John Knox was probably born at the village of Gifford (20 miles east of Edinburgh), in the year 1514, five years after Calvin and three years before Luther posted his 95 Theses. At that time, Scotland was still staunchly Roman Catholic. In 1433, Paul Craw, a disciple of Wycliff, was burned at the stake at St. Andrews Cathedral with a brass ball in his mouth to prevent him from exhorting onlookers. When the Reformation begun, more Protestants were martyred. In particular, a youth of royal descent, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake in February 1528; and George Wishart, a one-time schoolmaster, was martyred in 1546.

Knox’s Conversion

Providentially, the Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Glasgow University where Knox was enrolled, a man by the name of John Mair, was not an extreme Roman Catholic. He spoke against the temporal supremacy of the Pope and criticised the clergy for their moral abuses. Although he was not a Protestant, his criticism of the outward abuse of the church must have caused Knox to ponder about the authority and teachings of the Church, especially since he was preparing to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. This became evident when shortly after his ordination in 1539, Knox began to study the Scriptures rather than the scholastic works only. By 1544, at age 40, it became clear that he had become a Protestant. He was pronounced a heretic and stripped of his priesthood. That year, the Protestant scholar, George Wishart, from Montrose arrived in Scotland, and Knox began to serve him as a servant and bodyguard. Wishart was martyred the next year. It is said that had it not been for Wishart’s influence and tragic death, Knox would never have stepped to the front. Such is the mystery of the Providence of God.

Knox’s Call and Capture

Ironically, at about the same time, an Act was passed by the Regent making it legal to read the Bible in the common language of the people. This helped the cause of Reformation tremendously, so that by 1547, the number of Protestants had grown so rapidly that a group of Protestants seized the castle of St. Andrew’s and established it as a refuge for Protestants. Knox went there for refuge too and was soon invited to be the minister to the parish church attached to the castle. Knox at first refused, citing his inadequacy for such an onerous task. But when it was pressed upon him, he took up the call with much tears and trepidation. Once on the pulpit, however, Knox preached fearlessly. Such was Knox’s fear of the Lord. Unlike many today who view preaching lightly, Knox dared not take to the pulpit until he was sure it was the Lord’s call. And when he was on the pulpit, he feared the Lord too much to accommodate man and minimise sin. He struck out against the papacy as being unscriptural and erroneous; and pronounced the Pope to be the Antichrist. This immediately caused a stir and Knox was at once called to defend his views before a committee of learned men, which he did ably—driving his opponents to the logical conclusion of their doctrines: that the Apostles were uninspired when they wrote the Scriptures.

The authorities desired to silence him, but were unable to do so because the Protestants had control of St. Andrew’s Castle. A few months later, however, a French Fleet, together with a considerable army, appeared at St. Andrew’s to help the Scottish government force the castle into submission.

Knox, together with many other Protestants, was captured and chained in the French war galleys to work at the oars like condemned criminals and slaves. Knox was on the galley for nine months and was often very sick and it was thought that he would die. But on one occasion, he saw St. Andrew’s castle and said, “Yes, I know it well; for I see the steeple of that place where God first opened my mouth in public to His glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His goodly name in the same place.”

Knox’s English Tour

In February, 1549, Knox was released, and went at once to England where the young Protestant Edwards VI was king under a Regency and Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury. Knox was sent by Cranmer to Berwick where he ministered for four years, during which time he met Miss Majory Bowes, his future wife. It was also at this time he was arraigned before the Bishop of Durham for preaching that the doctrine of the Mass was idolatrous, and so had the opportunity to defend the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper before a great assembly of churchmen.

In 1551, Knox moved to Newcastle after he was appointed a chaplain to King Edwards VI. It was there that he was consulted in an attempt to revise the English “Book of Common Prayer.” Particularly attributed to his advice was the removal of the doctrine of the bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper as well as the idolatrous act of kneeling to receive the bread and wine. King Edwards VI was especially appreciative of Knox’s ministry and offered him a bisphoric. But Knox refused as he felt that the church was not sufficiently reformed yet.

Knox’s Training in Geneva

On July 6, 1553, Edwards VI died. Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen because Henry VIII had no other sons. Mary Tudor was known as a hardened Roman Catholic and so when the inhabitants of London celebrated her ascension to the throne with much joy, Knox reckoned that the progress of the Reformed Faith was about to be hindered greatly. He was right. Persecution of Protestants soon begun and more than 300 Protestants, including Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake. More than 800 fled to the Continent. On January 28, 1554, Knox was persuaded by his friends to flee when some of his letters were intercepted and seized to be used as evidence against him. He fled to Dieppe, France, and later to Geneva where he became acquainted with Calvin and studied under him. Knox was later to declare Geneva to be “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.” He explains: “In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached, but manners and religion so truly reformed, I have not seen in any other place.”

In November 1554, Knox was called to an English pastorate in Frankford-on-Main, which he accepted upon Calvin’s urgings. He did not stay long, however, as the congregation soon dispersed due to some disagreements (no fault of his). Knox then returned to Berwick to visit his wife, whom he had not seen for two years. From there, he went on to Edinburgh, when he began preaching at the home of one of the nobles. At first, Knox preached secretly, but in 1556, the Roman Catholic clergy became aware of his presence and summoned him to appear before an assembly of clergy to answer for heresy charges. The clergy had not expected him to turn up and had assumed that they could excommunicate him in absentia, but when they realised that he was firmly committed to attending, they cancelled the meeting, fearing what a public debate with Knox might do for the Protestant cause. Knox went nevertheless, and there he preached to a huge congregation twice a day for the next ten days!

In July that year, Knox received letters from Geneva asking him to return to pastor the English congregation there. Knox acceded to the request and left with his wife and mother-in-law. The Roman Catholic clergy seized the opportunity and pronounced him a heretic and condemned him to death in his absence. Knox had done much during his short visit to Edinburgh and he continued to assist in the work of Reformation in Scotland by writing to advise and encourage his fellow Reformers.

In 1558, Knox together with other Protestants in exile in Geneva translated the Geneva Bible. This Bible became the most popular Bible of the Puritans. Two years later, in response to the evils which had resulted from the reigns of the two Marys, Knox wrote his famous “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regime of Women,” in which he strongly attacked the practice of allowing women to rule the country.

Knox’s Return to Scotland

Mary Tudor died that same year and Elizabeth I came on the throne in England. At the same time, the Queen Regent in Scotland (Mary of Guise) had feignedly acceded to the request of the Protestant leaders for religious liberty. King James V had died 16 years ago, leaving the crown to his daughter, Mary (Queen of Scot) who was born only weeks before his death. As she was too young, her mother, Mary of Guise, acted as Regent. Mary of Guise did not like Mary Tudor, and when the persecution started, she persuaded some of the English exiles to come to Scotland. Thus, when Knox heard the news of her accession, he immediately prepared to return home. He arrived in January, 1559. Upon his arrival, however, Knox learned that the Queen Regent did not keep her words and was preparing to crush the Reformation with force. Providentially, the opportunity for her came, when a riot broke out in Perth when a Roman Catholic priest attempted to celebrate Mass immediately after one of Knox’s sermons. This ended in the altars, images and ornaments of the Church, as well as two monast-eries being destroyed. Though the actions were not inspired by Knox, the Queen Regent blamed him and the Reformers for the rebellion and immediately sent an army to attack them. The Reformers were forced to fortify the town to defend themselves. But they did not need to fight. The Queen Regent fearing a defeat decided to negotiate with them instead and the Protestant army disbanded upon certain promises given by her.

After this, the Protestant lords decided to introduce the Reformed Faith to Scotland in those places where they had control. Knox was sent on a preaching tour, and for two months he preached in Kelso, Jedburgh, Dumfries, Ayr, Stirling, Perth, Brechin, Montrose and Dundee. But this was not sufficient for a thorough reformation. On October 21, 1559, an assembly of Protestant lords met in Edinburgh and suspended the Queen Regent from her authority and elected a council to administer the country until a free Parliament should meet. But the Queen Regent would not give up easily. She fought against the Protestants with the help of French troops. It was only in March 1560, when she died, that the French troops withdrew and the Reformed Faith began to spread peacefully and rapidly throughout Scotland.

On August 1, 1560, the Parliament met to legally sanction the change from Roman Catholic worship to Reformed worship. On the 17th of the same month, theScottish Confession was drawn up by Knox and his fellow Reformers. This was accepted by the Parliament as the Confession for Scottish Churches until it was replaced in 1648 by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Knox also drew up theFirst Book of Discipline and later, in 1561, the Book of Common Order. The Scottish Church was organised in a Presbyterian system with minister, doctors or teachers, ruling elders and deacons.

Knox’s Encounters of Queen Mary of Scot

The story of the Reformation in Scotland did not end there. Mary Queen of Scot was married to King Francis II of France (and stayed in France while her mother ruled Scotland). In 1561, when King Francis II died, the Protestant nobility of Scotland invited her to return to Scotland. This she did on August 19, 1561. But Mary was a confirmed Roman Catholic and the Reformation in Scotland was again exposed to grave danger. Shortly after her return, she summoned Knox to appear before her in order to accuse him of sedition. During the interview, the Queen reportedly said, “I will defend the Church of Rome, for it is, I think, the true Church of God.” Knox replied, “Your will, madam, is no reason; neither doth your thought make the Roman harlot to be the true immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ. Wonder not, madam, that I call Rome an harlot, for that church is altogether polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication, both in doctrine and manners.” “My conscience is not so,” said the Queen. “Conscience, madam, requires knowledge, and I fear that right knowledge you have none,” replied Knox.

After that interview, Knox perceived that Mary was proud, crafty and obstinately committed to Roman Catholicism. He began to warn against her devices in his sermons and letters; and whenever he prayed for her, he would say, “Illuminate her heart, if Thy good pleasure be.” This infuriated the Queen and she sought on many occasions to accuse Knox of punishable offences so that she could silence him.

In May 1562, Knox cited the Queen in his sermon when it became known that she had called for a dance in celebration of a massacre of Protestants in France. When the Queen heard about it, she summoned him to accuse him of rebellion, but Knox defended himself ably. On another occasion, the Queen summoned Knox to appear before her for warning about the danger of her marrying a Roman Catholic. During the interview the Queen wept in anger and accused him of being ruthless, merciless and unkind, and after she had dismissed him she immediately discussed with her advisors on how to have him tried for his remarks.

Knox’s assessment of Mary was not wrong. History showed that she was indeed a crafty and scheming woman. For example, she had declared that all the Acts pertaining to the Reformation were illegal since they were not ratified by a sovereign, but she gave the impression that it did not matter, and even pretended to side with the Reformers by arresting some leading Catholics. The Parliament, therefore, did not pursue the matter. This loophole allowed her to restore a Roman Catholic Archbishop to St. Andrew’s on December 23, 1566.

On February 9, 1567, a gun-powder explosion killed Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley. All evidences pointed to the fact that Mary had plotted his murder after she fell in love with the Earl of Bothwell. After this event, the nobles of Scotland quickly captured Mary and imprisoned her in order to protect the infant prince (James I of Scotland, later James VI of England). The Earl of Murray, a firmly Reformed man, was appointed Regent of Scotland. Under Murray, the Reformation of Scotland was very firmly established and legalised.

Knox’s Departure

Sadly, Murray was later murdered by a man who was charged for treason, but was released by him as an act of mercy at Knox’s request. Knox grieved by this event and pressured by the political confusion that followed, suffered a stroke in October 1570, which affected his speech considerably. Knox preached his last sermon on November 9, 1572, it being the inaugural service for James Lawson, his successor. As he walked home that evening, the street was lined with supporters, but Knox was a worn-out man, leaning heavily on his stick. He never went out again and gradually grew weaker until he died on November 24, 1572.

Knox was only 58 years old when he died. But the permanent marks of his labours last until this day. Not only are many Reformed churches in Scotland and around the world today still adhering to the biblical doctrines and worship taught by Knox, but practically all Presbyterian churches in all shapes and sizes around the world will acknowledge him as the founder of Presbyterianism (though Knox would certainly be ashamed of the many churches which have denied the Scripture or departed from it by unbiblical practices, such as ordination of women and idolatrous worship). Knox’s fidelity to the Scripture, his courage in the defence of the truth, and his fearless attacks against errors continue to inspire many a Reformed man to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Though the word “love” is seldom attached to Knox, we have no doubt that his labours were constrained solely by his love for the absolutely sovereign Lord whom he served. The words of the new Regent at his burial testify of this singular devotion: “There lies he, who never feared the face of man” (cf. Gal 1:10).

J.J. Lim