This history of the early period of the reformation is written from a strongly Protestant point of view. Covering mainly the events of the sixteenth century in Europe and ending with the Pilgrims voyage to America, it frames the religious dislocations of the age as a struggle for freedom against ecclesiastic tyranny. Strongly anti-Catholic in tone.
KING JOHN SIGNING THE MAGNA CHARTA.
To the Boys and Girls of America:
The "Story of Liberty" is a true narrative. It covers a period of five hundred years, and is an outline of the march of the human race from Slavery to Freedom.
There are some points in this book to which I desire to direct your attention. You will notice that the events which have given direction to the course of history have not always been great battles, for very few of the many conflicts of arms have had any determining force; but it will be seen that insignificant events have been not unfrequently followed by momentous results. You will see that everything of the present, be it good or bad, may be traced to something in the past; that history is a chain of events. You will also notice that history is like a drama, and that there are but a few principal actors. How few there have been!
The first to appear in this "Story" is King John of England. Out of his signing his name to the Magna (Marta have come the Parliament of Great Britain and the Congress of the United States, and representative governments everywhere. The next actors were John Wicklif and Geoffrey Chaucer, who sowed seed that is now ripening in individual liberty. Then came Henry VII., Henry VIII., Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Katherine's daughter (Mary Tudor), Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer, Anne Boleyn's daughter (Elizabeth), King James, John Smith, John Robinson, William Brewster, and the men and women of Austerfield and Scrooby.
In Scotland were Mary Stuart and George Buchanan; in Bohemia, Professor Faulfash and John Huss; in Germany, the boy who sung for his breakfast (Martin Luther), Duke Frederick, John Tetzel, and John Gutenberg; in Holland, Laurence Coster, Doctor Erasmus, and William the Silent; in France, Francis I., Catherine de' Medici, the Duke of Guise, Charles IX., and Henry IV.; in Spain, Thomas de Torquemada, Isabella, Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus, Charles V., Philip II., and Loyola; in Italy, Alexander VI. and Leo X. These have taken great parts in the drama: actively or passively, they have been the central figures.
One other thing: you will notice that the one question greater than all others has been in regard to the right of men to think for themselves, especially in matters pertaining to religion. Popes, archbishops, cardinals, bishops, and priests have disputed the right, to secure which hundreds of thousands of men and women have yielded their lives. You will also take special notice that nothing is said against religion—nothing against the Pope because he is Pope; nothing against a Catholic because he is a Catholic; nor against a Protestant because he protests against the authority of the Church of Rome. Facts of history only are given. Catholics and Protestants alike have persecuted, robbed, plundered, maltreated, imprisoned, and burned men and women for not believing as they believed. Through ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and bigotry; through thinking that they alone were right., and that those who differed with them were wrong; forgetting that might never makes right; honestly thinking that they were doing God service in rooting out heretics, they filled the world with woe.
There is still another point to be noticed: that the successes of those who have struggled to keep men in slavery have often proved to be in reality failures; while the defeats of those who were fighting for freedom have often been victories. Emperors, kings, cardinals, priests, and popes have had their own way, and yet their plans have failed in the end. They plucked golden fruit, which changed to apples of Sodom. Mary Tudor resolutely set herself to root out all heretics, and yet there were more heretics in England on the day of her death than when she ascended the throne. Charles V. and Philip II. grasped at universal dominion; but their strength became weakness, their achievements failures. On the other hand, see what has come from disaster! how bitter to John Robinson, William Brewster, and the poor people of Scrooby and Austerfield, to be driven from home, to be exiles! But out of that bitterness has come the Republic of the Western world! Who won—King James, or John Robinson and William Brewster?
There is still one other point: you will notice that while the oppressors have carried out their plans, and had things their own way, there were other forces silently at work, which in time undermined their plans, as if a Divine hand were directing the counter-plan. Whoever peruses the "Story of Liberty" without recognizing this feature will fail of fully comprehending the meaning of history. There must be a meaning to history, or else existence is an incomprehensible enigma.
Some men assert that the marvellous events of history are only a series of coincidences; but was it by chance that the great uprising in Germany once lay enfolded, as it were, in the beckoning hand of Ursula Cotta? How happened it that behind the passion of Henry VIII. for Anne Boleyn should be the separation of England from the Church of Rome, and all the mighty results to civilization and Christianity that came from that event? How came it to pass that, when the world was ready for it, and not before, George Buchanan should teach the doctrine that the people were the only legitimate source of power? Men act freely in laying and executing their plans; but behind the turmoil and conflict of human wills there is an unseen power that shapes destiny—nations rise and fall, generations come and go; yet through the ages there has been an advancement of Justice, Truth, Right, and Liberty. To what end? Is it not the march of the human race toward an Eden of rest and peace?
If while reading this "Story" you are roused to indignation, or pained at the recital of wrong and outrage, remember that out of endurance and sacrifice has come all that you hold most dear; so will you comprehend 'what Liberty has cost, and what it is worth.
CHARLES CARLETON COFFIN.