John Knox: Preacher of the Scottish Reformation

Through his dynamic preaching and powerful influence, John Knox helped bring the Reformation to Scotland and helped bring Scotland back to the pure Gospel.  Whereas many other Reformers preached and expounded on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Knox emphasized the ‘idolatry of the Mass’ in most of his sermons, in his many encounters with Roman Councils and before Mary Queen of Scots.  By the time John Knox was born in 1515 at Haddington, Scotland, the winds of Reformation had been blowing since the early fifteenth century with the preaching of John Wycliffe. When he died on November 26, 1572, at Edinburgh, reform was firmly fixed in Scotland.

Early Education

Little is known about his ancestry except that his father may have been a farmer[1], a merchant or craftsman.[2]  His knowledge of Latin and French demonstrate his education, though where he attended university is still in question.  Theodore Beza, one who lived during Knox’ time, says that Knox attended the University of St. Andrews and studied under the great scholastic John Major.[3]

Soon, Knox wearied of the scholasticism of medieval theologians, a type of reflection set forth by Thomas Aquinas which sought to bring together Greek and Roman philosophy with Christian writings under Aristotelianism and Platonism.[4]  He returned to the original Scriptures and to the Early Fathers.  The more he read the works of Jerome and Augustine, he began to see how the scholastics and the medieval church had ignored the bulk of their work --- even though they were honored in name. 

Not only did scholasticism bother Knox, but so did the ignorance and corruption of the Church (a topic which consumed much of his preaching).  Ninan Winzet, a Catholic priest, even testified that the bishops and clergy in the generation prior to the Reformation were “ignorant or vicious, or both,” and were “unworthy the name of pastors.”[5]  Even so, Knox became a priest when he left the University.[6]

While at the University of St. Andrews, he met a man who would change his entire life and ministry:  George Wishart.  Wishart was under duress from the throne for his preaching of the gospel.  While employed to tutor Wishart’s sons, Knox (still a Catholic priest) also became his bodyguard to protect him from the fierce persecutions.  Soon Wishart was arrested on heresy charged and burned at the stake under the direction of Cardinal Beaton. 

This event brought Knox to the point of renouncing Catholicism and embracing the Protestant teachings. It was then that when the tensions were so very high and good judgment was quite low, he and other followers of Wishart stormed St. Andrew’s Castle, stabbed Cardinal Beaton to death, and displayed his corpse from the castle window for all to see.

Knox’s Call to Preach

It was while in this castle that Knox, a wanted man by the authorities, received the call to preach. He remained in the St. Andrew’s Castle teaching the young boys there.  John Rough, the preacher of the group, noticed Knox’s ability and called upon him to take the “preaching place” upon him.  Knox said no.  Yet, Rough and the council prevailed upon Knox who, though he burst “into abundant tears,” submitted to the call.[7]    Soon, however, this ministry would be put on hold.  Knox, Rough, and a number of other followers were imprisoned by the French as galley slaves for nineteen months.  Never once, even while aboard a Papist ship did he recant his faith --- in fact, it grew stronger.

The Beginnings of Knox’s Ministry

After his enslavement, he returned to London to the welcome of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.[8]  He served in England for five years, serving as pastor of the church in Berwick and Newcastle.  During his time at Berwick, Knox was confronted by the Catholic clergy about his preaching that the “mass is idolatrous.”  When called to defend his position, he stated:

The Mass is Idolatry. All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry. The Mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God; therefore it is idolatry.[9]

He alluded to the Scriptures and the account of King Saul after his battle with the Amalekites.  God expressly commanded that all living things be killed, yet Saul left the king and the best sheep alive.  While this may have had good intentions, it was not the express command of God and is considered disobedience. 

Most of Knox’s arguments against the ceremonies of the church may be summed up later in this same defense:

Disobedience to God’s voice is not only when man does wickedly contrary to the precepts of God, but also when of good zeal, or good intent . . . , man does anything to the hour or service of God not commanded by the express word of God.[10]

The council acquitted him of all charges.

On Christmas Day 1552, Knox preached a sermon on the dangers of Papist rule.  He received word that Edward VI was dying and that Mary Tudor of Roman Catholic faith (later known as “Bloody Mary” for her fierce persecutions against the Protestants) would soon come to the throne in England.  This caused Knox to withdraw from England and venture to Geneva.  Why did he leave? 

The flight of John Knox from England is often taken, for example, to show his cowardice in the face of danger. . . .  Yet what could he have done?  He had no ties of duty to England.  He came there as a foreigner from Scotland and had been granted license from the crown.  Now that the license was withdrawn he was without any Church and he could go where he would find more use for his talents.[11]

His departure caused him much anguish, for he longed to be with his flock in England and Scotland.  Yet his time on the Continent was invaluable.  While there, he learned from the great Reformer, John Calvin and there learned about the Reformation movement in England.  These lessons would serve him well when he returned back to his beloved Scotland. 

Ministry on the Continent

While in Geneva, he completed a number of treatises to help encourage his former parishioners back in England and Scotland.  He would receive news periodically that those churches were gaining strength during the persecutions and the work of the Reformation was strengthening as well.  Knox writes in one of his epistles:

And yet amongst the extremity of these calamities so wondrously was Christ's kirk preserved, that the remembrance thereof is unto my heart great matter of consolation. For yet my good hope is, that one day or other Christ Jesus, that now in England is crucified, shall rise again in despite of his enemies, and shall appear to his weak and sorely troubled disciples (for yet some he has in that wretched and miserable realm), to whom he shall say, "Peace be unto you. It is I; fear not."[12]

He writes of the aims of the Papists whom he once again deems “idolaters” and closes the letter by writing:

Let [the] cruel council, devise and study till his wits fail, how the kingdom of his father, the Antichrist of Rome, may prosper. . . . Even so shall these tyrants, after their profound counsels, long devices, and assured determinations, understand and know, that the hope of hypocrites shall be frustrated (Job 15:16-35); that a kingdom begun with tyranny and blood, can neither be stable nor permanent, but that the glory, the riches, and maintainers of the same shall be as straw in the flame of fire.[13]

Again, Knox appeals to the overthrow of the Roman Church not merely based the corruption of its leaders as well as the “idolatry” of their ceremonies because they are not promoted in Scripture.  To Knox, this practice is unacceptable.

In another letter he writes of the necessity of tribulation and persecution so that the Christians may be scattered to profess God’s Truth:  “Methinks I see the same causes to have moved God, not only to withdraw his presence from the multitude, but also to have sent his well-beloved servants to the travels of the seas.”[14]

Knox continued to minister and accepted an invitation with the council of Calvin to pastor an English congregation at Frankfurt, Germany – whose members were those also in exile from England.  However, due to much adversity from others in the church who leveled false charges against him to the emperor, he resigned in 1555 and returned to Geneva where was asked to minister to an English congregation who were also exiles.  Many of these exiles were supporters of Knox while at Frankfort.

A Visit Back to Scotland

In August 1555, Knox traveled back to Scotland.  When he noticed that most of the Protestants were attending Mass, he once again preached the Reformed doctrine and also against the Mass.  Douglas Wilson gives insight as to why Protestants attended the Mass, “[To them, it was] an imperfect form of worship rather than a positive sin.”[15]  He was able to preach with a great amount of freedom due to the advances the Reformation movement made during his absence.  At a dinner given by his friend, Erskine of Dunn, it was decided that “no believer in the Evangel” could attend Mass.   The Catholic Encyclopedia states in their obvious slant against Knox:

Knox, whose religion had now become entirely of the Old-Testament type . . and that the extermination of idolaters was the clear duty of Christian princes and magistrates, and, failing them, of all individual “believers.”[16]

Feeling that it was the “clear duty of Christian princes and magistrates” to embrace the Reformation church, he wrote a letter to Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) who likely for political reasons seemed to show favor to the Protestants.  Knox, who never possessed the tact of a politician, wrote to her in no uncertain terms: 

Unless in your regiment, and in using of power, your grace if found different from the multitude of princes and head rulers, that this preeminence wherein you are placed shall be your dejection to torment and pain everlasting.”[17] 

When it was apparent that Mary was quite against this notion (in fact, she did not take them seriously at all), an embittered Knox returned to Geneva in the summer of 1556. 

While Knox was in Geneva in 1558, he wrote another petition to Mary Queen of Scots that could not be as easily dismissed as the first time.  The Council summoned him to appear and when he failed to show for his trial, he was condemned. 

Back to Scotland For Good

When Knox arrived back in Edinburgh in 1559, he was deemed an outlaw by the authorities, but he also deemed by the Reformers as their leader.   Again, Knox preached a powerful sermon on the “idolatry” of Catholicism --- specifically, the Mass. 

Civil war was brewing due to the Regent of Scotland’s new policy to subject Scotland to the French throne, so tensions were high.  When Knox finished preaching this sermon, a priest who came to spy uncovered the altar and was about to perform the Mass.  A small boy objected and kicked the priest.  The priest slaps the boy.  The boy threw a rock and a riot ensued.  The mob wanted to destroy all the idols and the monasteries --- and so did Knox (and badly), but according to the Law.[18]

When “Bloody Mary” died in June 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England, tensions died down.  Although this should have benefited Knox, it did not due to his ill-timed writing of The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.  Though it was written against Catherine de Medici in France and Mary Tudor in England, Elizabeth was offended as well due to the “anti-feminine prejudice” it seemed to contain.[19]

Nevertheless, the Reformed worship and discipline were soon ratified into law in Scotland in August 1560.  The Roman rite could not be administered in Scotland.  Yet, when Mary, queen of Scots came back in 1561 --- already against Knox --- she swore not to advance Catholicism, but was permitted to practice the Mass in her private chapel. 

She celebrated her first one with her French cohorts.  Knox, calling her the “new Jezebel,” preached the following Sunday from the pulpit of St. Giles that one Mass was more fearful to him than 10,000 men “landed in any part of the realm, of purpose to suppress the whole religion.”[20]  When summoned by Mary, he answered her objections plainly.  He stated, “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.”[21] 

Knox had four such encounters with Mary between 1561-1563 with subjects ranging from the celebration of the Mass on Easter throughout the land (unlawful, but not enforced) to his sermon against her fiancé, Protestant persecutor Don Carlos of Spain.  Yet, even through tears and threats, Knox held his ground until he was finally acquitted by the entire council.[22]

The Scottish Confession of Faith and Knox’s Book of Discipline

In 1560, Knox drew up a Scottish confession of faith in response to a request from the Scottish Parliament.  In it, it read: 

For God we take to record in our consciences, that from our hearts we abhor all sects of heresy, and all teachers of erroneous doctrine; and that, with all humility, we embrace the purity of Christ’s evangel, which is the only food of our souls; and therefore so precious to us, that we are determined to suffer the extremity of worldly danger, that than that we will suffer ourselves and be defrauded the same.[23]

This was adopted immediately.  However, Knox’s Book of Discipline, which proposed that all the lands of the Roman church be turned over to the Reformed church, was not received as quickly.  Much money was at stake for the aristocracy, so a compromise was reached.  Two-thirds would go to the ejected Roman clerics while the rest would be spilt between the Parliament and the Scottish Reformed church. Knox quipped, “I saw two parts freely given to the devil, and the third divided between God and the devil.”[24]  Yet, it does show that the Scottish Reformed church was gaining some measure of notice. 

Knox’s last few years saw the church continue to grow and prosper.  As he approached the end of his ministry and life, he was very weak.   Yet, upon hearing of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France, he took the pulpit for the last time, James Melville – a student – was impressed. 

When he entered to application, he made me so to grew [thrill] and tremble, that could not hald my pen to wryt.  He was very weik . . . bot, er he haid done with his sermone, he was sa active and vigorous, that he was lyk to ding the pulpit to blads, and flie out of it.[25]

Knox died on Wednesday, November 26, 1572, and was buried in the churchyard at St. Giles.  Many, including the aristocracy, attended the funeral.  The eulogy was spoken by the newly-elected Regent Morton, who stated:   “Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.”[26] 

Knox once said, “I love to blow my Master’s trumpet.”  Knox may have seen himself as a simple preacher, his conviction and his fiery personality brought the Gospel back to Scotland.  Over 400 years since his death, Knox still inspires many today to stand for the truth of the Gospel regardless of adversity or cost.  May that be true of all who aspire to the preaching ministry.


[1]  D.O. Hunter-Blair.  Catholic Encyclopedia: Volume VIII. Trans. W.G. Kofron. (New York:  Robert Appleton Company, 1910) [on-line].  Accessed:  2 April 2003,  Internet.

[2]  Rosalind K. Marshal.  John Knox.  (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Birlinn Limited, 2000).  1.

[3]  Douglas Wilson.  For Kirk and Covenant:  The Stalwart Courage of John Knox.  (Nashville, TN:  Cumberland House, 2000).  11.

[4]  Stanley J. Grenz, et. al. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms.  (Downer’s Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1999).  106

[5]  Henry Cowan.  John Knox:  The Hero of the Scottish Reformation  (New York:  AMS Press, 1905).  15.  

[6]  Marshall.  6.

[7] Wilson. 28.

[8] Ibid. 29.

[9] John Knox, A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry 1550. Ed. Kevin Reed. (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995). [on-line] Accessed: 25 April 2003. .  Internet.

[10] Ibid.

[11] D. Johnston Martin. Ablaze Yet Not Consumed: Reformation and the Presbyterian Church. (London:  Lutterworth Press, 1949).  112.

[12] John Knox.  Two Comfortable Epistles to His Afflicted Brethren in England (1554).  Ed. Kevin Reed (Dallas, TX:  Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995). Accessed 2 May 2003. . Internet.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  John Knox.  A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England (1554).  Ed. Kevin Reed.  (Dallas, TX:  Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995).  Accessed 2 May 2003. .  Internet.

[15]  Wilson.  50.

[16]  Hunter-Blair.  Internet.

[17]  John Knox.   Selected Writings of John Knox (Dallas:  Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995), 448.

[18]  Wilson.  60-61.

[19]  Justo Gonzalez.  The Story of Christianity, Volume 2:  The Reformation to the Present Day  (New York:  HarperCollins, 1985), 82.

[20]  Cowan.  268.

[21]  Ibid.  

[22]  Wilson.  69.

[23]  Kevin Reed, ed.  The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560) (Dallas:  Presbyterian Heritage Publication, 1992), 10-1.  

[24]   Thomas McCrie.  Life of John Knox. (Edinburgh and London:  W. Blackwood & Sons, 1865).  9.

[25]  Ibid.  264.

[26]  Knox.  Selected Writings of John Knox.  Inside cover.

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