John Knox: Reformer of Scotland and Father of Presbyterianism

John Knox - Preaching at St. Giles Cathedral - Stained Glass from St. Giles Cathedral.

John Knox – Preaching at St. Giles Cathedral – Stained Glass from St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland.

John Knox stands as a giant of the Protestant faith. A former sword-bearing body guard and a former slave captured by the French; a man who sparred with a Queen, accused of heresy, and lived to tell the tale. John Knox lived a life as turbulent and fierce as the highlands of Scotland itself. Knox’s life serves as an example of how the actions of a few good men can change the fortunes of an entire nation.

John Knox - by Adrian Vanson - 18th Century - National Portrait Gallery, London.

John Knox – by Adrian Vanson – 18th Century – National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born in Haddington, Scotland around the year 1514, John Knox came from humble beginnings. Scotland had been a land embroiled in warfare, yet he did grow up in some sense of stability. Going to school and learning about the world, Knox showed some real talent and was thus sent to the University of St. Andrews to train to study law as well as to become a priest in the church. McEwen recounts that Knox led a simple life seemingly without controversy for “in 1543 he was known to be… practicing as an apostolic notary in the Haddington area, which would seem to indicate that he was in good standing with the ecclesiastical authorities.” (“John Knox – Scottish Religious Leader”) Knox served in his post diligently and faithfully. Yet, the world was changing and new ideas were beginning to spread as a result of that fateful day in Wittenberg in 1517. A man named George Wishart came along spreading ideas about a Reformed church and it what it might look like.

Knox traveling with George Wishart

Knox traveling with George Wishart – J.M.L. Ralston

George Wishart, a Scottish native, had been learning and teaching the New Testament from the original Greek. A man of controversy, he had already been accused or heretical teachings by the time he met with John Knox in the early 1540s. Knox served as a personal bodyguard for Wishahrt “as Wishart proclaimed the Protestant faith in Scotland…Reformed in his convictions and …a strong preacher.” (Calhoun) Knox felt moved by Wishart’s preaching and was willing to lay down his life for the ideals he had been studying. Wishart needed the protection too–the Catholic church still kept an extraordinarily strong presence in the Scotland. Wishart and Knox would not walk in peace forever. In an account later published by Knox, he says that “Master George” said to him when he refused to leave, “‘No, return to your pupils, and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken from John Knox, who, although unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…[Later,] before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to raise the alarm….The Bishops, with their accomplices, condemned this innocent man to be burned as a heretic, thinking truly, that they should do to God good sacrifice.” Though Knox had insisted on staying, Wishart told him to go. Knox would never be the same. McEwen reinforces this point saying, “Wishart was burned for heresy in March 1546 by Cardinal David Beaton, archbishop of St. Andrews, who, rather than the weak governor, was the real ruler of Scotland. Wishart’s execution began a chain of events that profoundly altered Knox’s life.” (“John Knox”) The consequences of the Reformation hit home.

Portrait of John Knox

Portrait of John Knox

Shortly after the execution of Wishart, a bunch of his followers went on the offensive to take matters into their own hands. They stormed the fortress of St. Andrews and killed Cardinal Beaton. It became thereafter a Protestant stronghold in Scotland and a settlement started to develop there of those friendly to the Reformed faith. Knox was not yet the great that he would become and decided to study and teach there. He was noticed, and before long he became a leader of the Protestants there. Unfortunately for Knox, however, the peace of St. Andrews would be shattered. An alliance of Frenchmen and Scottish Catholics would come from the sea to bombard the fortress of St. Andrews. The French took Knox, captured him, and enslaved him on a prison ship floating off the coast. David Calhoun relates the situation:

He spent over a year, almost two years [19 months], as a galley slave, working in the French ships. He later wrote, “I know how hard the battle is between the spirit and the flesh, under the heavy cross of affliction, where no worldly defense, but present death does appear. I know the grudging and murmuring complaints of the flesh; I know the anger, wrath and indignation, which it conceives against God, calling all His promises in doubt, and being ready every hour to utterly fall from God.” (“Blowing the Trumpet…”)

There is no doubt that the pain and suffering Knox endured under the French permanently marked him. It may have emboldened him, for the seriousness of his situation marked his thinking and preaching. It was the English who eventually freed Knox and gave him a new home. The Reformation was just starting and as we have seen Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley had been working diligently to spread the reform throughout the area. McEwen relates that, “the Protestant government of Edward VI was endeavoring to hurry clergy and people into the Reformation….[and] promptly made him [Knox] one of a select corps of licensed preachers…sent…to propagate the Reformation.” (“John Knox”) Knox took to the streets and was given full license to preach doctrines that a few years before had gotten his friends killed. He met with Puritan reformers, met and married Marjorie Bowes (c.1552), and eventually took part in the reforming of the Church of England. McEwen illustrates that Knox, “secured the insertion into The Book of Common Prayer of the so-called black rubric, which denies the corporal presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine used in Holy Communion and explains that kneeling at communion implies no adoration of the element.” (“John Knox”) Such reforming efforts would have continued and the Church of England may have gained a true Puritan perspective that could have stuck with it. It was not to be. 1553 marked the end of Edward VI’s rule and the first wave of Protestantism in England. Queen Mary I’s counter-reformation aimed at bringing this reform to an end. Knox saw the writing on the wall. He fled.

The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, June 10th 1559 - Sir David Wilkie 1832

The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, June 10th 1559 – Sir David Wilkie 1832 – Knox almost flew out of the pulpit when he preached.

Many English citizens left England in the Protestant diaspora that took place when Queen Mary I took the throne. English protestants fled to the Netherlands, different parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and Switzerland. Knox himself went to both Frankfurt am Main, Germany where he served in an English speaking Protestant enclave, and eventually Geneva where he met John Calvin first hand.

Calvin had a brilliant effect on Knox. Calhoun expresses, “It was a period of joy in Geneva, for Knox was delighted to be in that city, which he called ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth.'” (“The Blowing of the Trumpet…”) The freedom to drink deeply of the scriptures without fear of death and the solidarity with his fellow English refugees gave him a life he had not yet known. Knox was also bitter. Calhoun tells of how Knox could not believe that everywhere he looked at the time where women where in power, they were set on destroying Protestantism in Europe. So he decided to say something about it. He wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women not only as a polemic against Mary’s rule, but the rule of all women in government.It caused quite a bit of controversy.

John Calvin, who Knox bounced the idea off of did not like it one bit. Calvin could empathize with Knox’s frustration over the current tyranny in England, but in many regards was pacifist himself. Calvin was not in the business of dethroning divinely ordained governors. Knox went ahead and wrote the work anyway. Calhoun states,

“It was an embarrassment to John Calvin. Calvin explained [later in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I] that when Knox came to him with the idea of writing such a book, Calvin strongly discouraged him from doing it. Calvin pointed to Deborah and Huldah, women in the Old Testament who were legitimate rulers. Calvin was also concerned about Knox’s approach, because Calvin was very conservative in his view of overthrowing kingdoms. He told the Huguenots in France that it was better to suffer than to create anarchy and revolution.” (“Blowing the Trumpet…”)

Indeed, even today when examining Knox’s legacy – this misstep of attacking the role of women continues to mar his image. Even Knox came to abhor what had written – especially when the next Queen of England turned out to be a Protestant Elizabeth I. McEwen points out that “unfortunately for Knox, publication coincided with the accession in England of the Protestant Elizabeth I, who indignantly and permanently debarred the rash author from her realm.” Even in Knox’s day, bashing women in power simply for being women did not find favor. It may serve as corrective for some conservatives who feel the same. Knox later regretfully stated, “The First Blast of the Trumpet blew away all my friends in England.” (Quote in Calhoun)

After his work in Geneva and Frankfurt, Knox headed back to Scotland in 1559. He set out to work. The Reformation went into overdrive. Monasteries faced destruction, a new Scottish church arose and a distinct Presbyterian faith built on Calvin’s teaching (brought to Scotland through John Knox) began to emerge. He worked tirelessly with the Scottish Parliament to get as many reforming pieces of legislation passed as possible. He hastily put together the Scottish Confession of Faith in 1560 all in opposition to the reigning from France – Mary Queen of Scots – Regent of Scotland.

The Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560 powerfully affirmed a church built on the Reformation doctrines of the authority of scripture, the supremacy of Christ in headship of the Church, and became part of the foundation for the Westminster Confession of Faith years later. Article 16 declares:

As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; so do we most constantly believe that from the beginning there hath been, and now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one Church: that is to say, a company and multitude of men chosen of God, who rightly worship and embrace him by true faith in Christ Jesus (Matt 3:9; 28:19–20; Eph 1:4, 22); who is the only Head of the same Church; which also is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus. Which Church is Catholic, that is, universal; because it containeth the elect of all ages, of all realms, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jews, or be they of the Gentiles, who have communion and society with God the Father, and with his Son Christ Jesus, through the sanctification of his Holy Spirit (Col 1:18; Eph 5:23-32; Rev 7:9); and therefore it is called the Communion, not of profane persons, but of Saints; who, as citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Eph 2:19), have the fruition of the most inestimable benefits, to wit, of one God, one Lord Jesus, one faith, and one baptism (Eph 4:4-6): out of the which Church, there is neither life nor eternal felicity. And therefore we utterly abhor the blasphemy of those that affirm, that men which live according to equity and justice, shall be saved, what religion soever they have professed. For as without Christ Jesus there is neither life nor salvation (John 3:36), so shall there none be participant thereof, but such as the Father hath given unto his Son Christ Jesus, and those that in time come unto him, avow his doctrine, and believe in him….

A bold statement against Roman Catholic hegemony who had preached exclusivity in its holding of the keys to heaven, the Scots Confession of 1560 stood as a smack in the face to both the Regent Queen Mary (who was in France at this time) as well as the former Catholic order. In addition to the Confession, Knox brought to the Scottish Parliament a Book of Common Order for the liturgy of the church as well as a “Book of Discipline containing proposals for the constitution and finance of the Reformed Church” including not only a new church service, but prescriptions for the education and aid of the poor. (McEwen) Knox had now come into his homeland free and able to preach the word of God. Such joy would also be mingled with grief as his wife died that very same year leaving him with two young sons. (McGregor 148-152).

Knox knew that Mary Queen of Scots would be coming back to Scotland from France and he knew that she would not be happy with what she found. A devout Catholic, the country that she sought to rule had completely abolished the authority of the papacy, the practice of the mass, and as many vestiges of the Roman Catholic faith which she had so revered. Fortunately for Knox, however, Mary could not go ahead and order the complete counter-reformation of her country as Mary I of England had done. The nobles’ power in Scotland kept the Queen in check and Knox and Mary had just a few tense meetings.

Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox - Samuel Sidley - 1874 - Towneley Hall Art Gallery Museum

Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox – Samuel Sidley – 1874 – Towneley Hall Art Gallery Museum

In 1563 things came to a head when Knox set out to convince the Queen that she should not marry Don Carlos from the pulpit. The Queen then brought Knox aside to explain himself at Holyrood. To the Queens questioning, Knox replied rather forcefully:

“True it is, Madam, Your Grace and I have been at various controversies, in which I never perceived Your Grace to be offended at me. But, when it shall please God to deliver you from that bondage of darkness and error in which you have been nourished for the lack of true doctrine, Your Majesty will find the liberty of my tongue nothing offensive. Outside the preaching place, Madam, I think few have occasion to be offended at me. There, Madam, I am not master of myself, but must obey Him who commands me to speak plain, and to flatter no flesh upon the face of the earth.” (Quote in Graves)

Knox felt that the Queen should not marry Carlos of Spain and this enraged her. As a monarch, the decision would have political ramifications and could mean the destruction of the Protestantism in Scotland that Knox and the other Reformers had worked so hard to build. McEwen explains, “Mary, enraged at this intervention by a heretic preacher and commoner in affairs of state, berated Knox with hysterical fury and charged him with treason, but the Privy Council refused to convict him.” (“John Knox”) Mary’s weak rule would lead to her eventual abdication in 1567.

Scotland would not remain at peace forever. Though a Protestant James Stewart took over, he was quickly killed and a scene of practical anarchy reigned as the supporters of Mary and the former supporters of James fought against each other. Mary herself would eventually be imprisoned as her existence was also a threat to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. During this chaotic time, Knox would suffer from a stroke and preach his last sermon in solidarity with those Huguenots who lost their lives in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. John Knox died in November of that year after preaching his last sermon from St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

John Knox - Reformation Wall - Geneva - Courtesy: Apostles Creed

John Knox – Reformation Wall – Geneva – Courtesy: Apostles Creed

John Knox’s turbulent life is the stuff of a great film or epic tale. A sword carrying bodyguard and preacher who gave sermons that made him seem to fly out of the pulpit; a man who stood against the corruption of the Roman Church and spearheaded a confession of faith for an entire nation–John Knox stands tall among the men and women of the Reformation and is today honored among those on the Reformation Wall in Geneva.

Calhoun, David. “Blowing the Trumpet: John Knox and the Scottish Reformation.” Reformation and Modern Church History, Spring 2006. Covenant Theological Seminary. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Knox, John. The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland. 1566. Quoted in: Graves, Dan. “John Knox and Scots Reform.” Christian History Institute. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

McEwen, James Stevenson. “John Knox”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

MacGregor, Geddes. The Thundering Scot. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957.) Quoted on Wikipedia. “John Knox.” Web. 25 Oct 2015.


One thought on “John Knox: Reformer of Scotland and Father of Presbyterianism

  1. Pingback: Peter Martyr Vermigli: Reformer of Europe | Continuing Reformation

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