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
"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.
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 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
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
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
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
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.