Who Was John Knox? (1)

John Knox (1514-1572), perhaps as influential as any in the journey to modern Scotland, is far from loved in his homeland. A BBC news reported a couple of years ago asked the public in Edinburgh who Knox was. Some had no idea, others laid at his door all the faults of modern Scotland. This one comment sums up the attitude of many who remembered him: “[He was] a pretty miserable kind of guy. The Scottish dour character originates with him, cause he was a miserable person.”
But if that is the “popular” view of Knox, there has been a recent scholarly reappraisal of Knox, not least in Jane Dawson’s recent helpful biography. It is to be hoped that reappraisal will continue.
  • Knox’s Early Life
Knox, it is believed, was born in 1514, three years before the dawning of Luther’s reformation. The exact year of his birth is difficult to determine, as is so much about his early life. Like Elijah, the prophet to whom he is often compared, Knox bursts on the scene from a life of obscurity. He only really steps into the light in the 1540’s where, as a man around 30, he is working in the Roman Church.
It is worth noting that by this stage England was already on the road to Reform. Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534, and under Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop reform proceeded as the King allowed, with the first official English liturgy published on 1544. As a Scotsman I have to admit that England led the way in Reformation. But when Scotland under Knox joined the Reformation, we did things properly, and didn’t, like the English, leave a church “but half reformed”!
  • Knox the Protestant
In the 1540’s a number of Protestant preachers were operating in Scotland at this time as Scottish political leaders tried to cultivate friendship with Henry VIII. One of these obscure preachers was the means of Knox’s conversion to Protestantism. Following his conversion, Knox’s faith was strengthened and grounded in Reformed truth through the great preacher and martyr, George Wishart (c. 1513-1546). However, the political climate in Scotland in a short space of time turned against England and the Reformation, and Wishart, as a protestant preacher, was in danger. Knox took up a position as his bodyguard–often wielding a two handed broadsword. And that really is the first public image of Knox–there with his sword defending the gospel preacher. Eventually the authorities closed in on Wishart, and as he was conscious of his impending capture he told Knox to leave him, stating that “One is sufficient for a sacrifice.” Wishart was duly captured and martyred.
Knox as a known associate of Wishart, became a wanted man. After being chased round the country he eventually ended up with other Protestants barricaded in St. Andrews Castle. And it was here that Knox preached his first sermon. Protestant preachers were few in number and it was soon recognised that Knox had the gifts to be a preacher. Pressed privately to acknowledge a calling to preach Knox refused. He could not preach he said unless called by God. Undeterred in the course of the next sermon the preacher stopped, and addressed Knox directly. “Brother” said the preacher looking at Knox, “In the name of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of all those here present I call you by my mouth, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation…” The preacher turned to the congregation, “Was not this your charge to me? And do you not approve this calling” They replied with one voice, “It was, and we approve it.” Knox ran out of the meeting, but he eventually he submitted to the call of God’s people. Not quite what later Presbyterian’s would recognise as decently and in good order, but, nonetheless, the means used by the Spirit to call Knox, in his early 30’s, into the glorious work of proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ.
  • Knox the Prisoner
All was not to go smoothly for Knox, the newly minted preacher. The Protestants in St. Andrews were captured by the French, and Knox spent the next 18 months in terrible conditions as a galley slave for the French navy. To understand his time on the galleys, it suffices to say that men would confess to greater crimes that they committed to suffer the death penalty rather than be sentenced to labour on the ships. But to understand Knox’s strength of character, just one incident that has survived about his time on the galleys. On one occasion, while mass was being celebrated on the galley a statue of the Virgin Mary was handed around for all on board to kiss. Knox refused: “‘Trouble me not; such an idol is accursed!’ When this statue was again thrust before Knox’s face to kiss, he knocked the idol overboard declaring: ‘Now, let our lady save herself. She is light enough, let her learn to swim!’”
To be continued…
  • For Further Reading
W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974). 
Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
Richard Kyle and Dale Johnson, John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
Suzanne McDonald, John Knox For Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013).
Donald John Maclean