Protestant Profiles #8: John Knox

John Knox (c. 1513 – 1572)


Born: Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland
Role: Pastor; bodyguard; reformer; royal chaplain; pamphleteer; historian; founder of Scottish Presbyterianism & co-author of the Scots Confession
Theological Emphases: sola Scriptura; justification by grace through faith alone; God’s preservation of His church; true vs. false churches; predestination; Christian society
Protested against: papacy; Mass; purgatory; kneeling during communion; indulgences; pilgrimages; clerical celibacy; mandatory fasting


John Knox is best known for his vital role in the Scottish Reformation and consequent formation of the Presbyterian family churches. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in his early 20s and functioned as a notary public for the early part of his career, until he came under the influence of Protestant ideas around the time he turned 30.
He had a brief stint as a bodyguard to Protestant preacher George Wishart – famously carrying a sword to defend him against would-be assailants – as Wishart spread Continental-Reformed ideas throughout Scotland by way of itinerant preaching.

Wishart was captured on the authority of Cardinal David Beaton, tried and executed in 1546. The following year, a band of Wishart’s friends assassinated the cardinal in a revenge attack and seized control of his castle in St. Andrews, Fife. Knox reluctantly began a preaching ministry at the castle, which began with a fiery denouncement of the papacy as the Antichrist depicted in Daniel 7. This period of ministry only lasted a few months, before the castle was put under siege by forces from Scotland’s Catholic ally, France, and Knox and the other members of the community were imprisoned upon galley ships for the next year and a half.

Knox spent around 5 years in England, preaching in favour of widespread reformation in the English and Scottish Church and briefly serving as a chaplain to (arguably) England’s most committed Protestant monarch, King Edward VI. He fled to the Continent in 1554, due to the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary to the English throne and the onset of her ruthlessly bloody persecution of Protestants. He spend the next year or so travelling through Switzerland and increasing his connections with the Continental reformers.

Calvin’s Geneva made a particularly strong impression upon Knox – he referred to it later as “the most perfect school of Christ.” He returned to Scotland in late 1555, where he was warmly welcomed by some Protestant nobles, but treated warily by the Scottish royal and Catholic authorities. Instead of staying there, he soon returned to Geneva and continued to minister to Protestant (mainly English) exiles who lived there. He remained in Switzerland until Mary’s death saw the Protestant Elizabeth I take the English throne and most of his congregation moved home.

Ministry in England was not a viable option for Knox, who had alienated Elizabeth through his infamous pamphlet The First blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous Regiment of Women – attacking the legitimacy of female rule (aimed specifically at the Scottish regent Mary of Guise). But the folly of this publication – which earned the ire of key allies including Calvin – providentially led to Knox’s return in 1559 to Scotland where he would have an enormous impact.

1560 was a hugely significant year in the Scottish Reformation – with Parliament outlawing mass, divorcing the nation from the Catholic Church and Knox leading the process of formulating and publishing a national confession of faith: the Scots Confession. But Knox was unable to see the Kirk (Scots for ‘church’) reorganised and financed according to his reform agenda – due to political difficulties with the nobility and the return of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

Knox’s meetings with Mary are almost legendary – with the monarch’s disposition towards the reformer ranging from cordial to infuriated and on more than one occasion he is said to have brought the young woman to tears. In the end, Knox never managed to sway Mary to abandon Catholicism in favour of reformed principles – with the result that although Protestantism was the official religion of the land and elements of Catholic liturgy remained unlawful, the queen herself continued to worship privately according to Roman rites and receive the Mass from her priests.

An uncompromising figure, Knox saw many of his goals for reformation achieved, while constantly experiencing frustration at those further elements of reform that seemed unachievable in his lifetime. As his biographer M.H. Dottwerweich notes, “Knox’s firm stance on the scripture principle and against idolatry…made him a ‘founding father of English Puritanism’ as well as an influence on later Scots Protestantism.” The continuation of his personal ethos in these two movements, in different kingdoms on that shared isle of Great Britain, is perhaps his greatest legacy. It is hard to imagine what Presbyterianism would be today without the foundation it had in Scotland that was largely due to Knox’s contribution. Likewise, without similar-spirited individuals to Knox that characterised the English Puritanism movement, evangelical Christianity as-we-know-it would not exist today.

You can read a biography of Knox’s life and ministry here
Or read his Scot’s Confession here.


John Knox @
Dotterweich, “KNOX, John” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals 


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