Knox, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Knox

BORN: 1513 • Haddington, Scotland

DIED: November 24, 1572 • Edinburgh, Scotland

Scottish religious reformer

Religious reformer John Knox was the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. His passionate anti-Catholicism led him to denounce Catholic rulers such as Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) of England and the Scottish queen Mary Stuart (1542–1587; see entry). He played a major role in fueling the rebellion that led to Mary Stuart's removal from power, which increased religious and political tensions in both Scotland and England. His intense disapproval of women rulers alienated Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), who supported the Protestant cause but found Knox's views distasteful and extreme.

"England and Scotland shall both know that I am ready to suffer more than either poverty or exile, for the profession of that … heavenly religion, whereof it has pleased His merciful providence to make me … a simple soldier and witness-bearer unto men."

Early life

John Knox was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Haddington, Scotland, around 1513. He attended the local school and left home at age fifteen to study at St. Salvatore's College, University of St. Andrews. He received a bachelor of divinity degree, and he was ordained a priest on April 15, 1536.

The exact reason that Knox rejected Catholicism remains unclear. In 1543 he was serving as a Catholic priest under the archbishop of St. Andrews, but he was becoming exposed to reformist ideas. During this time, the Reformation, a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches, was well underway. A Protestant lord, Hugh Douglas of Longniddry, who had hired Knox to tutor his two sons, embraced Protestantism in late 1545.

Though Catholicism was still the official religion of Scotland at this time, Protestant ideas were gaining ground. Students and merchants returning to Scotland from Europe smuggled in the writings of religious reformers such as Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German monk who in 1517 denounced the Catholic Church for its sale of indulgences, which according to church doctrine cancelled the punishment for sins. Luther and his followers saw much corruption in the church. It controlled vast wealth; its highest-ranking clergy held personal riches and ignored the needs of the poor. Furthermore, in the view of reformers, few priests followed true Christian ideals in their own lives. Reformers wished to free the church from these practices and return it to the principles on which it was originally founded. Such ideas, however, were considered dangerous. In 1525 Scotland's Parliament, or legislative body, passed a law banning the importation of literature that preached heresy, or religious belief that contradicted the church's doctrines. The law had little effect, however, and stricter measures were enacted, including the death penalty—by burning at the stake—for those who preached heresy.

Circumstances were complicated even more by the situation in England, where Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) had officially broken with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s. In order to obtain a divorce—which the pope, the head of the Catholic Church, had refused to allow—Henry declared himself the supreme head of the church in England. Though he had no interest in creating a reformed church, his action gave political support to those in England who did. As a result England under Henry became a Protestant country. The Scots, always suspicious that Henry wished to dominate them politically, rejected his proposal that their infant queen, the Catholic Mary Stuart, marry his only son and heir, Edward VI (1537–1553). Henry responded by launching military raids into Scotland, prompting the Scots to seek a military alliance with France, a strongly Catholic country. England's aggression gave Scotland renewed cause to fear the rise of Protestantism.

Martyrdom and rebellion

In 1545 George Wishart (1513–1546), a Scottish Protestant preacher who had acted as one of Henry's representatives during these unsuccessful marriage negotiations, was placed under government surveillance in Scotland. Knox joined a group of Protestant lords bent on protecting him. Armed with a two-handed sword, Knox remained with Wishart for five weeks until Wishart finally persuaded him to return to his teaching duties. One day later Wishart was arrested. He was strangled and burned at the stake for heresy.

This event only strengthened the resolve of the reformers. Recognizing that the Scottish cardinal, David Beaton (1494–1546), had called for Wishart's arrest and execution, some Protestant lords broke into the cardinal's castle at St. Andrews and stabbed him to death. Besieged in the castle, the rebels held out for a little more than a year against Scottish government forces. In April 1547 Knox decided to join the rebels to provide them with spiritual support. By mid-July, however, French ships had arrived with military aid for the Scottish troops, and the castle fell on July 31. Knox was captured and sentenced to work as a galley slave on a French ship.

Never a particularly robust man, Knox suffered terribly in the galleys, where he was forced to work to exhaustion and was underfed. His health was weakened by the experience, but he kept his spirit strong through his belief that God would soon free him. After nineteen months, in March 1549, he was released.

Life in exile

Faced with persecution in Scotland, Knox went to England, where the king's Privy Council gave him a preaching position in Berwick. (The Privy Council was a board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the king's chief advisors.) Here he was able to recover his health and continue his religious studies. He also met his future wife, Marjory Bowes, to whom he became engaged in 1553. Knox began to refine his beliefs and his teachings, particularly his rejection of the Catholic Mass, during which a priest performs transubstatiation, the miraculous change that occurs when a priest blesses the Eucharist (bread and wine) and it changes into the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine. He preached this so adamantly that in 1550 the Privy Council ordered him to appear before them to explain his beliefs in more detail. He argued that the authority of Scripture, the church's sacred texts, was supreme, and its teachings were above even those of the pope or the king. Because the Mass was not mentioned in Scripture, he said, it should not be performed. The council accepted his argument, and Knox soon became well known and respected. In 1551 he preached before John Dudley (Duke of Northumberland; 1501–1553), who in effect ruled

Knox's Time as a Galley Slave

John Knox spent nineteen months as a galley slave for the French navy. Galleys were a class of ship powered by both sails and oars. They were about 100 to 150 feet long, with twenty-five oars that passed through oar-holes on the ship's side. Each oar was about 40 to 50 feet long. Normally six men rowed on each oar, but during battle only four men did the job, in order to leave room for the crew's movements.

Galley slaves were chained to their benches by their legs day and night; they ate and slept at their seats. They were forced to row for hours at a time, with only biscuits and water each day and vegetable soup three times a week. They were whipped for any misbehavior. Not surprisingly, no sailor would volunteer to row in the galleys, and the French used convicted criminals and prisoners of war as slaves. The prospect of being captured and forced to row in the galleys of the French terrified the English, and boosted their resolve to defend their country from attack.

Galley slaves on French ships were expected to attend Catholic Mass, which Knox and his fellow Scottish rowers refused to do. In his History of the Reformation in Scotland Knox described an incident in which the French brought an image of the Virgin Mary to him and demanded that he kiss it. He called it an idol and refused to touch it, but they thrust it into his hands. When no one was looking, he threw it into the water.

In addition to being overworked, underfed, and kept in unsanitary conditions, galley slaves risked being killed in battle. Chained at their seats, they could not escape enemy fire. Nor could they save themselves in the event of shipwreck. If no one on board thought to unchain them, galley slaves died when their ships were destroyed. Knox became very ill in the galleys, and he almost died. He was given extra rations, and he gradually recovered his health. He later wrote that his faith helped him to maintain the will to live during this time of brutal suffering.

England for the adolescent king, Edward VI. Dudley was so impressed with Knox that he invited him to London to preach before Edward. Dudley also offered Knox a position as bishop, but Knox declined.

When Edward VI died in 1553, his Catholic half-sister, Mary I, became queen of England and immediately took steps to restore Catholicism there. Realizing that his life would be in danger if he remained in England, Knox fled to Europe, where he remained for the next five years, settling in Geneva, Switzerland. There he met the most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation, including John Calvin (1506–1564).

In 1555 Knox made a trip to Scotland. Though Mary Stuart, a Catholic, was technically queen, she was still a child and was living in France while her mother, Mary of Guise (1515–1560), ruled on her behalf. Mary of Guise supported tolerant policies toward Protestants, making it safe for Knox to preach freely in Scotland. Nevertheless, Catholic feeling was still strong, and within about six months he was pressured to leave the country. After he left, he was burned in effigy, meaning that a representation of him was burned. During this period in Scotland Knox married Marjory Bowes, returning with her to Geneva in 1556.

Knox planned another trip to Scotland in early 1557. He had been invited by the Scottish Protestant lords to help them start a religious reformation there. But the lords later advised him to wait until conditions in Scotland would be more favorable for such a plan. Knox remained in Europe until 1559.

In Geneva Knox busied himself with writing. One of his most widely known pamphlets, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), was an attack on the rule of female sovereigns. In this pamphlet, which was published anonymously, Knox wrote that women's rule was "repugnant to nature" and "a disgrace to God." He concluded that it was proper for the Protestant faithful to overthrow their Catholic leader by an armed uprising. Knox frequently denounced the Catholic Church, which he called a "synagogue of Satan" and a "harlot … polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication." He called Catholic priests "pestilent papists" and "bloody wolves." In 1559, after the death of Mary, Knox published A Brief Exhortation to England, for the Speedy Embracing of the Gospel Heretofore of Mary Suppressed and Banished. This pamphlet urged the English to repent for the "shameful defection" of those who had gone back to Catholicism during Mary's reign. Knox's negative views of female rulers so angered England's newly crowned Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, that she refused to grant him safe conduct through England when he decided to return to Scotland in 1559.

Return to Scotland

By the time Knox returned to Scotland in May 1559, the Protestant lords were in open rebellion against Mary of Guise. A few days later Knox preached a sermon at Perth that inspired his listeners to loot neighboring religious houses. In October the lords removed Mary of Guise from power, and sent to England for support from Elizabeth, a Protestant. In February 1560 the Protestant rebels signed a treaty with England in which England promised military aid to the rebellion in Scotland. In effect, this ended any support for Mary of Guise, who died a few months later. Soon afterward France and England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, in which both countries agreed to remove their troops from Scotland. At a parliament session in Edinburgh that August, Scotland enacted laws that abolished the authority of the pope, forbade the celebration of the Mass, and instituted a reformed Protestant church in Scotland.

Knox was appointed as the first Protestant minister of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was also asked to join a committee charged with preparing a program of religious reformation and reorganization, including a national system of education. This work became known as the Book of Discipline. One of its central provisions was that the clergy should be elected by democratic process, not through political patronage. Knox believed that those who did not embrace the reformed church were sons of Satan and did not deserve respect or fair treatment. In fact, he thought it permissible to cheat and torment them, and even rejoice in knowing that they would be condemned to hell. In Knox's view, the reformed church required that all members of society should act according to the teachings of the Bible. Even rulers should acknowledge the higher power of the Scriptures and act according to Christian ideals.

Rule of Mary Stuart

The return of Mary Stuart to the Scottish throne in 1561 did nothing to change Knox's hatred and distrust of Catholicism and women's rule. He publicly criticized the queen's love of dancing, causing her to call him before her court for questioning. He told her that he disapproved of her Catholic religion, her flirtation with Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley; 1545–1567), and her general conduct. Though many Protestant lords agreed with Knox, not all of them shared his hostility to Mary; their objections to his extreme views caused him to be officially reprimanded by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1564.

Through much of the 1560s Knox worked on his book, History of the Reformation in Scotland. He also preached regularly, but he did not participate actively in political matters. His first wife died in 1560, leaving him with two sons. In 1563 he married Margaret Stewart, daughter of a Protestant lord. Knox was fifty years old at this time; his bride was only seventeen. This marriage produced three daughters. Though his writings expressed extreme views and employed passionate and sometimes coarse language, in daily life Knox was known as a considerate man who got along well with his neighbors of all social classes.

In 1567 Mary Stuart's husband, Henry Stewart, was murdered. Immediately afterward the queen married James Hepburn (Earl of Bothwell; 1535–1578). The Scots firmly believed that Mary had been involved in Stewart's death, and even those Protestant lords who had previously taken her side now turned against her. Though Knox did not actively participate in the lords' uprising, he did approve of it; in fact, he urged that Mary be executed. Instead the queen rallied some troops to her side and attempted a defense. In 1567 she was defeated in battle and forced her to give up the throne in favor of her infant son, James I (1566–1625; see entry).

Knox allied himself with the Protestant lords who ruled in the infant king's name. But he grew increasingly bitter by what he saw as a betrayal by those Protestant lords who had defended Mary Stuart. He continued to denounce Mary so strongly that her supporters forced him out of Edinburgh. He lived in St. Andrews for one year until tensions died down, returning to Edinburgh in September 1572. By this time he had grown frail, and he soon lost the ability to walk or read. He died that November at the age of fifty-nine.

Though his extremism alienated some Protestants, Knox played a key role in establishing the reformed church in Scotland. The hatred that he preached against Catholics also contributed to religious and political tensions that pitted supporters of Mary Stuart against those who favored Protestant rule. These tensions spilled over into England, where Mary's cause inspired several attempts to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Mary did have some claim to the English throne as Elizabeth's cousin and great-granddaughter of Henry VII (1457–1509). Largely as a result of Knox's teachings, the Church of Scotland developed along more extreme and intolerant lines than did Protestantism in England.

For More Information


Reid, W. Stanford. Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox. New York: Scribner, 1974.

Ridley, Jasper. John Knox. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.


"John Knox." English Bible History. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"John Knox." Mary, Queen of Scots. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"John Knox." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Maclean, Diane. "John Knox." The Scotsman: Heritage & Culture. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Knox, John

views updated May 29 2018


Scottish Protestant reformer; b. near Haddington, East Lothian, 1513; d. Edinburgh, Nov. 24, 1572. Of his early life, little is recorded. His family for several generations had been retainers of the house of Bothwell. The Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow claim him as a student, but definite proof of his attendance is lacking. A recent document asserts that he was ordained by Bp. William Chisholm of Dunblane on April 15, 1536. During the next decade he performed the duties of notary apostolic in the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and acted as tutor to the children of some East Lothian lairds who patronized the leading Protestant preacher of the day, George wishart.

Conversion to Evangelicalism. During this period, Knox became a convert to the "new Evangel," and in the winter of 154546 he himself carried a "two-handed sword" before the preacher. When Wishart was put to death for heresy at St. Andrews (March 28, 154546), a group of disaffected gentry assassinated Cardinal David Beaton, Chancellor of Scotland, and occupied the archepiscopal castle at St. Andrews. On April 10, 1547, Knox and his pupils joined the "Castilians," a group of devout and radical Protestants. The group soon recognized Knox's ability as a controversialist preacher and commissioned him to undertake the public preaching of the new doctrines. Knox began preaching in the castle and parish kirk of St. Andrews. When the French fleet captured the castle on July 30, 1547, Knox was taken captive with the others and remained aboard a French galley for 19 months. Released early in 1549, Knox made his way to England and became a licensed preacher, first at Berwick, then at Newcastle, and finally in London, where he was one of the six chaplains to the young King, Edward VI. His intervention in the preparatory discussions for the revised book of common prayer is responsible for the inclusion of the "Black Rubric" in the service (when approaching the Lord's Supper, "no adoration is intended or ought to be done"). Knox turned down the offer of the bishopric of Rochester, for he shrewdly foresaw that Catholic Mary Tudor would succeed to the throne.

Exile at Geneva. When that event occurred (1553), Knox fled to the Continent, where he preached in various English Protestant colonies. He visited Dieppe several times, but his principal place of sojourn was that "perfect school of Christ," Calvin's Geneva. There was a short visit to Scotland in 1555, "at the end of the harvest," when he claims to have laid the small beginnings of a Protestant church. The French Queen-Regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise, constrained by the pressure of international politics, had allowed religious toleration. Before long the political and religious climate changed, and Knox, now married to the English Marjory Bowes (spring 1556), returned to Geneva. The Protestant nobles in Scotland invited Knox (May 1557) to return to minister to them, but by the time he reached Dieppe they had changed their minds. This vacillation brought about a change in Knox's political thinking. Hitherto following Calvin, he had advocated moderation and nonviolence in dealing with "idolatrous" rulers. Then, in 1558, he published several pamphlets asserting that punishment of

"idolatry" and "blasphemy" in rulers "doth not appertain to kings and chief rulers only but also to the whole body of that people and to every member of the same" and that this duty extends to deposing and punishing rulers who are "tyrants against God and against his truth known." In these pamphlets Knox provided the ideology for the revolution that was shortly to be accomplished in Scotland.

Return to Scotland. Some Protestant nobles and lairds, after pledging themselves "to maintain, set forward and establish the most blessed word of God and his Congregation" (December 1557), invited Knox to return to Scotland. He landed on May 2, 1559, joined the forces of the Congregation at Perth, and on May 11, in the parish kirk of St. John, he preached the sermon that led to the "casting down" of the town churches and the wrecking of the religious houses in the neighborhood. In June the coast towns of Fife and the primatial city of St. Andrews were purged by the army of the Congregation: Stirling, Linlithgow, and Edinburgh were visited in turn. On June 10, 1560, the whole resistance of the Catholic and French party collapsed with the death of the Queen-Regent, Mary of Guise. The Treaty of Edinburgh, in July, eliminated the French and created a situation where the Lords of the Congregation, with English help, could now dominate Scotland. The illegal "Reformation Parliament," held in August, abolished the jurisdiction of the pope in Scotland and prohibited the celebration of Mass, together with all doctrine and practice contrary to the Confession of Faith, which was now adopted.

Knox was the architect of the new ecclesiastical system. Although the Confession of Faith, drawn up by him and his associates, was accepted, the Book of Discipline, which sought to redistribute the temporal possessions of the medieval Church in accordance with the needs of the new Protestant regime, was rejected. Knox was appointed minister of Edinburgh, and during the tumultuous years of the personal reign of mary stuart, queen of scots, he made the pulpit of the collegiate kirk of St. Giles a focal point in the political and religious life of the kingdom. In March 1564, now a widower in his 50s, he contracted his second marriage, with Margaret Stewart, the 16-year-old daughter of Lord Ochiltree. After the assassination of the regent, James Stewart, Earl of Moray (1570), Knox's health began to decline. He was buried in the kirkyard of St. Giles.

During his lifetime, Knox was known chiefly as a powerful and inspiring preacher with a strong sense of his personal vocation as a prophet. His posthumous fame rests mostly on his History of the Reformation in Scotland, an extremely biased but vigorous and dramatic specimen of 16th-century Anglo-Scottish prose. From this work and from his other writings, especially the Confession of Faith, can be pieced together the main elements of Knox's theological teaching. His contribution lay not in original thought; his works instead repeated Protestant teachings, but in a lively idiom that inspired his admirers. In his early Protestant years, due no doubt to the influence of Wishart, Knox accepted the Zwinglian views of a symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Later at Geneva his theological tenets were molded into Calvinism, and his antipathy to traditional Catholic doctrine concentrated on the rejection of the sacrificial character of the Mass and of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Among his writings are: The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a diatribe against Mary of Guise; Treatise on Predestination (1560); English Metrical Psalter (1564).

See Also: scotland, church of.

Bibliography: Works, ed. d. laing, 6 v. (Edinburgh 184664); History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. w. c. dickinson, 2 v. (New York 1949). a. lang, John Knox and the Reformation (London 1905). t. mccrie, The Life of John Knox, 2 v. (Edinburgh 1812; 1 v. ed. Inverness 1960). d. mcroberts, ed., Essays on the Scottish Reformation, 15131625 (Glasgow 1962). e.s. c. percy, John Knox (London 1937). g. macgregor, The Thundering Scot (Philadelphia 1957). m. schmidt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:1686. a. j. g. mackay, The Dictionary of National Biography From the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 18851900; repr. With corrections, 21 v., 190809, 192122, 1938; suppl. 1901) 11:308328. r. mason, ed., John Knox and the British Reformations (Aldershot UK. 1998). j. mcewen, The Faith of John Knox (Richmond 1961). j. g. ridley, John Knox (New York 1968). d. shaw, ed., John Knox: A Quartercentenary Reappraisal (Edinburgh 1975).

[d. mcroberts]

Knox, John

views updated Jun 08 2018


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)

John Knox

views updated May 23 2018

John Knox

The Scottish reformer John Knox (ca. 1505-1572) was one of the most celebrated followers of John Calvin and became the chief force in the introduction and establishment of the Presbyterian form of Calvinism in Scotland.

The Scotland of John Knox's time was used to reform movements. Long before Martin Luther's theses of 1517, men were executed for importing the doctrines of John Wyclif and John Hus. During Knox's adolescence he could not but be aware of the agitation for an evangelical Christianity abroad in the land.

The day and even the year of Knox's birth is disputed. The best estimate is probably 1505. His prosperous peasant father, William Knox, sought to prepare him for the priest-hood. His autobiographical writings leave doubt over his early education. It is certain that Knox attended a university, either Glasgow or St. Andrews, but did not earn a degree. After ordination in 1532 he returned to Haddington, the region of his birth.

Conversion to Protestantism

Knox's conversion to Protestantism seemingly occurred between 1543 and 1546. In 1543 he was loyally serving the Catholic Church under the archbishop of St. Andrews. He styled himself "minister of the sacred altar." By 1546 he was vigorously defending the reformer George Wishart, who had introduced Swiss Protestantism into Scotland with his translation of the First Helvetic Confession in 1543 and impressed many before being executed for heresy in 1546.

The following year David Beaton, the cardinal responsible for Wishart's arrest, was murdered. Knox, hearing of the deed, eagerly joined the murderers in the castle of St. Andrews and, after protesting his unworthiness, became their preacher, thereby making his revolt from Rome complete and courting death. Curiously enough, his voluminous writings give no clue as to what transformed him in such a short time from a Catholic priest to a fiery, sword-bearing Protestant.

For fiery Knox was, denouncing the Catholic Church as a "synagogue of Satan" and the beast of the Apocalypse. While the castle trembled with spiritual thunder, the French laid siege, eventually capturing the occupants and making them galley slaves. After 19 months Knox emerged in February 1549, his body intact, his spirit unbroken, and his Protestantism strengthened.

The release of Knox and his comrades may have been engineered by the new Protestant regency in England. In any case Knox took a paid position as preacher there. His popularity grew rapidly. In 1551 he was made chaplain to the king and in 1552 declined a bishopric. He worked to rid the religious services of all vestiges of Catholic ritual and to fix austerity of worship firmly in English Protestant doctrine. This made his life precarious when the fanatically Catholic Mary Tudor acceded to the throne in 1553. The following year Knox left England, wandered for a time, and unknowingly took the most important step of his career by moving to Geneva.

Calvin's Influence

In the "Bible Commonwealth," Knox came to believe fully in Calvinism, in the right of the true church to impose strict rules of conduct and belief on the individual, and in the right of the people to rebel against a civil authority that attempts to enforce adherence to a false doctrine. He called Calvin's Geneva "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the apostles."

On a trip to Scotland in 1555, then under a regency in preparation for the reign of Mary Stuart, Knox organized Protestant congregations and preached quietly. After he left under pressure, in 1556, an ecclesiastical court burned him in effigy. Back in Geneva he worked effectively as pastor of an English congregation.

Calvinism suited his austerity, and Knox preached with certitude that those not of his and Calvin's church were damned for eternity and that no Christian love was due them. Since they were sons of Satan, one could take joy in hating them, reveling over the prospect of their damnation, and even cheating and deceiving them. Knox saw himself as the prophet of a biblical society in which virtuous priests would guide men, and statesmen would be bound by the precepts of the Bible.

Knox's Writings

While he was at Geneva, Knox's pen was busy. His admonitions and letters to followers in England and Scotland are filled with burning condemnations of the Roman Church, a "harlot … polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication," and of its priests, who were "pestilent papists" and "bloody wolves." His best-known work, History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland, is more polemic than history.

Preaching in the Reformed manner was forbidden in Scotland in 1559, and on May 2 Knox arrived in Edinburgh. Pursued as a criminal, he managed to remain free and become the architect of a new Scottish church. Under his guidance, Catholicism, the regency, and French influence were repudiated, and in 1560 a democratic form of church structure in which congregations elected their ministers and elders was adopted.

Under these conditions it is not surprising that Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic reared in France, found Scotland uncongenial soon after her arrival in 1561. Since Catholic worship was forbidden, Mary's private Masses had to be defended with the sword. In 1568 she was driven from Scotland in the midst of a scandal; Knox was in the forefront of her pursuers.

Death took the reformer on Nov. 24, 1572. Knox was a small man but of immense physical and moral strength. He was not without contradictions in his work and his life. Although an authoritarian, he did more to stimulate the growth of democracy than any man of his age. He left an independent Scotland under a severe but democratically elected church.

Further Reading

The complete collection of the reformer's writings is The Works of John Knox, edited by David Laing (6 vols., 1846-1864; repr. 1966). There are several good biographies. Especially important are Edwin Muir, John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist (1929), and Andrew Lang, John Knox and the Reformation (1905), which is hostile to Knox. For background, John T. McNeill, History and Character of Calvinism (1954), and John H. S. Burleigh, Church History of Scotland (1960), are recommended. □

Knox, John (1514–1572)

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Knox, John (15141572)

Church reformer, preacher, author, and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Born in Haddington, Knox was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church in 1536, and worked as a notary and tutor to the noble families of Lothian. By 1545 he had converted to the cause of the reformed church under the influence of George Wishart. Despite the founding of the Protestant Church of England, Scotland's rulers remained resolutely Catholic, and in 1546, Wishart was arrested for his teachings and burned at the stake. When his Protestant followers avenged themselves by killing a Catholic cardinal, Knox joined them at Saint Andrews Castle, where he rallied the besieged reformers with his fiery sermons and his polemics against the evils of the Catholic Church. The group took refuge from Scottish and French soldiers but was finally overwhelmed in 1547. Knox was sentenced to a term of service in the French navy as a galley slave.

In 1549, after his release, Knox returned to England, where he served as one of the king's chaplains. Unwilling to accept an appointment as a bishop in the Church of England, Knox was unwilling to temper his scathing denunciations of his religious enemies. His stand made him a wanted man on the accession of the very Catholic queen Mary in 1553. He escaped to Europe, joining John Calvin in Geneva and preaching Calvinist reforms and government in the German city of Frankfurt, which expelled him in 1555. Knox did not improve his standing with the queen of England with his pamphlet First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which denounced Queen Mary as well as the Catholic Mary of Guise, who ruled Scotland as a regent. The pamphlet ridiculed the notion of women holding political power, and so enraged Mary's Protestant successor Elizabeth I that she prohibited him from ever setting foot in England.

In 1559 Knox was invited back to Scotland to lead Protestants rebelling against the authority of Mary of Guise. Knox and his allies forced French troops out of Scotland and defeated the Catholic Church. The new Presbyterian Church was established, in which each congregation elected its parish leaders, and by an act of the Scottish parliament in 1560 Scotland officially threw off the authority of the Catholic pope. Knox was also author of History of the Reformation in Scotland, an important history of this period.

See Also: Calvin, John; Elizabeth I; Reformation, Protestant; Tudor, Mary

Knox, John

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Knox, John (c.1514–72). Scottish protestant preacher. Born at Haddington (East Lothian) and educated at St Andrews University, Knox was ordained a catholic priest before being called to the protestant ministry in 1547. In 1549, following two years' imprisonment on a French galley, he settled in England, where his powerful preaching and extreme reliance on biblical authority (typified by his opposition to kneeling at communion) established his radical credentials. Driven into continental exile by Mary Tudor's accession in 1553, his radicalism developed a powerful political edge, culminating in his infamous diatribe against female rule, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). On Elizabeth's accession later that year, Knox was barred from England and returned instead to Scotland where in 1559 his iconoclastic preaching triggered a protestant rebellion against the regent, Mary of Guise. The reformed settlement of 1560, however, was jeopardized by the return to Scotland in 1561 of the catholic Mary Stuart. While Knox denounced her idolatry from his Edinburgh pulpit, politically he was marginalized and played no significant role in Mary's subsequent downfall. Dogged by failing health, he devoted his later years to compiling his biased but invaluable History of the Reformation in Scotland.

Roger A. Mason

Knox, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

Knox, John (1505–72). Leader of the Reformation in Scotland. As preacher at St Andrews he was captured by the French, and whilst serving as a galley slave, used the time to produce an edn. of Henry Balnave's Treatise on Justification by Faith. He refused the bishopric of Rochester, and on Mary's accession fled to the Continent where he met the Swiss Reform leaders. His First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) argued that female sovereignty contravened natural and divine law. In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland, devoting his time to preaching and writing. He drew up the Scottish Confession, shared in the compilation of The First Book of Discipline, and wrote his Treatise on Predestination (1560). He also took a major part in the compilation of the Book of Common Order (1556–64), the service book in use in Scotland until 1645. Knox's memoirs are preserved in his History of the Reformation of Religion with the realm of Scotland, first published in 1587 and immediately suppressed.

Knox, John

views updated May 21 2018

Knox, John (1514–72) Leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Ordained a Catholic priest, he later converted to Protestantism and took up the cause of the Reformation. Captured by French soldiers in Scotland, he was imprisoned in France (1547), then lived in exile in England and Switzerland. In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland, where he continued to promote the Protestant cause. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament, under Knox's leadership, made Presbyterianism the state religion. In 1563, he was tried for treason but acquitted.

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