Article from Bob Jones University "Faith for the Family" magazine.
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.
THE EVE OF THE REFORMATION
"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
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.
AN UNCERTAIN BIRTHDATE
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
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.
RETREAT FOR PREPARATION
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.
THE GREATEST CONFLICT
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.
A STEADFAST WARRIOR
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.
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