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John Knox Reformer and trumpeter for God

September 2014 | by John Keddie

Over recent years, there has been a growing ignorance in Scotland of the facts about and significance of Reformation thought and practice, and their continuing implications. Notably, there has been a growing antipathy to John Knox, not least in his native land.

This can be gauged by some subtle — and less subtle — changes that occurred in the latter part of the 20thcentury. One was the renaming of the steps in Edinburgh leading up from Princes Street, by the Scottish National Gallery, to the top of the Mound.

Formerly these were called ‘John Knox Way’. But they were quietly changed in 1978 to ‘Playfair Steps’, in memory of the architect of the New College buildings. William Henry Playfair (17891857) was a great architect, no doubt, but of vastly less importance in Scottish history than John Knox.

As one journalist pithily wrote in 1991: ‘How lukewarm the Kirk is towards Knox was illustrated a few years ago when the set of steps on the Mound known as “John Knox Way” were renamed the “Playfair Steps” without a murmur of dissent. Knox’s grave is now a car park space for lawyers’.

Another change was the removal in 1983 of the statue of John Knox from outside the High Kirk of St Giles to a position inside, ostensibly to avoid damage. It seemed that Scotland had suddenly become embarrassed by one of its greatest sons!


Yet there are prominent statues commemorating Knox in Edinburgh (two), Haddington, Glasgow (on a huge column in the Glasgow Necropolis) and Stirling. The most impressive statue of all, in Europe, is the monumental sculpture of the Scottish Reformer in the immense Reformation Wall at Geneva.

In his Life of John Knox Thomas M’Crie paints a vivid picture of the period leading up to the Reformation of the church in Scotland: ‘The corruptions by which the Christian religion was universally depraved before the Reformation, had grown to a greater height in Scotland than in any other nation within the pale of the Western church.

‘Superstition and religious imposture, in their grossest forms, gained an easy admission among a rude and ignorant people. By means of these, the clergy attained to an exorbitant degree of opulence and power; which were accompanied, as they always have been, with the corruption of their order, and of the whole system of religion…

‘The ignorance of the clergy respecting religion was as gross as the dissoluteness of their morals … Of the doctrine of Christianity, scarce anything remained but the name … Divine service was neglected; the churches were deserted…’

Little wonder M’Crie could exclaim: ‘How grateful we should be to divine Providence for this happy revolution! … How much are we indebted to those men, who, under God, were the instruments in effecting it…’ Not least Master John Knox, Christ’s trumpeter for Scotland!

Early influences

But who was John Knox? It is believed that he was born in Haddington, East Lothian, in 1514. This makes 2014 the 500th anniversary of his birth.

It is thought that he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1536, some eight years after the martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton at St Andrews. Hamilton had introduced Lutheran ideas into his homeland.

Information is sketchy, both about when Knox experienced an evangelical conversion and when exactly he became a Protestant. It appears he was strongly influenced, around 1542, by both Protestant chaplains to the Regent of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Earl of Arran. Thomas Guilliame and John Rough were the chaplains in question.

One historian said that it was from Guilliame that Knox received a taste for the truth, although he preferred Rough whom, he said, was ‘more simple and more vehement against all impiety’.

But those were dangerous days for out-and-out Protestants. The return of George Wishart in 1543 gave impetus to the evangelical doctrines first effectively introduced into Scotland by Patrick Hamilton. However, Wishart was to suffer the same end as Hamilton.

He was apprehended in 1546. Knox offered to stick with him, though it meant his death, but Wishart dissuaded him: ‘Nay, return to your bairns [pupils] … One is sufficient for a sacrifice’. Wishart was martyred by fire in St Andrews in March 1546, full of faith and lively hope.

Called to preach

Shortly after this, Cardinal David Beaton was assassinated in his own castle at St Andrew’s by a band of men sickened by his cruelty. They fortified the castle, making it a Protestant stronghold.

Although an inexcusable act of revenge, this event gave temporary relief to Reformed interests. Knox, already in danger, later fled to St Andrews for refuge. Castle numbers having swelled to about 150, they called on John Rough to preach, but he declined and challenged Knox in the name of God and the congregation to take the call.

Knox, overcome, burst into tears and withdrew to his chamber. Fearless before men, his attitude before God was one of humility and reticence. But he yielded to the call, and preached from Daniel 7:24-25, not without trepidation, on the principles of the Reformation.

In July 1547, a French fleet assisting the Regent Earl of Arran battered the castle into submission, capturing the defenders, including Knox. They became galley slaves (rowers) in French ships.

After 18 months Knox was released. He was to spend the next 12 years moving through Europe and England, visiting the main centres of Protestantism, and consolidating his knowledge of the Reformed faith.

Knox was never first a Lutheran and then a Calvinist, but appears to have embraced the Reformed Calvinistic faith from the outset, so that, when he arrived for the first time in Geneva in 1554, he immediately found in it a spiritual home.

From 1549 to 1554, Knox was in England where, for short periods, he served as minister in Berwick, Newcastle and London, followed by six months in Frankfurt in 15541555 after a brief stay in Geneva.

He made a brief visit to Scotland by invitation in 1556, during which he preached frequently and was instrumental in the conversion of three of the nobility, as well as of many others.

French defeat

During this time Knox celebrated the Lord’s Supper after the Reformed way but, judging that the time was not yet ripe for reformation, he returned to Switzerland in 1556 and visited Geneva to minister to an English congregation there.

Though his stay in Geneva was short, it was invaluable for the advance of the Reformation. There is no doubt that Calvin’s friendship and teaching, especially in the Institutes, was formative in the development of Knox’s own theology.

Meanwhile, despite the increasing strength of the Reform movement, the pro-French party felt strong enough to dismiss Arran as Regent and appointed the Queen Mother in his place. This was Mary of Guise, wife of James V of Scotland (15121542) and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587).

In a divided nation the new Regent sought to strengthen her position by means of a French army, although, in the process, alienating many Scots. Meantime, her daughter, the young Queen Mary, married the Dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne.

The possibility of a French take-over of Scotland alarmed not only the Scottish Protestants, but also the new English government of Queen Elizabeth, who in 1558 succeeded her half-sister Mary Tudor.

An English fleet was despatched to assist the Protestant forces commanded by the Lords of the Congregation, which resulted in the French troops being defeated and expelled in 1560, in accordance with the Treaty of Leith, which concluded hostilities — all of which was hastened by the death of the Queen Regent.

Reformation movement

During Knox’s 1556 visit to Scotland, he exhorted those of the nobility who had embraced the cause of the Reformation to separate themselves from the Church of Rome and its worship. They did this, signalling their separation by receiving the Lord’s Supper in its Protestant form at the hands of Knox.

Previously there had been some reception of Reformation doctrine, but now in Scotland the Church essentially became a congregation of professed ‘brethren in Christ’. The progress of the Reformation became rapid throughout the Scottish lowlands.

The Roman hierarchy was alarmed and once again resorted to persecution. Walter Mylne (or Mill), an aged former priest, was burned at the stake during August 1558.

His ‘prophetic’ testimony at the stake was memorable: ‘As for me I am fourscore years old and cannot live long by course of nature, but a hundred better shall rise out of my ashes, who shall scatter you, ye hypocrites and persecutors of God’s people. I trust in God I shall be the last that shall suffer death in Scotland for this cause’.

These words proved true, as popular revulsion made it impossible for such persecution to continue. Awakened to Rome’s true nature, the Scottish nation was now ready for someone to place the Reformation on an organised basis. John Knox was God’s man for that time.

To be concluded

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.








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