“A man with God on his side is always in the majority.” John Knox
Jesus Christ instructed his disciples in the Great Commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…baptizing them…and teaching them.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Why, then, should we as modern day disciples of Jesus Christ who are keenly interested in obeying that commission look back five hundred years to the time of the Protestant Reformation? We do this for a number of important reasons. First, because the gospel became more and more obscured by the “traditions of men” throughout the Medieval Period and the later Middle Ages. Thankfully, God raised-up a number of key men, such as John Knox, who rediscovered the gospel during the Reformation and widely taught it throughout Europe. Second, because this rediscovery of the gospel brought about a renewed interest in the Bible and as a result Europe was thrust out of its extended period of spiritual darkness into the light. Third, because the Reformation was not just a short time of revival, but it was an extended period of spiritual blessing that lasted approximately one hundred and fifty years in length. Let us pray that God would bring forth another extended period of gospel expansion during our own era. Fourth, because during the Reformation the gospel penetrated many differing classes of people, some of whom had been largely ignored and brutally oppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. During the Reformation these people were Christianized and entire cultures were transformed by the application of the gospel. Fifth, by studying church history we can learn what we should be doing in our own time to obey the Great Commission.
Let me give an illustration. In many ways, the church of the Medieval Period and the later Middle Ages had become like a giant ship whose hull was so encrusted with barnacles and seaweed that it could barely move through the water. Instead of racing through the ocean at top speed, this ship (i.e. the church) had gotten lower in the water and slower in its speed. In essence, it had become so burdened with the excessive weight of the “traditions of men” that the gospel was completely obscured. The only way for this situation to change for the better was for the Lord to raise-up a number of godly men (e.g. the Reformers) who would metaphorically take the ship (the church) into a dry dock and scrape its sides getting rid of all that encumbered it. Once this was done, then the church—like a freshly cleaned and painted ship—would be able to race through the water at top speed once again. This is what happened during the time of the Reformation.
Now, let me make one qualification before I go any further in this historical article; several scholarly men have been searching for the source of John Knox’s rousing cry that I have used in my title—“Give me Scotland, or I die!”—but the direct source of this quotation has eluded us. Nevertheless, Knox’s exclamation wonderfully summarizes his passion to spread the gospel throughout his own home land—and no one who has studied his life disputes that! Therefore, I believe that it is safe to attribute this quotation to John Knox even though the precise location of it remains unknown.
A Brief Sketch of John Knox’s Life:
John Knox was born in 1514 to the family of a middle-class farmer in southern Scotland. Although John’s father was not well off, he did have enough money to send him to study at St. Andrews University. It was planned by his father that John would become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. At St. Andrews, John studied under a well-known critic of the Roman Catholic Church, John Major (c.1467-1550). In his lectures Professor Major encouraged the return of the Roman Catholic Church to a simplified form of ecclesiastical government, which he argued was practiced by the New Testament Church. Church leadership was to be in the hands of the local elders and deacons and only when there were weightier matters to resolve were these men gathered together into presbyteries and synods. He also spoke with favor of students familiarizing themselves with the rediscovered truth of “justification by faith alone” which was coming out of Germany from the prolific pen of Martin Luther (1483-1546). No doubt John Major had a powerful impact on the bright young Knox, exposing him to many of the arguments supporting the growing reform movement.
Nevertheless, upon his graduation from St. Andrews University in 1540 Knox followed the wishes of his father and took up orders as a Roman Catholic priest. In addition to his priestly duties, which were few, Knox also served as a Papal notary authenticating legal documents. In many respects, Knox had accomplished all that his earthly father had dreamed about for his son: he had the endorsement of the church, the prestige of higher education, and sufficient money from his work as a notary. However God, his heavenly Father, would not let John Knox be content with all of his worldly accomplishments, but would instead, draw him to a living faith in Christ. The spiritual revolution that was currently spreading like a flood throughout Germany, France, and Switzerland would soon burst onto the spiritually-dry shores of Scotland and England. God was on the move revitalizing His church with rediscovered New Testament truth.
At the time of John Knox’s ordination in 1540, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ruled England. Against the wishes of the Pope, Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1534 and started his own national church, the Church of England. Without really knowing it, Henry had aligned England with the Protestant cause. As to religion, the popular maxim of the age was this: “As the King believes, so does the nation”. Thus, England became a country where Protestant ideas were tolerated within the framework of the Anglo-Catholic theology of the Church of England. The Scottish lands, on the other hand, were separated from England politically and ecclesiastically being ruled by Roman Catholic monarchs. As a result, the growth of Protestant ideas in Scotland was often regarded as rebellion against the political authorities. Scotland seemed destined to remain Roman Catholic, unless, of course, God raised-up a champion of the Protestant cause in Scotland. This man was John Knox.
While serving as a private boy’s tutor to some wealthy Scottish Lords, Knox became further exposed to Protestant ideas. He taught his three young students grammar, classical languages, philosophy, mathematics, catechism, and the Bible. While teaching through the Gospel of John, specifically the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in chapter 17, God’s Word made a strong impact on Knox. Much later Knox requested upon his death bed that the entire 17th chapter of John’s Gospel be read aloud to him because it was here that he claimed “I cast my first anchor”. His exact conversion is difficult to determine, however in 1545 he began to manifest strong evidence of the New Birth when he became known as the bodyguard for the Scottish preacher George Wishart (c.1513- 1546). When Wishart preached, Knox would stand behind him with a large two-handed sword to defend him from his enemies! When Wishart’s foes grew ever bolder in their threats, the controversial preacher urged Knox to flee saying, “Nay return to your bairns (students), and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.” Wishart was eventually captured by the Roman Catholic authorities and burned at the stake as a heretic on March 1, 1546. This was a crucial turning point for Knox. In revenge, several young Scottish Lords assassinated Cardinal Beaton, Wishart’s accuser, oppressor, and judge. As a result, Knox became thoroughly caught up in the Protestant rebellion and took refuge from warring Roman Catholic soldiers in St. Andrews Castle. He continued to teach his students who were also residing in the protection of the castle with their families.
His Call to Ministry:
Knox’s call to the ministry came through the encouragement and exhortation of John Rough, the castle chaplain. One Sunday during a sermon on the election of ministers, Rough preached the following words directing them to Knox,
Brother, ye shall not be offended, albeit I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even from all those here present: In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you, that ye refuse not this holy vocation, but, as ye tender the Glory of God, the increase of Christ His Kingdom, the edification of your brethren, and the comfort of me, oppressed by the multitude of labors, that ye take upon you the public office of preaching, even as ye look to avoid God’s heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his graces upon you.” In the end, he said to those present: “Was not this your charge to me? Do ye not approve this vocation?” They answered, “It was, and we approve it.” (Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, 72).
After hearing these words directed at him, Knox burst into tears and withdrew to his chambers for several days. Yet, God had called him to ministry through the clear exhortation of John Rough and the people of the castle. Shortly after this, Knox assumed his new duties as the chaplain and preached his first sermon. The castle garrison held out for a year. The pro-Protestant English fleet did not rescue them as it was hoped, but instead a pro-Catholic French fleet appeared in the harbor. The defenders of the castle lost hope and eventually surrendered to the French. The Scottish Lords were taken into captivity and the commoners, like Knox, served as galley-slaves on the French ship Notre Dame. Life in the galleys was a miserable existence. Each slave was chained to the ship and sat exposed to the open air day and night. Knox himself tells a memorable story about his personal experiences on the galley-ship Notre Dame. He writes in the third person, but most readers believe he is speaking of himself.
Soon after their arrival at Nantes, their great Salve was sung, and a glorious painted Lady was brought in to be kissed, and, amongst others, was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said, “Trouble me not. Such an idol is accursed; therefore I will not touch it.” The Patron (Skipper) and the Arguesyn (Lieutenant), with two officers, having the chief charge of all such matters, said, “Thou shalt handle it”; and they violently thrust it to his face, and put it betwixt his hands. He, seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about him, cast it into the river, and said: “Let our Lady now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim!” After that was no Scotsman urged with that idolatry! (Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, 94-95)
There were also times of desperation and severe sickness on the galley-ship. Knox, relates one episode where he was near death and only recovered by the intervention of the Lord. He relates,
Master James Balfour and John Knox being in one galley, and being wondrous familiar, Master James would sometimes ask Knox’s judgment, “If he thought that ever they should be delivered?” Whose answer was ever, from the day they entered into the galleys, “God will delver us from this bondage, to His glory, even in this life.” Lying betwixt Dundee and St. Andrews, the second time the galleys returned to Scotland, the said John Knox being extremely sick that few hoped his life, Master James willed him to look to the land, and asked him if he knew it; who answered, “Yes; I know it well. I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to His glory, and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, I shall not depart this life till my tongue shall glorify His Holy Name in the same place.” This reported Master James in presence of many famous witnesses many years before ever John Knox set his foot in Scotland this last time to preach. (Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, 95-96)
It was ten years later before this prophetic desire came to pass. Finally at the appeal of the English King, Edward VI (1537-1553), Knox and a few others were released by the French. Knox returned to England where he was offered a position as preacher at Berwick in northern England. Several years of fruitful ministry followed and he became well known throughout England as a great preacher. Here he also met his future wife, Marjorie, and her influential mother, Elizabeth Bowes. Subsequently, Knox served a church in Newcastle and as one of the King’s chaplains in London.
His Flight to the Continent:
When Mary I (1516-1558), the infamous “Bloody Mary”, came to power in 1553 after the untimely death of Edward VI many Protestant leaders had to flee for their lives. Queen Mary I was determined to restore the Roman Catholic faith to England and sought to accomplish this through the severe persecution of Protestants. Under her reign such notable reformers as Thomas Cranmer, Nicolas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer were executed. Knox first fled to the continent, then secretly returned to marry Marjorie Bowes in 1555 and returned to Geneva. While there, Knox studied at the academy under John Calvin.
He said of this school “it is the most perfect school since the Apostles. In other places, I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not seen in any other place.” (Sefton, John Knox, 22) He kept busy by pastoring a church of English speaking refugees and his wife bore him two sons, but his mind was often on Scotland. His controversial tract “The First Blast of The Trumpet Against The Mostrous Regiment Of Women” delivered a torrid criticism against the woman rulers of his day, notably “Bloody Mary” of England, Catherine de Medici of France, and Mary of Guise (the Queen Mother) in Scotland. Each of these women Knox identified as “Jezebels.” He passionately wrote,
Such as have more pleasure in light than in darkness may clearly perceive that Deborah did usurp no such power nor authority as our Queens do this day claim; but that she was indued with the spirit of wisdom, of knowledge, and of the true fear of God, and by the same she judged the facts of the rest of the people. She rebuked their defection and idolatry, yea, and also did redress to her power the injuries that were done by man to man. But all this, I say she did by the spiritual sword, that is, by the Word of God, and not by any temporal regiment or authority which she did usurp over Israel, in which, I suppose, at that time there was no lawful Magistrate, by the reason of their great affliction…And so I doubt not but Deborah judged, what time Israel had declined from God, rebuking their defection, and exhorting them to repentance, without usurpation of any civil authority: And if people gave unto her for a time any reverence or honour, as her godliness and happy counsel did well deserve, yet was it no such empire as our monsters claim; for which of her sons or nearest kinsmen left she ruler and judge in Israel after her? The Holy Ghost expresseth no such thing: whereof it is evident, that by her example God offereth no occasion to establish any regiment of Women above men, realms, and nations. (Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet, quoted in Sefton, 92-93)
Some have unjustly accused Knox of being overly hateful toward women, however, his passion for the Protestant cause out-weighed his allegiance to the rulers of his day whether they were male or female. It was obvious to all that he had very tender attitudes toward his young wife, and carried on a large correspondence with other women in the reform movement.
His Return to Scotland:
Finally, with the death of Mary I in 1558, and the beginning of a renewed Protestant insurgency in Scotland, Knox returned to Edinburgh in 1559. Five days after his arrival the Scottish authorities placed a price on his head. One of his first letters to his congregation in Geneva asked for additional funds so that he could buy a faster horse! But God spared his life on numerous occasions and he was used as a great recruiter for the Protestant cause. One critic complained that Knox’s preaching could “put life into them more than 500 trumpets.” Thinking back to previous days in the galley-ship, Knox then resolved to fulfill the prophetic statement he had uttered by faith,
John Knox minded to preach in St. Andrews on Sunday [4th June 1559]. The Archbishop, hearing of the Reformation to be made in his Cathedral Church, thought time to stir, or else never; and therefore assembled his colleagues and confederate fellows, besides his other friends, and came to the town upon the Saturday at night, accompanied with a hundred spears, of mind to have stopped John Knox…The Archbishop affirmed that he would not suffer it, considering that by his commandment the picture of the said John was before burnt. He willed, therefore, an honest gentleman, Robert Colville of Cleish, to say to the Lords, “That in case John Knox presented himself to the preaching-place in his town and principal Church, he should gar (cause) him be saluted with a dozen of culverins (muskets), WHEREOF THE MOST PART SHOULD LIGHT UPON HIS NOSE!” This was the Bishop’s good mind towards John Knox! (Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, 175-176)
Many of his friends and supporters strongly urged him not to preach, but Knox would hear nothing of this caution and replied in the following manner,
After long deliberation, the said John was called, that his own judgment might be had. Many persuasions were made that he should delay for that time, and great terrors given in case he should enterprise such a thing, as it were in contempt of the Archbishop. He answered, “God is witness that I never preached Christ Jesus in contempt of any man, neither mind I at any time to present myself to the place, having either respect to my own private commodity, or yet to the worldly hurt of any creature. But to delay to preach on the morrow, unless the body be violently withholden, I cannot of conscience. In this Town and Church began God first to call me to the dignity of a preacher, from which I was reft by the tyranny of France, and by procurement of the Bishops, as ye all know. How long I continued prisoner, what torment I sustained in the galleys, and what were the sobs of my heart, is now no time to recite. This only I cannot conceal, which more than one have heard me say, when the body was far absent from Scotland, that my assured hope was, in open audience, to preach in St. Andrews before I departed this life. Therefore, My Lords, seeing that God, above the expectation of many, hath brought the body to the same place where first I was called to the office of a preacher, and from which most unjustly I was removed, I beseech Your Honours not to stop me to present myself unto my brethren. As for the fear of danger that may come to me, let no man be solicitous. My life is in the custody of Him whose glory I seek. Therefore I cannot so fear their boast or tyranny, that I will cease from doing my duty, when of His mercy He offereth me the occasion. I DESIRE THE HAND OR WEAPON OF NO MAN TO DEFEND ME. ONLY DO I CRAVE AUDIENCE. WHICH, IF IT BE DENIED HERE UNTO ME AT THIS TIME, I MUST SEEK FURTHER WHERE I MAY HAVE IT.” (Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, 175-177)
As might be expected, Knox preached and all of the threats against him proved to be hollow words.
In 1560 Knox was able to bring his family to Scotland and he settled in Edinburgh becoming the minister at St. Giles Church. Here he was to have a solid and significant pulpit ministry for the next eleven years. He also wrote, along with five others, the Scots Confession which is Calvinistic in doctrine as the official statement of belief for the Scottish Protestant Church. Here are two articles from the Scots Confession,
Even after we are reborn, if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth of God is not in us. It is therefore essential for us to lay hold on Christ Jesus, in his righteousness and his atonement, since he is the end and consummation of the Law and since it is by him that we are set at liberty so that the curse of God may not fall upon us, even though we do not fulfill the Law in all points. For as God the Father beholds us in the body of his Son Christ Jesus, he accepts our imperfect obedience as if it were perfect, and covers our works, which are defiled with many stains, with the righteousness of his Son. (Schaaf, The Creeds of Christendom, “Scots Confession”, Article 15)
The notes, signs and assured tokens whereby the spotless bride of Christ is known from the horrible harlot, the false Kirk, we state, are neither antiquity, usurped title, lineal succession, appointed place, nor the numbers of men approving error…The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the Sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. (Schaaf, The Creeds of Christendom, “Scots Confession”, Article 18)
Unfortunately Knox’s wife, Marjorie, died shortly after her return to Edinburgh leaving him with the burden of raising two young sons (Nathaniel and Eleazar). Four years later in 1564, the fifty year old Knox married the seventeen year old Margaret Stewart the daughter of one of his most ardent supporters. Like his first marital relationship this union with Margaret also proved to be a happy marriage despite the age difference and the Knox’s were blessed with three daughters (Martha, Margaret, and Elizabeth).
His Conflict with Mary, Queen of Scots:
In the year 1561 a beautiful, slender, and witty nineteen year old young woman returned to Edinburgh, Scotland full of enthusiasm for her new responsibilities. She was Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), daughter of James V and Mary of Guise. Although she had officially become queen when she was only six days old, she had been shipped away to France for many years so that she could be prepared for her future duties. In the intervening time, her mother, Mary of Guise, ruled in her place. It was in France that Mary became an ardent Roman Catholic and saw herself as one who would eventually restore all of rebellious Scotland to its rightful religious authority—the Pope of Rome. The English ambassador to Scotland said of her arrival that all were enthralled by her presence “saving John Knox, that thundereth out of the Pulpit . . . of him all men stand in fear.” Indeed, people did fear the Protestant preacher John Knox, not because of his sword, but because of his words. Knox was a bold preacher of the Bible and its message of liberty in Christ. Mary, Queen of Scots later said of him, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than the army of ten thousand men!”
For six long years Mary and John Knox battled with a war of words that occasionally broke over into violence. Specifically, Knox felt that Mary’s celebration of the mass in her private chapel was idolatrous and in violation of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). Also, she affirmed the “divine right of Kings” (i.e. that God had given her authority over the Scottish people) which Knox felt was in violation of the “divine right of the people” (i.e. to have a Queen who was submissive to God and to biblical law). When Knox’s writings which advocated armed rebellion against godless Kings and Queens were applied by his fellow Protestants to Mary’s reign, then it gave the Queen much to worry about. As a result, Knox and Mary had several stormy interviews where she accused him of open rebellion against her God-given authority. He responded by asking her to point out evidence of his rebellion and reminding her that she had the responsibility to shun all evil and to serve as an example of Christian behavior for the people, which she was not. He was accused of treasonous activity, tried, and acquitted by the Scottish Lords. This was a bitter disappointment for the Queen. Later, her assassins sought his life, but he escaped time after time. Eventually, he outlasted Mary’s reign of terror, which ended with her abdication in 1567, and he became the preeminent leader of the Protestant Church of Scotland.
His Lasting Influence:
One of the practical applications that John Knox developed in his theology was the Bible’s teaching on civil government. He believed that all magistrates served at God’s good pleasure (Rom. 13:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). Nevertheless, magistrates should be held accountable by the people to actually obey God’s Law (Ps. 2:10-12; Jer. 37:1-21). They are not a law unto themselves, nor are they free to establish their own laws. In essence, there is a “higher law” (i.e. God’s Law) that is above any of the laws which may be legislated and enforced under a magistrate’s authority. Knox argues,
Consider, my lords, that you are powers ordained by God (as before is declared), and therefore does the reformation of religion, and the defense of such as unjustly are oppressed, appertain to your charge and care, which thing shall the law of God, universally given to be kept of all men, most evidently declare; which is my last and most assured reason, why, I say, you ought to remove from honours and punish with death such as God has condemned by his own mouth.” (Knox, Selected Writings, “The Appellation,” 508)
Therefore, evil and tyrannical kings, queens, princes, and magistrates can, in certain select circumstances, be resisted by the citizenry if they are led by the lesser magistrates (i.e. the doctrine of “interposition”). Knox insisted that it was the duty of godly citizens to remove evil and tyrannical leaders. Dr. Joseph Morecraft summarizes this position,
Knox’s major contribution to the Reformation and to Western Civilization was his teaching on the legitimacy of resistance against tyranny, including the use of armed force by the citizenry, led by a lesser magistrate, against a tyrannical or idolatrous head of state, after all others efforts have failed. Christian citizens and lesser magistrates have the duty to remove tyrants from office. Moreover, armed resistance is justifiable, according to Knox, only if two preconditions have been met: ‘the first of which was the trying of other means, including prayer and patience. The second condition was that armed resistance must be led by legitimate lesser magistrates…’ Knox cited Jeremiah 37 as the scriptural basis for ministers advocating resistance against tyrannical authorities. Knox was not a revolutionary, however, as his life and sermons prove. Although he believed that resistance to tyranny was every Christian’s duty, he could also say, ‘We mean neyther seditions, neyther yit rebellion against any just and lauchfull authorities, but onlie the advancement of Christes religion, and the liberties of this poore Realme’.” (Morecraft, “Calvin’s Influence on Scotland,” in John Calvin: Man of the Millennium, 270-271)
It was this kind of practical application of the Bible’s teaching that resulted in the rapid progress of liberty throughout the Western world. Evil and tyrannical governments were resisted and thrown off in Scotland, England, France, Germany, Holland, and in the American Colonies. Other theologians who came later would further develop Knox’s ideas, but the original seed came from Knox as he struggled with how to bring religious liberty to Scotland, his own beloved country.
Knox’s greatest triumph was that he introduced Reformed theology to Scotland and persevered through tremendous personal persecution for the sake of his faith in Jesus Christ. His most important book, The History of the Reformation in Scotland, provides an insightful picture of the difficulties of the Protestant reform movement. At his funeral, in November 1572, the newly appointed Regent of the Scottish government gave this glowing testimony of Knox: “Here lyeth a man, who in his life never feared the face of man; who hath been often threatened with…dagger, but yet hath ended his days in peace and honour.” Yet today, John Knox’s earthly remains lie ignominiously under a Scottish parking lot (space #23) located behind St. Giles Church in Edinburgh. There is little doubt, however, that Knox would shrug this personal slight off and boldly affirm the truth of Isaiah 40:8 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” The legacy of John Knox lives on, if not in Scotland, then throughout the world where the gospel is believed, preached, and taught.
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Copyright February, 2016 Dr. Marcus Serven, ThM and DMin
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.