John Knox was born at Haddington, Scotland, in 1513. He was sent as a boy to the Grammar School to learn Latin and proceeded from there to the University of St. Andrews for further study. He became a priest though he was never engaged in regular parish work. He was a notary and he also taught Latin to boys for a period of nine years.
Knox became deeply impressed with his study of the Bible and in particular with the high-priestly prayer of Jesus in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel. He believed that this was the key to the solution of the problems that had so long disturbed him. There was born in his mind the notion of the invisible Church known only to God who alone knew who were His children.
The young Scot came under the influence of George Wishart’s preaching. It was not until he was thirty that he became identified with the Protestant cause in Scotland. He became chaplain to the garrison in the castle at St. Andrews. When the French captured the castle, Knox was sent to the galleys for nineteen months. He survived this terrible experience with indestructible morale.
Knox found his way to England where he served a church at Berwick and became a chaplain to the boy King Edward VI. When Mary Tudor succeeded to the English throne he was forced to flee to the Continent. During his years of exile he preserved himself for the destiny to which he felt called by God, the leadership of the Reformation in Scotland.
By nature Knox lacked many desirable qualities, but he was a leader of men and his thunderous and inspired preaching helped him to overcome all obstacles. He found himself in open defiance of Mary Queen of Scots, with whom he had five private confrontations in which he was victorious because of an imperturbable faith in the rightness of his cause.
John Knox was no rabble rouser nor was he a great theologian or a distinguished scholar. He was, above all, a preacher and a leader of men. He believed he was a trumpet for the Word of God — in which he put all his trust — for he know that God could heal and hallow even the poorest instrument of His choosing. What captivates us chiefly in Knox is his intense sincerity in the role he plays in fascinating dramatic situations.
In the hearts of Scotsmen his place is secure. Geddes Magregor in his splendid portrait of John Knox (John Knox, the Thundering Scot), says: “He was the Moses of the Scots, more indeed, for he was their Amos and their Isaiah, even their Washington and Lincoln, all rolled into one.”
The Scottish Parliament established the Reformed Church by law in 1550. Knox spent his last years in retirement, worn out by his hardships and struggles, but by the time of his death in 1572 he was acknowledged, even by those who did not see eye to eye with him, as the greatest figure in Scottish church history. He gave us a history of the Scottish Reformation. He was a fervent and compelling preacher, a shrewd reader of political weather, an able organizer, the first revolutionary of modern times, and a sincere if sometimes misguided believer in his Savior Jesus Christ.
Knox came upon the scene after the Reformation had been fairly well established in many parts of Europe. The Church of Scotland in his day was more corrupt than the church had been in any other land. It was largely through the energies of Knox that the old church was replaced by a church that featured an open Bible in the language of the people, participation by the congregations equipped with service books and psalm books in their own tongue, the rediscovery of Holy Communion as a corporate action, communion in both kinds (bread and cup), married clergy, the participation of the laity in church affairs, renewed emphasis on the parish, the revival of efficient oversight of clergy and churches, and the elimination of abuses.
As he lay dying he turned to his wife and asked her to read John 17, “where I first cast my spiritual anchor.” It is strange that this fiery preacher did not wish to hear from Amos or Hosea, Micah or Jeremiah. This high-priestly prayer of Jesus answered his soul’s deep need. According to his biographers he seemed unable to articulate the inner mystical union that he felt with the living Lord.
British ambassador Thomas Randolph said of him: “The voice of this one man is able in one hour to put more life in us than five hundred trumpets blustering in our ears.” We know where he got that life. Those who have written most perceptively of him tell us to begin with the inward man, with his prayers. He knew the heights and depths which lay behind the phrase “justification by faith.” He said: “I know how hard the battle is. I know the anger, wrath and indignation against God, calling all His promises in doubt, and being ready every hour utterly to fall from God, against which rests only faith.”
The man who was famous for having said, “Give me Scotland or I die,” had earlier said, “Give me Christ or I cannot live.” At his graveside the Regent Morton said: “Here lies one who neither flattered or feared any flesh.”
Knox was radical in his religious views and politically opposed to despotism. Such radicalism is often associated with ranting oratory. Knox did not rant. Still, by modern standards, he was inordinately long-winded. Even in his day his sermons must have seemed heavy going. His aim was not so much to inflame his hearers as to argue them into accepting the truth of his messages. Macgregor says:
Listening to Knox was a little like listening to the evidence at a murder trial. At times you wearied of the long drawn-out evidence for a conclusion you might have reached already. But you admired the way he reached it and, above all, the process had all the fascination of a modern detective novel (The Thundering Scot, p. 55).
Sylvstor Home, in his Beecher Lecture, The Romance of Preaching, claims that John Knox “united to the statesmanship of Calvin the fiery eloquence of a Savanarola” (p. 171). Although he was said to have never feared the face of man Knox always spoke of himself as a coward by nature and brave and strong only by grace. He shrank from the ordeal of preaching and entered the pulpit in St. Andrews in 1546 only by the solemn importunity of John Rough, who exhorted him “to refuse not his holy vocation as you look not to avoid God’s heavy displeasure.”
We may look at him and hear him in the pulpit through the eyes of a contemporary, James Melville, who heard Knox preach in 1571, a year before his death. Of all the benefits I had that year was the coming of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, John Knox, at St. Andrews. I heard him teach the prophecies of Daniel that summer and the winter following. In the opening of his text he was moderate the space of a half an hour, but when he reached the application he made me tremble so much that I could not hold the pen to write. He wielded this power when in bodily weakness, for he had to be helped into the church and lifted into the pulpit where he had to lean on his first entry. But when he came to his sermon he was so active and vigorous that he was like to beat the pulpit into pieces and fly out of it.
Calvin wrote to the Duke of Somerset: “Send us preachers whose trumpet voice will reach to the corners of men’s hearts.” Like Luther, John Knox took Ezekiel 33 with deep seriousness. He was God’s watchman, called to sound an alarm as one who must give an account, at whose hands blood might be required. He was bound up with his people not only in a solidarity of suffering, but also in a solidarity of guilt.
Gordon Rupp says of his preaching:
We are restive at his little dooms and judgments, the univocal relation he finds between the Old Testament and his own day, the ever repeated Ahabs, Jezebels and Jehus, reclothed in kilts and kirtles and bonnets, but amid so much that is naive and simplistic, we had better heed Knox’s words: “My assurances are not the marvels of Merlin, nor yet the dark sentences of profane prophets but the plain truth of God’s Word, the invincible justice of the everlasting God” (Just Men, p. 65).
While Knox was so much engaged in controversy and when needful smote hard and did not spare the people in his preaching, his was also the clear, ringing trumpet which rallied the people in the very moment of panic or despair. He could address himself to believers for their comfort and encouragement. A. E. Garvie says of him:
That his fervour sometimes passed the sounds of courtesy and consideration may be allowed. It was to his advantage in the eyes of men that he had to deal sternly and even harshly with a young queen, but he shrank from no task, however trying, to which the interests of the Gospel summoned him” (The Christian Preacher, p. 137).