John Knox (c. 1514 – 1572): A Look at the Man

In 1909, the Reformation Wall was constructed in Geneva to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. In the place of honour are four key figures to the Reformation – John Calvin, Theodore Beza, William Farel. These men were power-houses of the Reformation which took place in Europe. Their lives largely centred around Geneva.

But next to these three men stands another who spent a little time in Geneva but whose heart belonged to his homeland – Scotland. This man is John Knox.

John Knox really was a key player in the Reformation and in the years and movements that followed. Martyn-Lloyd Jones follows the secular historian Thomas Carlyle in declaring John Knox a father of Puritanism. Knox’s political ideas are the key to Protestant resistance theology and would have influenced the founders of America.

So, who was this man?

Early Life

It is not clear when John Knox was born, but most biographers agree that it was probably around 1514/15 in Haddington, Scotland. Remember, Martin Luther, aged 34 at the time, took up his hammer in 1517 to nail the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, when John Knox was probably about 2 years old.

John Calvin was born just few years earlier than Knox in 1509. So Knox was born right on time for being alongside the greats of the Reformation, not too early, not too late.

We don’t know much about Knox’s childhood. What we do know starts with him starting work as a papal cleric in the Roman Catholic church in 1540. He was an ordained catholic priest. He left his clerical job just three years later and by the year 1545, at around 30-years of age, John Knox came out openly in favour of the Reformation. Sometime in the previous few years Knox had clearly heard the gospel preached and come to see the deception of the Roman Catholic church.

The next 15 years were a whirlwind of activity.

Preacher’s Bodyguard

In 1545 Knox served as a bodyguard to an itinerant preacher named George Wishart. Preaching was dangerous for dissenting ministers back in those days. Knox wrote about one incident where Wishart came close to being killed:

“the Devil ceased not to stir up his own son the Cardinal again, who corrupted by money a desperate priest named sir John Wigton, to slay the said master George.”

This priest came near to Wishart with a short sword under his cloak. Wishart calmly placed his hand on the would-be assassin’s hand and took the sword from him. It was after this incident that Knox was appointed to be George Wishart’s bodyguard.

Assassination of a Cardinal

This role can’t have lasted too long as Wishart was burned the following year. That same year – in 1546 – Cardinal Beaton was assassinated by some zealous protestants. Cardinal Beaton was responsible for many of the deaths of Christians coming out of the church of Rome. He was the one who paid the priest to kill Wishart and he had even employed assassins to kill John Knox in the early years after Knox’ conversion.

Knox got a little tangled up in the results of this assassination. Cardinal Beaton lived in a castle in St Andrews. Knox approved of this assassination, writing that we “should observe God’s just judgements.” He goes on to say that “these are the works of God, whereby he would admonish the tyrants of this earth, that in the end he will be revenged of their cruelty.”

For context, Cardinal Beaton was a wicked man who had ordered the killing of many protestants including having four men hung for eating goose on a Friday and a young woman drowned for not praying to Mary while she was having her baby.

Through various situations, Knox ended up sheltering in the castle at St Andrews with the protestant Castilians as they became known. It was here among protestant rebels that Knox was first called to a public ministry.

Called to Ministry

John Knox’ calling was not like many we see today. Knox was not called by some intense personal desire. In fact, the serving preacher for the Castilians, John Rough, saw John Knox’s talents for preaching and asked Knox to preach. When Knox refused, Rough then publicly called him to ministry in the presence of the whole congregation of the castle. In this sermon Rough said “In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently calls you by mouth, I charge you, that you do not refuse this holy vocation.”

The whole congregation confirmed this calling at which point Knox fled to his room and cried.

Galley Slave

Soon after this, a French fleet arrived by sea to help the Scottish officials overthrow the protestants at St Andrews. The fleet’s guns together with the Scottish cannons reduced the castle walls to rubble and the Castilians were captured. Knox was taken with them and they were all set to work as French prisoners on French galleys.

For nineteen months Knox rowed in the vermin-infested galleys. C.S. Lewis’ brother, William, once described what this would have been like:

“For the convicts, there was … no question of sleep… From below came the constant clink of chains, the crack of whips on bare flesh, screams of pain, and savage growls. At each oar all five men must rise as one at each stroke, push the eighteen-feet oar forward, dip it in the water, and pull with all their force, dropping into a sitting position at the end of each stroke. ‘One would not think,’ says a Huguenot convict, ‘that it was possible to keep it up for half an hour, and yet I have rowed full out for twenty-four hours without pausing for a single moment.’”

Needless to say, 19 months of this “torment” (as Knox referred to it) took its toll on Knox’ body and he suffered from kidney stones, insomnia and other afflictions for the rest of his life.

Work in England

It’s now 1549 and John Knox is set to enjoy about 3-4 years of relative peace. In these years, he meets his future wife, Marjory Bowes, is recognised for his preaching and is appointed as a chaplain to the new king of England, Edward VI.

Knox knew and worked with puritans and Anglican (or Church of England) reformers such as Thomas Cramner. In fact, Knox had input to The Book of Common Prayer and was involved in the writing of the Forty-Two articles which were latter revised to the Thirty-Nine Articles – the foundational document of the Anglican church. Knox was even offered not one, but two high appointments in the Church of England, one of which was the position of Bishop of Rochester.

Unfortunately, the reign of King Edward VI came to an end when he died in 1553 and the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne. These were tumultuous times where a ruler had significant sway over life and so the peace and protection of the reformers and puritans by King Edward turned swiftly into persecution at the hands of Queen Mary. So much so that she earned the nick-name Bloody Mary, such was her zeal at persecuting the protestants.

So it was that in 1554 at about 40 years of age, John Knox fled England for Europe.

First Trip to Europe

It was over in Europe that Knox made his way to Geneva and struck up a friendship with John Calvin in Geneva. Less than a year after arriving in Geneva, Knox was called to pastor an English congregation in Frankfurt, some 600km away from Geneva.

Knox’ time at Frankfurt has a couple of interesting points. The first is that he clashed with the majority of the congregation who wanted to see an Anglican form of worship. For the Reformers, the Anglican form of worship was often seen as a half-way reform of the church. The Anglican form of worship had remnants of the Roman Catholic services and the Reformers were wanting to see the whole of their worship and lives aligned to the Bible. As a result of Knox’ convictions on the form of worship, the pro-Anglican portion of the congregation sought to betray him to the English queen or the Spanish emperor. Being warned by the city magistrates, Knox fled back to Calvin in Geneva.

The second thing to note about this encounter is Calvin’s advice to Knox. After hearing of this conflict and split, Calvin encouraged Knox to seek peace with the English congregation at Frankfurt. He says “When I heard that a part of you intended to quit your present residence, I carefully admonished them, as was my duty, that if it was not convenient for all to inhabit the same place, yet that separation to a distance should not break up your fraternal union.” Calvin continues, “For if by chance any of you should retire to this place, the very suspicion of secret discord among ourselves would be afflicting to me. Therefore I greatly desire that what I hear of your return to feelings of mutual good will is solid and stable, that if any of you chance to wander elsewhere, though separated by place you can cultivate a holy friendship.” (Calvin’s Letters p173) Here the wisdom of Calvin is on display!

Return to Scotland

So, Knox returned to Geneva and spent about a year there before returning to Scotland in 1555 where he embarked on a whirlwind preaching crusade. Knox caused a huge stir during this time causing Mary Guise, the acting Queen of Scotland, to condemn him and seek to bring him down. During this tour of Scotland, Knox married his first wife, convinced the Reformed Protestants to stop attending the Roman Catholic mass in a debate, was put on trial by a church court who got scared when he turned up for the trial and cancelled it promptly, and wrote a letter to the acting Queen telling her to support the Reformation effectively threatening her that she will bring “torment and pain everlasting” upon herself if she doesn’t.

Back to Geneva

Knox was then called back to Geneva to pastor a congregation there. He obeyed this call and headed back to Europe in 1556, just one year after arriving in Scotland.

The best part is that after the authorities found out that Knox had left Scotland, they rescheduled the church trial which they knew Knox couldn’t turn up to this time, found him guilty and condemned him to death because he wasn’t there to defend himself, and burned an effigy of Knox as punishment.

Back in Geneva, Knox spent the next 3 or 4 years pastoring and writing. It was here that Knox wrote on of his best-known pieces which was titled “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” in which he argued that:

“To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is:

  1. Repugnant to nature.
  2. Contumely to GOD.
  3. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

This booklet was targeted against the several tyrannical, bloodthirsty women who were reigning over Scotland and England at the time but only arrived in England after the death of Bloody Mary and the appointment of the protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Needless to say, when Queen Elizabeth read Knox’ work she was not very impressed and Knox got off to a bad start with the new Queen of England.

Political Turmoil in Scotland

Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 at about age 45 for his final 13 years of work. The political climate when he arrived was still one where the Roman Catholics backed by the power of France were still in power. Persecution of Protestants was in full flight but it was by powerful preaching that Knox destroyed their strongholds. Where Knox preached, people were converted to the true gospel and the statues and practices of the Roman Catholics were felled.

Scotland was an explosion waiting to happen. The acting Queen, Mary of Guise, was losing her hold on the country, not through political intrigue or military escapades, but through the powerful preaching of the gospel. Knox’ preaching, however, was not a minimalist gospel. He never shied from preaching against the wickedness of the culture, the Roman Catholic practices of the day, the evil of the rulers of Scotland, or the sins of the congregation.

Because of the heat of the political environment and the power of Knox’ preaching violence and riots would sometimes occur after his sermons. In one notable instance, Knox preached against the mass in a church. After his sermon had finished and after most of the congregation had left, a catholic priest started to prepare to say the Mass in the same church. A boy who had clearly understood Knox’ sermon took issue with the priest which resulted in a little scuffle where the boy ended up throwing a stone towards the priest. It missed and smashed an idol and presumably the noise was enough to spark a riot where two Roman Catholic buildings were destroyed.

The following few months were tumultuous politically and ended up with the acting Queen Mary being removed from power, England stepping in to help the Scottish people and Knox being invited with 5 other ministers to write The Scottish Confession. Because God has a sense of humour, the ministers invited to this task were named: John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, John Row and, you guessed it, John Knox. In August of 1560 The Scottish Confession was passed by parliament – an astonishing event when you consider the violent opposition to the reformed faith that the Scottish had faced for decades.

Incredibly, even with this largely protestant political situation and with the events of recent years very fresh in their minds, the Scottish welcomed back their true Queen from France, another Queen Mary – this time Mary Stuart. This was incredible because Mary Stuart was a staunch Roman Catholic. But the Scotts, including Knox, recognised her right to the throne, and only required of her that she not interfere with matters of religion and only practice her Catholicism in private.

Final Years

The last 10 years or so of Knox’ life were spent in seeking to build up the new Church of Scotland. He helped write two Books of Discipline which were similar to the English Directory of Public Worship. These books laid out how the church should operate in matters of worship, preaching and practice.

Knox’ body was understandably weakened by his years of hard labour for the Lord and so, in 1572 at 58 years of age, Knox’ health began to deteriorate quickly. He preached all the way up to just a couple of weeks before his death. On his death bed it is reported that there was scarcely an hour when some portion of scripture wasn’t read to him and he particularly found hope in 1 Corinthians 15 – that great chapter on the resurrection – and John 17 which he described as “where I cast my first anchor.” So, Knox passed into glory with his final words: “Now it is come. Come, Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus; into thy hand I commend my spirit.”


The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, by Douglas Bond

John Knox: Stalwart Courage, by Douglas Wilson

John Knox and the Reformation, by D.M. Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s