After returning to Scotland in 1559, John Knox galvanized the crowds with his preaching. His fiery denunciation of idolatry provoked a series of iconoclastic riots, which brought to a head the long-standing conflict between the Protestant Scottish nobility and the Roman Catholic crown. This is the Knox that most people remember, the thundering Scot who, in the words of his contemporaries, preached with the sound of “ten thousand trumpets” and, even in his weakest days, “was like to ding that pulpit in blads [beat the pulpit to pieces], and fly out of it.”
His fierce stand for purity of worship was legendary and often made people uncomfortable. In England, he obtained from Archbishop Cranmer a begrudging addendum to the Book of Common Prayer, which explained that kneeling during the Lord’s Supper was not a worshiping of the elements. In Frankfurt, his inflammatory sermon on similar issues, including the failures of the Edwardian church, divided the congregation, and Knox was reported to the local magistrates.
His lack of diplomacy was equally noticeable. He was finally expelled from Frankfurt when he compared Emperor Charles V to Nero. He was forbidden to enter England after the publication of his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Geneva, 1558) upset the newly crowned Elizabeth I.
Physically, he was not an imposing figure. A verbal sketch provided by one of his friends shows he was short and stocky. Still, when his anger was kindled, his dark blue eyes, encased under thick frowning eyebrows, became fearsome, and his stern sermons caused many to tremble.
Knox’s personal history, which reads like an epic tale, corroborates this larger-than-life image. After a childhood and youth on which he always remained silent, he entered the scene in 1545, at about thirty-one years of age, holding a two-handed sword in defense of George Wishart, a rousing Reformed preacher. After the execution of Wishart and the violent revenge by other young Protestants, Knox served shortly as minister of the gospel at St. Andrews, a medieval fortress turned into a revolutionary stronghold.
Captured by the French, he spent nineteen months as a prisoner on war galleys, until the English government obtained his freedom and assigned him a pastorate in Berwick, a small town near the Scottish border. In 1553, however, Mary Tudor rose to the throne, establishing Roman Catholicism as the state religion and prosecuting religious dissidents.
At that point, Knox moved to Geneva, where he would have loved to remain, were not the pleading invitations from the Protestant community in Scotland so insistent. In 1559, he found himself plunged into a revolution, which turned Scotland from Roman Catholic to Protestant in the course of two years.
Soon after this turn of events, Knox wrote with other pastors the Scottish Confession and Book of Discipline, which were instrumental in constituting the new church government and reforming the theology of the church. He continued to serve as preacher and pastor until his death in 1572. His epitaph reads, “Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.”
Over the years, Knox’s insistence on purity and simplicity in worship became a model and source of inspiration to many, particularly to the Scottish Covenanters and English Puritans. Besides, his vision for the organization of the church and his rejection of a church hierarchy headed by the monarch have served as building blocks for Presbyterianism.
His political thought was original and radical in his day. Troubled by the Marian persecution in England and the potential threats stemming from Mary Stuart’s rule in Scotland, he gradually came to the conclusion that ungodly rulers are by definition illegitimate and that rebellion against them is a plausible option for Christians. Whether one agrees with Knox or not, his writings on this subject have provided new considerations in times of political oppression.
For Scotland, in general, Knox left an important educational legacy by insisting on the establishment of local parish schools for the education of all children. The historical and literary value of his History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland (London, 1587) has been widely recognized.
Nonetheless, Knox is relatively unknown today. Dismissed as a fanatic during the Enlightenment, he has survived in popular memory mostly through romantic nineteenth-century accounts and more recent big-screen accounts, highlighting his opposition to Mary Stuart. The combination of this opposition and his First Blast has created the popular image of a misogynist and killjoy.
Without minimizing Knox’s role as an unfaltering, roaring prophet, scholars today, five hundred years after his birth, are revealing another side to him: a humble and loving man, occasionally humorous, at times fearful and uncertain, often discouraged, and always deeply appreciative of his friends and grateful for their advice.
Knox saw himself primarily as a prophet, blowing God’s trumpet—be it a call to repentance, a signal of God’s impending action, or an exhortation to praise. It’s easy to forget that, when he boldly made his first appearance as Wishart’s associate, he was an unobserved tutor to three young men. In fact, he continued to tutor them even during a protracted siege in St. Andrew’s Castle, grounding them in the New Testament book he seemed to love most: the gospel of John.
He would have been content to continue his quiet duty if the Reformed pastor and the congregation had not insistently encouraged him to preach. His first reaction to the official call—“most abundant tears”—highlights the deep sense of privilege and respect he attached to the ministry of the Word.
Knox’s pastoral concern emerged again when, as a prisoner on a galley, he used the few winter months of inactivity to summarize the contents of a book on justification for the comfort of others, while most of the other prisoners made objects to sell for extra food.
His first established pastorate was in Berwick, a border town populated by many Scottish refugees and rough English soldiers. This mixture had created an atmosphere of feuding and violence, which Knox, during his two-year ministry, was able to improve. At that time, he wrote his most pastoral and gentle writings, including a treatise on prayer and a summary of the Lord’s Supper.
In Berwick, he also met his future wife, Marjory Bowes, and started a lifelong correspondence with her mother, Elizabeth, who frequently had theological questions, particularly about assurance and salvation. This correspondence is a true window into the pastoral heart of Knox, as he patiently explained many scriptural passages that Elizabeth perceived as possibly contrary to the doctrine of sola fide.
Knox identified with many of Elizabeth’s doubts. “When I heard proceed from your mouth the very same words that he [Satan] troubles me with, I did wonder, and from my heart lament your sore trouble, knowing in myself the dolor thereof,” he wrote. He admitted he often felt, like Job, that his pain would never end in this life, and that, while God is certainly able to alter circumstances, “dolor and pain, with sore anguish, cry the contrary.” “And this is more plain than I ever spoke,” he added, “to let you know you have a fellow and companion in trouble. And thus, rest in Christ, for the head of the Serpent is already broken down, and he is stinging us upon the heel.”
This combination of candid honesty about his own trials (especially evident in his letters to his mother-in-law, but partially even in his discussions with Mary Stuart) and theological clarity and certainty is powerful, as Knox could identify with the weak and doubting, respect them as fellow warriors in the Lord, and point them to the firm Rock of Christ.
This humble and straightforward exchange of letters with Elizabeth may very well have helped Knox to develop his 1560 treatise on predestination. Knox didn’t hesitate to recognize his dependence on friends (both male and female, in spite of his misogynist image). In fact, it’s to one of his closest friends, English poetess and translator Ann Lok, that he made the notorious confession, “Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions different from many,” adding, “I have rather need of all [my friends] than that any hath need of me.”
In 1572, as Knox approached the end of his course as prophet and pastor, he asked his second wife, Margaret, to read to him the chapter where he “had cast [his] first anchor”—John 17, Christ’s pastoral prayer.
The author is a member of Christ URC in Santee, Calif. She has written a biography of John Knox for young readers. New Horizons, October 2014.