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Knox, John


KNOX, JOHN (c. 15141572), was a Protestant reformer of Scotland. Born in Haddington, Knox likely studied at Saint Andrews under the nominalist theologian John Major. He was ordained to the priesthood at the age of twenty-five, held the post of apostolical notary, and served as a tutor to the children of gentlemen in East Lothian.

Knox was a rugged political fighter, but he was also, as his biographer Jasper Ridley writes, a person of "profound and sincere religious sensitivity." The source of this sensitivity was the Bible, which he apparently studied with devotion early in life. When dying, he asked his wife to "go read where I cast my first anchor" in the seventeenth chapter of John.

Knox, converted to Protestantism by the preaching of Thomas Gwilliam in Lothian, was confirmed in the Protestant movement by his association with George Wishart. After the burning of Wishart, Protestants took the castle at Saint Andrews and the life of Cardinal Beaton, Scotland's Catholic leader. Knox, under threat of persecution, moved from place to place, eventually taking refuge in the castle with his students. Protestant leaders urged him to "take up the public office and charge of preaching," a role that would identify him with Gwilliam, John Rough, and Wishart. He was reluctant to accept the vocation, as he emphasized in his History, but having done so, he filled it with remarkable skill and became a leading spokesman of the Protestant cause.

The castle fell to the French fleet in 1547, and Knox became a galley slave until his release was arranged by the English. For five years (15491554) he was active in the Puritan wing of the English Reformation movement. With the accession of Mary, Knox left England and was named the minister of the church of the English exiles in Frankfurt. The exiles soon divided over the use of The Book of Common Prayer, whether to revise it or to substitute a new liturgy. As a result of the controversy, Knox left Frankfurt for Geneva, where he became pastor of the English congregation. Knox's stay there was significant for the consolidation of his own theology, as he was impressed by Calvin's achievement in establishing the Reformed church in Geneva.

Knox visited Scotland briefly in the autumn of 1555 to encourage the Protestant leadership. When the religious and political struggle came to a crisis in 1559, Knox left Geneva to assume a leading role in the Protestant cause. His powerful preaching, political wisdom, and determination contributed significantly to the Scottish Parliament's action in 1560 abolishing the papal jurisdiction and approving a confession of faith as a basis for belief in Scotland.

In addition to his public leadership, Knox had a role in three major documents of the Scottish Reformation of 1560. The Confession of Faith was written in four days by John Knox and five others. It conveys the intensity of the moment and the personal quality of the confession of believers who were putting their lives at risk for their faith. It has been described as "the warm utterance of a people's heart." It states the Protestant faith in plain language and is more pictorial and historical than abstract in style.

The First Book of Discipline was written by Knox in collaboration with four others. It is notable not only for its reform of the church but also for its vision of universal compulsory education up to the university level and for its provisions for relief of the poor. The book was never adopted by Parliament because its members did not want the wealth of the church expended on Knox's "devout imaginings."

Knox's third contribution to the official documents of the church was The Book of Common Order, which Knox and his collaborators had written in Frankfurt and used in Geneva. It now became the worship book of the Church of Scotland.

Knox disavowed speculative theology, but his writings, filling six volumes, were as powerful as his preaching. "The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" (1558), although dealing with the situation in Scotland, caused him difficulty with Elizabeth I of England when he needed her support. Knox's History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland is a history of the man and the cause and a justification of both. Other notable writings include "Letter of Wholesome Counsel" and "Treatise on Predestination."

Knox was a remarkable human being. Scholars have debated whether or not he was a man of courage, perhaps because of his own misgivings. He took precautions, but he did "march toward the sound of guns." Scholars have accused him of demagoguery, but a supporter declared that he was able in one hour to do more for his contemporaries than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in their ears. He believed that he had been called by God, that through his life God's purposes were being fulfilled, and that the Reformation was God's cause and must triumph.

Knox's biographer, Jasper Ridley, points to the Church of Scotland as Knox's greatest achievement. Catholicism would probably have been overthrown without Knox, but it is due to Knox that the Church of Scotland was Calvinist rather than Anglican, and that after his death it became Presbyterian rather than Episcopal. Knox also contributed significantly to the struggle for human freedom. His emphasis on the responsibility not only of lower magistrates but of individuals to resist evil rulers, and the dramatic way he expressed this idea in his own life, especially in his encounters with Queen Mary, and in his sermons and writings cannot be overestimated. His Presbyterian and Puritan followers made these ideas part of the tradition of public and political life in the English-speaking world.


Cheyne, Alec. Review of The Scottish Reformation by Gordon Donaldson. Scottish Journal of Theology 16 (March 1963): 7888.

McEwen, James S. The Faith of John Knox. London, 1961.

Percy, Eustace. John Knox. London, 1937.

Ridley, Jasper. John Knox. New York, 1968.

Shaw, Duncan, ed. John Knox: A Quartercentenary Reappraisal. Edinburgh, 1975.

John H. Leith (1987)

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