John Knox

John Knox was the founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. His exact date of birth is not known and is placed variously between 1505 and 1515 in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland. His father was a farmer. Little is known of his mother other than the fact that her maiden name was Sinclaire. She died while Knox was very young.

Even the early education of John Knox is difficult to determine. He was certainly taught in a grammar school in Haddington. He probably received some university education at either St. Andrews or Glasgow. However, there is no record of him having achieved a university degree. He became a priest and a notary and served in that capacity until the early 1540s when he became a tutor to young Scot noblemen.

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In about 1545 George Wisheart a reformation preacher came to Scotland to attempt to convert the Catholics there to the new reformed faith. John Knox, who had already had some exposure to reformation ideas through tracts and the parents of his young charges became a bodyguard for Wisheart. Wisheart was in much need of the service as the Regent of Scotland began a campaign to rigorously persecute preachers espousing reformation ideas. Bishop Beaton led the charge for her. There is some dispute over the matter, but Wisheart may have been involved in a plot to kidnap the Bishop and whisk him away to Henry VIII's England. He had Wisheart arrested, tried, and burned at the stake. Knox was spared and returned to tutoring. However, this was not the end of the Wisheart/Beaton affair. Beaton was soon murdered in retaliation for Wisheart's death.

The Bishop's killers, rebels, and protestant reformers gathered at the castle at St. Andrews and were besieged by government forces (supported by a French fleet). Knox and his pupils were among the besieged. Knox was made the garrison's chaplain. In 1547 the castle surrendered to the French. Most of the garrison including John Knox were forced to row in French galleys. Knox was released in 1549. He went to England, whose king was now the boy Edward VI. He received a post as a minister in Berwick, a town near the English border with Scotland.

Drawing of John Knox from a Portrait

Knox remained in Berwick for two years. In 1551 he was transferred to Newcastle. He was also appointed Chaplain to the young English king. He preached before the king at least twice, in the course of which he became part of a dispute about whether participants should kneel while taking communion at a service. But in 1553 Edward died. His Catholic sister Mary became queen.

In 1554 Knox married Marjorie Bowes of Newcastle against her parent's wishes. She was somewhat affluent. But with the accession of Mary to England's throne and the return of Catholicism as the official religion of the country, Knox determined to leave. He boarded a ship for the continent. He became minister to the English congregation in Franfurt for a time, but had a disagreement over ceremonial forms. Leaving Frankfort he returned to Scotland for a short time where he sent a letter to the Regent requesting tolerance of protestants. He got no response and again left his home country. This time (1556) he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law to the center of Reformation Protestantism, Geneva where he had acquired a position as minister to the English speaking population there.

Knox spent two years in Geneva where he breathed in the intense surrounding protestant atmosphere. In letters he would state that Geneva exhibited the best possible practice and living of the Christian religion. While there, his two sons, Nathaniel and Eleazar were born. He also authored The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. All of the opposition he had faced in both England and Scotland had been at the hands of two Marys, Mary of Guise - the regent of Scotland, and Mary Tudor - Queen of England. His pamphlet appeared anonymously, but he eventually took credit for the work.

In the winter of 1558-1559 Mary Tudor died and her sister Elizabeth I of England became queen. It seemed an opportune time for John Knox to return to Scotland. He attempted to return through England. However, Elizabeth (evidently not happy with him because of his "trumpet blast" against women) would not allow him passage through the country.

Now back in Scotland (1559) John Knox became a leader of a tumultuous uprising determined to bring a severe Protestantism to Scotland on the model of the church in Geneva. He preached inflammatory sermons across the country. The sacking of cathedrals and some abbeys resulted. Knox soon became a leading minister in Edinburgh. The remainder of 1559 and most of 1560 were spent in a struggle with the Regent. French troops supported the Regent. Knox secured help from the English. Tensions rose until both the French and English agreed to leave Scotland. Meanwhile Mary of Guise, the regent died. The throne now descended upon the young Mary Queen of Scots.

Although Scotland had been in religious ferment for over a decade, the actual reformation of the church in Scotland did not occur until the latter half of 1560. The Scot Parliament met, and on the advice of John Knox and other religious leaders passed laws making the Kirk or the reformed church official and outlawing Catholic practices. As in Geneva the churches would be run by members of congregations. Ministers would be elected. It was at about this time Knox lost his first wife.

Mary, the daughter of the regent returned to Scotland. She was a devout Catholic. Though she promised not to return her country to the Catholic church she continued to attend mass in her own chapel. This caused a degree of fulmination from John Knox and some rioting in the streets. Knox was summoned to come before the queen. She accused him of defying her rule from the pulpit as well as in pamphlets. He stated that as long as the people wished to have her, he had no objections to her rule for himself.

Between 1561 and 1564 there were several meetings between Knox and Queen Mary. They nearly always were over a crisis pertaining to their religious differences. At each meeting he insisted he was merely following his conscience in his unbending application of the reformed faith, while Mary continually sought compromise. The disputations between the two became famous especially the scene when Knox insisted she not marry the heir to the throne of Spain because he was Catholic. Mary burst into tears.

He continued to preach against the queen and Catholicism from the pulpit. When the queen's minister was murdered he condoned the act. However, he had lost some degree of support with the nobles and decided to go into a self-imposed exile to Ayrshire where he took some time out to write a history of the reformation which was for the most part autobiography. It is considered one of the great works of the age.

Knox returned to Edinburgh in 1567 and again began preaching against the queen. During this time the queen had lost her husband and been abducted. She was held prisoner at Lochleven. As she was now unable to perform her duties as queen. Her young son, James VI (one day to be James I of England), was crowned.

With Mary gone, John Knox confined himself mainly to preaching on religious subjects. In 1571 he retired to St. Andrews. There he occasionally preached and wrote. At the end of his life, he returned to Edinburgh for one last sermon. In 1572 he died.

The legacy of John Knox is not difficult to find. He carried an austere Protestantism that was infused with a congregational polity from Geneva to Scotland. He was instrumental in the transition of Scotland from a Catholic to a Presbyterian state. Knox was a reformer in the uncompromising tradition of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

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