John Knox first
appeared on the stage of history bearing the two-handed great sword as bodyguard
to reformer George Wisehart. Canon law forbad priests to carry a weapon, but
Knox, already disgusted with Rome, was committed to reforming Scotland. For
five weeks Wisehart and his bodyguards spent each night in a different house
to avoid arrest. Knox was willing to die with the reformer, but when Wisehart
could no longer elude his pursuers, he sent Knox away, saying, “Nay, return
to your bairns [children] and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.”
Biographer Jasper Ridley believed “if Knox had stayed with Wisehart some nine
hours longer, he would have been burnt as a heretic in 1546.”1

A few weeks later,
a band of Protestants set out to revenge Wisehart. They raided St. Andrew’s
Castle and killed Cardinal Beaton. They abused the corpse shamefully. Though
Knox did not share in that raid, he soon shared the blame by moving into the
castle as teacher to children of the rebels. He was indeed in total sympathy
with their deeds, as he would later record in his History of the Reformation.
Detailing the assassination of the cardinal and the desecration of his body,
Knox inserted, “These things we write merrily.”2
Those were violent times – especially in Scotland. In the hundred years before
the birth of Knox, every king of Scotland without exception met a violent death.3

The rebel force
in the castle grew to about two hundred. John Rough, their preacher and Henry
Balnavis, another leader, became increasingly impressed with Knox. One day a
Romanist named Arnaud debated in the chapel and spoke of the Roman Catholic
Church as the spouse of Christ.  Knox interrupted the speaker from the audience
to say Rome was no spouse but a harlot. He challenged the Romanist to debate
him on that subject. Though Arnaud refused, the congregation insisted that Knox
express his views in a sermon on the next Sunday.

Knox had never
preached, and the prospect of intruding into that holy office terrified him.
They would not be denied, however, so after a week of great soul struggle, in
April 1547, he preached his first sermon. His text was Daniel 7:24-25. Knox
summarized the sermon in his History. He called the Church of Rome the
Antichrist and cited the scandalous lives of some of the popes. He preached
that justification is by faith alone and not by any works of human righteousness.
The reception of this first sermon convinced him that he had God’s call to preach. 
He never doubted it again.4 

The French fleet
came in July 1547 to retake the castle. The defenders surrendered. Knox and
one hundred twenty other captives were sentenced to be galley slaves. They were
chained to a rowing bench twenty-four/seven with a daily ration of one ship’s
biscuit and water. It was sometimes as little as three ounces of food daily.
Every three weeks they were afforded a little vegetable soup. Knox was thirty-three
years old and in robust health when he began. Lesser men did not survive.5

Two of the most-often
told episodes in the life of Knox come from these nineteen months of cruel bondage.
Once a priest presented the slaves with a painted image of the Virgin Mary to
kiss. Knox begged to be excused saying “Trouble me not. Such an idol is accursed,
and therefore I will not touch it.” They violently forced the icon into his
hands and pushed it to his face. He tossed it overboard, saying: “Let our Lady
now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim.”6

The other incident
happened while they were anchored in sight of the spire of St. Andrews parish
church where he preached his first sermon. His companions thought he was near
death. A fellow slave asked him if he thought he would ever see that chapel
again.  He answered: “By the grace of God, I will yet again preach there.”7 Knox
gained his freedom in 1549 through the intervention of King Edward VI, the remarkable
ten-year-old “British Josiah.” The reformer accepted appointment as chaplain
to the young monarch and as one of six itinerating preachers. He served five
years in the court of that “most godly king of England” until Edward died of
poison at age fifteen.8

Knox spent about
ten years in voluntary exile preaching in Germany, Switzerland and France with
occasional trips to England and Scotland. He spoke English, French, and German
as well as his native Lowland Scots language. He was also capable of reading
his Bible in the original languages. In 1559 Knox returned to his very troubled
homeland and the next year personally led the reformation forces to a military
victory. He also deserves credit for the triumph of Calvinism in Scotland and
for what became the Presbyterian Church. After Mary Stuart came to the throne
in 1560, Knox was arrested, tried for treason, and acquitted. He spent his last
years in Edinburgh and St. Andrews and died at home in old age.

F. W. Boreham’s
sermonic essay on “John Knox’s Text” tells us how he died. As the end neared,
Knox said to his wife, “Go, read where I cast my first anchor!”  She needed
no more explicit directions to find and read John 17, including especially those
words of verse 3 “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only
true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Shortly after that, his servant,
Richard Bannatyne, asked if his master might give them some signal as the end
approached that he still had the hope of glory described in that chapter. Knox
agreed. Soon afterward, the dying man heard the servant’s question. “He raised
a clay-cold finger, and pointed to the sky.”9

The Preaching of
John Knox

Study of Knox,
the reformer, has largely eclipsed study of Knox, the preacher. One reason surely
is that almost none of his sermons in manuscript have come down to us. Perhaps
only one or two true sermons, a few other addresses and summary reports of sermons
are available. Richard Kyle’s recent study is one with a very helpful chapter
on Knox as a preacher.

Knox believed
a reformed pastor’s first duty was to preach God’s Word.
Two other basic
duties were to administer the sacraments and to enforce church discipline. As
a true reformer, Knox dethroned the Mass. His calling was to preach the Word
of God. Though it is still debated whether he kept the sacraments on a par with
preaching, the weight of his writings supports preaching as central.10

And it was not
mere preaching that he elevated but reformation preaching, the kind that returned
the Bible to the pulpit as well as the pew. It was preaching a literal understanding
of Scripture instead of the moralizing and allegorizing of the Middle Ages.
Knox was convinced that the Bible was clear and intelligible to the average
person. The preacher’s task was not so much to interpret the Bible as to declare
what was self-evident in it.11.

He liked to
preach through books of the Bible verse by verse.
He preached through large
books in the Old Testament and New such as Isaiah and the Gospel of John.  Knox
tended to emphasize the Old Testament. His view of God as unchanging led him
to conclude that plagues, invasions, and natural disasters must judge Scotland
and England as surely as Israel and Judah of old. Deuteronomy 12:32 was something
of a key verse for his hermeneutic: “All that I command you, be careful to do
it; you shall not add to it, nor take away from it.” By this standard he sought
to purify religion. Knox preached long sermons and preached often. In Geneva
he preached several times each week, and each sermon was two or three hours

He also was
a pastoral preacher.
He preached to comfort and encourage Christian living
especially after Queen Mary’s rule ended in Scotland.12
His sermon on the first temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 starts
with his specific objective that his hearers not fear the crafty assaults of
Satan. He previews a three-fold outline in the first paragraph. First, what
the word temptation means and how it is used in Scripture. Second, who is here
tempted and at what time this temptation happened. Third, how and by what means
he was tempted and what fruits ensue. It is notable for a clear Biblical basis
and for systematic treatment of theology of testing and temptation. He presents
a Biblical theology of themes such as the forty days as a period of testing,
and he gives evidence of thorough research of earlier expositors on the text.13

Knox typically
organized his sermons into a two-fold structure.
First he expounded the
text. Then he drew doctrinal or practical application.  His closing exhortations
often applied the text to society. He focused on political leaders especially,
making them heroes or villains. He earned their wrath more often than not. He
also liked to select a practical subject like prayer and build a doctrinal sermon
from an appropriate text. 

He spoke in
plain terms to reach the common man.
Others spoke of “the sacrament of the
altar”; Knox called it simply “the mass.” He could be harsh but said he took
no joy in it. He was obeying his Master who commanded him to use plain speech
and to flatter no flesh. Dargan, in his History of Preaching, cited a
report of great boldness in the preaching of Knox in the court of King Edward. 
Knox asked, “What wonder is it that a young and innocent king be deceived by
crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly councilors?  I am greatly afraid that Ahithophel
is councilor, that Judas bears the purse, and that Shebnah is scribe, controller
and treasurer.” Knox later reproached himself for those words; he thought them
not strong enough in rebuke of iniquity.14

Knox preached
to change individuals and nations.
He proclaimed the evangel as a true reformer
preaching for decision. He wanted Scotland to be a Christian republic; separation
of church and state was not a part of his theology. He wanted the evangel “truly
and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly” of the realm. His Book of
Discipline called for all doctrine repugnant to the Scriptures to be “utterly
suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.”  When in the minority, believers
must separate from idolatry; when in the majority they must abolish it.15
He believed in the priesthood of the believers but made a strong case for state
support of the ministry. Probably the long tradition of state support of the
ministry and presence of so many ministers in poverty influenced this view.

His delivery
was what we usually call today extemporaneous.
He prepared thoroughly but
did not write out a manuscript. From an incidental remark in his Administration
of England we learn that his method was to speak from a few notes made on
the margin of his Bible. His preaching made a profound impact on those who heard
him. James Melville heard Knox preach and took notes on delivery as well as
content. His account was written in Old English, but I offer the following summary
in updated English.

He spent the first
half hour in opening up of his text. In this he spoke with moderation. . . .
But when he began the application of the scripture he caused me so to shudder
and tremble that I could not hold a pen to write. . . . He was so vigorous in
his pulpit that I thought he was likely to beat the pulpit to pieces and fly
out of it.16  


Austin B. Tucker
is a pastor, teacher and author who lives in Shreveport, LA.


1. Jasper Ridley, John Knox, NY: Oxford, 1968.,  44.
2. Knox, John, The History
of The Reformation in Scotland, ed. by Wm C. Dickinson, NY: Philosophical
Library, 1950., vol. 1, 179.
3. Ibid. 8.
4. Ibid. 
5. Ridley, 66-67.
6. Ridley, 71, cf Knox, History.

7. Ridley, 74-75.
8. N. A. Woychuk, The
British Josiah: Edward VI, the Most Godly King of England. St. Louis: SMF
Press, 2001, 108-09.
9. F. W. Boreham, A Bunch
of Everlastings. NY: Abingdon, 1920, 110f.
10. Richard Kyle, The
Ministry of John Knox: Pastor, Preacher, Prophet. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen
Press, 2002, 135.
11. Kyle,  84, 85.
12. Kyle, 89.
13. W. W. Wiersbe, ed. Treasury
of the World’s Great Sermons. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993), 323-330.
14. Edwin Charles Daggan,
A History of Preaching, Vol. I, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970 reprint of
1905 edition), 502-03.
15. Kyle, 34-38.
16. Reformed Theological
Journal (Nov. 1987) , p. 8, quoted in Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland

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