John Knox Reference

John Knox

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: The leading reformer and historian of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, John Knox gave to Calvinism its Presbyterian expression in both England and Scotland and found in covenant theology the rationale for political militancy.

Early Life

Although the exact date of his birth is still in dispute, John Knox was probably born about 1514 at Giffordgate, near Haddington, a small town located eighteen miles east of Edinburgh in the coastal district of East Lothian. His father, William Knox, was a modest tradesman, and his mother’s maiden name was Sinclair, but not much else is known about his family. He had a brother, William, who became a merchant at Prestonpans and traded goods between England and Scotland, but no other siblings are known. Like most bright young men of humble birth, Knox was educated for the Church. He attended Latin school at Haddington, but his college training is far from certain. Historians once thought that he went to the University of Glasgow, but the judgment now is that he attended St. Andrews University in the late 1520’s and early 1530’s and studied under John Major, one of the leading Scholastic thinkers of the day. While his style of argumentation owed much to Scholasticism, Knox was not taken by the Aristotelian teachings of Major. Years later, he claimed to have been quite moved by church fathers such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Athanasius. He also studied law. Thanks to a special dispensation, he was ordained into the priesthood before the canonical age of twenty-four. There were, however, many more priests than decent livings in the parishes of early sixteenth century Scotland, and Knox found employment as an apostolic notary, working in effect as a small country lawyer.

Except for his signature on several legal papers, almost nothing is known about Knox during the 1530’s. Those documents, however, make clear that he dealt regularly not only with the common people but also with the lesser lairds and nobility. He must have been aware of the inroads being made by Protestant ideas and the ridicule being heaped upon the Church for its wealth and for its many ignorant, venal, and immoral clergymen. By 1544, Knox was working as a tutor, instructing the sons of several Lothian lairds friendly toward George Wishart, a Lutheran preacher fleeing from James Beaton, Cardinal and Archbishop of St. Andrews. Much influenced by the charismatic Wishart, Knox traveled with him as he preached throughout East Lothian, reportedly brandishing a sword to protect Wishart. In January, 1546, however, Wishart was captured; quickly tried and convicted of heresy, he was burned at the stake the following March. In retaliation, Wishart’s supporters murdered Cardinal Beaton in May, seized St. Andrews Castle, and sought the help of Scotland’s ancient enemy, England, then undergoing religious reformation under Henry VIII.

Other Scottish Protestants took refuge in the castle of St. Andrews, including John Knox and his pupils. After hearing the fiery Knox preach, the people gathered at the castle called him to be their minister. For more than a year he served the congregation at St. Andrews, vigorously attacking the Papacy, the doctrine of purgatory, and the Mass. On July 31, 1547, the St. Andrews Protestants capitulated to a combined force of Scottish troops loyal to the Queen Regent and a fleet of French galleys. According to the terms of surrender, the prisoners, including Knox, were to be taken to France and there freed or transported to a country of their choice. Instead, they were either imprisoned in France or forced to labor as galley slaves. Knox remained in the galleys, probably chained much of the time to his oar, with little likelihood of ever being freed. The hardships deepened his commitment to Protestantism. After serving as a galley slave for nineteen months, Knox, along with several other prisoners, was freed, apparently through the diplomatic efforts of young Edward VI.

Life’s Work

Making his way to England in early 1549, Knox was warmly received by the king’s privy council, awarded a modest gratuity, and commissioned to preach in Berwick-upon-Tweed, located near the Scottish border. In late 1550, he removed to Newcastle, where he preached in the Church of St. Nicholas. The next year, he was among the six chosen as royal chaplains, thanks no doubt to his chief patron, the Duke of Northumberland, a leading Protestant nobleman. Always vehement in his denunciations of the Roman Catholic church, Knox believed that the Church of England remained tainted by Catholic doctrine and ritual. He was among those who revised the Book of Common Prayer in 1552, contributing specifically the “black rubric” which denied that kneeling before the table implied adoration of the bread and wine. His inflexibility probably cost Knox the bishopric of Rochester, and even Northumberland grew weary of the opinionated preacher, though he never doubted Knox’s utility and protected him from the mayor of Newcastle, who despised the irascible Scot. In June, 1553, Knox was sent to preach in Buckinghamshire. Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic, became queen in May, 1553, however, and English Protestants shortly found themselves facing persecution. Near the end of that year, Knox fled to France, joining a growing number of English Protestants known as the Marian exiles.

Accompanying him to France was his wife, Marjory, daughter of Elizabeth and Richard Bowes of Streatlam Castle, Durham. While preaching at Berwick, Knox had become good friends with Elizabeth Bowes. She encouraged Knox to marry her fifth daughter, though Knox was as old as Mrs. Bowes herself. Her husband, Richard Bowes, did not approve of the match, and Mrs. Bowes would later leave her husband and join Knox and her daughter in Geneva, where John Calvin provided refuge for the Marian exiles. At Calvin’s urging, the Scotsman became the preacher to the English congregation at Frankfurt am Main, but was forced to resign after a few months because the Anglican majority there objected to his strict Calvinism in church polity and liturgy. He was then called as pastor to the English congregation in Geneva. Thriving on controversy, he increasingly saw himself as a prophet of the Lord, calling both England and Scotland to repentance and right worship.


(The entire section is 2596 words.)