contrarious to mine own judgement") to set out for Scotland and join his wife at Berwick. The new doctrines had made headway during his absence, and he found himself able to preach both in public and in the country houses of his supporters among the nobles and gentry. At a historic supper, given by his friend Erskine of Dun, it was formally decided that no "believer in the Evangel" could attend Mass; and the external separation of the party from Catholic practice, as well as doctrine, thus became complete. Knox, whose religion had now become entirely of the Old-Testament type, boldly proclaimed that adherents to the old faith were as truly idolaters as the Jews who sacrificed their children to Moloch, and that the extermination of idolaters was the clear duty of Christian princes and magistrates, and, failing them, of all individual "believers". In the letter, however, which he addressed about this time, on the advice of two of his noble supporters, to the queen regent, he assumed a somewhat different tone, appearing to petition only for toleration for his co-religionists. The letter contained at the same time violent abuse of Catholics and their beliefs, and threatened the regent with "torment and pain everlasting", if she did not act on his counsel. Mary seems to have treated the effusion with silent contempt, which Knox resented bitterly; but it was no doubt with the conviction that the time was not yet come for the triumph of his cause that he returned to his ministry, in Geneva (in the summer of 1556), sending his wife and her mother thither before him. Immediately on his departure he was cited to appear before the judges in Edinburgh, condemned and outlawed (in absence) as contumacious, and publicly burnt in effigy.

Until the end of 1558 Knox remained at his post in Geneva, imbibing from Calvin all those rigid and autocratic ideas of church discipline which he was subsequently to introduce into ScotlandEngland would have none of them — and which were to be followed by over a century of unrest, persecution, and civil war. His two sons, Nathaniel and Eleazar, were born to him at Geneva, and he was joined there by Mrs. Locke and other female admirers from England and Scotland. Glencairn and other friends tried to persuade him in 1557 to come back, on the ground that persecution was diminishing, and he actually got as far as Dieppe on his journey home. Here his courage seems to have evaporated; and after ministering for a time to the Dieppe Protestants he went back to Geneva. During 1558 his pen was constantly busy: he published his letter to the queen regent with comments, and his famous "First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women", directed against Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise, Catherine de' Medici, and the youthful Mary Stuart, who had just married the French Dauphin. In other writings he reiterated his views that every Christian man (i.e. Protestant) had a right to slaughter every idolater (i.e. Catholic), if he got an opportunity. In a "Brief Exhortation to England" he insisted on the expulsion of all "dregs of Popery" and the introduction of the full "Kirk discipline" of Calvin and Geneva; and in his "Treatise on Predestination" he answered the "blasphemous cavillations" of an Anabaptist. The last-named work was not published until 1560.

At length, in the first days of 1559 (Queen Mary of England having been succeeded by her sister Elizabeth a few weeks previously), Knox deemed it safe or opportune to leave Geneva for Scotland. He came to Dieppe, and, finding himself refused a safe-conduct through England, travelled by sea from Dieppe to Leith, arriving on 2 May. He had already heard by letter that the Scottish Protestants were no longer in any danger. The queen regent had indeed denounced and forbidden by proclamation attacks on priests, disturbance of Catholic services, invasion of churches by lay preachers, and religious tumults in general. But she was already in the grip of deadly illness, was meditating a retirement to France, and, notwithstanding certain advices from that country, had neither the power nor the intention of organizing movement to suppress the Protestant party in the realm, which was growing daily in power and influence. St. Giles's Church in Edinburgh had been the scene of a riot, followed by the flight of the Catholic clergy. The Lords of the Congregation were practically in arms against the regent; and Knox, who had never seemed to be the least anxious for lonely martyrdom, showed himself full of fight and courage with a stout body-guard at his back. Repairing to Dundee, he found the Protestants masters of the situation there, and going thence to Perth he preached a series of inflammatory sermons which culminated on 25 May, when the mob of that city — angered, according to Knox, by the regent's having broken her pledge of toleration of the preachers (see however as to this, Lange, "Knox and the Reformation", Appendix A) — sacked and partly demolished the parish church and several of the monasteries. A private letter from Knox describes these deeds of violence and outrage as done by the "brethren"; but in his "History" — written partly for the followers of Calvin, who rebuked and condemned such works of pillage — he ascribes them to the "rascal multitude", with no reference to their having been inspired by his own harangues or encouragement.

The Protestants, entrenched in Perth (the only fortified town in Scotland), were now in open rebellion against the regent, who advanced with her troops from Stirling. A parley with the Congregation resulted in a treaty, by which the Protestants were to be allowed complete freedom of worship, and no French troops were to be quartered in the town. Knox meanwhile moved on with his friends to St. Andrews, and, in spite of Archbishop Hamilton's threat that if he dared to preach there he should be saluted with "a dozen of culverins, whereof the most part should light upon his nose", he did preach there, with the result that the St. Andrews mob repeated the work of sack and pillage which had followed his sermons at Perth. The wreck of other great abbeys, such as Scone and Lindores, followed; the Congregation seized Stirling and marched to Edinburgh, the regent meanwhile retreating to Dunbar. Knox accompanied them to the capital, where the same scenes of devastation of churches and monasteries were repeated, and on 7 July he was chosen minister of the Edinburgh Protestants. "We meane no tumult, no alteratioun of authoritie", he wrote to one of his female devotees in Geneva, "but onlie the reformation of religioun, and suppressing of idolatrie." Knox wrote these words while actually in full revolt against the "authoritie" of the regent of the realm, with the further professed desire to prevent the lawful queen, Mary Stuart, from enjoying her hereditary crown.

On 22 July the regent and her advisers suddenly determined to march upon Edinburgh, before the Congregation could concentrate its scattered forces, and the Protestants consequently decided to come to terms, one of the articles of the treaty being that the capital was to be free to choose its own religion. The choice of the majority would certainly not have been in favour of the new doctrines, and this and other points of the agreement were openly violated by the Congregation, who left preachers in possession of the churches, and retired to Stirling. Conscious at this juncture of the immense advantage of gaining the support of England, now a Protestant kingdom, they determined to appeal to Elizabeth, and to send Knox on a mission to her powerful minister Cecil. Knox had already written to Cecil with a letter for the queen which was more or less an apology for his fiery pamphlet, the "Monstrous Blast". He sailed from Fife to Northumberland early in August, interviewed Croft, the governor of Berwick, and finally brought back to Stirling letters from Cecil more or less favourable to the demands of the Congregation for help, but indefinite in their terms. Further correspondence, however, elicited from Sadler, Elizabeth's agent, a gift of money, which encouraged the Scotch Protestants to believe that the Queen of England was on their side. Knox in a letter to Geneva, dated 2 September, describes his labours as envoy of the Congregation, and adds that ministers are now permanently appointed to eight of the chief towns in Scotland. A few weeks later, the regent being then at Leith, which she had strongly fortified and garrisoned with French troops, the Congregation took a bold step. Encouraged by English sympathy, and still more, perhaps, by the adhesion of the powerful Earl of Arran to their cause, they proceeded to depose — or, as Knox thought it more prudent to describe the measure, to suspend from office — the regent in the name of the young king and queen, whose great seal was counterfeited in order to give official weight to the proclamations announcing the step. Leith was vigorously besieged, but unsuccessfully, and Knox continued to appeal energetically to England for money, troops, and military commanders. The result was that Elizabeth sent a fleet to the Firth of Forth; the Congregation, thus reinforced, renewed the siege of Leith, and the regent took refuge in Edinburgh Castle, where she died on 10 June, 1560. Knox vilified this unfortunate princess to the end, but neither contemporary opinion nor the judgment of history has accepted his verdict, or his outrageous aspersions on her moral character. A month after her death the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed by representatives of England and France, providing for the withdrawal from Scotland of the French and English troops. The Congregation held a solemn thanksgiving service at St. Giles's Church, Knox of course taking the leading part, and profiting by the occasion to prescribe from the pulpit the course which the Protestant leaders were bound to follow to secure the triumph of their cause.

That triumph was indeed now imminent. Parliament met on 1 August, Knox preaching daily to crowded audiences "speciall and vehement" harangues on the need of rebuilding the temple, in other words establishing the Protestant religion. The spirit of the assembly — at which, by the way, the sovereign was not represented, and which was consequently not really a parliament at all — was never in doubt. The new Confession of Faith, drawn up by Knox and his friends, was adopted word for word; the authority of the pope was abolished; the celebration of Mass was forbidden — "under certain penalties", as one of Knox's biographers mildly remarks, the penalty for the third offence being in fact death. The formality of praying the young king and queen to ratify these enactments was gone through; but Knox boldly says that such ratification was unnecessary — a mere "glorious vane ceremony". The Catholic Church of Scotland was extinct, as far as human power could extinguish it, and the Protestant religion officially established. Parliament rose on 25 August, having commissioned Knox and three other ministers to draw up the plan of church-government, known as the "First Book of Discipline", which was ready by the date (20 December, 1560) of the first meeting of the newly constituted "General Assembly" of the Kirk, of which Knox was of course the most prominent member. The "Book of Discipline" was founded on the code of various Protestant bodies, more especially on the Ordonnances of Geneva and on the formularies of the German Church founded in London in 1550, both very familiar to Knox and both thoroughly Calvinistic in spirit. The opening words are that all doctrine contrary to the new evangel must be suppressed as "damnable to man's salvation"; and it is ordained that every home of the "ancient superstition" must be cleared out of the land. The several districts of Scotland were to be under the spiritual charge of officials known as superintendents, until such time as ministers were forthcoming for each parish; and there was provision for a comprehensive scheme of national education, elementary, secondary, and university. This plan, for which it has been customary to give all the credit to Protestantism, was devised on lines already laid down by the ancient Church; but as a matter of fact it was never carried into effect. Nor were the provisions for the diversion of the wealth of the old Church to national purposes any more effectual. Many of the Protestant nobles signed the book, but they had no idea of giving up their own share of the ecclesiastical plunder. "Converted in matter of doctrine", says Lang, "in conduct they were the most avaricious, bloody, and treacherous of men." Such as they were, they were the pillars of the new Church and the new religion.

In December, 1560, died the young King Francis II of France, "husband to our Jezebel", as he is styled by Knox, who lost his own wife, Marjorie Bowes, about the same time. The whole situation in Scotland was now changed. The Catholic earls sent Bishop John Lesley to invite the widowed queen to land in the Catholic north; but she distrusted them, not without reason, and confided rather in her Protestant half-brother, Lord James Stewart, who promised that she should be allowed the private celebration of Mass in Scotland. Mary landed at Leith on 19 August, 1561, and on the following Sunday Mass was said in her chapel at Holyrood. This was followed by protests and riots; Knox publicly declared that "one mass was more fearful to him than 10,000 armed men", and in an interview with the queen inveighed against "that Roman antichrist", denounced the Catholic Church as a harlot, compared himself to Paul and Queen Mary to Nero, and indulged in much other abuse which he reports copiously in his "History" (suppressing most of Mary's replies) and calls "reasoning". The question of the queen's privilege to have her own Catholic services became a burning one: Lord James (now created Earl of Moray), Morton, Marischal, and other leading Protestants were on her side, Knox and most of the preachers on the other. It was suggested to refer the question to Calvin; but the lords' view was meanwhile accepted, and Mary kept the Feast of All Saints with what Knox calls "mischievous solemnity". He continued his tirades against the queen both privately and from the pulpit, sometimes reducing her to tears by his violence. In the spring of 1562 he held a public controversy on the doctrine of the Mass with Abbot Quintin Kennedy, a Benedictine of Crossraguel; and he also had a controversial correspondence with an able Catholic apologist, Ninian Winzet of Linlithgow.

Some months later Knox found himself in trouble for having summoned the "brethren" from all parts of Scotland to Edinburgh to defend — apparently by violence, if necessary — one Cranstoun, who was to be tried for brawling in the chapel-royal. Knox's letter was interpreted by the council as treasonable, but when brought to trial he was judged to have done nothing more than his duty in summoning the brethren in time of danger. Soon after this — in March, 1564 — general surprise seems to have been caused by the second marriage of Knox, his bride being a girl of sixteen, Margaret Stewart, daughter of Lord Ochiltree. He makes no mention of the fact himself in his "History". The Lords of the Congregation, in the summer of this year, publicly censured Knox for his violence in speech and demeanour against the queen, but Knox retorted with his usual references to Ahab and Jezebel, and maintained that idolaters must "die the death", and that the executioners must be the "people of God". The Lords in vain cited the opinions of Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and other Continental Protestants as entirely opposed to Knox's views, and requested him to write and ascertain their judgment on the questions at issue. Knox flatly refused to write to "Mr. Calvin and the learned of other Kirks", and, as he always produced Scriptural texts to back up his opinions, the Lords were silenced if not convinced. A year later he was again in conflict with the council in consequence of a vehement attack he had made from the pulpit on Mary and the young king-consort, Darnley, in their presence, about a month after their marriage. He was formally suspended from preaching, but he seems to have disregarded the prohibition, remarking that if the Church (not the council) commanded him to abstain he would obey "so far as the Word of God would permit"; in other words, he would obey even the Church only so far as he himself thought fit. This particular sermon, which he printed with a preface, is the only extant specimen of his public eloquence; it is extremely long and dull to read, whatever may have been its effect when delivered.

The situation in Scotland was now, from the point of view of Knox and his friends, a gloomy one. Moray and the other lords who had protested against Mary's marriage to Darnley were now in exile; all hope of the queen's conversion to Protestantism was at an end; and her Catholic secretary Rizzio was high in her confidence, indeed her chief adviser. Whether Knox was actually privy to the foul murder of Rizzio before the queen's eyes on 9 March, 1566, is a matter of doubt; but his own statement that "the act was most just and worthy of all praise" shows that his subsequent approval was beyond any doubt whatever. He thought it well at this juncture to leave Edinburgh for a time, and retired to his friends in Ayrshire, where he busied himself with the writing of his "History". In December he received from the General Assembly leave of absence from Scotland for six months, so that he was not a witness of the events of the first half of 1567, which included the murder of Darnley, the abduction of Mary by Bothwell, and her marriage to him on 15 May, 1567. The queen was already, after the disaster of Carberry Hill, a prisoner at Lochleven, when Knox re-appeared at Edinburgh and at once resumed, in spite of the dissuasion of Throgmorton, the English Ambassador, his pulpit invectives against the sovereign, and his denunciations of the national alliance with France. On 29 July Knox went to Stirling to preach at the coronation of the young king, James VI, when he protested against the rite of unction as a relic of popery. The appointment of Moray to the regency brought him again into close association with Knox, who, however, after the fall of the queen, his great antagonist, never seems to have regained his former prominence in the country. "I live as a man already dead from all civil affairs", he wrote a little later to Moray's agent in England. "Foolish Scotland", he said on another occasion, "hath disobeyed God by sparing the queen", and he seemed constantly harassed and haunted by a dread of her restoration. Her escape from Lochleven apeared to justify his worst fears, but a fortnight later she was hopelessly defeated at Langside, and was a fugitive to England. Henceforth Knox's declining forces were devoted to his ministerial work, which he seems to have carried on with many intervals of weariness and depression. "With his one foot in the grave", as he describes himself, the assassination of Moray in January, 1569, was a great blow to him. He preached the Regent's funeral sermon in St. Giles's Church and, according to one of his admirers, "moved three thousand persons to shed tears for the loss of such a good and godlie governor". The shock of this event doubtless affected his health, and he was struck by apoplexy in the autumn, and never entirely recovered.

Knox continued to preach in his church in Edinburgh, but with the nobles, Protestant as well as Catholic, many of them his own former friends, in league for the queen's restoration, he was no longer at home or at ease in the capital; and in the spring of 1571 he retired to St. Andrews, where he remained for fifteen months, continuing to write, and preaching occasionally, notwithstanding his infirmities, with his old fire and vehemence. In August, 1572, Mary's adherents having left Edinburgh, Knox was persuaded to return thither. The news of the massacre of St. Bartholomew had just reached Scotland, and Knox thundered from his pulpit (to which he had almost to be carried), in the presence of the French ambassador, denunciations of "that cruel murderer and false traitor, the King of France". On 9 November he took part in the induction-services of Mr. Lawson as minister of St. Giles's in his place; and fifteen days later, on 24 November, 1572, he died in his house at Edinburgh. Contemporary narratives of his last illness and death (by Richard Bannatyne and Thomas Smeton) are printed by Laing in his edition of Knox's "Works" (vol. VI). At his burial, two days later, the Regent Morton uttered the well-known words, "Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man." The facts of his life perhaps hardly justify these laudatory words. "Knox", says his learned and sympathetic biographer and editor, Dr. Laing, "cannot be said to have possessed the impetuous and heroic boldness of a Luther.…On more than one occasion he displayed a timidity or shrinking from danger scarcely to have been expected from one who boasted of his willingness to suffer death in his master's cause." On his own showing he was courageous enough in his personal encounters with his unfortunate queen; but, according to another of his Protestant biographers, "he was most valiant when he had armed men at his back, and the popular idea of his personal courage, said to have been expressed by the Regent Morton, is entirely erroneous".

As to Knox's religion, it is sufficient to say, without questioning the sincerity of his convictions, that the reaction from the Catholicism of his youth seems to have landed him outside the pale of Christianity altogether. Permeated with the spirit of the Old Testament and with the gloomy austerity of the ancient prophets, he displays neither in his voluminous writings nor in the record of his public acts the slightest recognition of the teachings of the Gospel, or of the gentle, mild, and forgiving character of the Christian dispensation. Genial, amiable, and kind-hearted he may have been in private life, though it is difficult to see from what premises his panegyrists deduce his possession of those qualities; but the ferocity and unrestrained violence of his public utterances stand out, even in the rude and lawless age in which he lived, as surpassing almost everything recorded of his contemporaries, even those most closely in sympathy with his political and ecclesiastical views. It is to his credit that he died, as he had lived, a poor man, and that he never enriched himself with the spoils of the Church which he had abandoned — a trait in which he contrasts singularly with the Protestant lords and lairds who were his friends and adherents. Of his ability and his power of influencing those among whom he lived and laboured, there is no room to doubt. His gifts as a speaker and a preacher we have to take on the evidence of his contemporaries, whose testimony there is no need to question; of his command of his native tongue we have abundant proof in his writings, in particular in his "History", by far the most remarkable specimen of the vernacular Scots of the sixteenth century which has come down to us. The best edition of it is in his collected "Works", edited by David Laing in six volumes.

The best-known likeness of Knox (of whom no contemporary portrait exists) is the woodcut of him in Beza's "Icones", published at Geneva in 1580, and often since reproduced. Lord Torphichen possesses a portrait of him painted a century later, probably from Beza's. The so-called Somerville portrait, maintained by Carlyle to be the only authentic likeness of Knox, apparently represents a divine of the seventeenth century. Knox was survived by his widow, who married again, and by two sons of his first marriage (who both died childless) and three daughters of his second. Descendants of his youngest daughter still exist.


LAING, Works of John Knox, with introductory and chronological notes (6 vols., Edinburgh, 1895); MCCRIE, Life of Knox (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1813); HUME BROWN, John Knox (2 vols., London, 1845); LANG, John Knox and the Reformation (London, 1905); MILLER, John Knox, the Hero of the Scottish Reformation (London, 1905); GOSSE, Life and Times of John Knox (London, 1888); ROGERS, Genealogical Memoirs of John Knox (Grampian Club, 1879); TAYLOR INNES, John Knox (Famous Scots Series, Edinburgh, 1896); WILMOT, John Knox and the Scottish Reformation (Glasgow, Catholic Truth Society, s. d.); MACKAY in Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v. (London, 1892); CARLYLE, Essay on the Portaits of John Knox in Collected Works (London, 1885); BROWN, The Life Story of John Knox (London, 1905).

About this page

APA citation. Hunter-Blair, O. (1910). John Knox. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hunter-Blair, Oswald. "John Knox." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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