I prepared this for our Reformation Celebration last night at church. Stay tuned for pictures of me dressed up as Knox, full beard and all!
John Knox was born in 1515, just two years before Luther nailed his theses to the door. He was what we call a 2nd generation reformer. Luther and Tyndale’s literature was smuggled into Scotland, and received a ready hearing there, before Knox even began his career. He received a good education in the standard Medieval scholastic fashion, but had teachers who resisted the Roman church. Knox was taught early on that the pope is not supreme. He took a secretarial position in the church in 1540, then officially converted to Protestantism just 3 years later. His cardinal condemned him as a heretic and tried to have him assassinated. This was standard operating procedure at the time. The Reformation was severely persecuted in Scotland from the 1520s on.
Much the same as it happened with Luther, Knox was protected by a nobleman names Hugh Douglas. Knox tutored his children. George Wishart, a Reformed itinerant preacher and teacher stayed there, too for a time. After an attempt on Wishart’s life by a priest, while Wishart was preaching, Knox became bodyguard to Wishart, carrying a 2-handed broad sword. Later, when Wishart was arrested, he ordered Knox’s weapon from him and kept Knox from following him. “Nay, return to your bairnes, and God bless you; one is sufficient for a sacrifice.”
Knox was called to the ministry directly from the pulpit, while virtually under military siege in a castle by Catholics. He had been tutoring the older sons. Early sermons on the idolatry of the mass – synagogue of Satan, for adding corrupting practices to the worship of God. Also preached on the sins within the castle, not just against Catholicism.
He counseled the Reformation in Scotland to keep looking for more pastors. He always thought of them as in the thick of battle, as he was called that way. An Anglican priest of our time once complained that wherever Paul went there was either revival or riot; wherever HE went they served tea. John Knox did not have this problem! He prayed for faithful pastors on his deathbed: “Lord, give us men who would gladly preach their next sermon even if it meant going to the stake for it. Lord, give us men who will hate all falsehood and lies, whether in the Church or out of it. Lord, grant to your struggling church men who fear You above all.”
Back to the castle, eventually the French military came to the aid of the Catholic party in Scotland, and they took the castle. Knox was captured and enslaved on a galley ship for 19 months. Hard, physical labor with no hygiene and little sleep. Still, Knox managed to receive a treatise on justification by faith on ship, and edit it and send it back! Some prisoners back in Scotland also managed to smuggle a letter to him, asking it God would judge them if some were able to escape, knowing it might result in harsh treatment for those that did NOT get away. Knox advised that it would be all right, but only to attempt the escape if they didn’t have to kill anyone to do it.
While rowing, he gave hope to a discouraged friend with these words: “I know the Lord will deliver us. Don’t forget that Satan made Joseph go into Egypt, but God meant it for good to rescue His people. Don’t lose hope, brother. God is faithful. We will return to our homeland and God will give us the victory.”
He was released to England, and preached for a couple years. His abilities were noticed by the Anglican Reformers there – they offered him a bishopric, but he refused them, as the Anglican church had not reformed enough for him to serve with integrity. The king was the official head of the church, which was a problem. Ultimately, the minister and elders did not have the authority to keep the unrepentant from Table, if they were in the king’s favor. But Knox wasn’t a cranky isolationist, either. Served as chaplain to King Edward for a time, though Knox believed his position as head of the church was unscriptural! He knew how to work for reform in less than ideal settings, and when to separate, draw the line, and fight.
Knox fled England when Bloody Mary ascended the throne in 1553. He went to France and Geneva. He met John Calvin there, and they remained friends until Calvin died in 1564. Knox wrote that Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ on earth since the days of the apostles.” You get a sense of Knox’s personality when Calvin writes to Knox, exhorting him to “moderate your rigor” in reforming the unneeded ceremonies going on in the church, so as not to “displease many.”
Returning to Scotland when things appeared safer, he found Bloody Mary requiring attendance at Mass on pain of persecution. Many Protestants were attending, explaining away the compromise in one way or another. Knox convinced them to not attend mass as it was idolatry, and to separate from the Roman church. Called to trial for this, he unexpectedly went (most such calls were mere intimidating threats – a signal to leave the country). When he arrived at his trial, the clergy called it off and left. Knox took the occasion to preach to the crowd gathered for the trial, twice a day for 10 days straight, in the bishop’s own house!
In 1556, Knox received a call to pastor the English congregation in Geneva, and he went. He also built up a church of Huguenots in a port city of France, where he was passing between Geneva and Scotland. His congregation in Geneva included John Fox, who wrote Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and Miles Coverdale, a famed Bible translator. This English congregation in Geneva produced a new English translation, which became known as the Geneva Bible.
Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 to political turmoil. The struggle for pre-eminence between Catholic and Protestant was at high-pitch, and Knox threw himself into it, preaching again on the idolatry of the mass. Since the protestant position was politically quite strong, Mary, Queen of Scots was in a mood to talk, though it was usually in the form of a summons to Knox to defend his words or actions to her.
Several interviews with Mary Queen of Scots ensued, off and on. Knox: “If princes exceed their bounds, and do against that wherefore they should be obeyed, there is no doubt that they may be resisted, even with power.” Another time, after a ball celebrating the persecution of Huguenots, he condemned the ball in a sermon. Mary thought he was against dancing, per se. He clarified that the offense was the extravagance and the celebration of such persecution of the saints. Another time, Mary put some protestant friends on trial, and Knox wrote other friends, asking them for support by attending the trial. Mary tried Knox for treason for this, but he was acquitted by a large majority! Major embarrassment for the Queen.
Here is a sample of the dialogue between Queen Mary and John Knox: Queen: “You are teaching the people to believe things I have not allowed. How can this be right since God commands subjects to obey their rulers?” Knox: “Madam, your subjects are not bound to follow what you feel is right, but what God’s Word declares to be true.” Queen: “How dare you speak to me like that! I have put up with you for too long. I shall be revenged.” Knox: “I must obey God. His Word commands me to speak plainly and flatter no one on the face of the earth.”
Knox was married twice. 2 boys in 1st marriage. Marjorie Bowes died early. 3 girls in 2nd marriage, who all married ministers.
Knox preached the coronation sermon of James, who would become King James I of England, of King James Version fame.
Toward end of his life when he became weak, Knox continued preaching. One observer said he carried on his exposition for half an hour in moderate temper. Helped up into the pulpit, “but before he had done with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous that he was like to strike the pulpit and fly out of it.
On his deathbed, moaning, his friends asked him what the trouble was. He replied that he used to be tempted by Satan to despair or worldliness. But now he was being tempted to believe he had “merited heaven by the faithful discharge of his ministry.” God had helped him resist this, reminding him that he had nothing that God didn’t give him first. He was not quite 60 yrs old when he died in 1572. The eulogy at his funeral was given by the man just crowned interim king: “Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.”
John Knox’s legacy remains with us today. Only a few generations after Knox saw the Scottish Presbyterians severely repressed by King George III of England. Many Scots came to US then, in the early 1700s. So many that ¼ of the colonies’ population was Scot at the time of the War for Independence. Many back in England called that war the Presbyterian rebellion. It was those ornery Presbyterians who insisted they didn’t have to submit to a king who overstepped his bounds, as Knox insisted to Queen Mary’s face. The Tories were constantly frustrated by what they called the Black Regiment, the ministers in their black robes who gave legitimacy to the rebel cause.
Knox’s legacy here is two-fold. First that authority in government ought to be representative. The magistrate should represent the will of the people, within the bounds of God’s law. The magistrate is in covenant with the people to enforce that law.
The second legacy is the independence of Church from state – Church not established or ruled by the state. The head of the church is Jesus Christ – beside Him there is no single ruler on earth, whether pope or king, but rather leadership of several equals. The state does not have the right to mandate citizens’ attendance at any one kind of church.