John Knox, the ‘Father of Protestant Reformation in Scotland’, died on the 24th of November, 1572.
The name of John Knox invites conflicting responses, despite the traditional view that “the thundering voice” was one of the ‘great men of Scotland’. It’s difficult to find any truly objective view of Knox and most commentary depends on whether the source has Catholic or Protestant and, more particularly, Presbyterian sympathies. John Knox is described as the “leading light of the Scottish Reformation” and considered to be the “greatest Reformer in the history of Scotland”, but not everyone would agree. In another era, he would have been described as a religious fundamentalist and his bullying intolerance, coupled with powerful oratory, isn’t too different from some of the tyrannical fanatics and dictators of the recent past. Knox’s beliefs and rigorous discipline, whilst to some large extent a necessary counter to the catholic excesses of his time, produced a glum legacy for Scotland. The expression ‘dour Scots’ is entirely down to Knox and if that’s not true, everything that’s been said of him must be called into question. He is also responsible for the iconoclasm that destroyed much of Scotland’s artistic heritage. Knox’s death was barely noticed at the time and maybe that’s why the alleged site of his grave is marked by just the faded inscription on a flagstone in a car park by the side of Edinburgh’s St. Giles’ Cathedral.
John Knox was born in Haddington between 1505 and 1515. Recent authorities on the subject have given grounds for the latter date, based on contemporary evidence and from certain facts in his career. He received a liberal education, which began at the Grammar School in Haddington, where he acquired the elements of Latin. And, again based on good argument, he attended the University of St Andrews and not at all Glasgow, from some time after 1524. It was whilst at St Andrews that he encountered John Mair, a celebrated doctor of the Sorbonne and the Principal of St Salvator’s College at St Andrews. Mair’s denial of the Pope’s supremacy as well as his fearless censure of the avarice and ambition of the Catholic clergy, were doctrines that surely influenced Knox. Mair also taught that Kings had no right to their elevation, excepting that which proceeded from their people, by whom they might be judged. It’s a pity Mair and Knox weren’t around to talk to Charles I when he spoke of a ‘divine right’.
Despite Mair’s influence and the martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton for preaching the new faith, Knox was ordained as a Catholic Priest, some time prior to 1540. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that there is any evidence of his having had an epiphany moment, perhaps because of his having studied the writings of the 4th Century ‘Church Fathers’ and Bishop Augustine of Hippo in particular. The Calvinistic idea of predestination, in which Knox came to believe, was a reconstruction of St Augustine’s ideas that only a handful of souls had the gift of faith and the promise of heaven. In any event, by about 1542, Knox had begun to disseminate the ‘reformed doctrines’ whilst apparently a teacher of philosophy at St Andrews. As a result, he was degraded from the Priesthood, denounced as a heretic and escaped to the protection of Douglas of Langniddrie, where he acted in the capacity of Tutor to Douglas’ “bairns”.
It is commonly believed that Knox wasn’t really ‘converted’ until he met George Wishart. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t until 1545 that Knox first publicly professed the Protestant faith. As it happened, Knox became Wishart’s close associate and bodyguard, but couldn’t prevent Wishart being arrested in December, 1545, on the orders of Cardinal Beaton. Protestants would have you believe Wishart was a martyr, tried for heresy and burned at the stake, in March of 1546. Catholics say that Wishart was deeply involved in the Protestant intrigue with Henry VIII to kidnap and murder the Cardinal. There are also conflicting stories about Knox’s attitude at that time. On the one hand, his panegyrists would have you believe in the “I am not worthy” tale of his reluctance ‘to step up and be counted’ at the pulpit, despite the exhortations of Sir David Lindsay of the Mount. On the other hand, there is the story that Knox was prepared to follow Wishart into captivity and only avoided a similar fate because his mentor sent him away. Both stories are presented by those favouring Knox, despite the seeming contradiction. Nevertheless, by June of 1547, Knox had finally preached his first public sermon against the Catholic faith.
Another interesting dilemma concerning the truth of episodes from Knox’s life stems from his time as a captive of the French, having been captured at the siege of St Andrews Castle in July, 1547. There he had fled for security after the murder of Beaton on the 29th of May, 1546, in retaliation for Wishart’s execution. Those favouring Knox say he “experienced hardships and miseries, which are said to have permanently injured his health” during nineteen months as a ‘galley slave’ chained to a bench. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, on the other hand, states that his captivity was “not rigorous enough to prevent him from writing a theological treatise and preaching to his fellow prisoners”.
The real insult to objective interpretation is to read that “Scotland was translated into modern civilisation by Bible preaching” and that the ‘Reformation’ rescued Scotland from “medieval semi-barbarism”. Yes, the Catholic Church owned half of the country’s wealth and perhaps no country in Europe had greater religious corruption, but the Nobles owned the other half and, despite signing the ‘Book of Discipline’, they had no least idea of giving up their own share of the ecclesiastical plunder. As David Laing, editor of a ‘Works’ of Knox, observed: “Converted in matters of doctrine, in conduct they were the most avaricious, bloody and treacherous of men”. Contrary to the ‘Reformation’ being 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”, it gave rise to the ‘Lords of the Congregation’ and ignited a century and a half of the bloodiest conflict Scotland ever experienced.