(15?? to 1572)


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John Knox is the great Protestant reformer of Scotland who not only brought Scotland to Presbyterianism in the mid 1500s, but also left a legacy that was key to shaping not only Presbyterian ("Reformed") Protestantism but also representative democracy in the American middle colonies (from New Jersey to South Carolina) in the 1600s and 1700s.

As with many Protestant reformers, Knox began as a Catholic priest, highly discontent with the moral and spiritual corruption that had overtaken the Mother Church.  He was attracted to the Lutheran teachings of the early Scottish reformer, George Wishart; was appalled when in 1546 the Catholic cardinal had Wishart burned at the stake as a heretic; and then joined the group of rebels who moved to overthrow the hand of the Catholic church over Scotland.  This put him in opposition to the pro-French party that ruled Scotland--and when French troops in 1547 crushed this Protestant rebellion in Scotland, Knox was led off  to captivity as a French galley slave.  His release was finally secured by the pro-Protestant English King Edward VI, leading Knox to come to England to be a Protestant pastor and then chaplain to the King.

But when Edward died in 1553 and Catholic Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") came to the throne, Knox left England and made his way eventually to Geneva Switzerland where he joined a community of English expatriates living and studying under the direction of the great Genevan reformer, John Calvin.  Knox took a great liking to both Calvin and his teachings and subsequently became a major voice in the English/Scottish reform movement not only in Geneva, but through letters, to a growing Protestant movement back in Scotland.

He returned briefly to Scotland in 1555, became pastor of the English church in Geneva, and then finally in 1559 he returned definitively to Scotland to take over the spiritual leadership of the Protestant rebellion against the French-Catholic regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise.  Seeing that things were not going well in Scotland for the Protestant party, Queen Elizabeth of England came to their aid against the French in Scotland.  But when Mary of Guise died suddenly in 1560, the French Catholic cause in Scotland was dead.  Scotland was now won for Protestantism.

At this point Knox and his supporters began to reshape the Scottish church--not only theologically along the lines of Calvin's Reformed Faith born in Geneva, but also politically in a way that was Knox's special contribution to the Protestant cause.  Knox took the idea of representative government characteristic of Calvin's reformed churches (communities lead by elected elders or "presbyters"), and applied it locally, regionally and nationally in total reversal of the top-down or hierarchical fashion of Catholic or "episcopalian" government.  Thus local councils ("Presbyteries"), regional councils ("Synods") and national councils ("General Assemblies") that presided over the faithful were made up of representatives not of the political rulers over the church but of the people themselves.  Thus was born "Presbyterian" or representative church government--the source of inspiration for the new Democratic or Republican forms of government that led eventually to the Constitution of 1789 underpinning the new American Republic.

Despite success in the Protestant takeover of the church Scotland, the continuing existence of a Catholic monarchy in Scotland under Mary of Guise's daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, made life still highly problematic for Protestant Scotland--and for John Knox personally as the two locked wills in on-going battle.  But eventually Mary's poor diplomacy proved to be her undoing and in 1567 she was forced to flee to England, where Elizabeth put her under house arrest, where she remained for the rest of her life.

In any case Knox, worn out and sickly, died from his labors in 1572.  But his work in  Scotland was carried forth faithfully by others, notably Andrew Melville.



His Early Years

We know very little about his early life, even the year of his birth.  But sometime between 1505 and 1515 (a greater consensus seems to be about the years 1513 or 1514), in or near Haddington, Scotland, John Knox was born.  He attended university, though we cannot be sure if it was St. Andrews University or Glasgow University.  He seems not to have actually graduated but became a Roman Catholic priest, probably around 1540 and then took up tutoring (teaching) during the early 1540s.

His Move toward Protestantism under the Influence of the Lutheran George Wishart

Certainly he would have begun to hear of the new Protestant doctrines while even yet a university student.  When these doctrines began actually to command his personal loyalties we cannot say.  But we do know that by the end of 1545 he had come into the close company of George Wishart--a preacher strongly influenced by the ideas of Martin Luther.

Scottish Nationalism versus French Catholicism

This was the beginning of Knox's involvement in the treacherous business of Scottish politics.  When in March of 1546 Cardinal Beaton (leader of the pro-French and strongly anti-English and anti-Protestant party in Scottish politics) had Wishart put to death at the fiery stake, Scotland was drawn into the violence of the Protestant Reformation   When three months later the Cardinal himself was murdered in retalliation by an angry mob, and his castle of St. Andrews seized by Protestant activists, Knox joined the group in St. Andrews.  Soon Knox began to distinguish himself as moral-spiritual encourager of the Protestant rebels.

With the help of French troops, the Catholic, pro-French forces struck back at the rebels.  When (1547) the Protestant rebels were forced to surrender to the beseiging armies, Knox was brought to France in chains to serve as a galley slave.  Here for 19 month he suffered this cruel occupation--until the pro-Protestant English King Edward VI. secured his release.  Knox subsequently made his way to England where he took up posts in Berwick and Newcastle as a licensed Protestant preacher.  He also took up a position as a royal chaplain and was involved in efforts to reform the Church of England, including work on the second Book of Common Prayer.

Meanwhile politics back in Scotland had been shifting to a defensively pro-Protestant position.  The English defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547 did nothing to endear the Scots to the English.  But French high-handedness in Scotland was just as detested.  When strongly Catholic Mary Stuart (the future "Mary Queen of Scots") moved to France in 1548 to be with her betrothed, the Dauphin of France, she left the country under the regency of her fiercely French Catholic mother, Mary of Guise.  Scottish nationalist spirit became deeply affronted by strongly pro-Catholic Frenchwoman and her entourage.  Protestantism soon began to serve as the moral-spiritual channel for Scottish nationalist sensitivities.

Knox Comes under Calvin's Influence in Geneva

As for Knox, still in England during this time, Edward VI's early death and the coming to the English throne in 1553 of the staunchly Catholic Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") determined Knox to seek the safety of Protestant Europe.  He came first to Frankfurt, Germany.  But his strongly opinionated personality which led him to offer criticism of the English Book of Common Prayer also created a split among the English refugees that had gathered there.  Thus Knox decided to move on to Geneva.  Here he met a very kindred spirit in John Calvin and Knox became a major supporter and disciple of Calvin's.  Here Knox also became closely involved in the creation of the English translation of the Bible, the Geneva Bible, which would soon become the beloved translation of church reformers in England--especially the Puritans.  And here Knox first  outlined in the tract, �Faithful Admonition� (1554) his fervently democratic views on the rights of common people to overthrow godless rulers--a political view even more radical than Calvin's.  This was to find a sympathetic audience back in Scotland.

In 1555 Knox dared to return to Scotland for six months and to preach his strongly politicized gospel.  But finding the situation still very dangerous, he returned to Geneva in 1556.  There he became pastor of the English church (1556-1558).  During this sojourn in Geneva he also published his "First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" (1558), harshly critical of the rule of the two female Catholic rulers:  Mary of Guise, regent of Scotland, and Mary Tudor, Queen of England.  [The misogynistic language did nothing to endear Knox to Elizabeth who became Queen of England in 1558!]

Knox Returns to the Battle in Scotland

Meanwhile in Scotland in 1557, a group of Protestant Scottish noblemen, coined the "Lords of the Congregation," signed a covenant among themselves declaring for Protestantism in Scotland.  Then when in 1558 Mary Stuart married the Dauphin of France (in line to become King Francis II of France) it put Scotland in the position of one day becoming merely a French province under a French king.  Anti-French, and thus anti-Catholic sentiment, only deepened throughout Scotland.

Realizing that the situation was now ripe for Protestantism in Scotland, Knox, who had been in close correspondence with the Lord's of the Congregation," returned to Scotland in May of 1559.  His first sermon ignited the flames of anti-French and anti-Catholic revolt.  In the town of Perth where he had delivered the sermon mobs destroyed monastic buildings--provoking Mary of Guise to strike back with her French troops.  But the result was only a deadlock--and the mobs grew even more enraged, burning and plundering monasteries and churches (to the horror of Knox who had not intended for things to get so completely out of hand).  Then in July of that year Henry II died and his son Francis (and Mary Stuart's husband) became French king.  More French troops were then rushed to Scotland to help Mary of Guise put down the Protestant uprising.  Things began to look grim for the Reformers.

Then in early 1560 Elizabeth, realizing that a Catholic victory in Scotland would give her a Catholic enemy to the North as well as to the East (France), sent English troops to help the Protestants.  This proved to be invaluable help.  But even more helpful was the death of Mary of Guise in June of 1560.  With her death the French and Catholic cause was left helpless.  A treaty signed in Edinburgh in early July between France and England called for the removal of all French troops from Scotland and the barring of all Frenchmen from political posts in Scotland.  But Scotland was also to remain free from English influence.  This treaty not only secured national independence for Scotland, it opened the way to Protestant control of the nation.

John Knox Reforms the Scottish Church along Calvinist Lines

In August the Scottish Parliament declared itself a Protestant nation and adopted the Scots Confession prepared by Knox and five other clergy at the Parliament's request.  Catholicism was not to be practiced in Scotland, under penalty of death.

Knox then set about the task of reorganizing the Scottish church.  In December of 1560 a General Assembly of the Scottish church was held.  The following month, January of 1561, the first Book of Discipline was presented to the Scottish Parliament in which Calvin's "Presbyterian" system of church government in Geneva Switzerland was adopted for the entire Scottish nation.  Each parish was to be governed by a pastor and council of Elders (forerunner of the church "session"), elected by the congregation in recognition of their "call" by God to leadership.  In larger towns containing several parishes, joint meetings of representatives of those parishes would be convened as "presbyteries."  Regionally the church was to be supervised by even larger councils called "synods."  And the entire national church was to be supervised by a national council called the "General Assembly."

Knox also attempted to define in the Book of Discipline a system of education and welfare to be supervised by the reformed Scottish church--financed from the proceeds of the sale of church abbeys, landholdings and other assets.  Here he was following the Calvinist vision of the church as the leading instructor and caregiver of the faithful, even more vital to life than the civil authorities.  But Parliament balked at this idea.  Instead the money that came from the confiscations of the former Catholic church went directly to enrich the Lords.  Consequently in Scotland the church was unable to give support to the social vision that Calvin had outlined and Knox had taken up as his hope for Scotland.  Indeed, the Scottish church became notable for its great poverty.

Knox busied himself with reforming the nature of worship in the Scottish church--most of the reforms having been first formulated in Geneva when he was pastoring the English congregation there.  These reforms he published in 1564 in his new Book of Common Order.  Following the teachings and practices of Calvin's Geneva (and Zwingli before him), Knox took the stand that if there could be found no support in scripture for a particular practice of the church, then it was to be done away with.  Thus among other things he did away with all of the old feast days, leaving only Sunday as a holy day.  And also with Calvin, he moved to free up worship from its long-held ritualism--though worship was still to be conducted "decently and in order."  For instance, sermons were to be the result of the personal inspiration and careful preparation by the pastor--not the fixed lectionaries ("readings") which the old church used to distribute to its relatively uneducated clergy.  Also, ritualized prayers were to be discouraged--to be replaced by prayers uttered from the heart.

Mary, Queen of Scots

In the meantime events began to unroll in France that would challenge deeply Knox's reform movement in Scotland.  In Late 1560 King Francis II died and a young widow, Mary Stuart, returned to Scotland the following summer to claim her throne as Queen of Scotland.  No longer attached to French politics, her cause in Scotland began to improve for her.  For many Scots the original political usefulness of Protestantism as a channel of anti-French sentiment no longer seemed necessary.  The plight of the young widowed Queen seemed to stir a sense of devotion among loyal subjects. For a while Mary kept a low profile--allowing her popularity to build even more.  In part this was due to her following the excellent advice of her half-brother, James Stuart, Earl of Moray, a member of the original Protestant group, the "Lords of the Congregation."  Moray, though a strong Protestant, found himself put off by the radicalism of Knox--especially as Knox seemed so inflexible in his attitude toward Mary.

Mary hoped to win Knox over to her "moderate" Catholic ways.  But Knox remained adamant in his opposition to her Catholicism.  So instead she began to woo some of the Protestant nobles, many of whom were willing to slip away from Knox's "radicalism" and join her "moderation."  It got to the point where Mary and Knox now represented the two chief tendencies of Scottish politics--with the situation for Knox only seeming to grow worse with time.  Many Scots were deserting the cause.  The Catholic Mass was being performed in an increasing number of churches--as the law forbidding Catholicism was being ignored.

But Mary was a young woman and the prospect of marriage still very much an issue in her life.  The implications of any choice of hers were politically charged.  At one point the idea of her marrying Philip II of Spain was seriously considered.  But this would have returned Scotland to the same status it had when she was married to Francis II of France:  Scotland would become a mere provincial territory in the larger holdings of a staunchly Catholic king.  This was something that was politically unacceptable in Scotland.

But her actual decision in this matter turned out to be an even worse choice.  In 1565 she chose to marry her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, with whom she was deeply infatuated.  Once thought a tepid Protestant, Darnley had announced himself as a Catholic and began to cultivate Catholic loyalties in England where, after Elizabeth and then his wife Mary, he stood third in line to receive the English crown.  This was designed only to turn Elizabeth into a staunch enemy of this alliance of  Mary and Darnley.

Moray had counseled Mary not to marry Darnley.  Her refusal and his opposition split the two and Moray eventually had to go into exile.  From this point on Mary no longer exercised wisdom in the conduct of her office as Queen.  This began to turn the tide of politics back in favor of Knox and the Protestant party--and restored a strong working relationship between Knox and Moray.

Knox now directed much of his zeal through attacks from his pulpit

Eventually the infatuation Mary held for Darnley wore off and she turned her favors toward her foreign secretary, the Italian Riccio.  This determined Darnley (with some Protestant complicity) to murder Riccio in the presence of the Queen.  Though outwardly she showed great self-control, inwardly she was determined on revenge on her cousin-husband Darnley and his henchmen.  On the former she turned directly in her vengeance.  Concerning Darnley, she turned to a Protestant nobleman, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, to see that "justice" was done.  In early 1567 Darnley was duly blow up in a house he was staying in--and Mary soon thereafter married the just-divorced Bothwell in a Protestant wedding.

This maneuver succeeded in losing her the support of the Catholics, who now joined the Protestants in a general dislike for their Queen.  In July she was forced to abdicate in favor of her and Darnley's one-year-old son, James (the future James IV of Scotland / James I of England).  She was place in prison, but escaped the following year to England where Elizabeth kept her dangerous cousin Mary under virtual house arrest.  Thus she lived out the remainder of her days--until executed in 1587 for her part in a plot against Elizabeth's life.

Knox's Last Days

From his pulpit at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh Knox continued to preach the reformation and inspire the Protestant cause.  But years of hardship were working their toll.   He suffered a severe stroke in 1572 and he was forced to retire to Saint Andrews.  Here he wrote his last work, An Answer to a Scottish Jesuit, and on November 24, 1572 he died.


Knox worked out the broad details of the Presbyterianism that was to be so influential in shaping not only the course of the Scottish church but also Protestantism in the middle English colonies in America (from the Carolinas to New Jersey) where Presbyterianism was the dominant religious force.

Knox's work in Scotland was soon taken up by Andrew Melville, who had also been a substantial part of the Geneva community in Switzerland and who had taken on the ideas of Calvin during his years there (1568 to 1574).  It was Melville who took up the Calvinist cause of associating Protestantism with a strong educational policy and who fine-tuned the structures of Presbyterian worship and polity.  It was Melville who would also take Knox's place in defending the achievements of Protestantism in Scotland against royalist (and thus tending toward Catholic or at least Episcopalian) instincts which began to show in James IV as he grew more confident as king.  Consequently Melville, like Knox before him, had to spend much of his time in exile.  For Melville, this turned out to be the last 16 years of his life.


  Knox's major works or writings:
�Faithful Admonition� (1554)
"First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women," (1558)
Scots Confession (1560)
Book of Discipline (1561)
Book of Common Order (1564)
History of the Reformation in Scotland, (1564--though not published until 1584, after his death)
An Answer to a Scottish Jesuit (1572)
Links to other information on Knox:
John Knox (The Columbia Encyclopedia)

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