The Scottish reformer John Knox (ca. 1505-1572) was one of the most celebrated followers of John Calvin and became the chief force in the introduction and establishment of the Presbyterian form of Calvinism in Scotland.
The Scotland of John Knox's time was used to reform movements. Long before Martin Luther's theses of 1517, men were executed for importing the doctrines of John Wyclif and John Hus. During Knox's adolescence he could not but be aware of the agitation for an evangelical Christianity abroad in the land.
The day and even the year of Knox's birth is disputed. The best estimate is probably 1505. His prosperous peasant father, William Knox, sought to prepare him for the priest-hood. His autobiographical writings leave doubt over his early education. It is certain that Knox attended a university, either Glasgow or St. Andrews, but did not earn a degree. After ordination in 1532 he returned to Haddington, the region of his birth.
Knox's conversion to Protestantism seemingly occurred between 1543 and 1546. In 1543 he was loyally serving the Catholic Church under the archbishop of St. Andrews. He styled himself "minister of the sacred altar." By 1546 he was vigorously defending the reformer George Wishart, who had introduced Swiss Protestantism into Scotland with his translation of the First Helvetic Confession in 1543 and impressed many before being executed for heresy in 1546.
The following year David Beaton, the cardinal responsible for Wishart's arrest, was murdered. Knox, hearing of the deed, eagerly joined the murderers in the castle of St. Andrews and, after protesting his unworthiness, became their preacher, thereby making his revolt from Rome complete and courting death. Curiously enough, his voluminous writings give no clue as to what transformed him in such a short time from a Catholic priest to a fiery, sword-bearing Protestant.
For fiery Knox was, denouncing the Catholic Church as a "synagogue of Satan" and the beast of the Apocalypse. While the castle trembled with spiritual thunder, the French laid siege, eventually capturing the occupants and making them galley slaves. After 19 months Knox emerged in February 1549, his body intact, his spirit unbroken, and his Protestantism strengthened.
The release of Knox and his comrades may have been engineered by the new Protestant regency in England. In any case Knox took a paid position as preacher there. His popularity grew rapidly. In 1551 he was made chaplain to the king and in 1552 declined a bishopric. He worked to rid the religious services of all vestiges of Catholic ritual and to fix austerity of worship firmly in English Protestant doctrine. This made his life precarious when the fanatically Catholic Mary Tudor acceded to the throne in 1553. The following year Knox left England, wandered for a time, and unknowingly took the most important step of his career by moving to Geneva.
In the "Bible Commonwealth," Knox came to believe fully in Calvinism, in the right of the true church to impose strict rules of conduct and belief on the individual, and in the right of the people to rebel against a civil authority that attempts to enforce adherence to a false doctrine. He called Calvin's Geneva "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the apostles."
On a trip to Scotland in 1555, then under a regency in preparation for the reign of Mary Stuart, Knox organized Protestant congregations and preached quietly. After he left under pressure, in 1556, an ecclesiastical court burned him in effigy. Back in Geneva he worked effectively as pastor of an English congregation.
Calvinism suited his austerity, and Knox preached with certitude that those not of his and Calvin's church were damned for eternity and that no Christian love was due them. Since they were sons of Satan, one could take joy in hating them, reveling over the prospect of their damnation, and even cheating and deceiving them. Knox saw himself as the prophet of a biblical society in which virtuous priests would guide men, and statesmen would be bound by the precepts of the Bible.
While he was at Geneva, Knox's pen was busy. His admonitions and letters to followers in England and Scotland are filled with burning condemnations of the Roman Church, a "harlot … polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication," and of its priests, who were "pestilent papists" and "bloody wolves." His best-known work, History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland, is more polemic than history.
Preaching in the Reformed manner was forbidden in Scotland in 1559, and on May 2 Knox arrived in Edinburgh. Pursued as a criminal, he managed to remain free and become the architect of a new Scottish church. Under his guidance, Catholicism, the regency, and French influence were repudiated, and in 1560 a democratic form of church structure in which congregations elected their ministers and elders was adopted.
Under these conditions it is not surprising that Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic reared in France, found Scotland uncongenial soon after her arrival in 1561. Since Catholic worship was forbidden, Mary's private Masses had to be defended with the sword. In 1568 she was driven from Scotland in the midst of a scandal; Knox was in the forefront of her pursuers.
Death took the reformer on Nov. 24, 1572. Knox was a small man but of immense physical and moral strength. He was not without contradictions in his work and his life. Although an authoritarian, he did more to stimulate the growth of democracy than any man of his age. He left an independent Scotland under a severe but democratically elected church.
The complete collection of the reformer's writings is The Works of John Knox, edited by David Laing (6 vols., 1846-1864; repr. 1966). There are several good biographies. Especially important are Edwin Muir, John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist (1929), and Andrew Lang, John Knox and the Reformation (1905), which is hostile to Knox. For background, John T. McNeill, History and Character of Calvinism (1954), and John H. S. Burleigh, Church History of Scotland (1960), are recommended.