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Jane Dawson’s new biography of the Scottish Reformer John Knox is titled simply John Knox. The eschewal of a subtitle is an indication of the ambition of a work which has already been hailed as definitive. This is a biography of the entire man, not a facet of his life or thought. The cover image of Knox is from an oil painting owned by the University of Edinburgh which, after cleaning and restoration, is now thought to be the earliest surviving image of the reformer. Similarly, the book itself offers a reassessment of a familiar face based in part upon newly discovered and previously unavailable primary sources. This biography will undoubtedly be the standard work on Knox for many years to come.
In her introduction Dawson reconstructs the baptism of Knox’s first son Nathaniel at Geneva on 23 May 1557. She uses this vignette to highlight key aspects of Knox’s thought, to introduce important characters, and finally to lay out her challenge to the traditional view of Knox as a strict, misogynistic and parochial figure. The book is largely chronological: it begins with a baptism and ends with a death. However, Dawson sets out her thematic concerns early on and weaves them into this narrative with considerable skill. For example she identifies Knox’s abhorrence of what he saw to be the embellishment of worship with unscriptural inventions as central to his passion for reformation. In the opening chapters Dawson contrasts the austere simplicity of his son’s baptism with Knox’s own baptism into the Catholic Church, which was an ‘elaborate and highly visual ceremony’ (p. 12). The latter was the world into which Knox was born the former was the world he helped to create.
Given the lack of sources on his early life the narrative here is marked by frequent uses of the word ‘probably’ and other such qualifications. Dawson uses the opportunity to paint a picture of the religious, cultural and institutional milieu of Scotland in the early 16th century. The country was still scarred by the trauma of Flodden, fearful of further English invasions and politically volatile. In this time of uncertainty the Church of Scotland represented a point of stability and Dawson is right to emphasise, despite the foreshadowing inherent in such a biography, that no-one anticipated the upheavals of the Reformation.
Knox studied at St Andrews under the great scholastic teacher John Mair, or Major, and it was here that he developed a love of language, rhetoric and pugilistic debate. Boxing metaphors run through the biography and reinforce the view of Knox as something of a bruiser, at least when it came to his public speaking. Dawson reminds us that in a semi-literate world a command of the spoken word was a powerful tool (p. 18). It was ‘because he could arouse great emotion in his hearers and … his words could stir people into action’ that Knox became a significant historical figure (p. 18). This is important for the historian to remember, engrossed as we often are in the world of the written word. The difference between an erudite political treatise, read by a few, and an impassioned speech or sermon which inspires many to action is crucial. To drive home this point Dawson draws comparisons between Knox’s oratorical skills and those of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr. (pp. 183, 317).
The sketch of Knox’s early life Dawson draws is one of conventionality. As she puts it, ‘However much he later rejected it, Knox owed his early career entirely to the late medieval Church, and he was a churchman through and through’ (p. 21). It is frustrating, though of course no fault of Dawson’s, that records of Knox’s early life are so sparse. His conversion from a Catholic priest to a Protestant preacher is, despite Dawson’s best efforts, hard to trace or to explain and his early life remains largely opaque. Dawson pinpoints 1543 as the year in which Knox began to hold some Protestant beliefs, the same year in which the Earl of Arran allied with England and sought to introduce limited church reform (p. 23). This included sending preachers out to tour the country and it was through such sermons that Knox came to adopt the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Dawson sees this as the first stage in Knox’s three-step transition from Catholic priest to Protestant preacher. The second step was meeting the preacher George Wishart in 1545 (pp. 28–37), and the final step was his call to be a minister whilst at the besieged St Andrews castle in 1547 (pp. 38–52)
Working with a relatively narrow source base, Dawson is required at points to speculate, but she is always careful to qualify such remarks and there is no doubt that they are based on excellent scholarship. Dawson’s close reading of events and words is illuminating. For example, she suggests that the ‘unusual addition to his notarial signature of the phrase, “a faithful witness through Christ to whom be the glory, amen” might be an early suggestion of a shift in Knox’s beliefs’ (pp. 22–3). Of Knox’s decision to act as Wishart’s ‘security guard’ and to carry a claymore, she notes that he ‘was also making explicit his own changed status because priests were not supposed to bear arms or spill blood’ (p. 29). These and other insights flesh out and enliven the narrative. It is always a pleasure to read a well-written academic work, and Dawson is a confident yet charmingly modest author. Her prose is vivid, precise and humorous at turns and she deploys metaphors sparingly and effectively.
Her emphasis on Knox’s family life and his close personal relationships certainly help to soften the popular image of the man. However she never denies that he was a zealot too. Knox, she writes, ‘always needed to be standing on one side of a fence or other and was never comfortable with grey areas’, he favoured black and white choices and ‘was happiest viewing the world in crystal-clear polarities and he thrived on unmistakable contrasts’ (pp. 29, 31, 32). However Dawson perceptively observes a tension in his thought between the people of God, broadly conceived, and the small groups of committed believers with whom he was most comfortable. This is a reflection, arguably, of the tension within covenant theology itself. Roger Williams, the 17th-century religious controversialist, questioned the legitimacy of the shift from a covenant of grace with the elect to a political covenant with the whole nation. This problem appeared to trouble Knox at a personal level but he does not seem to have articulated a response to it.
It is a constant temptation for the historian to make links between the past and the present. When this is not anachronistic it is a worthwhile, if onerous, pursuit. Dawson makes subtle connections, as when she notes that Knox’s parish lost its church during the Rough Wooings and did not recover one until 1973 (pp. 15–16), that the road he travelled on across the southern uplands in 1555–6 is today the A71 (p. 115), and that Knox’s grave lies under the car park outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh (p. 311). These asides both provide a firmer physical grounding to the narrative and gently prod the reader into thinking more deeply about the bridges between Knox’s world and our own.
In today’s politically febrile Scotland, animated by a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom and the likelihood of another in the future, it is tempting for some to draw upon the mythologised figures of Scotland’s past for present political purposes. Knox is a problematic character in this respect. He was, as Dawson has written in another work, a Scot who in the decade after 1548 ‘pursued his career almost exclusively within an English context, married an English wife and acquired a noticeably English accent and a hybrid Anglo-Scottish literary style’.(1) The vernacular bible that Knox read was in English, since no Scots or Gaelic version existed, and it was from England that anti-papal works were imported (pp. 25-26). The thrust of Dawson’s argument is that Knox was not a parochial Scottish figure but a man of international significance who was profoundly shaped by the experience of multiple exiles.
It is clear that Knox thought in international as well as national terms. The ‘Anglo-Scottish strategy’ that, Dawson argues, Knox and his friends devised in Geneva had Protestant unity between England and Scotland at its core. Though profoundly religious in motivation, and conceived within an apocalyptic framework, this strategy was also a political one. It was clearly in English interests to prevent Scotland coming under the control of France, and true religion in either country would never be entirely secure unless they were both reformed. It is ironic then that it was in part due to Knox’s radical writings that the Elizabethan church would turn away from Geneva and Calvin towards Zurich and Bullinger. One wonders how different things might have been if Knox and Christopher Goodman’s revolutionary rhetoric had not contaminated the perception of the Genevan church in England. The desire for religious uniformity, both for religious and political reasons, would of course be one of the major themes of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and Dawson posits that it was in part due to Knox that England and Scotland had taken different religious paths.
It is the relationship between Knox and the English radical protestant, Christopher Goodman, rather than between Knox and his first wife Marjorie, which gives the biography its personal core. Becoming a husband and head of household undoubtedly ‘altered the pattern of his life and how he viewed the world’, as Dawson argues, but she does not provide great detail on the latter point (p. 121). Dawson portrays Knox as initially almost the senior partner in his relationship with Goodman. He ‘convinced Goodman of his approach to worship’, and Goodman ‘also accepted Knox’s analysis of the failings of the Edwardian Church and adopted the Scot’s prophetic and apocalyptic version of recent English history’ (pp. 106–7). However the relationship was clearly symbiotic: Goodman changed Knox’s mind as well, and Knox borrowed his view of covenant obligations (pp. 138, 157). She is undoubtedly right that the ‘apocalyptic pressure’ felt by both Knox and Goodman contributed to their revolutionary rhetoric (p. 146). Knox was, however, more a man of words than action, though his rhetoric inspired radical deeds.
One of Dawson’s stated aims is to correct the view of Knox as an irredeemable misogynist. However, her contextualisation and interpretation of The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women does little to dispel this view of the Scot (pp. 140–6). Rather Dawson relies on Knox’s many close relationships with women in to soften his image. It is not an entirely successful venture, and one feels at points that Dawson is trying just a little too hard to defend her subject. Knox clearly did not hate women, but it is equally clear that he saw them as inferior to men. It is arguably not for the biographer to attempt to reconcile the contradictions and hypocrisies of their subject. Dawson ably highlights the tension between Knox’s private personal relationships and his public political works, but she does not explore this dualism in great depth. In Dawson’s defence it is of course important to remember that our own standards should not be anachronistically applied to past societies and the apparent contradictions in Knox’s view of women were unlikely to have been seen as such in the 16th century. Knox’s views may be unpalatable to modern day readers but were commonplace in his own time.
It is hard to find fault with this book. There are avenues left unexplored and ideas only hinted at but that is to be expected in a biography. There are certainly plenty of suggestions for other historians to pick up and develop. A small point of criticism is that the chapter titles though evocative are also esoteric, and do not offer the reader a clear overview of the structure of the book. However, each title is based on an apposite contemporary quote which is explained within the chapter. The index, on the other hand, is unusually fulsome, with useful thematic subsections on, for example, ‘Writings’, ‘Personality’ and ‘Political thought’. Two maps are provided, along with a selection of images, and a guide to further reading, broken down by chapter. The only thing lacking is a timeline, which would have been useful given the occasional jumps in chronology which Dawson makes, particularly given that this edition is clearly aimed at a wide market. However each chapter helpfully begins with a concise summary highlighting key themes and giving the historical context.
The chronological approach, though accessible, has its weaknesses. Discussion of Knox’s theology is limited to a brief section in the final chapter, for example. It would also have been beneficial to give an overview of the historiography surrounding Knox and a reassessment of his place in history and Scottish culture. John Coffey’s biography of another zealous Scot, Samuel Rutherford, is a good example of this type of biography.(2) Dawson’s John Knox can be seen as an ideal starting point, accessible to the wider public whilst offering enough insight, depth and nuance to engage the academic reader too. The themes and ideas touched upon in her biography are of course more fully developed in Dawson’s many other articles and chapters on Knox. Dawson’s biography is a more sympathetic, though by no means uncritical, study of John Knox. Rather like the portrait on the cover of the book, gentle cleaning and restorative work has led us to look at the man afresh.
John Knox (c. 1510 – 24 November 1572) was the man who brought the Protestant Reformation to Scotland. He was one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church. Knox joined the movement to change the Roman Catholic church in Scotland. He married twice and had five children, and continued preaching until he died.
A long-time fight between Catholic France and Protestant England for Scotland began again because of the Reformation. As the argument grew more heated, sometimes France had power, sometimes England. Knox spent many months as a galley slave he also spent time in exile because of his Protestant beliefs. During a return visit to his native land, Knox's preaching helped the Protestant movement. Several Protestant noblemen came together and made a group called the Lords of the Congregation. When the group had more power, they invited Knox back to Scotland to stay.
During 1500 and 1561, the Scottish Parliament accepted the Reformed confession of faith made by Knox and other people. Knox argued many times with Mary, Queen of Scots. In his book History of the Reformation in Scotland he writes about his five "conversations" with the Roman Catholic queen. In one of these conversations, Mary asked Knox what right he had to rebuke the queen so directly and openly. Knox replied, ". I am a worm of this earth, and yet a subject. but I am a watchman, both over the realm (land) and the Kirk [Church] of God. For that reason I am bound in conscience (it is my duty) to blow the trumpet publicly (openly)". Mary's violent life finally made even her Catholic helpers lose their support. She gave up the throne. So, Knox was able to make the Protestant church in Scotland. Because of him, the Presbyterian church was made.
John Knox died - On this day in Scottish history
John Knox, a leader of the Scottish Reformation, died on 24 November 1572 in Edinburgh. Knox was a learned clergyman who was influenced by John Calvin in Switzerland and inspired to bring religious reform to Scotland.
John Knox, a leader of the Scottish Reformation, died on 24 November 1572 in Edinburgh. Knox was a learned clergyman who was influenced by John Calvin in Switzerland and inspired to bring religious reform to Scotland.
The Scottish Reformation began after Knox preached a fiery sermon at the church of St John the Baptist in Perth, after which a mob began to riot and loot the surrounding churches and friaries. In 1560, Knox and his advisers drew up a new Confession of Faith, which was followed by acts of parliament forbidding the celebration of Mass in Scotland and abolishing adherence to the Pope.
Knox spent his final years in Edinburgh, and as a man of fifty (in 1564) caused controversy by marrying seventeen-year-old Margaret Stewart, with whom he had three daughters. He preached until his final days and died whilst hearing Bible readings from his friends and wife.
John Knox: Did You Know?
JOHN KNOX IS FAMOUS for his preaching: by it he instigated a religious revolution in Scotland, and when the Protestants became dejected in the struggle, his preaching rallied them to victory. Yet of the hundreds of sermons he preached, only two were ever published.
In early 1500s Scotland, the Catholic church owned more than half the real estate and gathered an annual income of almost 18 times that of the crown.
Bishops and priests in pre-Reformation Scotland were often appointed for their political connections, and many displayed horrific morals: the Archbishop of St. Andrews, Cardinal Beaton, openly consorted with concubines and sired ten children.
Knox was once sentenced to slave labor, rowing in a French galley. Knox later spoke of the “torment. in the galleys, which brought forth sobs of my heart.” During those 19 months, he contracted a kidney infection and stomach ulcers, ailments that vexed him the rest of his life.
While in exile in Geneva, Knox worked briefly with Miles Coverdale on the English translation called the Geneva Bible.
Scottish Reformers forbade the celebration of saints’ days and even Christmas. They believed only the Lord’s Day should be observed.
One of the most important ways the Reformation faith spread through Scotland was through “Privy Kirks,” small groups that met for prayer and Bible study.
The First Book of Discipline, an outline of government for the Reformed Scottish church co-authored by Knox, proposed that every Scottish child receive elementary and high school education—an idea centuries ahead of its time.
When a Protestant leader first exhorted Knox to take up preaching, Knox was frightened and wept openly in confusion.
During the stormy year of 1559, when religious revolution swept Scotland, Knox wrote that he could only get about four hours of sleep a night. He also asked a friend to secure a horse for him to use: “For great watch is laid for my apprehension, and large money promised [to] any that shall kill me.”
We don’t know the details of Knox’s conversion to Protestantism. On his deathbed, though, he asked his wife to read him John 18, describing it as the passage “where I first cast my anchor.”
Years after his first wife died, a 50- year-old Knox married again. His bride? Seventeen-year-old Margaret Stewart, a distant relative of Mary Queen of Scots—his chief antagonist.
In his sermons, Knox typically spent half an hour calmly exegeting a biblical passage. Then as he applied the text to the Scottish situation, he would become “active and vigorous” and violently pound the pulpit. Said one note taker, “He made me so to grew [quake] and tremble, that I could not hold pen to write.”
Queen Mary once pleaded with Knox to keep Protestants from taking up the sword against Catholic priests. Knox replied, “The sword of justice is God’s, and if princes and rulers fail to use it, others may.”
Until this century, when a statue of Knox was erected in Edinburgh, there was no memorial dedicated to Knox in Scotland. Even today the spot where he is buried is covered by a parking lot.
Attendance in the Scottish Reformed Church was made compulsory for Protestants.
A would-be assassin once fired a shot through a window where Knox usually sat with his back to the street. The bullet passed through the chair and hit a chandelier but not Knox, who on this occasion had chosen to sit in another chair.
Knox sowed the seeds of the Presbyterian system of church government. Today his spiritual progeny includes some 750,000 Presbyterians in Scotland, 3 million in the United States, and many more millions worldwide.
By Kevin Dale Miller
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #46 in 1995]
Kevin Dale Miller is assistant editor of The Christian Reader and Your Church magazines.
John Knox and the Monstrous Regiment of Women
Note: In 2014 we're commemorating John Knox's 500th birthday for Reformation Sunday. Download our bulletin insert about Knox's interview with Queen Mary, explored at length in this blog post.
Before John Knox returned home from exile to become a hero of the Scottish Reformation, he penned a shocking polemic against women in roles of authority: The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women . The diatribe, which he planned to follow with a second and third blast, set the stage for a tumultuous relationship with four ruling queens: Mary of Guise (1515-1560), Mary Tudor (1516-1558), Mary Stuart (1542-1587), and Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603).
Knox used &ldquomonstrous&rdquo and &ldquoregiment&rdquo in an archaic sense to mean &ldquounnatural&rdquo and &ldquorule,&rdquo arguing that female dominion over men was against God and nature. He lamented that the future of the Protestant faith lay solely in the hands of a female monarchy largely hostile to its precepts. Echoing the era&rsquos widespread assumption that women were inferior to men, capable only of domestic acts such as bearing children, Knox placed blame on the "abominable empire of wicked women" for the trials and tribulations of the Reformation.
The events which led Knox to write The First Blast likely began in 1556, when he penned a letter to Mary of Guise, Queen Regent of Scotland, simultaneously praising her for saving him from facing charges of heresy in Edinburgh and criticizing her Catholic faith. Mary of Guise was not impressed. Calling his letter a &ldquopasquil&rdquo (an abusive lampoon), she revived his heresy trial and Knox was publicly burned in effigy in Scotland. The following year, Knox attempted to return to Scotland but found his invitation home withdrawn by Queen Mary when he reached the French port of Dieppe. It was during this time, stranded in France, that Knox expressed his frustration by composing The First Blast. In 1558, after publication of The First Blast, Knox continued his pasquil by also publishing his original letter to Mary of Giuse as part of a trio of open letters to the Scots, further denouncing the female monarchy and appealing to his right to return and preach in his native land.
Knox wrote in opposition to arguments made by John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, who called upon Deborah and Huldah as examples of God&rsquos willingness to suspend the natural order and raise women up to positions of authority. Knox refused to acknowledge a woman&rsquos natural right to rule&mdasheven in cases when there was no male heir to the throne. Unlike Knox, Calvin thought it unlawful to interfere with long-standing practices of inheritance established by God.
In 1558, Mary Tudor&rsquos half-sister, the Protestant-leaning Elizabeth Tudor, succeeded to the throne of England. Though not the intended target of Knox&rsquos First Blast, Queen Elizabeth took great offense at the publication, and in 1559, repeatedly refused Knox passage to Scotland through England. Knox attempted to apologize to the queen, writing a series of letters to her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, but again managed as much criticism as praise. Like Mary of Guise before her, Elizabeth Tudor became more agitated with the reformer.
Even Calvin became a guilty party in the eyes of Queen Elizabeth, who rejected his homage, made to her in a republication of his Commentaries on Isaiah, owing to a perceived connection with The First Blast. In truth, Calvin did not approve of Knox&rsquos views and had even advised him against publishing them. In his own letter to William Cecil, Calvin expressed his extreme displeasure with Knox: &ldquoBy reason of the thoughtless arrogance of one individual, the wretched crowd of exiles would have been driven away, not only from this city [of Geneva] but even from almost the whole world.&rdquo
In 1561, soon after Knox made it home to Scotland, the return of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, threatened to turn Scotland back to Catholicism. Hearing of his sermon at St. Giles against her first mass, Queen Mary summoned Knox to Holyrood Palace, where she charged him with promoting rebellion, sedition, and slaughter publishing a book attacking her and her mother&rsquos authority and practicing necromancy&mdashan accusation which alluded to the reformer's power over the people of Scotland and England.
The Queen put forth an argument similar to Calvin&rsquos, stating, &ldquoYe have taught the people to receive another religion than that which their princes can allow, and how can that doctrine be of God, seeing that God commandeth subjects to obey their princes?&rdquo Knox&rsquos response relied on a then-radical concept: the principle of limited and constitutional monarchy. Comparing the relationship of a subject and prince to that of a child and father, he contended that unlawful monarchs could be resisted by force.
Their dispute culminated in a trial before the Privy Council where Queen Mary charged Knox with treason for supporting a protest against an illegal mass held in her absence. Despite her attempt at a final victory against Knox, the charge was dismissed, and the trial ended in embarrassment for Queen Mary.
Having endured the controversy of The First Blast, Knox went on to play a key role in Scotland&rsquos opposition to the Catholic monarchy, solidifying Scotland as a Protestant, and Presbyterian, nation for centuries to come. As for his second and third blasts, it would seem that the "Trumpet of the Scottish Reformation" learned an important lesson. Neither was ever sounded.
John Knox and the Scottish Reformation
This article presents the role John Knox’s leadership played in the success of the Scottish Protestant Reformation in 1560.
John Knox, born in approximately 1514 in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, is considered as one of the founders of the Scottish Reformation which was established in 1560. Knox’s unfortunate beginnings provided a catalyst for his ambitious revelations of reform and dedication to adapting the national beliefs of the Scottish realm.
What is known of Knox’s early life is limited but believed to be of humble origin, characterised by poverty and health issues, which undoubtedly provided a foundation for his struggle for change. Lloyd-Jones argues that Knox was “brought up in poverty, in a poor family, with no aristocratic antecedents, and no one to recommend him”. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Knox chose to work to achieve a better status for himself and to use his passion for Protestantism to enhance his social position and to improve his financial situation.
The Scottish Realm at the time of Knox’s existence was under Stewart Dynasty and Catholic Church. Knox blamed the economic grievances amongst the poor upon those who had the political power to change the situation, most notably Marie de Guise, Regent of Scotland and on her return to Scotland in 1560, Queen Mary Stewart or as she is more popularly known, Mary Queen of Scots. These political grievances of Knox’s against those in charge, and his ambition to reform the National Church of Scotland saw a fight to establish the Reformed Protestant Church leading to a Protestant Reformation which would alter the governance and belief systems in Scotland.
In his early years, Knox experienced the loss of his peers Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart who were leaders in the Protestant cause. Both Hamilton and Wishart were executed for their considered “heretical beliefs” by the Scottish government, at that time Catholic. During the early sixteenth century Protestantism was a relatively new concept and not accepted widely in Early Modern Europe. The executions of Wishart and Hamilton stirred Knox and he used the ideas of martyrdom and persecution in his writings to act as criticisms against the Catholic institutions and to preach corruption in the Early Modern World.
In Knox’s ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ published in 1558, he demonstrated that the Scottish Kirk had been lead by corrupt and foreign leaders and that the country needed reform and change for its own advancement and religious morality:
“We se our countrie set furthe for a pray to foreine nations, we heare the blood of our brethren, the members of Christ Jesus most cruelly to be shed, and the monstrous empire of a cruell women (the secrete counsel of God excepted) we knowe to be the onlie occasion of all the miseries…The vigour of the persecution had struck all heart out of the Protestants.”
Knox’s language in this publication expresses the grievances of the Protestant Reformers against their Catholic rulers and their management of the religious and social divides that existed in the realm. It portrays a deep anger toward the lack of religious morality and lack of poor relief.
Knox spent time in England following his exile from Scotland and therefore was able to work on his Protestant Reform under the kingship of Edward VI, the young Tudor king.
Knox referred to the King as having a great wisdom despite being a minor, and that his dedication to the Protestant cause was invaluable to the people of England. Knox’s progression in England however was halted by Edward’s sudden death in 1554 and the succession of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor. Knox argued that Mary Tudor had upset God’s will and that her presence as England’s Queen was a punishment for the lack of religious integrity of the people. He argued that God had
“hot displeasure…as the acts of her unhappy reign can sufficiently witness.”
Mary Tudor’s succession in 1554 sparked the writings of Protestant Reformers such as Knox and the Englishman Thomas Becon against the corruption of the Catholic rulers in England and Scotland at this time, and used the nature of their sex also to merely undermine their authority and religious morality. In 1554, Becon remarked
“Ah Lord! To take away the empire from a man and give it to a woman, seemeth to be an evident token of thine anger towards us Englishmen.”
Both Knox and Becon at this time can be seen to be angered by the stagnation of Protestant reforms due to the Catholic Queens Mary Tudor and Mary Stewart and their Catholic Regimes.
Knox did leave his mark on the English Church through his involvement in the English ‘Book of Common Prayer’, which was later adapted by Queen Elizabeth I of England in her restoration of the Protestant Church of England in 1558.
Later Knox spent time in Geneva under the reformer John Calvin and was able to learn from what Knox described as “the most perfect school of Christ.”
Geneva provided the perfect example to Knox how, with dedication a Protestant Reformation in a realm was possible and could flourish. Calvin’s Protestant Geneva provided Knox with the initiative to fight for a Scottish Protestant Reformation. With his return to Scotland in 1560 and with the aid this time of Protestant individuals such as James, Earl of Morray, half-brother to the Queen of Scots, the Protestant Reformation in Scotland could be a success.
John Knox admonishing Mary Queen of Scots, engraving by John Burnet
When Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland, it is commonly known that she and Knox were not the best of friends. Knox was anxious to push forward with the Protestant Reforms, whilst Mary was a hinderance to this as she was strictly Catholic and despised Knox’s actions that attacked her authority and her beliefs. Although Mary remained Scotland’s Queen, the power of the Scottish Protestants was ever-growing and in 1567, Mary lost her fight for her crown and was sent to England under house arrest.
The Scottish Protestants had control now and Protestantism became the religion of the realm. By this time the protestant Elizabeth I was ruling England and had Mary Stewart under her control.
Whilst by the time of Knox’s death in 1572, the Protestant Reformation was by no means complete, Scotland by this time was being ruled by a Scottish Protestant King, James VI the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He would also inherit the crown of England to become King James I of England and unite both countries under Protestantism.
Knox’s writings and his determination to fight for Scotland to be Protestant saw the Scottish nation and its identity changed forever. Today Scotland’s national religion remains Protestant in nature and therefore, demonstrates that the Scottish Reformation Knox started in 1560 was a success and longstanding.
Written by Leah Rhiannon Savage aged 22, Master’s Graduate of History from Nottingham Trent University. Specialises in British History and predominantly Scottish History. Wife and Aspiring Teacher of History. Writer of Dissertations on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation and The Social Experiences of The Bruce Family during The Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1314).
History of Redemption
The video lectures in this course focus on the unfolding of the history of redemption as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. The Triune God prepared the redemption of His people before the foundation of the world and gradually revealed Himself and His plan of salvation in the covenant of grace. Consequently, the whole Bible reveals the Lord Jesus Christ, beginning in the first pages of Genesis and leading to the full light of the New Testament exposition of His person and work. The development of the covenant of grace expands throughout the Old Testament and culminates in the incarnation of Christ, God's eternal Son. His death, burial, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit secure the spread of His redemption throughout the world to the present day. Redemptive history concludes on the Last Day, when the King of kings and Lord of lords will gather His church to Himself in everlasting glory, to reign with Him forever. The purpose of this course is to equip God's people with a deeper understanding of the Bible and with a fuller knowledge of God as He reveals Himself in Christ. So, if you wish to know God better, and if you want a better grasp of the message of the Scriptures, these lectures aim to benefit you.
Definition of Biblical Theology:
The discipline of Biblical Theology studies the progressive nature of biblical revelation. It emphasizes the development of God’s revelation throughout the consecutive periods of biblical history, as recorded in the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. God did not provide the final product of His revelation all at once. Later portions of the Bible build upon and expand the concepts, vocabulary, doctrines, images and events of earlier periods. Biblical theology studies the revelation of God in Christ chronologically, analyzing the theology of each stage of history and how God weaves those strands together throughout the other portions of redemptive history. Systematic theology, by way of contrast, considers the final, completed product of biblical revelation and organizes individual doctrines into logical categories drawn from the material in the Bible as a whole. Biblical theology and systematic theology serve and support each other. Both are indispensable to knowing the Bible and understanding sound theology.
John Knox and the Scottish Reformation: Christian History Interview — Prophet Without Honor?
Woman hater. Fanatic. Ruthless revolutionary. Such charges have been made against John Knox. What is his legacy, both negative and positive? What can Christians today learn from his life and teachings? We put these questions to David F. Wright, former dean of the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh and a longtime editorial adviser for Christian History
How do people today view John Knox?
Knox has a bad press in Scotland nowadays. He’s become a bogey figure blamed for various ills. He’s thought of as a misogynist, a woman hater. Knox is also seen as an insolent, arrogant person given to harshness and even cruelty. And whenever someone discusses the development of music or theater, Knox (and Calvinism in general) gets blamed for any tendency in Scotland to want to censor or restrict artistic freedom.
How true are these charges?
There is a bit of substance in all of them, but the modern picture is greatly exaggerated and reflects little awareness of Knox and his work.
For example, people remember his notorious The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. However, the title is often misunderstood, but regimentsimply means “rule,” and monstrous means “not in accord with nature.” Knox is objecting to women as monarchs, not damning the whole lot. In other writings, you see him acting in an extremely tender and affectionate way toward women. Even in the exchanges between him and Mary Queen of Scots, he’s defiant because he believes he’s standing on principle, but he remains remarkably respectful.
One shouldn’t forget, also, that Knox produced visionary ideals for Scotland. The First Book of Discipline is a kind of manifesto for a Christian commonwealth it is far-seeing about the need for universal education for children, about universities, and about relief for the poor.
What did Knox give the religious reformation in Scotland? Would it have happened without him?
I suppose there would have been reformation of some kind, just as there was in most other European nations. And Knox didn’t work alone.
But Knox was the most important preacher and leader of reform by a long way. Clearly, he must have been a major drafter of The Scots Confession and The First Book of Discipline. He’s terribly important also because he spearheaded the rejection of the papacy without (as happened in England) leaving the church subject to the monarch. He drastically purified the church—a much more thorough reformation than the one England was experiencing at the same time.
Were there efforts at reform within the Catholic church?
The pre-Reformation Catholic church in Scotland was at a low ebb spiritually. It didn’t have high levels of piety, learning, or theological scholarship.
Still, in the 1540s, councils of the old church, spearheaded by a fine archbishop, John Hamilton, produced commendable reform proposals, but they remained paper reforms. Hamilton even sponsored a catechism that spoke strongly about justification by faith. But there simply wasn’t enough spiritual vigor to carry through the changes and make the Protestant movement unnecessary.
How would you respond to people who say that Knox purified worship to the point that it lost much of its beauty?
In The Book of Common Order or “Knox’s Liturgy,” as it’s sometimes called, the prayers become long and wordy. The prayers become like sermons, as do the exhortations in the Communion service. I don’t see Knox at his best in that context. But the concentration on Scripture and preaching was very important.
Why was Knox more of a “hard-liner” in reforming worship? Why did he, for instance, forbid the celebration of Christmas?
I think it’s fair to say that Knox is too obsessed with the idea that the Mass is idolatry. Knox operates by the rule that in worship, one should do only what is explicitly laid down in Scripture it is not sufficient that something not contradict Scripture. For example, since in the Scripture there’s no trace of pipe organs or manmade hymns (distinct from God-given psalms), Knox did away with them, and organs did not come back into the Scottish church until the nineteenth century.
In addition, since it’s not obvious from the New Testament that the early church observed Christmas and Easter and Trinity Sunday, these special days were cut out of the Scottish church calendar. The development of Christmas as a major Christian festival in Scotland is a remarkably recent re-emergence. There are still one or two smaller Presbyterian churches that make more of New Year than they do of Christmas.
Was Knox basically a Scottish John Calvin?
There is great agreement between them theologically, but Knox doesn’t have the degree of sophistication, depth, and subtlety Calvin had. We have hardly any biblical exposition from Knox. We don’t have a great corpus of theological works. His writings are quite limited compared with Calvin’s enormous output. If you compare them, the best you could say was that theologically Knox was a mini-Calvin.
In some respects, though, Knox was bolder than Calvin. He went farther than Calvin in advocating resistance to unjust rulers. And he wrote an impressive history of the Reformation Calvin never wrote history.
Actually, it’s a little unfair to compare the two. Calvin worked mostly in one city. Knox had to work on a national canvas, which is clearly more difficult.
How much, then, do the tens of millions of Presbyterians worldwide owe to John Knox?
If by presbyterianism, you mean elders working together in a hierarchy of courts of the church—not much. That emerges clearly in The Second Book of Discipline (1578) and the work of Andrew Melville, who leads the reformed cause after Knox’s death (1572). Many scholars see Melville as the real architect of presbyterianism.
Still, the building blocks and general vision of presbyterianism are in place under Knox. He rejected the papacy and distrusted having a monarch rule the church. He swept away those alternatives and led a quest for government of the church by its own officers.
Outside of the Presbyterians, who has been most influenced by Knox’s life and teachings?
The Reformed churches generally would have some regard for Knox as the most prominent leader of the reformation in Scotland. That Reformation, through the export of presbyterianism, had an impact on various parts of the world including, of course, North America. It has been said, with some justification, that the American Revolution is a Presbyterian revolution—many of its leaders were Presbyterian, having imbibed the fierce Scottish sense of independence.
Consequently, Knox comes up for discussion in the context of the right of Christians to resist rulers. He is often mentioned in histories of political thought, and wherever Christians find themselves under oppressive rule (as did the German Christians under Hitler), his views on rebellion are given a fresh look.
He also gets discussed a bit in relation to the Scots language. It’s interesting that the Scottish Reformation never produced a vernacular, Scots-language version of the Bible. The English versions were used. Knox, partly because he had spent a number of years in England, is often viewed as someone who played a significant role in Anglicizing the Scots tongue.
How strong is the Scottish Presbyterian church today?
The Church of Scotland (the largest by far of the Presbyterian churches in the country) is the national church. We don’t normally talk about it as the “established” church, but it is the national church in terms of national recognition and national protection from the Crown—without any interference whatsoever. It has commonly been said that the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, which meets every year for a week in Edinburgh, is the nearest thing we’ve got to a Scottish parliament.
Yet the Church of Scotland has been losing members at a steady and serious rate for forty years. There’s not much sign we’ll be able to stem that decline. Most congregations are ineffective in winning young people. So we are becoming a worryingly old church, and some of the financial consequences of this are coming home to roost.
But there are also some signs of hope—a return to the ministry of the Word in a systematic way and a greater commitment to prayer.
Among Christians today, Knox is relatively unknown. Why?
I suppose it has to do with his reputation as a woman-hater and advocate of violence—in many respects, he’s a difficult person with whom to have sympathy. And so, though we enjoy his legacy, we’re not much interested in him. That’s true especially in Europe and America. Ironically, one country where there’s more appreciation for Knox is Korea! Korean Presbyterians come here to Scotland in considerable numbers on a kind of pilgrimage.
One problem with Knox’s being ignored is that we are in danger of forgetting the good he did, which just reinforces a distorted image of him. For example, The Scots Confession of 1560 has by and large had a good press in the modern Church of Scotland it’s often admired as being a warm document—yet Knox doesn’t get much credit for playing a key role in producing it.
Knox had obvious flaws. What have you found to admire in him?
Even if he was more strident than I would care to be in carrying out his reformed convictions, nevertheless I think his stand against the Mass as it was held at the time—not what it has become since—was an entirely proper and necessary protest. He had, in my view, a positive view of the Lord’s Supper, which has always been important to Scottish Presbyterians.
His courage as a prophet is really admirable. Knox couldn’t take the stand he did out of consideration of his own pocket or status. I admire the sheer courage of his stand. CH
By David F. Wright
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #46 in 1995]
Puritanism under the Stuarts (1603–49)
Puritan hopes were raised when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth as James I of England in 1603. James was a Calvinist, and he had once signed the Negative Confession of 1581 favouring the Puritan position. In 1603 the Millenary Petition (which claimed 1,000 signatures) presented Puritan grievances to the king, and in 1604 the Hampton Court Conference was held to deal with them. The petitioners were sadly in error in their estimate of James, who had learned by personal experience to resent Presbyterian clericalism. At Hampton Court he coined the phrase “no bishop, no king.” Outmaneuvered in the conference, the Puritans were made to appear petty in their requests.
The situation remained tense during James’s reign as he pursued monarchist and episcopal policies that failed to resolve contemporary difficulties. Following the Hampton Court Conference he appointed Richard Bancroft as Whitgift’s successor as archbishop of Canterbury and encouraged the Convocation of 1604 to draw up the Constitutions and Canons against Nonconformists. Conformity in ecclesiastical matters was imposed in areas where nonconformity had survived under Elizabeth. Furthermore, the enforced reading from pulpits of James’s Book of Sports, dealing with recreations permissible on Sundays, in 1618, was an additional affront to those who espoused strict observance of the sabbath, making compromise more difficult. For many Puritan groups compromise was unacceptable anyway, and in 1607 a congregation from Scrooby, England, fled to Holland and then migrated on the Mayflower to establish the Plymouth Colony on the shore of Cape Cod Bay in North America in 1620. Of those who remained in England, a number of clergy were deprived of their positions, but others took evasive action and got by with minimal conformity. Members of Parliament supported the Nonconformists and argued that the canons of 1604 had not been ratified by Parliament and therefore did not have the force of law. Moreover, men of Puritan sympathies remained close to the seat of power during James’s reign.