John Knox

While visiting Scotland this past August, my wife Leeta and I enjoyed learning more about John Knox, primary leader of the sixteenth-century Scottish Protestant Reformation. Here’s a bit of what we learned, along with some of the indicators we saw of the high honor in which Knox has been held in Scotland in the centuries since his ministry there. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with this outstanding Christian Reformer.

Knox was born about 1514 and ordained as a Roman Catholic priest around 1536, after studying at St. Andrews University. But a decade later (1546) he had become a supporter of the Reformation and was acting as a bodyguard for George Wishart who was spreading Protestant doctrines. After the archbishop of St. Andrews had Wishart burned at the stake, Knox became a preacher in St. Andrews before being taken prisoner and put to work on a French galley ship.

Following his release, he went to England where he served as chaplain to the young English king Edward VI. During Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) Protestantism was suppressed in England, and Knox went into exile on the European continent, eventually settling in John Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland. In 1855 Knox spent six months in southern Scotland where he had many supportive followers who repeatedly encouraged him to return to his homeland. But he was also condemned to death and burned in effigy by Scottish Catholic authorities.

When Knox did return permanently to Scotland in May 1559 he was promptly outlawed by royal decree. Nevertheless Knox and his supporters marched into St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, and he preached there for the first time. The following week he was elected as the congregation’s minister. The cathedral was stripped of its Catholic icons and the church became a Protestant congregation. The following year the Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority throughout Scotland.

St. Giles Cathedral aka The High Kirk of Edinburgh

Knox and five other Protestant leaders soon produced the Scottish Confession of Faith, which remained the doctrinal standard of the Church of Scotland until replaced by the Westminster Confession in 1647. He also helped produce the First Book of Discipline, which sought to promote uniformity in doctrine, sacraments, election, and support of ministers, equality of all before God, church discipline, the assistance of the poor and advancement of education.

Knox and his colleagues emphasized four primary positive principles, which were in marked contrast to Roman Catholic teaching and practices of the time: (1) Holy Scripture is the sole and sufficient rule of Christian faith and practice; (2) People are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation; (3) The Christian minister is simply teacher of the Gospel, servant, and steward; (4) The people have a voice in electing pastors and church office-bearers.

John Knox statue in St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

Knox and the Scottish Reformation had tremendous success despite strong opposition from the crown (Mary Queen of Scots was Catholic) and many of the top nobility, both of which had vested interests in getting their hands on considerable revenues that historically had belonged to Catholic churches (now become Protestant congregations). Knox’s life was often in danger. Ambushes were laid for him and he was repeatedly shot at. Despite those dangers, he uniformly spoke out courageously in promoting the Reformation. God preserved Knox through the many perils he faced, and he died of natural causes in Edinburgh on November 24, 1572.

Significantly, the most prominent memorial in the Glasgow Necropolis, a Victorian-era cemetery that honors thousands of Scotland’s outstanding citizens from past centuries, is an impressive statue of John Knox atop a towering sandstone Doric column and base. The memorial to Knox was erected in 1825, some two and a half centuries after his death.

Leeta at the base of the John Knox monument in the Glasgow Necropolis

All four sides of the monument’s base bear inscriptions, some of which read: “To testify Gratitude for inestimable Services in the Cause of Religion, Education, and Civil Liberty; To awaken Admiration of that Integrity, Disinterestedness, and Courage which stood unshaken in the midst of Trials, and in the Maintenance of the highest Objects; Finally, To Cherish unceasing Reverence for the Principles and Blessings of that Great Reformation, by the influence of which our Country, through the Midst of Difficulties, has arisen to Honour, Prosperity, and Happiness. This monument is Erected by Voluntary Contribution to the Memory of John Knox, the Chief Instrument under God of the Reformation in Scotland.

John Knox House and Museum, Edinburgh

“The Reformation produced a revolution in the sentiment of mankind, the greatest as well as the most beneficial that has happened since the publication of Christianity. John Knox became then a Minister of Edinburgh, where he continued to his death, the incorruptible guardian of our best interests. ‘I can take God to witness,’ he declared, ‘that I never preached in contempt of any man – and Wise men will consider that a true friend cannot flatter, especially in a case that involves the salvation of the bodies and souls, not only of a few persons but of a whole Realm.’ When laid in the grave, the Regent said, ‘There lieth he who never feared the face of man; who was often threatened with dag and dagger, yet hath ended his days in peace and honour.’ ” 

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Some of the information for this blog was gleaned from J.D. Douglas’ chapter on John Knox in John Woodbridge’s outstanding volume, Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Moody Press, 1988).

Copyright 2019 by Vance E. Christie