During Knox’s three years’ absence from Scotland (see ET, September 2014) he had been in constant correspondence with the Scottish nobility. He arrived in Perth in May 1559, but then the Queen Regent reneged on her promise of liberty of worship and tried to suppress the Reformation by force.
However, her death in June 1560 followed shortly after her deposition from the regency by the Lords of the Congregation. The nobles then called together the Estates of the Realm and petitioned them to reform the church in doctrine, discipline and worship, and distribute the patrimony of the church.
Meanwhile, the Congregation under Knox’s leadership became an instrument in organising congregations elsewhere. It was not long before there was a great thanksgiving service as a result of establishing fully constituted churches. But vast areas and remote parishes, especially in the northern and western highlands and islands, remained in gross spiritual darkness, largely untouched by the reforming movement in the lowlands.
In his History of the Reformation in Scotland, Knox wrote: ‘We began every man to look more diligently to his salvation: for the idolatry and tyranny of the clergy … was and is so manifest, that whosoever doth deny it, declares himself ignorant of God, and enemy to Christ Jesus.
‘We therefore, with humble confession of our former offences, with fasting and supplication unto God, began to seek some remedy in so present a danger … And this our weak beginning God did so bless, that within a few months the hearts of many were so strengthened, that we sought to have the face of a church amongst us, and open crimes to be punished without respect of person.
‘And for that purpose, by common election, were elders appointed, to whom the whole brethren promised obedience: for at that time we had no public ministers of the Word; only did certain zealous men … exhort their brethren, according to the gifts and graces granted unto them’.
It became necessary for the Reformed Church to confess the faith that it held. In Scotland this was expressed in The Scots Confession of 1560, which comprised 25 chapters, covering a range of doctrinal, practical and ecclesiastical issues. Arguably, it was this confession that finally established the Reformation in Scotland.
The Confession was, according to Knox, prepared in four days for presentation to Parliament, which ratified it on 17 August 1560. It was entrusted to six ‘Johns’ — Knox, Wynram, Spottiswoode, Willock, Douglas and Row — though mostly we can believe it was the work of the Geneva-taught Knox.
The same six had been charged on 29 April with producing a book ‘touching on the reformation of religion’. This resulted in The first Book of Discipline, which was signed by the compilers on 20 May. Although presented to Parliament, this was never formally ratified.
The conviction expressed in the Confession is striking: ‘We are completely convinced that whoever denies Christ Jesus, or is ashamed of him in the presence of men, shall be denied before the Father and before his holy angels.
‘Therefore, by the aid of the mighty Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly intend to endure to the end in the confession of our faith’. ‘It embodies’, as someone has rightly observed, ‘the true spirit of our Scottish Reformers’.
This was also true of the Book of Discipline, as was clear from the first head, ‘Of doctrine: Seeing that Christ Jesus is he whom God the Father has commanded only to be heard and followed of his sheep, we urge it necessary that his evangel be truly and openly preached in every kirk and assembly of this realm; and that all doctrine repugning to the same be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation’.
It is wide ranging in practical concerns: proper administration of sacraments, abolition of idolatry, election of office-bearers, and support for ministers, ecclesiastical discipline and church government.
The Confession had already laid out the ‘notes’ or ‘marks’ of a true church: ‘First, the true preaching of the Word of God … secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus … and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline rightly administered’.
These documents represented the desire, positively, to explain the truth of Scripture and, negatively, to counter the errors of Roman Catholicism. They also demonstrated a wide vision to further the Reformed cause, including through general education.
Mary Queen of Scots
The return of Mary Queen of Scots in 1561 was perceived by the Reformers as a threat to the Reformed Church. She arrived with various members of the French nobility, including three influential members of the strongly Romanist Guise family.
Her tenacious hold of Romanism and its superstitions soon made Knox realise that either the Reformation or the Queen would fall. The stage was set for conflict, when, within the first week of her return, she ostentatiously attended mass in her chapel, challenging at once the proceedings of the Estates that had legalised the Reformation.
This so provoked the people that only with great difficulty was a mob prevented from entering her chapel and disrupting the service. While allowing the law abolishing the mass to stand, she nevertheless insisted on retaining the right to hold mass in her own chapel.
As one of the leaders of the Reformation, Knox was repeatedly summoned by the Queen, but less from a desire on her part to learn the Reformed faith than to argue against it.
It is often said that Knox bullied the young Queen and reduced her to tears. But Mary was a clever actress and, indeed, as her later life proved, a poor judge of men! Knox was forthright, plain and sincere, but not rude. He was deferential, never once seeking the royal presence but appearing when commanded; and only when the great concerns of salvation were touched upon did he seem ‘stern’.
When the Queen artfully asked whom she should believe, the Reformers or the Roman clergy, Knox answered, ‘Neither, Madam; only the Word of God’. During the six years of her reign (she abdicated in favour of James VI, her only son, in 1567) Knox was summoned on at least four occasions to be rebuked by her. He always stood his ground.
Man of God
By 1567, the Reformation had largely won the battle for the people’s support in Scotland. Knox undoubtedly was its dominant influence. He was not its instigator, but was surely its organiser.
He brought the initial movement to an ordered conclusion and left behind him a visible church, arguably more biblical in form and government than any other church in Europe. It was not simply to the Reformed churches of Europe, not even to Geneva, that the Scottish Reformers looked for their model of a reformed visible church.
Knox’s personal life was unblemished. He was a faithful husband (twice) and father (two boys by his first wife, a daughter by his second), and a dutiful son-in-law, as his affectionate letters and helpful advice to his mother-in-law testify.
He proved to be a man of consistent integrity and uprightness, seeking only the glory of God and the spiritual and temporal welfare of his fellow-countrymen above all personal advantage. A true Christian and patriot, Knox may rightly be considered as one of the great Scotsman in history. He was Christ’s man for Scotland in a momentous day.
After suffering a stroke in 1571, his health progressively failed. On Monday 24 November 1572, at 5 o’clock in the evening, he asked his wife to read from John 14, ‘where he had first cast his anchor of hope’.
Six hours later, one hour after family worship, his soul went to be with his Saviour and Lord. A couple of days later, his remains were laid to rest beside the High Kirk of St Giles, of which he had been minister.
He was a man of God and faithful preacher of the Word, an able theologian and churchman, and a man of indomitable courage despite his small stature and fairly fragile health.
He lived as a man living before the face of God, relying on the mercy of Christ and merit of Christ’s work. As Regent James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton (no friend of Knox), testified at the great Reformer’s graveside, ‘Here lies one who never feared the face of men’.
John Knox was immense and we do well to remember him. Part of today’s pursuit of ‘independence’ in Scotland sadly involves the repudiation of Knox’s legacy and establishment of a secular nation. In truth, the great need of the hour is a new Reformation.
Let the Christian people of Scotland and beyond offer their prayers ceaselessly that the Lord who raised up a John Knox for his work in the sixteenth century would be pleased to raise up again men of such spiritual fervour and courage.
John Knox was unlike many recent church leaders. He exercised a strong ‘prophetic’ ministry to the powers that be. He was not concerned about political correctness or popular appeal, but about speaking plainly the Word of God both to the ‘common people’ and the governing authorities.
We ought to learn in our day from his fearlessness and faithfulness, in the face of all the forces of evil.
John W. Keddie
The author is a retired minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He is principal, and lecturer in church history and church principles, in the Free Church Seminary