The Singular Vision of John Knox

The Reformation was marked as much by needless war and bloodshed as it was by the overturning of spiritual error. Wishart was dead but God was soon to raise up another man in his place; his name was John Knox. 

When they heard that George Wishart was dead a group of his Protestant friends, led by Norman Leslie, stormed the castle at St. Andrews and executed Cardinal Beaton. They then proceeded to hang his body out of a window of the castle. Beaton was executed in May 1546 which was a tenuous year for the Reformation across Europe. It was the year that Luther died and Europe experienced the onset of bloody religious wars in Germany, France, and The Netherlands. Perhaps Leslie and his counterparts drew inspiration from what was happening around them. Whatever the cause might be the reality is that the kingdom of God is never planted under the shadow of military revolution, it is planted in the seedbed of the spiritual revolution of the heart. Many of the Protestants in Europe needed to learn that lesson in the 16th Century and so do we.

In the aftermath of Beaton’s death, the first Protestant church service was held at St. Andrews, it was a paltry victory won at the expense of Christian principle. The death of Hamilton and Wishart did more for the advancement of the Reformation than the murder of Beaton, in fact, the murder of Beaton set the work back considerably. But the truth is able to triumph even in the face of the most daunting human intervention and God raised up John Knox as a messenger to carry the truth forward in Scotland.

Edinburgh, Scotland

The castle, which was the stronghold of the Cardinal, was held by the militant group of Protestants and John Knox joined this group inside the castle, preaching to them and to the congregation of the parish church in St. Andrews. Unfortunately for them all the French Navy descended on St. Andrews on the 4th of June 1547 and took all of them captive. Knox was captured and sentenced to work as a galley slave. 

The historian Wylie writes that this hiatus in the work of the Scottish Reformation was a blessing in disguise. “The people of Scotland,” he wrote, “had to be taught that Reformation could not be furthered by the dagger…to Knox himself this check was not less necessary. His preparation for the great task before him was as yet far from complete”.

When Knox was taken captive by the French Navy the reagent on the Scottish throne was Mary of Guise, part of the powerful Catholic Guise family of France. She was ruling Scotland in the name of her daughter, Mary Stuart who was living in France with her husband Francis II, King of France.

Knox worked as a galley slave for 19 months and was then released, which was an unusual circumstance given that galley slaves were normally not released. He returned to Scotland but left for England soon after where he spent some time with Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He also spent some time preaching and ministering in Berwick upon Tweed where he met and married his wife, Marjorie Bowes. However, after the death of Edward VI and the ascension of Mary Tudor to the throne in 1553, it was no longer safe for Knox to remain in England and he fled to Geneva where he spent some time with Calvin who had a significant influence on his theology. Knox then returned to Scotland for good in 1559 becoming the first Protestant minister in St. Giles Cathedral. While he was here he abolished the mass and repudiated Papal jurisdiction. At this time Scotland was still under the rule of Mary of Guise who died in 1560 and her daughter Mary Stuart took the Scottish throne in 1561 as Mary Queen of Scots. John Knox would go head to head with the young Mary who was an ardent Catholic and saw herself as the defender of the faith in her realm.

The Reformation of Scotland was the passion and burden of John Knox’s heart, leading him once to exclaim in prayer, “Give me Scotland or I die”. Yet he encountered so many detours along the way, from being a galley slave on a French Naval vessel to being in exile in Geneva. Each of these detours, however, prepared him to accomplish the ultimate calling God had laid upon him which was the Reformation of Scotland and indeed Knox was Scotland’s greatest Reformer.  Someone wise once told me that each individual’s calling is where their burden lies. That is a powerful thought, firstly because it affirms the calling that God has laid upon my own heart and secondly because it encourages me to wait upon the Lord to see the fulfillment of that calling in my life.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • D’Aubigne, J.H. Merle (1832) – The History of the Reformation
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The History of Christianity in The Reformation Era – Professor Brad S. Gregory, Standford University.
  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, The Reformation and The Rise of Nations – Professor Andrew C. Fix, Lafayette College.