The Life of John Knox

A great Scottish theologian, religious leaders, author, and rebel. John Knox is the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and one of the leaders of the global Protestant Reformation. Born into a country with its national church ruled by supreme powers, he would leave behind the first democratically elected church- and change the face of society forever.

Early Life

John Knox was born on a farm near the town of Haddington, East Lothian, at somepoint in the year 1514. Father William was a farmer and merchant worker, while his mother is largely unknown- though it is believed she is a Sinclair of Northrig. Both of John’s parents would die while he was a boy. It was a bit of a blessing in disguise though, as he would be taken in by a wealthy family in Edinburgh, leading to significant improvements in opportunities.

As seemingly always, it was a bit of turmoil in the country at the time of John Knox’s childhood. The political situation at the beginning of the 16th century become greatly unstable, after James IV and thousands of Scots were killed at the Battle of Flodden in Northumberland. The Church of Scotland provided a pillar of stability in the community during these difficult years, and John Knox would be raised as a catholic by his adopted family- in line with his fathers wishes on his death bed for John to become a priest in the Roman Catholic church.

It was not all doom and gloom as there was plenty of opportunities of education- with the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen all set up by this point. This paints a picture of the people of the time. The Church of Scotland is thriving in the aftermath of these wars, offering hope and enhanced community spirit& togetherness- but with new institutions of education promoting new thinking, their complete theological control of the people was eventually going to slip, and a reformation was always on the horizon.

John is widely believed to have been further educated at St Andrews University, following basic education at a school in Edinburgh. Many historians suggest he may have also studied in Glasgow but there is no evidence to support this. The young John Knox would study theology and was greatly influenced by the scholar John Major, who was an early preacher for religious reformation. John Major also spend time as principle at Glasgow University though this was in the early 1520s so its clear that he could not have taught Knox at Glasgow.

Major was made provost of St Andrews University in 1533 and with John Knox believed to have been ordained in 1536 the two had plenty of time together. Philosopher Major was heavily influenced by the German theologist Martin Luther, though remained a Roman Catholic during his lifetime. Like most reformers he expressed great scepticism of the authority followed on earth- effectively promoting a new type of individual independence, one without restricting holy control.

Nevertheless Knox would honour the wishes of his father and become a catholic priest in the year 1536. It was not until John Knox was in his 30s that he really became a notable person, and can be accurately (to a good extent) traced. It is known that the influence on him by the reformist preacher John Rough was very significant, and that this led him to begin attending sermons by a more well known reformist and controversial preacher, George Wishart. Soon he had forfeited his Catholic priesthood, abandoned his quest to fulfil his fathers wishes, and began following Wishart and the reform rebels.


St Andrews & Enslavement

The younger John Knox was greatly influenced by George Wishart, and was considered a close disciple of his, and for a spell his bodyguard. Now converted by his new mentor, John Knox the Reformist was on his way. As well as the reformists denouncing the papacy, other controversies include them publicly declaring offence at the Roman Mass, which they criticised heavily – believing it was the worship of idols (Idolatry in the bible). They also took up slightly more minor issues in Mass, such the use of the bells, the smoke of the burning incense, the music, the dress-code, the continued use of Latin, with sitting/kneeling and even with the name ‘mass’ – believing it should be called ‘The Lords Supper‘.

In mid-1546, however, George Wishart was arrested by the Chancellor of Scotland, David Beaton. Placed in a cell at St Andrews Castle, he was transferred to Edinburgh and trialled for heresy. Found guilt Wishart was hanged at Edinburgh Castle before being taken back to St Andrews and burned. This public burning did not have the desired effects of disrupting the rebellion with fear, and set off a chain of events that would end with John Knox working in slavery on French naval ships.

A great leader, the protestants were to respond in anger at the death of Wishart It was Scottish reformers Norman Leslie and James Kirkcaldy who were the ones sent to respond. The two approached St Andrews castle pretending to be tradesman- before killing the guard, and then the butler too. Quickly making their may into David Beaton’s chamber, they went on to brutally murder the chancellor – stabbing him around a dozen times. St Andrews Castle was now in the hands of the reformers, and John Knox was soon at the scene.

He was asked to be a speaker at St Andrews castle. During his short stay at the castle, they were at a constant battle with a government-backed small army, led by the Governor of Scotland Regent Arron. Lucky for the reformers, this ‘sieges’ was often timid ones to say the least. The frustrated Scottish government began to discourse with long-time alliances France, and this resulted in French naval forces launching a 3-day long assault on St Andrews castle. After an admirable defence, the protestants were defeated. The invading French captured the castle, and several of the reformers there. This including John Knox, who was now facing the prospect of spending the foreseeable future as a French slave.

For the next 2 years John Knox would operate as a French slave. The slave labour of John Knox would largely consists of hard work on French navy ships, while being forced to participate in Catholic Mass. Knox had afterwards referred to it as “torment” and spoke of his heart “sobbing”. Stomach Ulcers and Kidney infections were picked up by John during his time as a slave labour, and with very limited public medication in his day, he suffered greatly for the rest of his life with these diseases. Nobody knows how John Knox managed to become free again- he was released several months before the English King Edward VI had arranged for the release of the galley slaves. Though Scotland’s Prophet did seem to have the gift of the holy tongue and so we can come to a realistic conclusion that he simply negotiated his way out of it.

Following his release, John Knox would flee to England where he had been previously contacted by several prominent English nobleman. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was a protestant follower- and would soon introduce John Knox to the regent king Edward VI – also a supporter of Protestants. Going on to work on behalf of the Church of England, Knox would later become a Royal Chaplain for king Edward VI. Following this, John Knox would spent considerable time in Europe – particularly Geneva.

I sob and lament for that I cannot be rid of sin. I desire to live a more perfect life.

John Knox

The First Blast

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. This was the controversial book that John Knox would write in Geneva, and later bring back to Scotland. The book would strongly criticise the role of women in monarchs- arguing that this was directly against bible principles. He would argue strongly that women were inferior to men- and would go into detail about how. Despite the determined effort of Knox it was such a strong book that even most of his reformist followers would dissociate with it.

This book would prove greatly problematic for John Knox. One of his key supporters in the Protestant reformation was the English monarch- and Elizabeth I had just became the Queen of England. Deeply offended by some of the statements in the book, the Queen would unsurprisingly withdraw any support for John Knox.

This was not the only rivalry created by the book. Mary Queen of Scots had taken the throne in Scotland- and she too was less than impressed by Knox’s criticism of females in authority. I’m sure John Knox would have been heavily cursing his luck, as now the two monarchs on the island are headed by females. Offending both the Queens of England and Scotland, not the best start for John Knox, or his plans for a national reformation. An extract from the book (below) gives a good indication to why it caused the controversy it did. (with updated spelling)

For who can denies but it repugnant to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to lead and conduct such as do see? That the weak, the sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the hole and strong, and finally, that the foolish, mad and frenetic shall govern the discrete, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all women, compared onto man in bearing of authorities. For their sight in civil regiment, is but blindness: their strength, weakness: their counsel, foolishness: and judgement, prophesier, if it be rightly considered.

First Blast Extract
(photo courtesy of getbullish.com)

The Final Reformation

The Scottish Reformation was to be thrust into first gear when John Knox travelled to Perth in 1559, not long after arriving back in Scotland from Geneva. It was a clever move from Knox and his protestant followers. They had originally been on their way to Stirling, though it was a set up – the protestants were being lured to Stirling by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, who was planning their capture and execution. At this point, the regent Queen had “temporary authority” in the land for 6 years, as Mary (Queens of Scots) was too young.

Perth at this time was one of the common walled town, and thus was a good place to pitch defences at. Knox gave a passionate speech to his protestant followers- so fiery, in fact, that those followers began a riot. The mayhem started the day after John Knox’s sermon, when a young follower began shouting adultery explicit at a priest, who was preparing mass. The priest smacked the boy, who responded by launching a stone -missing the priest and smashing the window. A mob was soon on the scene and the church was attacked. Targeting other churches in the town, they would cause serious damage to the interior to the churches, as well as steal the collection of gold/silver inside.

These loots and spouts of vandalism would become common behaviour amongst the reformers. This led to a final showdown, in Edinburgh. Mary of Guise would call upon forces from France to support her own Scottish defenders, and Edinburgh would swing from control by protestants, to control by the Queen Regent. John Knox was previously aware of the French support for the Catholic monarch, and had began his own negotiations of support with England. Following the Treaty of Berwick, significant support from England would arrive for Knox and the reformers.

The death of Mary of Guise in Edinburgh Castle on the 11th June 1560 would play a significant part in the hostilities coming to an end. The Treaty of Edinburgh was soon signed and the war was over. John Knox then made his way to St Giles cathedral and gave one his most storming speeches, to the Scottish parliament, who where having thanksgiving dinner there. This sermon would later be known as John Knox’s thanksgiving service. Following his preaching, the parliament ordered him to write a new confession, which he would call the Scots Confession.

John Knox was to follow this up in late 1560 with an appearance in the Scottish parliament, where he would successfully negotiate the Confession of Faith Ratification Act 1560 (Scots confession) coming into force. This protestant confession act would effectively end the national religion of Roman Catholicism, including the national celebrations of mass and the national worship of the pope. This would signify the end of more than 500 years of the Roman church’s dominance in Scotland. The Scots Confession was a John Calvin-influenced statement of faith which became as many Scottish churches primary theology for more than 100 years. Today, the confession of faith of 1590 remains part of Scots law.

I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches. My honour was that Jesus Christ should reign.

John Knox

Old Roman Catholics v New Scots Presbyterian- the Main Disputes.

There is many differences here but there was four main ones. First and foremost it was the language, and this was one of the few things that almost all of the reformers agreed on- it needed to change. Despite alot of the country now speaking Gaelic/Scots/English, the catholic church was held only in Latin (services and bible) and this had become a part of the church tradition. Secondly, the bible. The Roman Church did not holy follow the bible, that is to say they had other recognised influences, such as the pope and the traditions passed down by the Romans (including the Latin, while protestants will say Mass is a tradition aswell- an unwarranted one). Thirdly, the authority on earth. The Roman Catholic church had several persons of authority on earth- not just the pope but the priests aswell, with protestants seeing an individual effectively acting as a middle man (in catholic theology) between the people and god to not be necessary, taking up particular annoyance with the fact these ‘middle men’ are not democratically elected, with Catholics insisting on a more holy election process (holy according to the theology anyway). The fourth major issue was the glamorous nature of catholic institutions- largely the perceived unnecessary extravagant theme of art and architecture of the churches.

**Presbyterian is Scottish Protestantism, associated with the reformed Church of Scotland, though has millions of followers around the world today.


Mary, Queen of Knox

John Knox struck up many personal rivalries as a consequence of his work, and one of those rivals was with Mary Queen of Scots. Not being silenced he would often berate Mary at his sermons – teasing that God’s wrath would be felt on the country, thanks to her rule. The Queen summoned Knox to Holyrood Palace every time- leading to many direct altercations between the two. Knox had gained much influence in the religious affairs of the country, gaining mass amounts of followers as leader of the movement. Mary considered him a significant threat- but this is also why he had the authority to practically do or say what be wanted.

One incident led to a bit of a comical episode. It was 1561, and the newly Queen of Scots had travelled to Leith, where she would be staying for a short period at Holyrood Palace. John Knox was made aware of the impeding arrival of her majesty, and organised a ‘welcoming party’ – this would consist of John Knox and friends singing Protestant Songs outside of the bedroom window of the Queen. Mary, of course, was a strong catholic. Instead of dealing with the matter by way of becoming annoyed, Mary Queens of Scots then joined in on the sarcasm – proclaiming her delight, and how she had enjoyed the music. Even suggesting they return.

She is unworthy by reason of her bloody tyranny of the name of woman.

John Knox (talking directly about Mary QoS)

(Dialogue of interview between John Knox & Mary Queen of Scots- http://www.reformation.org/john-knox-interview.html)


John Knox Legacy

As the life of John Knox began to decline, in what was now his later years, there would be one last piece of controversy. He had married Marjorie Bowes in Geneva in 1554, though she died just months before his famous confession was enacted in 1590. However, Knox would marry for a second time just fours years later. This time his wife, Margaret Stuart (a relative to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots), was only 19-years-old- having met Knox when she was just 16 (John was in his late 40s). Despite the age gap, and the increasing poor health of John Knox, the couple would go on to have three daughters- Martha, Elizabeth and Margaret. The prophet already had two sons from his previous marriage, Nathaniel and Eleazer. 

On November 24th 1572, now around 58 years old, John Knox life would come to an end as he would die peacefully at his home in the aftermath of surviving yet another trial of tribulation- a stroke. He lived by the bible and died by the bible, with family and friends reading him out bible passages as he slipped away. His life still today remains celebrated around the world- with no better tribute that being on the famous Reformation Wall (Wall of Geneva) alongside John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and William Farel.

Today, John Knox is regarded as the father of the Presbyterian denomination around the world, and a key figure in the wider Protestant Reformation. This is because, unlike the other reformers, he did not seek to destroy or just reform aspects of the catholic church- he looked for a direct replacement of the Roman church’s authority in the shape of Presbyterianism. Though John Knox was certainly far far more than just a Scottish reformist. He was particularly influential in the United States, long after he was dead. Social unrest would erupt when some of his supporters in the United States began a rebellion against their own country. This led to the American Revolution.

For most of his life he passionately fought for the reformation cause. Many characters in the bible can, and are, often disputed in existence to a great degree. Many of these characters are portrayed as heroes – who suffering greatly at times for there own beliefs and causes, and never surrendered. They are thus heroic and inspiring to many, though remain fictional to others. John Knox more than fits the bill for this character. A tough life of ministry and service to God, there can be no disputing that he did exist and his influence is still felt today.


None have I corrupted, none have I defrauded, merchandise have I not made.

John Knox

The Scottish Prophet

(photos courtesy of historicaltheology.org)

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