By David Patterson
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great Scottish Reformer, John Knox. God not only calls men to particular tasks in his kingdom; he also equips the men he calls with the personality, gifts, and strength to do the work. So it was with John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland.
John Knox was born in 1514, in the small village of Gifford in East Lothian. He received his early training in Haddington and was then sent to the University of Glasgow. His upbringing and experiences tempered him to stand alone against queens and princes, unmoved by their threats or tears. He was, in God’s wisdom, the only one who could bring the Reformation to Scotland.
It was not until around 1542 that Knox became a Protestant. It was around this period that he met and became a close friend of George Wishart, a bold minister and teacher of Reformation doctrine. Wishart was soon arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities and was taken away to be tried and condemned to burning at the stake. It was this event that really began Knox’s commitment to the Reformation.
Wishart was burned to death by Cardinal Beaton of St Andrews in March of 1546. Nobles, sympathetic to Protestantism, stormed the castle, killed Beaton, and invited other Protestants, including Knox, to take up residence in the castle. Knox lived in the castle for a time, preaching and teaching, but in July of 1547 the castle was captured by a part of the French navy. Knox and others were made prisoners of the French, and, after being sentenced in France, Knox was condemned to the galleys as a slave chained to an oar.
Knox was released only because Edward VI, Protestant king of England, directly intervened on his behalf with the king of France. He was released in 1549 and took up residence in England where he lived for about five years. Here he married Marjory Bowes. With the untimely death of Edward and the accession of Mary Tudor – ‘Bloody Mary,’ as she was called, a loyal daughter of Rome and one determined to restore Roman Catholicism to England, even at the price of the blood of the Protestants – in 1554 Knox fled to Europe. He lived in Geneva, when Calvin was at the height of his powers and influence. The two spent much time together discussing theology and, more particularly, church polity. He accepted in accordance with Calvin’s counsel a call to the English Church at Frankfurt. Here controversies in connection with vestments, ceremonies, and the use of the English prayer-book confronted him. He later returned to Geneva, where he was invited to become minister of the refugee English congregation.
In August of 1555, Knox set out for Scotland, where he remained for nine months preaching Evangelical doctrine in various parts of the country, and persuading those who favoured the Reformation to cease from attendance at mass, and to join with himself in the celebration of the Lord’s supper according to a Reformed pattern.
In May, 1556, he was cited to appear before the hierarchy in Edinburgh, and he boldly responded to the summons; but the bishops found it expedient not to proceed with the trial. In July an urgent call from his congregation at Geneva, along, probably, with the desire to prevent the renewal of persecution in Scotland, caused him to return to Geneva.
Two things resulted from his stay in Geneva: he was thoroughly equipped to establish a complete reformation in Scotland, not only in doctrine, but also in church polity and liturgy. He also authored a pamphlet entitled, ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.’ The pamphlet was written primarily against Bloody Mary (although no names were mentioned), but it got him into endless trouble with Elizabeth, Queen of England, and with Mary, Queen of Scotland.
In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland for good, and with his return the work of reformation advanced rapidly. It was evident that the common people hungered for the pure preaching of the gospel, a hunger created by a mighty work of the Spirit of Christ. Romanism was abandoned, superstition was condemned, the chains of Rome were broken, and the nation moved steadily in the direction of becoming a Protestant country. Knox’s preaching led the way. Knox was much engrossed with the public affairs of the national Church, and at the same time devoted to his work as a parish minister, to say nothing of his continual, and perhaps, in his position, unavoidable controversies, with the ecclesiastical and political factions of the day, which he regarded as his country’s enemies.
In 1563 he retired to relative privacy because his forcefulness and uncompromising attitude offended many. But his influence continued to be felt. When Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567, reforms continued. It was decided, for example, that the ruler of Scotland must henceforth be Protestant, and many provisions were made for the support of the clergy. Also under Knox’s influence, schools were established. He wanted schools in every parish.
In 1570 Knox suffered a stroke, from which he partially recovered. He retired to St Andrews, where his work of reformation had begun, and there he continued to preach even though he had to be carried to the pulpit. But Knox spoke of being ‘weary of the world’ and of ‘thirsting to depart.’ On November 24, 1572, at the age of 58, the Lord took him home. At his grave in the churchyard at St Giles, it was said that ‘Here lies a man who in his life never feared the face of man’.
It is quite amazing, and a demonstration of the power of grace, that the Reformation came at all to Scotland. Scotland was known throughout Europe as the most superstitious and the most Roman Catholic of all countries. And the church which had held sway here for centuries was a church in which corruption had reached depths found in few other places. Though he was small and weak, beset since his days in the galleys with many infirmities, he was of a vigorous mind and implacable will. His piety and zeal knew no bounds. He stamped his character on the church which he was instrumental in establishing. Knox proved that ‘One man with God is a majority’.