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John Knox: The Watchman of Scotland

An Overview of Scottish Presbyterian History -- Part 3

L. Anthony Curto

Knox finally returned to Scotland only to battle compromise and Queen Mary in an effort to extend Biblical reformation among his people.

Establishing A Protestant Nation

John Knox returned to Scotland on May 2, 1559, when the political and religious climate was stormy. War clouds were on the brink of bursting. The town of Perth had become Protestant, and this provoked Mary the Queen Regent (Mary of Guise) to take some ill-advised actions. Mary summoned all the Protestant preachers to appear before her in Sterling on May 10, 1559. The Protestant Lords responded to her demand by assembling an unarmed army of nobles and gentry who marched from Perth to Sterling in support of their preachers. The Protestant Lords also sent Erskine of Dun ahead to Sterling to speak with the Queen Regent about the matter and to assure her that they did not intend any evil.

The Queen Regent, wanting to accomplish her own end, persuaded Erskine to have the Protestant army remain in Perth while she reconsidered the matter. Erskine sent word back to Perth informing the Lords of the Queen's stated intention. The Protestants were divided as to what to do. Some believed the Queen was lying. Others believed that they could not doubt the Queen's promises or show contempt for the Laird of Dun by not following such instructions. The Lords decided to wait to see what further action the Queen would take.

On his arrival in Scotland, Knox heard about the state of affairs in Perth, after just two nights in Edinburgh, travelled to Dundee where he requested of the Lords, "that he might be permitted to assist his brethren, and to give confession of his faith with them."[1] Permission was granted to him, and he then set out for Perth. In a letter written May 2, 1559 to a Mrs. Anna Locke, Knox writes, "I see the battle shall be great; and I am come, I praise my God, even in the brunt of the battle. My fellow-preachers have a day appointed to answer before the Queen Regent, the 10th of this instant, when I intend, if God impede not, also to be present; by life, by death, or else by both, to glorify His Holy Name, who thus mercifully hath heard my long cries. Assist me, sister with your prayers, that now I shrink not when the battle approacheth."[2] When Knox arrived in Perth, Sir James Croft reports that he became the center of the movement,[3] even though he was still not sure what lay ahead; at this time, he was "uncertain as yet what God shall further work in this country, except that I see the battle shall be great, for Satan rageth even to the uttermost."[4 Knox, then, did not hesitate to jump right into the thick of controversy. Within two days of Knox's arrival, the Queen Regent, hearing that Knox had returned to Scotland, put him to the horn (declared him a rebel).[5 When the 10th of May finally arrived, Knox reached Perth. The Queen Regent, realizing that the Protestant preachers did not arrive, as she had demanded, declared them all rebels and under the pain of rebellion, prohibited any man to assist, comfort, receive, or maintain them in any way.[6] Erskine quickly left Sterling and returned to Perth to warn his brethren. The Protestants of Perth were enraged, many felt they had been betrayed and deceived.

The next day Knox preached concerning the idolatry of the Mass. In this sermon, Knox spoke of the odiousness of idolatry to God, of God's commandment to destroy all idols, and of the Mass as an abomination to God. Shortly after Knox finished the sermon, a foolish priest attempted to serve a Mass in Perth, erecting an alter with an image upon it. A young boy, so taken back by the scene, cried, "This is intolerable! When God by His Word hath plainly damned idolatry, shall we stand and see it used in despite?"[7] At this, the priest struck the young boy, who retaliated by throwing a stone and breaking the idol. Thereafter, the enraged crowd began breaking all that had to do with idolatry in the town.

The multitude became so inflamed that the preachers, magistrates, and nobles could not contain them.[8] Knox refers to this mob that destroyed not only the altar but also three Catholic monasteries in Perth as "the Rascal Multitude"[9] Neither Knox nor the leaders in Perth incited the destruction of churches or monasteries. They believed these remnants of idolatries should be peacefully converted and their churches used for the true and proper worship of God.

A few days later on May 31, 1559, the Protestant Lords also entered into a new covenant known as the Perth Covenant. The Lords reaction to the covenant reads: "The whole congregation shall consider, assist, and convene together to the defense of the said congregation or person troubled, or shall not spare labor, goods, substance, bodies, and lives in maintaining the liberties of the whole congregation...."[10 The Queen Regent was infuriated by the action of the multitude in Perth. She vowed to destroy the city and all who lived in it. Then she burned and salted the city as a reminder to all what would happen to those who resisted her authority.

Once again the Protestants sent Erskine to speak with the Queen. He requested that the preachers be allowed to debate with the Catholic clergy on the points of dispute. The Queen's response was to summon all of the Scottish nobility to assist her in putting down such a noxious rebellion. Knox then addressed a letter to the Queen which began, "to the generation of Antichrist, the Restilent Prelates, and their Shavelings within Scotland."[11] In this letter he warned that such continued action would bring only further fighting and destruction of the realm.

In the days which ensued, many nobles began to join the Protestant cause under the leadership of the Earl of Glendairn. Realizing the growing Protestant threat, the Queen sent Lord James Stewart (a Protestant) to try and persuade his brethren to return home. Stewart succeeded in bringing a settlement to the turmoil and secured from the Queen Regent a promise not to garrison French troops in Perth in exchange for the Protestants promise to disband peacefully.

Even after this settlement, Knox sought the freedom "to blow the Master's trumpet."[12] He knew that if God's people had the opportunity to proclaim His Word freely that God would further reform of all of Scotland.

Despite the settlement Stewart received, the Queen Regent very quickly broke her part of the bargain. She claimed she was not bound to keep promises made to heretics. Accordingly, she sent French troops to occupy Perth causing the Lords of the congregation to flee. At this, Lord James Stewart threw in his full support to the Protestants and became their most ardent leader.

After occupying Perth, the Queen turned her attention to St. Andrews. She believed that if she could take this Protestant stronghold, then she would break the backbone of the Protestant rebellion. The Protestants, however, were able to muster enough support to hold the Queen at bay.

During this time Knox continued to preach with vigor. In another letter to Mr. Locke he writes "the long thirst of my wretched heart is satisfied in abundance, that is above my expectation for now forty days and more, hath my God used my tongue in my native countrie, to manifest His glorie...."[13 For some time the fighting continued between Mary of Guise, with her French mercenaries, and the Lords of the Congregation. Knox and others had sought the help of the English, which finally came in January of 1560. A treaty was signed in February 1560 between England and the Lords, in which the English swore to help their neighbors rid themselves of the French. The result was the treaty of Edinburgh in which Mary the Queen Regent agreed to evacuate the French troops from Scotland.

Not too long after this time, the Queen Regent died and final preparations were pursued to evacuate Scotland of French troops. The Estates of Scotland appointed a delegation to settle the question of religion in Scotland. Knox returned to St. Giles Cathedral and began preaching a series of sermons on the book of Haggai. He called for a complete rebuilding of the church in Scotland patterned after the clear direction of the Word of God. Knox had led the church to a great victory, and Scotland could now officially become Protestant and possibly even establish a Reformed church. Yet the war was far from over. Like the children of Israel, the people had crossed the Jordan River but now came the difficult task of uprooting the inhabitants of the land. The treaty of Edinburgh left room for division. Mary, Queen of Scotland (the daughter of Mary of Guise) and her husband, Francis of France, along with several Scottish nobles, did not see the treaty as giving authority to the Scottish Parliament to establish a national religion, but Knox and others did.

Establishing a Confession and Book of Discipline

The battle for Reformation in Scotland arose on many fronts and was motivated in a variety of ways. Some participants were motivated by a conviction that all things must be measured by the Word of God. Others fought simply for money and fame. Because of this, the victory obtained by the Scottish Lords brought division in the Protestant ranks. Knox had come from common-folk stock, and most of his followers were from the same "middling sort."[14] The upper nobility, though, saw Knox as an extremist, not willing to adopt a more irenic course of change.

Within just a few months of the Queen Regent's death, Knox and a few collaborators drew up a Confession of Faith to present to Parliament for ratification. Calvin's catechism and the Geneva English congregation's confession clearly formed the Foundation for this Scottish Confession. Moreover, though the final form of the Confession was presented to Parliament on August 17th 1560, the first draft was ready as early a four days after the Queen Regent's death on June 10th, 1560. The real significance of the Confession was its regard for the Scottish Church, especially as the Scottish church sets itself over against the teaching and church of Rome. According to the Confession, the Scottish church was the most reformed church in existence.[15 The opponents of the Confession tried to stop its ratification by suggesting that, according to the term of the treaty of Edinburgh, Parliament had no right to adopt such a document without consulting with Queen Mary in France. Knox and others, on the other, hand argued that Confession was legitimately adopted because the Parliament which had been duly called was the most representative Parliament ever held in Scotland. This Parliament, more than any other, genuinely spoke for the people. In the end, Knox's group prevailed, and the confession of Faith was ratified.

When Mary and Francis were informed of Parliament's affirmation of the Confession, they predictably rejected Knox's understanding of the treaty of Edinburgh. In fact, Francis sent a letter back to the Parliament in Scotland to the effect that he was disappointed by their actions and would be sending delegates from France to assemble a true Parliament with the view of setting matters straight. Needless to say, this caused much consternation among the Protestants for they knew that Francis was a sworn enemy of the Protestant cause.

The ratification of the Book of discipline faced a more difficult road than the Confession had. Whereas, the Lords really did not have much to lose as a result of the Confession, they did have much to lose if the Book of Discipline were ratified. The Book of Discipline itself was a plan for church organization and government. The battle over ratification came as a result of the Book's proposal for financing the church. It proposed that all lands which belonged to the Catholic church should be turned over to the Reformed church for its use. This move would devastate the aristocracy, and so most of them resisted the Book's ratification for three particular reasons. First, if the Reformed church controlled the finances, this would give more power to the Burgesses and Lairds of Scotland (middle class). Second, if the land were confiscated this would mean that the aristocratically controlled government would lose monies. Thirdly, if the Book were adopted, it meant the virtual end to Roman Catholicism in Scotland.

Unlike the Confession, Parliament did not adopt the Book of Discipline, and this was a serious blow for Knox. Yet God, in His providence, had led the Lords of the Congregation to form a General Assembly of the Church which did adopt the form of Government and other provisions of the Book of Discipline. Knox exhorted the assembly "that we should constantly proceed to reform all abuses, and to plant the ministry of the church, as by God's Word we might justify it, and then commit the success of all to our God in whose power the disposition of the true kingdom stands."[16 Another blow came to Knox in the latter part of December 1560. His wife, Marjory, died. This was tremendous heartbreak to Knox, for he had greatly depended upon her in all of his work.

The Day Of Thy Watchman Cometh

Mary's husband, Francis, died in the late 1560's. This meant that in all probability Mary would soon be returning to Scotland. Knox was greatly concerned. since he knew the potential danger that Mary's return signified. For that reason, he turned down a request to be a superintendent in the church of Scotland.[17] As the Pastor of the largest church in the capital city of the land, he was close to the government, and believed that he would be in a better position to influence the direction of affairs by his preaching, if he stayed there. Knox believed that God had called him to his post, and he strove to be faithful to that calling. Also this position brought great comfort to others in the Protestant cause. The watchman was at his post, and who better than Knox could discern the impending danger?

When news of Mary's return reached Scotland, about 20,000 of her supporters wanted to meet her at Aberdeen. From there they hoped to take Edinburgh by storm. Parliament was scheduled to convene on May 20, 1561; Mary's supporters believed that with the Queen by their side, they could retake control of the government.[18] When the Protestants got word of this, they gathered and drew up a petition to present to the Lords of the Privy Council. They requested "That God's Evangel may be publicly within this realm preached; the true ministers thereof reasonably sustained; Idolatry suppressed, and the committers thereof punished, according to the Laws of God and Man."[19] The Privy Council passed the Petition and reaffirmed its commitment to Protestantism. Knox saw this as Satan's second falling in Scotland.

Mary did not want to return to Scotland, and most of the Scottish people did not want her to come. August 19, 1561 was a sad day for both Mary and the people. Mary landed in Leith with a consort of French counselors to help her whip the Scots back into line. Since Mary was now unmarried, some of the Protestant nobility thought that a marriage with one of them might solve all their problems. Knox was appalled by such compromise and spoke against it. This once again divided the Protestants. Mary was able to further divide the Protestants when she made plans to celebrate the Mass in her private chapel. Knox once again sounded a word of warning that such actions would not lerated. Many nobles could not see how private Masses might be harmful, but Knox's keen eyes and wisdom saw the coming danger. He continued to sound the alarm about the dangers of compromise, and this stand finally brought him face to face with Mary.

After his first interview with Mary, Knox was discouraged about the future of the Reformation. He was not discouraged because he saw Mary as such a strong adversary but because of the compromises which were developing. In a letter to Mrs. Locke on October 2, 1651, He writes "that he wished he could die, since there was no hope of stopping this unless we would arme the hands of the people in whome abideth yitt some sparks of God's feare."[20] He also stated, in a letter to Calvin, "not the vehemence of the preachers, but the faint heartedness of the nobles, would destroy the Reformation.... I never felt before how weighty and difficult a matter it is to contend against hypocrisy under the guise of piety."[21] Knox did not realize how mightily the Lord was using him as the Watchman of the nation. A noble named Randolph, writing to a friend just a short time earlier, states, "I assure you the voyce of one man is able in one hower to put more lyf in us than 500 trumpettes contynually blustering our eares."[22] Reid summarizes this period well when he writes that even "Among the middle classes, Knox's constant Blowing of the Master's Trumpet' had had its effect in bringing into existence a reformed church despite aristocratic lukewarmness and opposition."[23] He had armed the people who still feared the Lord. Now his job would be to maintain and extend this great blessing of God.

Blasts from the Master's Trumpet

Although, Queen Mary had denied more than once that she intended to suppress Protestantism and revive Roman Catholicism in Scotland, history reveals that these denials proved false. Mary had grown up in Catholic France under the tutelage of the Catholic Guise family. She continually withheld financial support from the Protestant ministers; she continually encouraged the celebration of the Mass not only in her own private chapel but also in other public locations, in violation of the law; she persuaded the Pope to appoint a new Bishop of Dunblanc; she continually appointed Catholics to positions on her council. There is also evidence that she secretly corresponded with Philip II of Spain and the Pope in order to plot the overthrow of Protestantism in Scotland. The major difficulty in all of this was that most of the Lords and nobles either did not believe this to be the case or knew it to be true but nonetheless sided with the Queen. John Knox was aware of what was transpiring and remained undaunted, even in the face of much criticism.

Knox had the support of the Burgesses and Lairds of Scotland. He also had the support of the Burgh council in Edinburgh. More than once the Burgh council came to Knox's aid by running interference between him and the Queen. The General Assembly showed its support of Knox by appointing a colleague, John Craig, to work with him in his reform work in Edinburgh. Moreover, John Cairns had been appointed as reader in St. Giles, thus making a team of three fully committed men working for the common cause of Christ and the Reformation.

The situation with the Lords and nobles was different. Those who had joined the cause out of conviction were generally on Knox's side, but often stood back because they feared retaliation. Knox's willingness to push forward regardless of consequences intimidated many of the Protestant Lords. In all fairness, some simply disagreed with Knox. This disagreement was probably due to the fact that they did not see the danger as clearly as Knox had. Others, who had joined the cause for selfish gain, would side with the group who promised them the most reward. Queen Mary was able to use this to her advantage. Two notable examples of this situation among the Lords are seen in Lord James of Moray and Lord Maitland of Lethington. Lord James was especially blind to Mary's craftiness. This blindness resulted in his being driven out of Scotland just prior to Mary's abdication. Lord Maitland, on the other hand, was a constant thorn in Knox's side. He fought constantly against the Book of Discipline for financial reasons.

Mary repeatedly used these differences to further her ends. Her true obstacle was John Knox. On a number of occasions, Mary ordered Knox before her for statements he made in sermons. Each time God gave Knox wisdom to answer these accusations, and Mary was left frustrated. She finally prohibited Knox from preaching altogether after he preached a sermon on Isaiah 26:13-21, in which he demonstrated that all political authority was derived from God and warned that those who persecuted the church of Christ misused that authority. Mary and her new husband (Lord Darnley) were angered by those statements and called Knox before them. When Knox refused to rescind his statements, the Queen forbade him from preaching. At this point the Edinburgh Burgh council stepped in and issued a statement in behalf of Knox; it reads that "they will no manner of way consent or grant that his mouth be closit, or he dischargeth of preaching the true Word, and therefore will it him at his pleasour, as God should move his heart, to proceed forwart in the trew doctrine as he has bene of befoir, which doctrine they would all approve and abide at their lifis end."[24 Mary had lost again. Her true defeat came when her husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered, and Mary ran away with the suspected killer, the Earl of Bothwell. Neither Protestants nor Catholics could approve of this. Bothwell was able to escape to the North, but Mary was forced to surrender and was imprisoned at Lockleven Castle. She was forced to sign a letter of abdication on July 24, 1567. She turned the crown over to her young son James and appointed James Stewart, Earl of Moray, as regent until James was old enough to rule.

Under the Earl of Moray, Parliament was called once again. This time, the Reformed Presbyterian church of Scotland was finally established by law. Knox played a significant role in this and was able to see some fruit of his arduous labors.[25 Knox's remaining years were not quiet. Many Protestants were committed to maintaining political ascendancy in order for their advances to continue including the Earl of Moray who had many enemies, some of whom finally succeeded in assassinating him in 1570. In addition to such threats, Queen Mary was eventually able to escape to England, and even though she was a prisoner under Queen Elizabeth, she was a constant threat to the stability of Scotland. The fight had taken its toll on John Knox. Nearing his end, he wrote in 1570:

And so I end; rendering my troubled and sorrowful spirit in the hands of eternall God, earnestlie trusting at his good pleasure; to be freed from the cares of this miserabill lyfe, and to rest with Christ Jesus, my only hope and lyfe.[26]
Knox was granted his desire on November 24, 1572. To the day of his passing, he was a man of one heart. God was his only Glory, and God's Kingdom his only home.
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 Antithesis.


[1 Knox, J., The Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982) p. 163

[2 Ibid. note on p. 163

[3 Reid, W. Stanford, The Trumpeter of God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982) p. 169

[4 Ibid.

[5 Ibid.

[6 Knox, The Reformation, p. 163

[7 Ibid. p.164

[8 Ibid. p.163-164

[9 Ibid. p.164

[10 Lunsden, p. 37

[11 Reid, Trumpeter p. 170

[12 Ibid. p.171

[13 Ibid. p.174

[14 Ibid. p.191

[15 Ibid. p.193

[16 Ibid. p.207

[17 The Book of Discipline had provided for a temporary administrative office of superintendent. Some have construed this a quasi-episcopalianism. Knox and others appeared to accept this office on a temporary basis due to the fact that there was a dearth of Reformed ministers. The circumstances necessitated some form of supervision. The superintendents were not specially ordained to this task; they were under the oversight of the General Assembly.

[18 Ibid. p. 209

[19 Ibid.

[20 Ibid. p. 216

[21 Ibid.

[22 Ibid.

[23 Ibid. p. 221

[24 Ibid. p. 238

[25 Ibid. p. 239

[26 Ibid. p. 254

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