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Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 30 - August/September 2009 > A History of the Christian Church - Part Twenty

A History of the Christian Church

Part Twenty

compiled by Denis Jenkins

Title      A History of the Christian Church
Part       Twenty
Theme   John Knox's Life; The Reformer

This is Part 20 in the series. Parts 1 to 19 can be found by referring to the index of articles via this link --> Index to Articles

The exact location of John Knox's birth is unknown but it is estimated that he was born around 1513. The first record of John Knox's name was his enrolment at Glasgow University in 1522.  He studied under John Major, one of the greatest scholars of that time. 

Dramatic events were unfolding in Scotland during Knox's youth and particularly during his training for the priesthood. The constant sea traffic between Scotland and Europe allowed Lutheran literature to be easily smuggled into the country. The port of Dundee became an early centre of Protestant activity. Church authorities became alarmed by the emergence of this "heresy," and they tried to suppress it.  John Major, Knox's lecturer, was opposed to the Lutheran doctrine, but he supported action against church excesses.  This caused Knox to become inquisitive about Lutheran doctrines that also preached against the excesses of Rome.

Knox was ordained to the priesthood around 1536, but that did not lead to a parish appointment because there was an excess of priests in Scotland. Since Knox had studied law, he became a notary in the neighbourhood around Haddington and then a tutor to the sons of local lairds (lower-ranking nobility).

The journey towards John Knox's conversion occurred according to the following set of circumstances.

"In February 1528, Patrick Hamilton, an outspoken Protestant convert, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews-the first Protestant martyr in Scotland. But people began to ask why Hamilton had been executed, and when his heresies were explained, according to Knox, "Many began to call in doubt that which before they held for a certain verity."

The outlook for Scottish Protestants brightened in 1543, seven years after Knox's ordination, when the regent for the infant Mary Queen of Scots initiated a pro-English, and therefore Protestant, policy. He encouraged Bible reading and promoted preaching by reformers. He appointed Thomas Guilliame, a converted friar, and John Rough, a converted monk, as his chaplains. They engaged at once in preaching campaigns throughout central Scotland. The preaching of Guilliame had a dramatic influence on John Knox: it made a potential Protestant of him."  (

Knox's point of protestant commitment was largely influenced by his acquaintance with George Wishart whom he met in East Lothian during 1545. In the mid-1540s, the authorities abandoned their Reformation policies and began threatening Protestants once again. Knox was so convinced by Wishart's doctrinal insight that he travelled around with Wishart as a legal body guard as Knox was both lawyer and clergyman. Wishart delivered the protestant message in Scotland under threat of the authorities. .  Knox witnessed firsthand the trial and execution of George Wishart at the hands of Cardinal Beaton. 

The abject force and unjust cruelty shown to the humble Wishart by Cardinal Beaton contrasted in Knox's mind the two behavioural attitudes.  Wishart in the love and humility that can only come by the grace of God faced this cruel force that can only be the behaviour of Satan himself exemplified in Cardinal Beaton's actions.  This caused John Knox to resolve to leave the Roman Church and all its cruelty and indulgent excesses to join forces with the reformers.

Soon after Wishart's execution, John Knox was asked to join the protestant ministry. This was not an easy decision for John Knox.   He laboured over this calling as he wanted to make sure within his very being that this was God's call and not just the desires of human devising.  John Knox took this matter to prayer.

While Knox was not a part of Cardinal Beaton's assassination, he supported the view that evil men like Beaton become the prey of unconverted and evil men who take the position of justice but in an ungodly way administer justice by force and treachery. While God does not condone the noble's actions, he allows those who do evil to reap the fruit of their own actions; Cardinal Beaton certainly experienced that.  This view put John Knox's life at risk and so for his own protection he had to join the nobles known as the Castilians in St Andrews castle.  It was while Knox was there that he was moved to join the reformation ministry.  This decision is explained in the following account:

"……his own life was in jeopardy, and he moved from one laird's house to another to avoid detection. Finally, during a break in the siege, he joined the Castilians at St. Andrews Castle.

Among the Castilians was one of the most powerful politicians in Scotland, Henry Balnaves. He and preacher John Rough were impressed by Knox's abilities as they watched him teach students. They asked him to become the castle's next chaplain, but Knox refused, saying they had no authority to grant him such a call.

Rough persisted, and as he preached on the election of ministers one Sunday, he publicly called upon Knox to undertake the office of preacher! He then asked the congregation to endorse his call, which it did with acclamation. Knox was overwhelmed and reduced to tears. At first he declined, but over the next few days, he realized that a call by a congregation was as valid a call as any.

One event in particular convinced him. As Knox was debating his call, he attended a service at the parish church. The dean of the church was defending Catholicism, doing so, he claimed, on the authority of the church, the bride of Christ.

Knox could take it no longer, and from his pew, he stood up and interrupted him saying that the Roman Church was no bride of Christ but a harlot! The congregation loudly demanded that Knox justify his remark in a sermon on the following Sunday-which he did. It was the commencement of the public career of one of the most powerful preachers of the Reformation era."  (R. Tudur Jones is professor of history at Bangor University, Wales. He is author of The Great Reformation (1985))

St Andrews Castle was under siege by French forces that were defending the rights of Rome.   This brought a sudden interruption to Knox's career as a protestant preacher since the castle fell to the French and the inhabitants of the castle were taken to Rouen in France. The more important prisoners were confined in neighbouring castles, but the rest, which included Knox, were sent to the galleys. 

"….Galleys were sailing ships, but if the wind dropped, they could be propelled by 25 oars with six men at each oar. The galleys sailed along the coast to Nantes, where they spent the winter. There is no direct evidence about conditions on these galleys at this time, but Knox admitted the prisoners were "miserably entreated."

Apart from the heavy physical exertion involved in rowing, the prisoners were pressured to renounce Protestantism. The prisoners indulged in passive resistance, for example, putting on their caps when Catholic crew members sang hymns to the Virgin Mary.

Meanwhile the English government was taking a lively interest in the plight of the prisoners and in February 1549, possibly at the specific request of King Edward VI, Knox was released.

Knox spent the next five years in England as an honored guest. The political and religious authorities, anxious to secure Protestantism in England, were eager to take advantage of his abilities. After serving preaching stints in Berwick and Newcastle, in the autumn of 1551, he was appointed a royal chaplain, along with five others, an appointment that involved preaching before the king."   (R. Tudur Jones is professor of history at Bangor University, Wales. He is author of The Great Reformation (1985))

For five years, John Knox was involved with the protestant movement in England exerting a great deal of influence including the development of the "Common Book of Prayer".  However, John Knox's career took another sudden turn when King Edward VI died; bringing to the throne Mary Tudor. 

Mary at first appeared to have a policy of tolerance to the protestant movement, even though she was pro catholic.  February 1555 Mary Tudor ordered, a Bible translator, John Rogers, to be executed.  This caused a large scale protestant withdrawal to European countries that supported and protected the Protestants.  To Knox Mary Tudor was in his view, "A wicked English Jezebel".

By January 1554, John Knox was in France. From France Knox made his way to Geneva.  Here Knox met John Calvin and in Zurich Heinrich Bullinger.  Visiting his fellow reformers led him to make a decision to settle in Frankfurt where the Roman church had little foothold and those who followed the reformers' lead enjoyed a large measure of religious freedom.  Knox was asked to pastor a church by reformation exiles who obtained permission to use a church known as the Church of White Ladies; authorised by the Frankfurt authorities.  Calvin had recommended Knox to these people and Knox agreed.

John Knox was a man of very strong ideas upon which he would not waver.  He had little understanding of negotiation.  In his view situations were either wrong or right; there appeared to be nothing in between.  In this Frankfurt church Knox met head on with the members over what Liturgy should be adopted.  Knox was opposed to the Book of Common Prayer used by the Anglican Church.  This difference with the congregation over the liturgy, split the congregation in two which was in the future to be the difference between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. The larger dissenting group who did not agree with Knox's views had the Frankfurt authorities forbid him from preaching in the city.  Knox obeyed; going back to Geneva.

Knox's stubbornness was both a strength and a weakness.  It helped him stand against authorities that other reformers had not been able to achieve.  However, it caused Knox to be involved in controversial issues with the British Crown that did not really exemplify the love of God.

Knox released the 1554 Admonition to England that accused the leaders of conniving to re-establish the Roman Church.  He took the view that if Queen Mary Tudor had been dispatched to Hell, the world would not have seen the reality of her cruelty.  These outbursts on the part of Knox did not help the reformers' cause.  Many were persecuted and killed as a result.  Knox even questioned the right of a woman being a legitimate ruler.

Not only did John Knox attack the place of women in leadership, but, in a document to Scottish Nobility gave the biblical right and duty for the ordinary people to rebel against authority militating for the protestant cause.  Knox was so different to the gentle Tyndale who upheld Government as God ordained.  Tyndale believed that God placed and removed Governments.

Scottish affairs moved quickly to a crisis.  By 1559, Knox Left Geneva in order to face Mary of Guise who opposed the reformation movement in Scotland.  On reaching Scotland, Knox preached some fierce and eloquent sermons against the idolatry of the Roman Church.  When the service was over, a riot broke out.  Altars were demolished and images smashed and entire religious houses destroyed.

The regent threatened to deploy her forces to restore order.  Despite this, the Lords of the congregation militarily occupied Perth, Stirling, and St Andrews.  By June of that year, Knox and his supporters were in Edinburgh.  The inhabitants elected Knox to be their minister. Knox's preaching kept the reformation spirit alive in potentially depressing circumstances.

The Government was as a result unstable in Scotland and Knox was convinced only English intervention would save the day.  While Queen Elizabeth would not see him personally, she was prepared to help establish a treaty with the supporting reformation Lords of Scotland. This was known as the treaty of Berwick signed in 1560.  The treaty worked, as the French and English agreed to leave Scottish soil.  Without French interference the reformation movement in Scotland was assured.

The Scottish Parliament met the next month after the treaty had been signed, where Knox preached to this most distinguished congregation.  Parliament ordered Knox to write the confession of faith for the new Scottish Congregation.  The mass was abolished, the papal jurisdiction was repudiated.  All laws at odds with the reform faith were rescinded.

Knox did a great deal to help stabilise the government of the reform church.  While, being a lawyer and a clergyman he was well capable of assisting.  However, he was often thwarted by feuding and murderous politicians.

The process of stabilising church and state Government was interrupted by the return of Mary queen of Scot's from France; a devout Catholic officially ruling a protestant country.  Mary tried to suppress Protestantism which created civil war and continual unrest.  Crime increased and the Government almost collapsed.

The battle became so continuous and hard for Knox.  He became an embittered man and his intolerance and outbursts became intolerable for those around him.  His health was declining but still insisted on preaching even if he had to be carried to the pulpit.  Knox preached at St Giles for the last time 9 November 1572.  He died five days later.

Here again Knox's humanity got in the way of his cause for God.  While he battled for God, could not have Knox depended more on spiritual intervention and heavenly wisdom?  Could this be a lesson for us today? Do we need to fight God's battles or have God lead us into the wisdom of his intervention through the Holy Spirit?  This is an answer we will not know until we reach the earth made new.  We should not judge as God has entrusted his work to frail human beings; we all make mistakes.

The Scottish Reformation would continue to establish itself in fits and starts over the coming decades, but it had gotten its footing in 1560, to a great degree because of the single-minded devotion and burning sincerity of the "thundering Scot."   (R. Tudur Jones is professor of history at Bangor University, Wales. He is author of The Great Reformation (1985))

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