There are so many words that can be used to describe John Knox; intrepid, inimitable, bold, courageous, tough, unflinching but the most fitting word would be focused. Knox had a single, all-consuming goal that he had fixed his eyes upon and he pursued that goal relentlessly till it became a reality. What was that goal? His own words sum it up beautifully; “give me Scotland or I die”. He wanted to win Scotland for Jesus and for the truth and nothing else mattered.
Knox was born in Scotland in the early 1500s and became a priest of the Roman Catholic church. His tenure was short lived however when he discovered the word of God, presumably Erasmus’ translation of the Bible which was making waves across Europe at the time. The word of God changed his life and led him to fully commit himself to the Reformation and from that time forward he joined forces with the small grassroots movement that was beginning to spring up in Scotland.
He was befriended by George Wishart, the youthful champion of the Reformation who was, at the time, being relentlessly hunted by Cardinal Beaton. Knox became Wishart’s bodyguard carrying around a two-handed sword as a means of defense and traveling with Wishart as he made his way around Scotland preaching, teaching and constantly evading capture.
When Wishart was finally captured by Beaton and brought to the Castle at St. Andrew’s, Knox followed him there and wanted to go to prison with him. Wishart turned him back with the words “one is enough for a sacrifice”. Knox fled to safety and for a time went back to his former occupation of tutoring the children of wealthy landowners.
After Wishart’s death a group of his Protestant friends, led by Norman Leslie stormed the castle at St. Andrews and executed Cardinal Beaton. They then proceeded to hang his body out of a window of the castle. Beaton was executed on the 29th of May 1546 which was a tenuous year for the Reformation across Europe. It was the year that Luther died and Europe experienced the onset of bloody religious wars in Germany, France, and The Netherlands. Perhaps Leslie and his counterparts drew inspiration from what was happening around them. Whatever the cause might be the reality is that the kingdom of God is never planted under the shadow of military revolution, it is planted in the seedbed of the spiritual revolution of the heart. Many of the Protestants in Europe needed to learn that lesson in the 16th Century and so do we.
The castle, which was the stronghold of the Cardinal, was held by the militant group of Protestants and John Knox joined this group inside the castle, preaching to them and to the congregation of the parish church in St. Andrews. Unfortunately for them all the French Navy descended on St. Andrews on the 4th of June 1547 and took all of them captive. Knox was captured and sentenced to work as a galley slave. The historian Wylie writes that this hiatus in the work of the Scottish Reformation was a blessing in disguise. “The people of Scotland,” he wrote “had to be taught that Reformation could not be furthered by the dagger…to Knox himself this check was not less necessary. His preparation for the great task before him was as yet far from complete”.
When Knox was taken captive by the French Navy the regent on the Scottish throne was Mary of Guise, part of the powerful Catholic Guise family of France. She was ruling Scotland in the name of her daughter, Mary Stuart who was only a child of 5 when Knox was taken captive by the French.
Knox worked as a galley slave for 19 months and one historical account of his time as a slave gives us an insight into the kind of reformer he would eventually become. France at the time was an officially Catholic country and given the kind of crime that some of the Protestants had committed against Beaton and also just because they were Protestant, the captives from St Andrews were ordered to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary. One of the officers ordered Knox to kiss a picture of Mary to which Knox’s response was to grab the picture and fling it into the ocean with the mildly sacrilegious words “let our lady learn to swim”. Needless to say, none of the Scottish prisoners were asked to show respect to the Virgin Mary again.
After he was released by the French in 1549 Knox fled to England and spent time with Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was then given the opportunity of ministering to a small congregation in Berwick-upon-Tweed where he met Marjory Bowes whom he later married.
However, after the death of Edward VI and the ascension of Mary Tudor to the throne in 1553, it was no longer safe for Knox to remain in England and he fled to Geneva where he spent some time with Calvin who had a significant influence on his theology. He then returned to England for a brief period between 1555-1556 when he married Marjory Bowes and encouraged influential Scottish Protestants. He returned to Geneva in July of 1556 but he was condemned as a heretic in absentia by the Scottish Bishops and then burned in effigy.
Knox, though one of God’s most ardent and formidable light bearers, was not free from human weakness and bias. In 1558 he and others who were in exile due to the reign of Mary Tudor published several radical pieces of literature justifying political resistance against ungodly rulers. Knox’s most famous piece of polemic was titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” and was squarely aimed at Mary Tudor.
Knox then returned to Scotland for good in 1559 becoming the first Protestant minister in St Giles Cathedral. While he was here he abolished the mass and repudiated Papal jurisdiction. The political climate in France and Scotland at the time provided the Reformers a unique opportunity and with the help of an English army in 1560, the Scottish Reformation Parliament established Protestantism as the official religion of the country in 1560. At this time Scotland was still under the rule of Mary of Guise who died the same year and her daughter Mary Stuart took the Scottish throne in 1561 as Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary, though a staunch and unyielding Catholic herself, reluctantly accepted the new Protestant order in Scotland but chose to remain a Catholic herself and to retain Catholicism at her court. She would argue fiercely with Knox, stating that he was transgressing the command of God by rallying her subjects to embrace a religion contrary to that of their Queen and in so doing were leading them to disobey their sovereign.
The interview between Mary and Knox proved to be a significant milestone in the progress of the Reformation in Scotland and was a testament to the intensity of Knox’s allegiance to God over and above the Queen. The Queen summoned Knox to Holyrood Palace after hearing about one of his sermons. The conference between them took place in the presence of her brother Lord James Stuart and two ladies in waiting and she began the conversation by referencing some of his writings, most likely his little gem about Monstrous Women, before coming to the crux of her grouse with him.
The theses of Mary’s argument was simple; by leading the people to embrace a religion contrary to that of their Queen, Knox was leading the people to disobey their rulers and that was tantamount to treason. In addition to that because God required the people to obey their rulers Knox was also leading people to disobey God which was the worst kind of sin. Therefore Knox was not only seditious but sinful as well.
Knox’s rebuttal was that the only authority that could prescribe religious allegiance was God and not the Queen ergo the Queen was actually overstepping the boundaries of her authority and claiming authority that belonged to God alone. Therefore the Queen was actually blasphemous and potentially so were her religious affiliations.
Mary was clearly not happy and fumed that while Knox interpreted the Scriptures in one way the Roman Catholic teachers interpreted the Scriptures in a completely different way. “Whom shall I believe?” she demanded according to the historian Wylie “ and who shall be the judge?”
Knox then pointed to the supremacy of the word of God, the office of the Holy Spirit as the divine illuminator of that Word and the ability of Scripture to interpret itself independent of the interpretations imposed on it by Pope or Prince. History has it that Mary burst into tears out of sheer frustration, Knox was apparently and unsurprisingly unmoved at the outburst and continued to press his point home.
The three most dramatic turning points of the Reformation were Luther before Charles V at Worms, Calvin before the Libertines of Geneva in the Cathedral of St Pierre and Knox before Queen Mary in Holyrood palace. Knox’s confrontation with Mary at Holyrood was really one of the keynotes of the Reformation and highlighted freedom of conscience from the dictates of the church and the state.
One of the most striking things about John Knox was his faith and courage. Of him it was written “herein lies a man who never feared the face of another man” and perhaps this was because he was a man who only feared the face of God.
On the 24th of November 1572, as he lay dying, John Knox asked his wife to read to him John 17 in which are found the words that were the keynote of his life; “sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17).