The Champion of the Kirk
In the early 1500s, Scotland had one thing in common with the rest of Europe: a deeply corrupt and spiritually impoverished church, with morally moribund leadership. To cite one notorious example, David Beaton, cardinal and archbishop, illegitimately fathered at least fourteen children as his own. So much for celibacy in action. The spiritual ignorance was such that George Buchanan could claim that some priests thought the New Testament was a book recently published by Martin Luther.
Enter John Knox, and the Reformation was underway.
Born in Haddington, East Lothian, sometime between 1513 and 1515, Knox received his schooling locally and then at the University of St. Andrews. He became a priest and returned to his home region as notary and tutor. We know as little about his conversion as we do about Calvin’s.
Capture and Release
After the Protestant George Wishart’s martyrdom in St. Andrews, Knox came to the town with some of his young students and, in 1547, joined the group of Reformers living in the castle there. When Knox was appointed to preach, he refused, but he was virtually manhandled into accepting a call from the castle congregation to become their minister. Within a matter of months, however, the castle was under siege from French ships in St. Andrews Bay. Knox and others were captured, and he became a galley slave for the next year and a half.
In 1549, Knox was released and made his way to England. He pastored a congregation at Berwick, but soon he moved to Newcastle. He then became a royal chaplain during the days of the young King Edward VI. The death of Edward in 1553 was a body blow to the reforming party in England, leading as it did to the enthronement of Mary Tudor (“that idolatrous Jezebel” were Knox’s carefully chosen words to describe her). Knox sought refuge on the Continent.
Life on the Continent
Between 1553 and 1559, Knox lived a somewhat nomadic existence. He spent some time with Calvin in Geneva, calling it “the most perfect school of Christ . . . since the days of the apostles.” Thereafter, he accepted a call to pastor the English-speaking congregation at Frankfurt am Main.
Knox married Englishwoman Marjorie Bowes and, in 1556, returned to Geneva, where he pastored a congregation of some two hundred refugees. The following year, he received an urgent invitation to come back to Scotland — 1558 was the scheduled time for the marriage of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, to the dauphin of France, an event that seemed to destine Scotland for permanent Roman Catholic rule.
A taste of Knox’s vigor can be savored in a letter he wrote that same year to the people of Scotland, urging them not to compromise the gospel. He reminded them that they must answer for their actions before the judgment seat of God:
[Some make excuses:] “We were but simple subjects, we would not redress the faults and crimes of our rulers, bishops, and clergy; we called for reformation, and wished for the same, but . . . we were compelled to give obedience to all that they demanded.” These vain excuses, I say, will nothing avail you in the presence of God.
Return to Scotland
In 1559, Knox finally returned home to begin his most important phase of public ministry as the champion of the kirk (the Scottish term for church). Despite his lengthy absences from his native land, several things equipped Knox to lead the Reformation there: his name was associated with the heroes of the recent past, his sufferings authenticated his commitment, his broad experience had prepared him for leadership, and his sense of call made him “fear the face of no man.” So, for the next thirteen years, Knox gave himself to the reformation of Scotland.
By the summer of 1572, Knox was a shadow of his former self, and by November, it was clear he was not long for this world. On the morning of November 24, he asked his second wife, Margaret, to read 1 Corinthians 15 to him, and around five o’clock came his final request: “Read where I cast my first anchor” (presumably in faith). She read John 17. By the end of the evening, he was gone.
Many explanations have been forthcoming for Knox’s influence and that of the Scottish Reformation. No doubt there were many factors at work in the providence of God that brought about such spiritual renewal. But Knox’s own conviction was this: “God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.” Therein lies the greatest lesson of his life.