John Knox:
The Thundering Scot

by Edward M. Panosian

Article from Bob Jones University "Faith for the Family" magazine.
Reprinted with kind permission.

A student of condemned reformers, a galley slave, an exile, John Knox denounced the queen of his nation and led Scotland to spiritual reformation.

A post card pictures a simple stone set in the ground of a square in Edinburgh, Scotland, commemorating the traditional spot of an uncertain grave. Inscribed on the stone is only "I.K. 1572" (for Ioannes [John] Knox). I found the post card between the pages of one of the well-used books in the library of Dr. Charles D. Brokenshire, a saintly scholar and revered teacher. On the opposite side of the card he had written to a nephew this message: "Scotland has erected no monument on the grave of John Knox, for Scotland is his monument. He was courageous and true. Dear nephew, may you be such a man." The truth of that message has been remembered profitably by one for whom it was never intended.


"Scotland is his monument." That noble testimony is understood best after viewing that kingdom on the eve of the sixteenth-century reformation. The country was weak; the soil was poor; commerce and learning were backward. There was border warfare regularly and full-scale war with England recurrently. Feudal disorganization and blood feuds made peace uncommon. The Roman Catholic church owned half of the country's wealth. That wealth was enjoyed by the higher clergy and by some favored nobles, while the lower clergy and the people paid the tithes. No country in Europe had greater religious corruption. The clergy were ignorant, incompetent, and uncouth. Parsons and monks were often hated by the laity. Superstition and ignorance were only slightly abated by the filtering northward of renaissance humanism and the Lollardy (followers of John Wyclif's teaching). The condition of the land has been described as "medieval semi-barbarism."

The reformation that followed is a remarkable witness to the truth that where the Word of God is given free course in a land, that land enjoys the blessings of liberty, education, prosperity, and progress. Scotland was translated into modern civilization by Bible preaching, particularly that of three courageous men. Two of these, Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, are little known today; the third is John Knox. Yet in God's providence, Hamilton and Wishart, both burned at the stake, kindled in the heart of Knox the flame that was to burn until his heart ceased its labor. Knox is best remembered, but Heaven honors all three.


Because history does not herald the birth of the son of a respectable Scottish peasant, historians do not agree on the exact birthdate of John Knox. Traditionally 1505 is suggested; 1514 may be more correct. But so strong an impress did he make that there is no doubt that the Scot of the Scots left his earthly toil on the 23rd of November, 1572. Perhaps the most familiar epitaph for this man, whom Samuel Johnson called one of the "ruffians of the reformation" and whom a modern biographer has called "the thundering Scot," are the words spoken by the Regent Morton at Knox's graveside: "Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh."

Knox was never far removed from his people, except against his will. We know little about his life before 1540 except that he had had a university education (probably at St. Andrews) and had been ordained a priest. This was not in his day and land the result of a conscious calling to a parish ministry; it was rather the normal route to government service. Almost all men who were not merchants or farmers became priests--"the learned."

The young Knox had known of the burning of the Scottish nobleman and humanist, Patrick Hamilton, in 1528. Hamilton, who had studied in Paris and learned the teachings of Luther at Marburg, had returned as a teacher to St. Andrews University. As a preacher of the new reformation views and doctrines, he offended the Archbishop, was tried for having taught "theological views deemed heretical," admitted them to be Biblical, and was condemned to the stake.

In the wintry wind of that February day, the difficulty of lighting the fire and the need to re-light it several times prolonged the agony of Hamilton's death over six hours. Men later said that the smoke of his burning infected all on whom it blew. While men asked, "Wherefore was Patrick Hamilton burnt?" (as Knox later wrote), more young Scots visited Germany and Switzerland where the reformation was underway. More Lutheran books and more English New Testaments and Bibles, Tyndale's and Coverdale's, were bought and sold, in spite of repeated injunctions against them.


Under the preaching of George Wishart, Knox was enlisted in the cause of the Gospel in which he was to spend his life. Wishart was a gentle preacher and teacher of the reformed faith. "Suspected of heresy because he read the Greek New Testament with his students," he had fled his native Scotland, studied in England at Cambridge, in Switzerland under the influence of Zwingli, and in Germany. He returned to effect reform--of church and state--at home.

John Knox's first entrance on the stage of church history is as Wishart's literal bodyguard, carrying a sword because of an assassination attempt by a priest upon the preacher. Having preached the evangelical doctrine throughout Scotland, doctrine which according to his trial included salvation by faith, the Scriptures as the only test of truth, the denial of purgatory and confession to a priest, and the rejection of the Roman Catholic mass as blasphemous idolatry, Wishart was arrested by Cardinal Beaton (hated nephew of the archbishop who had burned Hamilton), tried, and burned on the eighteenth anniversary of Hamilton's death (1546). Knox was eager to accompany his noble friend, but the elder Wishart refused, saying, "One is sufficient for one sacrifice."

Within a few weeks, Scottish nobles murdered the cardinal and, as refugees, took possession of Beaton's seaside castle of St. Andrews. Knox was invited to be their chaplain and continued to tutor his young students. In this strange parish Knox first preached. So vehement was his excoriation of the lives of his rebel "parishioners" and of the teachings and doctrines of the Roman church that after his first sermon his hearers declared: "Others snipped at the branches of popery; but he strikes at the roots, to destroy the whole." Now the Protestant rebels against an ecclesiastical government awaited help from England. But French ships arrived instead. French troops captured the castle and its defenders, and Knox began 19 months as a French galley slave, under flogging and cursing learning to be an apostle of liberty to his people.

One incident during those months reveals something of the latent fire in the Scottish preacher, even while in chains. A picture of the Virgin Mary was brought on board, while the galley was in port, to be kissed by the slaves. When Knox refused, the picture was thrust into his face. Outraged, he flung the "accursed idol" into the river, saying "Let our Lady learn to swim."

After his release, Knox went to England for five years. Now ruled (1549) by the protestant, Edward, England welcomed John Knox. He preached in a settled parish, learned much about reforming work, and became a royal chaplain. With the accession of the bloody queen, Mary Tudor, Knox became a Marian exile to avoid becoming a Marian martyr, and labored and learned at Frankfurt and in Calvin's Geneva. Those were retreats for preparation before advances for battle. In a letter to a friend, Knox wrote a sterling tribute to the moral quality of life in Geneva, calling it "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so seriously reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place besides."

Back in Scotland for several months, his preaching further strengthened the Protestant cause. As a result, many of the Scottish nobility banded together into a covenant in which they renounced "the congregation of Satan, with all the superstitious abomination and idolatry thereof" and affirmed the establishment of "the most blessed word of God and his congregation," and the defense of "the whole congregation of Christ, and every member thereof." These "Lords of the Congregation" became the political backbone of the remaking of a nation.


After a return to Geneva and more labor there, Knox finally ended the 13 years of wandering exile. He was to leave the soil of Scotland no more. During 1560 and 1561, the Scottish Parliament accepted the reformed confession of faith drawn up by Knox and others. The time of conflict seemed to be past, the time of building and organization seemed to have come.

But a last great conflict was yet to be fought; this time it was to be with words. Those words, weapons at whose use the thundering Scot was most adept, were with the young queen, Mary, widowed in France at 18, whose mother was regent in her behalf over Scotland until her death in 1560. Mary, Queen of Scots, a Romanist, was strangely out of place in that northern country, having lived her life in France. She came to rule a country which had become reformed in her absence and had to face the man who was more the leader of her people than was the queen.

John Knox, in his History of the Reformation in Scotland, preserves the record of a total of five "conversations" with the queen. Mary erred in almost every calculation. She attempted to argue with one who was a master of disputation. She attempted to restore the Roman mass (in her private chapel) which Parliament had outlawed. She flattered and tried to win Knox with tears and pleadings. She openly lived a life of paramours and suspected adulteries. She married her second husband's presumed murderer. Her actions but paved the way to her own deposition. Knox had preached that one mass was more terrible to him than the landing of 10,000 armed invaders. From his pulpit at St. Giles, the cathedral church of Edinburgh, just up the street from the queen's Holyrood Palace, he thundered against the restoration of the church of Rome which the Lords of the Congregation, following his example, had termed the "Synagogue of Satan."

Five years after her landing in Edinburgh, Mary, Queen of Scots, her armies bested, her domestic enemies far more in number than her friends, abdicated the throne and fled to England, leaving her infant son as monarch of Scotland.


There were more years of building to come. Only five of these were to be allotted to John Knox, but there were others to continue the work, as there had been Hamilton and Wishart to begin it. The organization of church and state, the development of an educational system, the discipline of morals, all in an age before separation of church and state was believed either wise or possible, was carried on by Andrew Melville and others. But the one who made the building of that Scotland possible was that compelling, magnetic, stern, dauntless, harsh, intolerant, vehement, indomitable, "stedfast, unmoveable," warrior who had been "always abounding in the work of the Lord" and whose "labor [was] not in vain" (I Corinthians 15:58).

Having inducted his successor to St. Giles pulpit in November 1572, barely more than two months after the infamous massacre of (eventually) 50,000 Protestants had begun in France on St. Bartholomew's Day by unreformed Romanism, the preacher returned to his bedroom, from which he was to enter his eternal home two weeks later. During that fortnight of leave-taking of friends, of colleagues, of life itself, he asked that two Scripture passages be read: his beloved seventeenth chapter of John, "the place where I cast my first anchor;" and the ninth psalm, a singularly fitting testimony of his own age, and a sobering word to our own.

The last four verses state: The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. For the needy shall not alway be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever. Arise, O Lord; let not man prevail: let the heathen be judged in thy sight. Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men.

© 1975, Bob Jones University. This article may be transferred via e-mail if this credit is not removed. Not to be reproduced on the web or in print without written permission.

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