By Josiah Durand
Under the parking lot of the St. Giles cathedral in Scotland lies unacknowledged and buried one of the most famous men of the Reformation, John Knox! He was born sometime around 1514 near Haddington, Scotland, and for years served as a Catholic priest. Converted to Protestantism mostly though the ministry of the great reformed preacher, George Wishart, Knox preached his first sermon in Edinburgh. As Knox became greatly involved in the Reformation, he was significantly influenced by the Bible. Soon he was marked out by the Catholic rulers and was arrested and sent to be a galley slave around 1547, where it is said that he once threw a statue of Mary into the water, declaring that if she was so powerful she should learn how to swim! Being released from the galley about 19 months later, Knox went to Geneva and there met John Calvin, another reformer who had a pronounced impact on Knox’s life. Later John Knox returned to Scotland where he preached faithfully until his death on November 24, 1572 in Edinburgh.
The true key to the Scottish Reformation was the Scriptures, not John Knox. The Bible was almost never read by the people because the clergy discouraged such a practice. Bringing back the Holy Word to Scotland, Knox highly motivated men to read the Bible more. Knox’s own conversion most likely occurred when reading a passage of Scripture, namely John 17, which states, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are mine.” Knox realized George Wishart’s doctrine of election was true, that Jesus was praying for His elect, not for the world. This verse proved to be one on Knox’s favorites. When George Wishart was arrested Knox was at his side prepared to defend him to the last. However Wishart went willingly and died a noble death at the stake as one of God’s precious martyrs. John Knox was so moved that this prompted him to renounce his own priesthood! He became a powerful preacher of the Bible, beginning his ministry with a sermon on Daniel’s dream of the four beasts. He continued faithfully expounding the Scriptures throughout his life. Even when dying Knox proved his faith in Scriptures by declaring,
Often before hath [the devil] placed my sins before my eyes; often tempted me to despair; often endeavoured to entangle me with the allurements of the world; but these weapons, being broken by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, he could accomplish nothing. But now he has attacked me in another way; for the cunning serpent has endeavoured to persuade me that I have merited heaven itself by the faithful discharge of my ministry. But, blessed be God, who suggested to me those passages of Scripture by which I was able to grapple with him, and extinguish this fiery dart… And thus being vanquished, Satan went away; wherefore I give thanks to my God by Jesus Christ.
The key to John Knox’s own conversion, Christian life, faithful ministry, and triumph in death—the Bible was the means that God used to bring about a tremendous Reformation in Scotland.
John Knox is best known because God used him to bring the Reformation to England and Scotland and fire up the people to do God’s will. He cried out against the pope, purgatory, prayers for the dead, mass, saints and bishops, while encouraging the people to read the Bible and pray to God. While he was in England the Book of Common Prayer was publicized and Knox spoke so vigorously against kneeling in front of the bread and wine of the Lord’s table that it was forced to state that, “on no account should the act of kneeling be misconstrued to signify adoration of the sacramental elements, which remained bread and wine… whereas the natural body and blood of our Saviour are in heaven and not on earth.”
Later Knox fled to Geneva ministering to many exiles from England and other parts. While still in Geneva, Knox demonstrated his love of his birthplace, by saying “I feel a sob and a groan, willing that Christ Jesus might openly be preached in my native country, although it should be with the loss of my wretched life.” Shortly afterward Knox visited Scotland and, seeing that the people were as sheep without a shepherd, he traveled to Scotland permanently and began preaching and teaching God’s Word. While preaching in Edinburgh he once taught how evil idolatry was and afterward an unrestrainable mob began to destroy images, other idolatrous relics, even burning some monasteries. The Scottish Queen, blaming Knox and the Protestants, used it as an excuse to persecute them. To assure the faithfulness of the future generations of Scotland, Knox and several other leading ministers created the “Scots’ Confession of 1560” which, being approved by Parliament, laid the foundation for the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647. Thomas Randolph remarked concerning Knox’s preaching, “I assure you, the voice of that one man is able in one hour to put more life into us, than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears!” Knox was a powerful preacher of God’s Word, and feared not what men could do to him knowing that he need not “Fear them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
John Knox was a great reformer and God used him in many ways. However most important was his great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the Scriptures, which eventually led him to play such an important part in the great Reformation. He led an exciting life, escaping persecution at times, facing his enemies boldly by the grace of God Almighty. May we return to reading and obeying the Bible, putting it into practice every moment, and thus making a conspicuous impact on our world today.