John Knox: the father of Presbyterianism

Although he gets some bad press today, Knox stands out as one of the giants of the Protestant faith, earning him a place on the Reformer’s Wall in Geneva, as well as the title “The Father of Presbyterianism.”   A sword carrying bodyguard who stood up to a corrupt church as well as the Queen; a preacher who gave sermons that made him seem to fly out of the pulpit – his story is one that great movies are made of.

Knox came from humble beginnings.  He was born in the year 1514 in Haddington, not far from Edinburgh and went to University of St Andrews to study law and theology.  In the year 1536 was ordained to the Priesthood.

About this time, things were heating up in Scotland.  Many were angry with the Catholic Church – and for good reasons.  It owned more than half the real estate and gathered an annual income of nearly 18 times that of the crown.  Furthermore, bishops and priests were living immoral lives.  Cardinal Beaton for example, the archbishop of St. Andrews, fathered 14 children through various mistresses (so much for celibacy!) While all this is going on, Lutheran literature is being smuggled into the country – which Knox gets hold of.

John Knox with George Wishart

In the early 1540’s Knox joins up with George Wishart, a courageous protestant preacher.  Wishart is a hunted man; his life is constantly in danger and Knox became his personal bodyguard, wielding a giant broadsword (called a Claymore in Scotland).  A standard sword had limitations, it would often get stuck in torsos leaving you vulnerable to having your head taken off.  A broadsword had two edges and you could cut yourself out of any difficult situation – if you are strong enough to wield it, which Knox was (this gives you a picture of the kind of man we are dealing with).

In 1546 Cardinal Beaton finally caught Wishart.  He was arrested, tried, strangled and burned.  In response a party of 16 Protestant nobles stormed the St. Andrew’s castle, assassinated Beaton, and hung his body over the wall (a reminder to us that not everything the Protestants did should be emulated!).  The castle was immediately put to siege by a fleet of French ships and, after a good fight, overrun.  The occupants were either killed, imprisoned or like Knox, sent to the galleys as slaves.

Knox spend 19 months on one of these ships experiencing severe hardship, which would affect his health in the years to come.  The French loved to taunt their captives, handing them images of the Virgin Mary and making them kiss them.  When Knox was told to do this, he refused and threw the image into the water saying, “Let our lady now save herself; for she is light enough; let her learn to swim” (This guy feared no one).

After he was released Knox spent time in England as well as Geneva where he met up with John Calvin and honed his preaching skills.  It was there that he published some of his most controversial tracts –  Admonition to England, where he lashed out on those who allowed Catholicism back in England, and The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, where he argued that a female ruler (i.e. English Queen Mary Tudor) was “most odious in the presence of God.”  That little piece did not earn him any favours!  And it was published in England the same day Queen Elizabeth the first – a faithful protestant, came to rule.  She took great exception to this and banned Knox from ever stepping on English soil.  We see again, these reformers were by no means perfect.

In the year 1559 he returned to Scotland and they became his best years.  His powerful preaching had a huge influence on the people of Scotland and many were saved.  One note taker said, “he made me so to [quake] and tremble, that I could not hold pen to write.”  It was Knox’s pastoral zeal and political sway that would eventually lead to the Reformed Protestant faith being ratified into law in Scotland.

John Knox preaching in St Giles Church

Knox was a man of great courage and determination.  He spoke plainly – sometimes abrasively, but loved God and the people he served.  It was Knox who famously prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die” and said “A man with God is always in the majority.”  Robust words.  At his funeral, a man standing before Knox’s open grave said, “Here lies a man who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.” The legacy of John Knox persists to this day, including a heritage of spiritual descendants numbering more than 750,000 Presbyterians in Scotland, three million in the United States, and millions more throughout the world.


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