“I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.” - John Knox
John Knox (1514-1572), sometimes called the Presbyterian with the sword, was a Scottish minister, theologian, and writer. He was the leader of the Reformation in Scotland and the Founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Because of his stalwart dedication to the Bible and the reform movement, Scotland became part of the Presbyterian rather than the Anglican Church. He rejected the papacy in Rome but did not leave the church subject to Kings and Queens.
He was born to a merchant family in the small town of Giffordgate, in 1514, south of Edinburgh, and studied theology at the University of St. Andrews. This was the only academic path available other than agricultural or business. He was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in 1536 becoming a notary-priest. He described himself as "minister of the sacred altar in the diocese of St. Andrews, notary by apostolic authority" (Jasper Ridley, 1968). Rather than serve a local parish, Knox became a tutor to the sons of the lesser Scottish nobility.
At this time, “The Catholic Church owned more than half of the real estate and had an annual income of 18 times that of the monarchy” (https://tinyurl.com/y99dfkol). Church offices were often political appointments, and many church leaders led immoral lives. The Archbishop of St. Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton, openly consorted with prostitutes and had many illegitimate children. The Catholic Church was in desperate need of reform.
Book and pamphlets advocating reform were smuggled into Scotland, though Catholic authorities tried to suppress them. In 1528, one outspoken Protestant convert and preacher, Patrick Hamilton, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake by Cardinal Beaton. John Knox’s conversion was influenced by reformers like Patrick Hamilton and Thomas Guillaume, “who was the first to give Knox a taste of the truth” (New World Encyclopedia). Knox became a bodyguard for the fiery preacher George Wishart preaching in favor of the Reformation throughout Scotland “bearing a two-handed sword in order to defend him” (MacGregor, Geddes, The Thundering Scot, 1957) and gaining the nickname “Protestant with a Sword.” In 1546, Cardinal Beaton had Wishart arrested, tried, strangled, and burned.
Though Knox was present when George Wishart was arrested, on charges of heresy, and would have followed Wishart to prison, Wishart persuaded him to return to tutoring for his safety. Protestant reformers assassinated Cardinal Beaton, at the Castle of St. Andrews, avenging Wishart’s execution. After his death, the assassins seized the castle and their friends and family moved in. Knox and his students came to the castle on April 10, 1547, to continue studies in Reformed doctrine. There, Knox gave his first sermon on Daniel 7, comparing the Pope to the Antichrist. He exhorted the congregation to faith in Christ alone with the Bible as the only authority. He rejected The Mass, Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead as extra-biblical and idolatrous. One Sunday, he was asked to become a minister, and the congregation confirmed the call. Initially, he refused, explaining “he would not run where God had not called him”. He was urged by some of the leaders to reconsider, and eventually, he agreed to take up the call. Then, his life took a sudden detour challenging his faith and threatening his life.
On June 29, 1547, the French attacked the castle forcing the Protestants to surrender. The occupants were taken captive and forced to row in French ships. “The galley slaves were chained to benches and rowed throughout the day without a change of posture while an officer watched over them with a whip in hand” (MacGregor 1957, pp. 45–47). The slaves were threatened with torture if they did not show signs of reverence to the Virgin Mary. In the Summer of 1548, the ships returned to England. Knox was ill with fever and while his mind was still sharp, his fellow prisoners feared for his life. Looking out the window, he declared “he would not die until he preached there again” (Ridley, 1968, pg 75.) After nineteen months of captivity and slavery, he was released and took refuge in England.
Ministry in England
John Knox preached in England for five years and his reputation as a preacher grew. He preached before King Edward and the Court during Lent. He was “a man of God, the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Church, the mirror of godliness and pattern and example to all true ministers in purity of life, soundness of doctrine, and boldness in reproving of wickedness” according to Richard Bannatyne, his personal secretary (Hugh Cartwright, Banner of Truth, Sept 2011) who observed him publicly and privately.
When King Edward died, Mary Tudor reestablished Roman Catholicism in England restoring Mass to all the churches. With the country no longer safe for Protestant preachers, Knox left England for France in 1554 making his way to Geneva.
In Geneva, he met John Calvin who described Knox as a "brother … laboring energetically for the faith." So impressed was John Knox with Calvin's Geneva, he called it, "the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles." Traveling on to Frankfurt, he met other Protestants and soon began a debate. They argued, but could not agree on the order of worship in the church. The debate became heated. They stormed out of the church saying they would not worship with Knox. The Frankfurt authorities became aware of Knox’s pamphlet attacking the Holy Roman Emperor calling him “no less enemy to Christ than was Nero” ( MacGregor 1957, p. 70) and he was asked to leave Frankfurt. He returned home to Scotland.
Reformation in Scotland
“Back in Scotland, Protestants were redoubling their efforts, and congregations were forming all over the country. A group that came to be called ‘The Lords of the Congregation’ vowed to make Protestantism the religion of the land. In 1555, they invited Knox to return to Scotland to inspire the reforming task. Knox spent nine months preaching extensively and persuasively in Scotland before he was forced to return to Geneva” (https://tinyurl.com/y99dfkol).
In November 1555, he returned to Geneva. He led a happy life there, preaching three sermons a week sometimes lasting over two hours. In 1558, he published The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women where he strongly outlined his case against women as monarchs. He said his purpose was to show “how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traiteresse and bastard” (Kingdon, Robert M. 1995, Calvinism and resistance theory.) In another publication, Appellations to the Nobility and Commonality of Scotland, he stressed the duty of people to rebel against unjust rulers. When Elizabeth Tudor, a Protestant, became Queen of England, on November 17, 1558, Knox decided to return to Scotland. Elizabeth Tudor was offended by his writing and refused to give him a passport through England. He finally returned to Scotland May 2, 1559.
Knox led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland with the Scottish nobles. Knox helped write The Scots Confession of 1560. It was the first standard for the Protestant church in Scotland and includes The Book of Discipline, which stresses the right for the people to choose their own ministers; and the Book of Common Order, which outlines the way ministers should care for their flock and seek to glorify God. But another battle ensued.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots was the daughter of James V and Mary of Guise. She was sent to France when she was just six days old to prepare for her future as a monarch. Mary became a passionate Catholic and vowed to restore Scotland to the Pope of Rome and The Catholic Church. She returned to Scotland in 1561. For six years, John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots, battled over the Mass which he felt was idolatrous and extra-biblical, while she affirmed the divine right of Kings; God himself had given her authority over the Scottish people. Knox’s writing advocated armed rebellion against rulers he saw as godless. She accused him of open rebellion and treasonous activity. Her assassins sought his life, again and again, but he escaped every time. He was eventually acquitted by the Scottish Lords. He outlasted her reign. She said of him, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than the army of ten thousand men!” (https://tinyurl.com/y9bmhj6r).
He died on November 24, 1572, in Edinburgh, Scotland. On his deathbed, he was surrounded by Scottish nobles as his wife read Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. At his open grave, in the churchyard of St. Giles, one man described John Knox as a man of great courage: “Here lyeth a man who in his life never feared the face of man, who hath been often threatened with dagger, but yet hath ended his dayes in peace and honour” (https://tinyurl.com/yceastvj). James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton and the newly elected Regent of Scotland gave Knox the greatest seal of approval: "Here lies one who never feared any flesh” (Ridley 1968, p. 518).
Because of his obedience, he answered the call to ministry and service to God. “Whatever influenced me to utter whatever the Lord put into my mouth so boldly, and without respect of persons, was a reverential fear of my God, who called and of his grace appointed me to be a steward of divine mysteries and a belief that he will demand an account of the manner in which I have discharged the trust committed to me, when I shall stand at last before his tribunal.”
Though he was ordained in the Catholic Church, he preached Christ alone, and even the Catholic Church could not fault him: “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” (The Catholic Encyclopedia). In his will, he wrote: “None have I corrupted, none have I defrauded; merchandise have I not made.” He left a tiny sum to his family in his will. It was the Regent, Lord Morton, who made sure that his wife and five children did not starve to death.
Though the Scottish nobles attended his funeral, none of the diplomats or officials of the time mention his death in the letters that have survived, and Mary Queen of Scots only mentioned him in passing twice (Ridley 1968, pp. 522–523, 527, 529–530), but “Knox's legacy is large: his spiritual progeny includes some 750,000 Presbyterians in Scotland, 3 million in the United States, and many millions more worldwide” (John Knox, Presbyterian with a Sword, CT, 2007). “He’s terribly important also because he spearheaded the rejection of the papacy without (as happened in England) leaving the church subject to the monarch. He drastically purified the church—a much more thorough reformation than the one England was experiencing at the same time” (https://tinyurl.com/yd9gk7xe).
A bust of John Knox is in the Hall of Heroes at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland. He is a hero to the Scottish Reformation and to all people of faith.