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John Knox: The Years of Preparation

An Overview of Scottish Presbyterian History - Part Two

L. Anthony Curto

Prior to leading the Scottish Reformation, Knox had to face a personal reformation.

The death of George Wishart was a great blow to the Protestant cause in Scotland. The question as to who was going to carry the mantle in the place of Wishart laid heavy upon the minds of many in the realm. At this time, John Knox did not appear to be God's chosen vessel for this task. While Knox had served for a time as squire to Wishart, he had never indicated any desire to lead the Protestant movement in Scotland.[1] Just prior to Wishart's capture in 1545, Wishart had persuaded Knox to "return to your bairns [pupils]...with God's blessing." [2] Apparently, Knox did not seek martyrdom or fame.

He left Wishart and returned to Lothian, where he took up the life of a tutor. But this was not the course which God had destined for the young Knox. As with Moses who retired to the wilderness before his call, so God would direct Knox to his task in due time.

The Roman ecclesiastics, however, were not content to leave Knox alone. His name had been associated with Wishart when the latter had ministered in the Lothian area. Church authorities had captured, tried, and convicted other associates of Wishart for either heresy or for harboring a heretic.[3] Archbishop Beaton was hounding Knox, and Knox knew that his time was short. Knox appeared to be delivered when the Archbishop at St. Andrews Castle was assassinated early in 1546. The man who led in the assassination plot was Norman Leslie, Master of Rothes. Other key conspirators were Norman's brother John, William Kircaldy of Grange, James Melvill and Peter Carmichael. After the Archbishop's death, these men took over the castle and occupied it from May of that year until July of 1547.[4]

Nevertheless, Archbishop Hamilton (successor to Beaton) continued to pursue Knox with full force. Knox's employers, Douglas of Longniddry and Cockburn of Ormiston, advised the young tutor to seek refuge in St. Andrews castle. Those who occupied the castle had come to be called Castillians, a group of approximately 150, which was able to secure support from Henry VIII of England and avoid Scottish authorities. In time, though, even the leaders of the Castillians became divided. While some had entered the conspiracy for religious reasons, others had done so for political reasons. When Knox arrived, along with three of his pupils on April 10, 1547, he was in for a surprise; he found the castle was not a refuge of Christian patriots, but a military garrison with all its attendant evils.[5] Knox was not happy with the situation at the castle or with the connection that the leaders had established with England. The only change that the English had accomplished in their Reformation was the suppression of the Pope's name, while all his laws and corruptions remained.[6] Because of this arrangement, Knox simply retired and catechized his students.[7]

Two men, Master Henry Balnaves and John Rough were impressed with Knox's teaching. Rough was functioning as the protestant preacher of the garrison and hoped to encourage Knox to join him. Balnaves and Rough earnestly solicited Knox to take up preaching, but he refused saying, "he would not run where God had not called him."[8] Balnaves and Rough sought advice from Sir David Lindsey who encouraged them to go ahead and call John Knox publicly to the Gospel ministry. Rough then proceeded to preach a sermon the next Lord's day on the election of ministers, stating it was dangerous to refuse the call of the church. At the end of the sermon, Rough stated, "Brother, ye shall not be offended, albeit that I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even all those here present: -- In the name of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you, that ye refuse not this holy vocation, but, as ye tender the glory of God, the increase of Christ His Kingdom, the edification of your brethren, and the comfort of me, oppressed by the multitude of labors, that ye take upon you the public office of preaching, even as ye look to avoid God's heavy displeasure, and desire that He shall multiply His graces upon you."[9]

Knox was not happy about this turn of events, since he did not view himself as qualified for the pastoral task. Shortly after his election, Knox was called to his first preaching task. Rough had been in conflict with Dean John Annan, principal of St. Leonard's College. Annan, to use Knox's words, was "a rotten Papist."[10] Knox, under the instigation of Rough, challenged Annan publicly to a debate on the authority of the church. Annan refused to debate. The people of the parish church of St. Andrew's still wanted to hear what Knox wished to say on this subject so they asked him to preach the following Lord's day at their worship service. Knox preached his first sermon from the text Daniel 7:15-24. In this sermon Knox challenged the corruption of the Roman Church and declared the that Roman church was a synagogue of Satan.[11] Needless to say, this sermon stirred tremendous excitement in St. Andrews.

Knox's work at St. Andrews was soon cut short. The Queen had solicited the help of the French to regain control of St. Andews castle. In July of 1547, St. Andrews was forced to surrender, and Knox and many of his companions were destined to become galley slaves in the French Navy.

The Nostre Dame

After the French regained St. Andrews castle, the Castillians faced uncertain circumstances. They, evidently, would not be allowed to remain in Scotland. They were thankful, for if they had turned them over to Hamilton and his co-horts, they surely would have killed them. Instead they were taken back to France. Most Castillians believed that since they were not French prisoners of war, they would be set free upon reaching that country. Knox even relates that according to the terms of surrender, Strozzi had promised that, once in France, he would release them on the condition that they were never to return to Scotland.[12]

Contrary to this promise, Strozzi did not free them in France. After arriving in Rouen, France, the French court condemned the Scots to lifetime captivity. While the upper class and nobility were imprisoned, the lower classes (which included Knox) were sent to the galleys.

The nobles faced pressure to accept the Roman mass once again. Norman Leslie, imprisoned in the castle of Scherisburgh, was told he had to go to mass with his captors. He refused and claimed that if they carried him there, he would make such a disturbance that everyone there would know that he refused the mass. Henry Balnaves, who was held at the castle of Rouen, was regularly assaulted and harassed. Yet God, in His good mercy, gave Balnaves the strength to hold firm. He was able to confound his captors with his speech and later was even permitted to write a treatise on justification.[13]

Similar treatment was accorded to those sent to the galleys. Knox, assigned to the galley Nostre Dames, records for us how the Catholics would try to make them revere the mass. However, the Scots would never give themselves to such idolatry and would cover their heads with their caps and refuse to even listen [14]. Knox passed on one account, (though he doesn't name himself), which describes how one day the skipper of a ship tried to get him to kiss a painted statue of the Virgin Mary. Knox replied, "trouble me not, such an idol is accursed; therefore I will not touch it." The skipper, determined to overcome Knox, thrust it in his face and said "Thou shalt handle it." At this, Knox took the idol and cast it into the water and said, "Let our lady now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim." Thereafter, the Catholics appeared to the leave the Scots alone.[15]

During this period of captivity, Knox was certain that one day God would deliver him and enable him to preach in Scotland again. Once when Knox was ill, his ship returned to St. Andrews, Scotland; some of his friends wanted him to see his land once more, so they brought him to the deck and asked him if he recognized the area. He replied, "Yes, I know it well. I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to His glory, and I am fully persuaded, how weak so ever I now appear, I shall not depart this life till my tongue shall glorify His Holy Name in the same place."[16] This confidence kept Knox even keeled during this time. When asked once whether he would try to escape, Knox told his fellow prisoners that he would do so as long as no blood was shed.

The circumstances of Knox's release are uncertain. Reid suggests that Sir John Mason persuaded the French crown to release Knox, since Knox had not actually participated in the assassination of Cardinal Beaton.[17] All the prisoners, who had been taken from St. Andrews, except for one who died in captivity, regained their freedom through escape or release.

After Knox was released from nineteen months of tortuous labor, he went to England. He would have been burned as a heretic in Scotland, but he had heard of some further work of Reformation under Thomas Cranmer in England, so he went to lend his hand to this work. Knox was no longer timid about his calling from God. He had learned by experience of the awful dangers that confronted him and his Protestant compatriots from the beast of Rome.

Further Lessons in England

Knox was to remain in England for five years (1549-1553). During his stay, he pastored congregations in Berwick and Newcastle. He often preached at Windsor Hapton court, St James, and Westminister in London. He was appointed Royal Chaplain to Edward VI, and he took part in preparing The Book of Common Prayer and The Articles of the Church of England. Knox was also offered the Bishopric of Rochester and vicarage of All Hollows Church in London, both of which he turned down.

Knox's first charge, the pastorate of Berwick, was a great blessing. Even though Berwick was a garrison town, it afforded him time to study and recuperate from his ordeal in France. During this period Knox gave himself to the study of Scripture, and we learn from correspondence that he studied Chrysostom and Calvin among others.[18] By 1552, Knox had thoroughly espoused the Reformed faith; this is evident from his comments of the Lord's Supper. In a tract on the meaning of the Lord's Supper, written in Berwick, he writes that Christ gives himself to the believer "to be received with faith, and not with mouth, nor yet by transfusion of substance... For in the sacrament we receive Jesus Chryst spirituallie as did the fathers of the Old Testament, according to St. Paulis saying."[19]

Knox not only rejected the Roman Catholic mass but also any celebration of the Lord's Supper which did not conform to the simplicity of the New Testament.[20] From a fragment of a communion service we see his practice was to preach a sermon, offer a prayer for faith, read Paul on the Supper in I Cor 11:17-31, fence the table by warning unrepentant sinners to stay away and by calling believers to come, offer a prayer of confession, a promise of forgiveness, and a prayer for the congregation, and then distribute the elements.[21] In all of this there was no show, pomp or anything contrary to God's Word. In 1558, he writes back to the Berwick congregation, "Neither for feare did I spare to speake the simple truthe unto you, neither for hope of worldly promotion, dignitie or honor, dyd I willingly adulterate any parte of God's scriptures, whether it were in exposition, in preaching, contention or writing...."[22]

Knox was also to find a wife while he was in England. He was married to a Marjory Bowes. She appears to have been an invaluable wife, and Knox had great confidence in her. At her death in 1560, Calvin wrote "that Knox's departed spouse had no equal." He referred to her as Knox's "most sweet wife."[23]

Knox also faced difficulties in England. There were many who wanted to see Romanism restored, even some Protestants who did not think it necessary to completely rid the church of all Roman practices. Bishop Cranmer and N. Ridley advocated kneeling at the Lord's Supper. Knox opposed this and was compelled to protest his case to the Privy Council. Knox was to lose this battle, thus putting him even further at odds with his enemies. When Knox refused the Bishopric of Rodchester and the appointment to All Hollows Church, he was once again called before the Privy Council. The Council was concerned that Knox maintained that no Christian might serve the Church of England according to its present laws. Knox explained that he believed that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough, and that he refused these positions because he felt he could be more useful to the Lord elsewhere. The council then appointed him to be a royal chaplain in Buckinghamshire to keep him from causing trouble in London.[24]

Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 bringing Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) to the English throne. It was now time for Knox to leave England, which he did with great sorrow of heart. In an sermon expositing Psalm 6, he writes "some tyme I have thought that impossible it had bene, so to remove my affection from the realme of Scotland, that any realm or nation could have bene equal deare unto me. But God I take to recorde in my conscience, that the troubles present and appearing to be in the realme of England, are double more dolorous unto my heart, than ever were the troubles of Scotland.[25]

A Call to Frankfurt

Knox travelled to Geneva and was there only a short time when he received a call to Frankfurt to help pastor an English congregation gathered in that city. He accepted the call and left for this new field in September 1554.[26] This congregation had been formed by refugees who had fled the Marion persecution in England. Most of these would have known about Knox because of his work in that country. He also had written a tract called "A Faithful Admonition to England." In this tract, he exhorts the brethren to remain faithful to the Lord. He also admonishes the preachers of England to be zealous in their calling, but, primarily, he castigates the political leaders of England for their idolatry and resistance to the cause of God and truth.[27] In this tract, he refers to Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary, as "the one little inferior to Nero" and Mary as "more cruel than Jezebel."[28] To those who were being forced to flee for their lives, this blast would have been of great encouragement.

When Knox arrived at his new charge, he set about, along with a Mr. Whittingham, the main translator of the Geneva Bible, to draw up an Order of Service for the new congregation. In this order Knox did not openly oppose the The Book of Common prayer, but he also did not follow it. As we know, Knox's view of the Book had brought him at odds with many in England. At first, the congregation accepted the order and was pleased to follow the instruction of their pastor. This did not last. Sometime shortly after the introduction of the new order, some persons in the congregation, under the leadership of Richard Cox, began to oppose the new order.[29] Cox had come to Frankfurt from Strasbourg and joined the church. He had served in England as a tutor to Edward VI and Chancellor of Oxford University. Because of this opposition, Knox was forced to address the issue of the Prayerbook.

In a sermon aimed at this issue, Knox demonstrated his true Puritan spirit by arguing that worship was to be solely regulated by the Word of God.[30] Knox was especially opposed to the "Black Rubric" (the instruction to kneel at the Lord's Supper). This inflamed many of the English leaders. Mr. Isaac and Mr. Parry, two of the most influential men in the congregation, had Knox discharged from preaching. They also accused him of treason to the officials of the city. In support of their claims they used Knox's "Admonition to England" especially his references to Philip II and Mary. The magistrates appear to have warned Knox of the impending danger and encouraged him to leave the city. They realized that if Knox remained in Frankfurt they could be forced to turn him over to the higher authorities, possibly even to Mary herself. Knox left Frankfurt late in 1555 and returned to Geneva seeking the counsel of his close friend, John Calvin. Shortly after his arrival in Geneva, he made a short visit to Scotland.

While in Scotland Knox had close contact with John Erskine of Dun and James Stewart, later to be the Earl of Moray. (James was the half brother of Queen Mary and one of Knox's most powerful supporters). The Queen and her followers attribute much of the success of the Reformation in Scotland to James. Other enemies also recognized that James was very influential in the Reformation work in Scotland. In 1556, a short time after James met with Knox, there was an assassination attempt on James's life. While making a visit to France, he and his companions were poisoned. Everyone died except for James who returned to Scotland.[31]

While at Dun, Knox, Erskine, Stewart and others entered into a covenant together. The covenant, known as the The Covenant of Dun, is the first of a long line of covenants and is the beginning of a movement and people which came to be called "Covenanters." The covenant is simple but expresses the hearts of those entering into it. Most participants in this covenant and later covenants probably knew that they would later seal these agreements with their blood. In their own minds, this was acceptable since the Lord Himself had sealed the Covenant of Grace with His own precious blood. In the covenant they bound themselves together to abstain from the mass, to adhere to the true evangel of Christ, and to help as opportunity arose those who preach the pure Gospel.

About this time, Knox received a letter from the English congregation in Geneva to be its pastor. He accepted the call contrary to the wishes of many in Scotland, and along with his wife and mother-in-law, returned to Geneva. When Knox had gone, his enemies once again tried to take advantage of the situation. The Bishops summoned Knox to a council meeting but since he was on his way to Geneva he could not attend. He was convicted for failing to comply with their request and burned in effigy at the cross in Edinburgh. Knox was now a condemned heretic. Later when Knox heard of this, he wrote appealing to the nobility of Scotland. But for now, all he could do was to wait in Geneva for a reply.

The Most Perfect School of Christ

When Knox arrived back in Geneva in 1556, he found a city that had been largely reformed. Previously, the Libertines had held control of the city's government; it was now mostly in the hands of those who supported Calvin. Knox settled quickly in this new environment and gave himself to his studies and pastoral tasks.

The congregation in Geneva was really an extension of his church in Frankfurt. Many persons in the church had been with Knox in Frankfurt. They believed that even though Knox had been forced to leave Frankfurt, he was still and always would be their pastor. Because of this strong bond, Knox found the transition to his new calling relatively smooth. The form of worship was similar to the order he instituted in the previous church. Knox's Form of Government laid the foundation for presbyterial rule. This move would have wide influence for years to come.[32] Many historians claim that this was the first Puritan church to exist.[33]

Knox now received a letter, dated March 10, 1556, asking him to return once again to Scotland. The letter was delivered to him by a man named James Syme and was signed by four nobles, including James Stewart. The request from Scotland pulled at Knox's heart. Although his work in Scotland was going well, he still had a great desire to labor in Scotland. He had also been concerned about news he had received detailing the course of the Reformation. Calvin advised him to return, declaring "that he could not refuse that vocation, unless he would declare himself rebellious unto his God, and unmerciful to his country." Knox took Calvin's advice and prepared to leave.[34] Immediately, he set out once again for Dieppe to catch the first ship headed for Scotland. When he arrived in Dieppe, there were two letters waiting for him. These letters explained that the circumstances had changed and that it was not now good for him to come to Scotland. Knox sent a speedy reply. He was greatly distressed by the change of events and wanted to know what had happened:

According to my promise, right Honorable, I came to Dieppe, the 24th of October, of full mind, by the good will of God, with the first ship to have visited you. But because of two letters, not very pleasing to the flesh, were there presented to me, I was compelled to stay for a time... which letters when I had considered, I partly was confounded and partly was pierced with anguish and sorrow. Confounded I was, that I had so far travailled in the matter moving the same to the most Godly and the most learned that this day we know to live in Europe, to the effect that I might have their judgements and grave counsels, for assurance as well of your consciences as of mine, in all enterprises... The cause of my dolour and sorrow -- God is witness -- is for nothing pertaining either to my corporal contentment or worldly displeasures; but it is for the grievous plagues and punishment of God, which assuredly shall apprehend not only you, but every inhabitant of that miserable realm and Isle, except the power of God, by the liberty of his evangel, deliver you from bondage.[35]

Knox was not happy that the nobles seemed to be double minded. So much of the work of the Reformation rested in their hands. He also knew that many of the faithful in England were being sent to the flames. If this were to continue, then there would be no one to carry on the work in Scotland. Knox also considered that God was judging him for leaving Scotland for Geneva in the first place. So once again, Knox could only wait for a reply.

Knox, while waiting in Dieppe, did not spend his time idly. He wrote the letter entitled "The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women." This was to be the first of three "blasts" in which Knox maintained that women may not rule in government. Knox contends that the Estates, "ought to remove frome honor and authoritie that monstre in nature: so call I a woman cled in the habit of man, yea, a women against nature reigning above men...and therefore let all men be advertised, for the Trumpet Hath Ones Blown."[36] By the time Knox returned to Geneva, the Blast had affected many throughout the realms. Not only did his enemies attack him, but also many in the Protestant camp. His old church in Frankfurt asked John Aylmer to reply to Knox. Even Calvin stated in 1559 that he had warned Knox against taking such a position.

Knox continued to keep busy. He helped translate and annotate the Geneva Bible. He wrote many letters and tracts on a variety of subjects. Finallly in November of 1558, circumstances began to change. Mary Tudor died on November 17, 1558, thus bringing Elizabeth I to the throne. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and many people hoped that this move would encourage the Reformation in England. Moreover, this change signaled the end of the Knox congregation in Geneva since many of them returned to England. In January 1559, the Genevan city council granted the refugees permission to depart.[37] Knox also noted the providential hand of God in this change, since he once again received a request to return to Scotland. This time the letter was accompanied by a common bond of the nobles, pledging their support and fidelity to the Reformation cause:


3rd December, 1557

We, perceiving how Satan in his members, the Anti-christs of our time, cruelly doth rage, seeking to overthrow and to destroy the Evangel of Christ and His Congregation, ought, according to our bounded duty, to strive in our Master's cause, even unto death, being certain of the victory in Him; the which our duty, being well considered, we do promise before the majesty of God and His Congregation: That we, by His grace, shall with all diligence continually apply our whole power, substance, and our very lives, to maintain, set forward, and establish the most blessed Word of God and His Congregation, and shall labour according to our power to have faithful minister, truly and purely to minister Christ's Gospel and Sacraments to His people. We shall maintain them, nourish them, and defend them, the whole Congregation of Christ, and every member thereof, according to our whole poweres and waring of our lives against Satan and all wicked power that doth intend tyranny or trouble against the aforesaid Congregation. Unto the which holy Word and Congregation, we do join us, and so do forsake and renounce the Congregation of Satan with all the superstitions, abominations, and idolatry thereof. And, moreover, shall declare ourselves manifestly enemies thereto, by this our faithful promise before God, testified to this Congregation by our subscriptions at these presents. At Edinburgh, the third day of December, 1557 years. God called to witness.

Scribed by the Earls Argyle, Glencairn, Morton, Arch. Lord Lorne, John Erskine of Dun.[38]

Knox wanted to return to Scotland via England and set out once again for Dieppe. Upon arrival he sent a letter asking for a passport and safe passage through England to Scotland. No reply came. He went so far as to say that he would grant that Elizabeth was the rightful ruler if she acknowledged that her appointment was from God. Knox finally ceased trying to travel through England and set out directly for Scotland in late April, 1559.

The years of Knox's preparation for his work in Scotland had now come to an end. In a short time he would begin the work for which God had called Him. For years he had watched and prayed as God took him step-by-step and prepared him for the ensuing events. Since the beginning Knox had greatly reformed his theology. In his ecclesiology he saw that church practice was to be completely determined by consulting God's Word. Nothing short of a complete transformation of the existing church was acceptable. For this view he dons the title "Puritan."[39] Some commentators have rightly considered him the father of the Puritan movement.[40] Knox also knew that he was not to stand alone. He was a part of the Kirk (the Scottish term for church), the body of Christ with Jesus as its supreme head. The body, according to Knox, bound together with covenants, encouraging and strengthening one another in the noble calling of Christ. In this, Knox was one of the founding leaders of the Covenanter movement. Many people, following in Knox's path, would affix their names to these covenants upon pain of death in order to further the cause of Christ in the realm of Scotland.


Reid, W. Stanford, Trumpeter of God, (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1982) p.34
Knox, J., The Reformation in Scotland, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982) p.58
Reid, p. 34
Howie, J., The Scots Worthies, (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Andreon & Ferrier,1775) p.31
Reid, p.45
Knox, p.70
ibid., p.70
ibid., p.71
ibid., p.72
ibid., p.73
Reid, p.54
Knox, p.95-96
ibid., p.94 Later Knox writes an introductory epistle to this work which is found in the third volume of Laings' edition of Knox's works.
ibid., p.94
ibid., p.95
ibid., p.96
Reid, p.68
ibid. p.75
ibid., p.77
ibid., p.76
ibid., p.96
Howie, p.49
Reid, p.102-103
Howie, p.49
Reid, p.114, Howie, p.50
Howie, p.50
Lloyd-Jones, D.M., The Puritans: Their Origin and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987) p. 274
Because of these actions the Scot Thomas Carlyle in his history Heroes and Hero Worshippers calls Knox the Father of Puritanism.
Howie, p. 38
Reid, p. 138
ibid., p. 134
Knox, p. 130
ibid., p. 130-132
Reid, p. 147
ibid., p.153
ibid., p. 154
Lloyd-Jones, p. 260
ibid., p.260

Tony Curto is a pastor of Covenant Community Church, a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Westminster Seminary, Escondido, and the dean of Newport Christian Schools. He also serves as a senior editor of Anithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
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