“The Sword Bearer”I will be of no other Church but that which has Jesus Christ for pastor, hears His voice, and will not hear the voice of a stranger.
More than any other reformer, John Knox defied the Catholic Church and Europe’s aristocracies. Even as an exile, he stirred up nobles and commoners alike to challenge the status quo established by Catholic rule throughout England and Scotland. He was relentless in speaking out against the deception and duplicity he saw in the ranks of both clergy and royalty. Holding to Scripture as his only measure of truth, he brought down queens and cardinals, and miraculously, escaped martyrdom.
Not only was Knox an imposing character in frame and disposition, but he was also an astute intellectual who could brilliantly articulate his arguments. In his early days he carried a two-edged sword as a bodyguard, but as he matured in his beliefs, the two-edged sword he wielded came only from his mouth. He spoke tirelessly and wrote prolifically. He did not falter for a moment in the intensity of his passion to see the Gospel proclaimed and Christ glorified. A devoted Calvinist, he strove to reproduce what Calvin accomplished in Geneva in his own Scotland. Until his last breath, he fought to bring the Word of Truth to the people.
Born For Such a Time as This
John Knox was born near Edinburgh, Scotland in 1514. Little is known about his parents other than that they had a distant affiliation with the powerful Bothwell family, which garnered young John the privilege of a good education and a position tutoring a nobleman’s children. At an early age, John mastered Latin, and when the pupils he tutored were sent to the University of St. Andrew’s in 1529, young Knox was able to attend with them.
It was at university that Knox studied under the famous Scottish theologian John Major, the same teacher John Calvin had studied under in Paris. He also studied the writings of Jerome and Augustine. He was a dedicated student who had a seemingly insatiable hunger for truth. He vigorously searched the Scriptures to confirm all he learned for himself. Early on, he showed himself to be a man of strong conviction.
Although he was ordained a priest in 1536, by 1543 he had cut his ties with the Catholic Church. Upon hearing a former friar proclaim the Gospel, he converted to Protestantism and took a position as a bodyguard for a fiery evangelist named George Wishart. It was in Knox’s absence that Wishart was arrested and burned at the stake for heresy. This caused a wave of outrage among the Protestants and propelled the reformation into a new era of activism.
The Dawn of Revolution
From this point on, the reformers did not hold back their fury. They stormed St. Andrew’s castle where a pompous cardinal had hoped to hide safely from the reformers threats of revenge. As his mistress snuck out in the early hours of the morning, the group of retaliators killed the guard and slipped into his bedchamber. There they threatened to kill the cardinal unless he repented of shedding Wishart’s blood. This he refused to do and was immediately stabbed through with a sword. The group hung the cardinal’s corpse out the window above the place Wishart had been imprisoned months earlier.
The group, of whom Knox was not a part, secured St. Andrew’s castle as their own stronghold and were supplied with provisions by sympathetic supporters throughout Europe. They called themselves the Castilians—and as the onslaught of persecution by the Catholic Church increased, Knox was forced to seek refuge among them for his own safety. He lectured within the castle walls on Protestant doctrine impressing their leaders with his strength and ability to verbalize his beliefs.
When the Catholics commanded them to present a list of arguments, they elected Knox to write it for them. Then they asked him to accept the position as their chaplain. However, Knox felt unworthy of this office and overcome by emotion, ran from their presence. He hid away in his room praying and deliberating this call to public ministry. His solitude was interrupted when he heard a priest he especially disliked would be holding a service at a nearby parish. He felt compelled to go and witness what this priest was teaching to the people.
Thrust into Public Ministry
Knox was so disturbed by what he heard; he rose up in the middle of the service and challenged the priest. The crowd demanded that Knox prove his claims in an open debate and Knox accepted. The following Sunday, Knox was given the pulpit. Many distinguished citizens and university peers, including John Major, came to support him. Many more friars and priests crowded into the church to oppose him. When he began to speak, none dared make a sound, and after he finished, all remained speechless.
Up until this time, none had delivered such an accurate and detailed message explaining the cause for reform. Some said that Wishart never spoke so bluntly as Knox, yet he was burned at the stake. It was fully expected that Knox was sure to become the next martyr. Not long after, several prominent Catholics called him to a meeting in order to question him further regarding his sermon. He answered their accusations with such resolute accuracy that his intimidators were again rendered speechless.
From Mountain Top to Wilderness
Knox proved to be such a threat to the Catholic Church in Scotland; they issued a command prohibiting anyone but priests and professors from preaching or teaching on Sundays. Fortunately, Knox was able to take full advantage of the other six days in the week. Daily he drew large crowds to the castle, who upon hearing his messages, promptly denounced Catholicism.
The Scottish Catholics became so infuriated they called in the French military to lay siege to the castle and take captive all those residing there. Knox was forced to surrender with the others inside the castle. In July of 1547, the Castilians made an agreement with the French that if they went peacefully to France, they would be granted their freedom.
As soon as they arrived on the shores of France, the Castilians were boarded onto ships and confined to the galleys. Knox was sent out to sea as a galley slave for the next nineteen months. He endured cruel hardship and severe illness. Not all survived, but Knox was determined to return to Scotland and preach again at St. Andrew’s castle. Although this was the most distressing time of his life, testing all his strength and resolution of will, through it Knox grew into the leader and remarkable reformer we know him as today.
The Turning of the Tide
In February of 1549, King Edward VI granted the Castilians their freedom. The tide was turning for the Protestants in England. The religious and political authorities wanted to establish Protestantism in their nation and were pleased to have someone like John Knox at their disposal. For the next five years, Knox remained in England as an honored guest. He pastored a church in Berwick populated by Scottish immigrants and the British soldiers that opposed them. His galley experience gave him the finesse and fortitude to handle both groups. He dramatically preached throughout the region forcefully exposing error and calling into check any wrong thinking regarding the Lord.
By 1551, Knox had such influence in England that he was first offered the job of bishop and then the pastorship of All Hallows in London. He refused them both content to remain in Berwick. History tells of a woman, Mrs. Bowes, and her daughter, Marjory, who lived in the area and who became closely associated with Knox. Although there was much controversy surrounding their relationship, by 1553, Knox and Marjory were engaged to be married. Her Catholic father disapproved, so the wedding was put on hold while Knox continued to itinerate throughout the region.
Knox was so celebrated in England that he was appointed to preach before the king as royal chaplain. In this role he was also assigned to help rewrite the Book of Common Prayer into a second edition.
The Tide Turns Again
In July of 1556, King Henry VIII died and Mary of Tudor was crowned queen. Being a strong Roman Catholic, Queen Mary immediately began to undo all the Protestant reforms her father had instituted. She restored Catholicism as the national religion and informed the Protestants that they had until December 20 to change their beliefs before they would be tried as heretics.
In January 1554, Knox was forced to leave England and seek refuge in France. Mrs. Bowes and her daughter remained in England safe for the time being due to Mr. Bowes Catholic affiliation and the position of their family. A little over a year later, in February of 1555, Queen Mary held her first execution—a Protestant Bible translator by the name of John Rogers. During her reign of terror, Mary of Tudor executed more than three hundred people, including the first author of the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer. She shed such blood in her effort to restore Catholicism that she was given the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
In the late summer of 1554, Knox remained in Dieppe, France, fostering his hatred for the queen and her doctrines. From here he wrote, The Faithful Admonition unto the Professors of God’s Truth in England. In the letter he attacked the Catholic bishops, calling them the “Devil’s Gardeners,” and the priests, “blind buzzards,” declaring they all deserved death. He unveiled the hypocrisy of Bloody Mary’s court writing how they were once unified in their opinion that she was an “incestuous bastard who would never reign in England,” but they were now kneeling at her feet.
More controversial still, he declared that if they had put her to death before she became queen they would have saved the world from her cruelty. He wrote, “Jezebel, that cursed idolatress, caused the blood of the prophets to be shed . . . yet I think she never erected half so many gallows in all Israel as mischievous Mary hath done in London alone.” He ended with a chilling prayer on behalf of England: “Delay not Thy vengeance, O Lord, but let death devour them in haste; let the earth swallow them up and let them go quick to the hells. For there is no hope of their amendment, the fear and reverence of Thy Holy Name is quite banished from their hearts.”
Knox Goes to Geneva and Frankfurt
After making sure his letter left Dieppe, Knox traveled to Geneva to meet with John Calvin. Calvin admired Knox for his courage and embraced him. Knox studied closely under Calvin for the next several months before he was invited to pastor a church in Frankfurt, Germany where many of the persecuted English Protestants fled. It was a familiar situation although the congregation of exiles was more difficult to manage than he anticipated.
Division arose over which liturgy to adopt. In February 1555, Knox and a group of men drew up a new order of service which would eventually become the official worship book of the Church of Scotland, The Book of Common Order. Unfortunately, the bickering wearied Knox and he began to challenge the shallowness of the congregation. In a series of searing messages, he attacked their lack of faith and lashed out at the local government—he even went as far as to declare that Emperor Charles V was the same enemy to Christ as Nero had been.
The city magistrates feared what might happen to their city and expelled Knox as the pastor. Knox gladly left with several others from the church. They returned to Geneva in April 1555 and were cordially welcomed by Calvin. Knox returned to a life of study striving to learn all he could about how Calvin ran Geneva. He organized a radical English congregation grooming them and rallying them to eventually return to England for a Protestant takeover.
Back To Scottish Shores
About this time, Mrs. Bowes wrote several letters that their safety was at increasing risk and requested that she and Marjory be allowed to join him in Geneva. Finally, he arranged for them to meet him in Scotland. Many of the English had fled to Scotland as the persecution was not as severe there as in England. They easily made the trip and when Knox arrived in the summer of 1555, he and Marjory were married.
For the next nine months, Knox itinerated throughout Scotland encouraging the Protestants and inspiring them to stand strong against their Catholic oppressors. He was so successful at invigorating the masses to rise up against the Catholic Church that in May of 1556 the Scottish bishops summoned him to Edinburgh to face legal proceedings. Hundreds of Protestants gathered to rally in his support. Memory of the St. Andrew’s siege was fresh enough that the proceedings were wisely cancelled.
Geneva Calls Again
At the same time Knox realized that Scotland was not as ready for radical change as he had hoped, the English congregation in Geneva was begging him to return to his pastorate there. He returned in July with his wife and mother-in-law, but not long after he received a summons to return to Edinburgh to face charges of heresy. When Knox failed to appear, the Catholics made a show of burning a sculpture in the likeness of Knox on a public cross.
Knox focused on his work in Geneva. The English congregation he pastored eventually produced the Geneva Bible still widely used today. This was a peaceful time for the Knox family. In the spring of 1557, Marjory gave birth to a son, Nathaniel. The English church thrived under Knox as he immersed himself in study. He relished being able to speak freely with Calvin whenever he needed to.
The Appeal from Scotland
In October of that year, after receiving an urgent request from the Scottish reformers for his return, he traveled alone to Dieppe, France, to await passage to Scotland. There he was told to remain until further notice. He was frustrated at their indecision and lack of organization. He had just traveled eight hundred miles, leaving his wife and newborn son and now was in danger of being arrested in France as he awaited news from Scotland.
When December came, he was still waiting. He wrote a second letter to which he again received no reply. In the middle of the month he wrote a third letter to the nobles of Scotland with no intention at this point of returning. He composed a manuscript in which he poured his disgust for the two women rulers who were making his life, and those of the reformers, so difficult: Mary of Tudor; and the Scottish Regent, Mary of Guise (soon-to-be mother of Mary Queen of Scots).
Upon his return to Geneva, although busy with pastoral duties, Knox managed to write a half dozen books and pamphlets. None of these were as controversial as the manuscript he had composed in Dieppe. Once distributed, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [Unnatural government] of Women created a “greater uproar than anything that had been published in Europe since Luther’s three great treatises.”
A New Level of Controversy
First Blast caused a tremendous uproar not only among the Catholics, but among Protestants too. His most controversial document, First Blast challenged the people in both England and Scotland to depose their female rulers on the premise that it was unnatural, even ungodly, for a woman to hold such a position of authority. Even Calvin was so outraged that he banned it from Geneva. The book was so widely condemned that a royal proclamation was given that anyone found in possession of the book would be put to death.
Unknown to Knox, Bloody Mary’s health had suffered greatly and she died not long after the manuscript was published. Her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, although a Protestant, was so offended by the views Knox presented that she continued to banish him from England. The years of persecution had come to an end and the nation was now open to reform, yet Knox was still seen as an enemy of the State and would not be allowed to pass over England’s borders.
The Start of a Revolution
As the English who sought refuge in Geneva returned to England, Knox made plans to return to Scotland. Relations were now strained with Calvin, and his services as pastor to a refugee English church were no longer necessary. Knox planned his return to Scotland. He left his family in Geneva, which now included a second newborn son, and made his way again to Dieppe, France to await safe passage. Once established in Scotland, he would send for his family to join him.
He arrived on the coasts of Scotland four months later, in May of 1559. As soon as he stepped ashore, he discovered the queen-regent had summoned the local reformers to a hearing as a result of their stand against her. They had boldly sent her word that if she stood in the way of reform, they would force her out of Scotland. When the Regent Mary heard that Knox was back in the country and planned to appear on their behalf, she cancelled the proceedings.
The judges, however, accused the reformers of failing to appear in court and ordered their arrest. In retaliation, Knox preached a fiery sermon about the idolatry of Mass and called on Christians to do their duty. This was the sermon that started a civil war. Mobs of angry Protestants destroyed Catholic altars and statues throughout the region and sent priests and monks into hiding. In response, the Regent Mary declared war on the Protestants threatening to overtake them with the power of the French military.
Protestant supporters came from all over Scotland to stand against the queen-regent. She saw there was no hope of victory for her own forces, so she called in the French troops to help. In January of 1560, the French arrived on the Scottish coast and a guerilla war ensued in the depths of winter. Knox wrote to Queen Elizabeth I to beseech her to protect her interest in Scotland, but before she had received his letter, fourteen British ships were already on their way.
The British drove the French back to France, and the Regent Mary, who was by now very ill, retreated to her castle in Edinburgh. She passed away in June of 1560, putting an abrupt end to the struggle. In August, the Scottish Parliament voted to abolish Catholicism and establish Protestantism as the national religion.
Enter Mary Queen of Scots
The battle may have been won, but the war was not over. Mary Queen of Scots, who was being raised and educated in Catholic France, now returned to Scotland to assume her rightful rule as queen. She was nineteen years old and devoted to the Catholic faith. From the beginning she would be at odds with the advance of Protestantism, and with Knox in particular. She continued to hold Mass at court and suffered an onslaught of ridicule from the reformers.
Meanwhile, Knox had established himself as the leading pastor in Edinburgh and had since settled his family there. Unfortunately, not long after, Marjory became ill and died. Several years later, in May of 1564, he remarried—this time to a distant cousin of Queen Mary. The strife between the Queen and Knox was intense and continual. They contended publicly on numerous, documented occasions.
Although the Queen married, she eventually did herself in through her own adulteress relationships. Her husband was found murdered and she was put on trial as an adulteress. The Protestants called for her death as a murderer, idolater, and adulteress, but instead she was forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son and was imprisoned. She escaped and fled to England seeking aid from the Queen of England. Queen Elizabeth saw her as a threat and threw her in prison where she remained for the next nineteen years. Finally, she was declared guilty of treason and beheaded in February of 1587.
Knox Finishes the Race
After Queen Mary left Scotland, Knox focused on establishing the Protestant Church there. He had spent himself completely in fighting for the cause of reformation, and not long after Queen Mary was deposed, he suffered a stroke. By 1572, although Knox was extremely feeble, he continued to write and preach on occasion. In September, Knox resigned his office as pastor. By November, his health had so deteriorated that his mind began to slip. On the evening of November 24, 1572, John Knox went home to be with the Lord.
- Stewart Lamont, The Swordbearer—John Knox and the European Reformation (Kent, England: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1991): 57
- “Mary I,” The World Book Encyclopedia 13, (Chicago, Ill.: World Book, Inc., 2003): 239.
- Liardon, God’s Generals II, 280.
- Lamont, 76.
- Liardon, 283
- Jasper Ridley, John Knox (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1968): 1-2.