John Knox: Leader of the Scottish Reformation

No one in Scottish history has received as much adoration and as much vilification as John Knox.

“John Knox, a Scotsman by nation and a great enemy of the Catholic Church, arrived in the town. This man was so audacious and learned and factious, and so eloquent that he managed men’s souls as he wished.”

(The Ancient Chronicles of Dieppe)

In the Middle Ages, religious beliefs were fundamental to how people defined themselves and the world around them. At the beginning of the 16th century, Europe underwent dramatic and rapid changes. Many long-held beliefs were questioned by new religious thinking. The debate escalated into conflict, dividing Europe into supporters of the Catholic religion and pro-reform Protestants. The two most important European Reformers who broke away from the Catholic Church were a German theologian, Martin Luther (1483-1546), and a French theologian in Genève, Jean Calvin (1509-1564).

The leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland was John Knox. He was born in Haddington, near Edinburgh, in 1513, and later studied at St Andrews University. Ordained as a priest in 1536, Knox gradually became convinced of the need for religious change. In 1547, he took part in the Protestant occupation of St Andrews Castle and served two years as a galley slave in the French navy as punishment.

After his release from captivity, Knox had travelled extensively throughout England and Europe, studying the new religious ideas, and meeting with some of the great reformers. In 1550, when the Catholic Mary Tudor (1516-1558) succeeded to the English crown, John Knox played an important role in the English Reformation. He also considered it unnatural for a woman to rule. He settled in Genève in 1553, where he further developed his thinking under the influence of Calvin. He felt fortunate to be a member of the Reformed Protestant society there, as he wrote “Geneva is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in earth since the days of the apostles”. He also served as a pastor of the English-speaking congregation at the time. Members of his congregation also translated the Bible into English, which became the basis for the first Scottish edition of the English Bible, known as the ‘Geneva Bible’, printed in 1579. In general, the proliferation of printed books played a key role in the spread of the Reformers’ new ideas.

John Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 at the invitation of Protestant nobles. At the time, Scotland was ruled by Queen Regent Marie de Guise (1515-1560), the widow of James V and mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh experienced increasing prosperity. Wealthy merchants and craftsmen formed guilds to preserve their economic monopolies and civic privileges. The Catholic Church legitimized their authority and wealth and they in return supported the Church. In 1560, the death of Marie de Guise threw Scottish society into turmoil. Taking advantage of this situation, Knox was able to rouse the Protestant forces in Scotland. As a Minister of St Giles in Edinburgh, perhaps the most influential church in the country, he gave fiery and vociferous sermons attacking the Catholic Church and the authority of the Crown. He was joined in his fight by the Lords of the Congregation, a group of Scottish nobles who had signed a pledge to fight against the influence of Catholicism. Their violent struggle for control of the country and the national religion brought Scotland to the brink of civil war.

Although the early Scottish Protestants were Lutherans, the Reformation of 1560 was strongly Calvinist. This was partly due to Calvin’s influence on John Knox, but also to the appeal in Scotland to Calvin’s more radical ideas. Thus, in 1560, the Scottish Parliament rejected the authority of the Pope over the Scottish Church. Protestantism became the national religion of Scotland, and the Protestant ‘Scots Confession’ was accepted as the national statement of belief which placed the authority of the Bible before that of the Church. In the ‘First Book of Discipline’, John Knox and his colleagues outlined the future form of a godly society. They urged that “Christ’s evangel be truly and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly of this Realm, and that all doctrine repugnant to the same be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.” The Protestant Reformers had ambitious plans for education: both rich and poor would be compelled to educate their children. They also wanted to see their new Church at the heart of an ordered society: offenders would have to repent publicly in church, while persistent or serious offenders would be excommunicated. Finally, they also proposed an aid scheme for those who are unable to work or care for themselves, but disapproved of vagrancy and begging both rife in Scotland.

John Knox vehemently opposed the resurgence of Catholicism and feared the return of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) who was the Queen Consort of France at the time. After the death of her husband, King Frances II (1544-1560), she returned to Scotland in 1561, which meant that the fate of the Scottish Reformation hung in the balance. Although the Queen publicly acknowledged Protestantism as the national religion, she continued to celebrate Mass in private. By 1567, the atmosphere of instability and political intrigue in the Scottish Court had reached its boiling point. A group of nobles eager for power forced the Queen to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, James VI. Fearing for her safety, she fled to England the following year, to never return to Scotland. In her absence, her loyal supporters, known as the ‘Queen’s Men’, campaigned for her restoration to the throne and, in defiance of the Protestant Government, seized the mighty Edinburgh Castle. As the situation escalated into a civil war, Edinburgh became an increasingly dangerous place, and, in May 1571, John Knox left the city. He returned a year later to continue preaching, even though he was almost 60 years old and very ill.

John Knox died in Edinburgh on 24 November 1572 and was mourned by many as a national tragedy. The Earl of Morton, then Protestant Regent, said of him, “their lies he who never feared the face of man”. Although John Knox lived to see the establishment of the Protestant religion in Scotland, his vision of a godly society was not achieved. The nobility who supported the revolution of 1560 believed that the Protestant Church should still be subordinate to the monarchy and parliament. They also refused to endorse Knox’s ‘First Book of Discipline’. Many of Knox’s concepts were taken up, though not in their entirety, which led to a number of historical misunderstandings about his ideas.

“So I end, rendering my troubled and sorrowful spirit in the hands of the Eternal God, earnestly trusting at His good pleasure to be freed from the cares of this miserable life, and to rest with Christ Jesus, my only hope and life.”

(Knox’s prayer at the end of his life)


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