John Knox was born in Scotland around the year 1514. He was brought up under the Roman Catholic religion and was well educated. Knox demonstrated sharp intellect when enrolled in Haddington Grammar School. Although not much is known about his days as a student, Knox went on to complete an MA degree from the University of St. Andrews. This penchant for learning helped lay the foundation that would lead him to bring the Reformation to Scotland.
The notable Scottish historian, Thomas McCrie (1772–1835), describes the religious state of Scotland during Knox’s early life as follows: “The corruptions by which the Christian religion was universally disfigured, before the Reformation, had grown to a greater height in Scotland than in any other nation within the pale of the Western Church…The lives of the clergy, exempted from secular jurisdiction, and corrupted by wealth and idleness, were become a scandal to religion, and an outrage on decency [and] the ignorance of the clergy respecting religion was as gross as the dissoluteness of their morals.”
As Knox continued his personal studies, he was not satisfied with the few excerpts of ancient church fathers he found in some of his readings, so he read the primary sources themselves of Jerome and Augustine. Through these writings, he was led to the Bible as the only source of divine truth. This in turn caused him to realize that what the Bible and the early church fathers taught was in exact opposition to what the Roman Catholic Church was upholding and teaching. It took several years before Knox finally professed himself a Protestant and renounced the Roman Catholic communion in 1542.
He was deposed as a priest, and assassins from the Roman Catholic Church sought his life. He was hired as a tutor in a wealthy family to teach doctrine and religion, and for a while he was forced to flee from town to town to avoid being killed. Eventually he resided in the castle of St. Andrews and was asked to preach a sermon. He then preached regularly, and many renounced Roman Catholicism and embraced Protestant Reformed theology.
When Reformed preaching came under attack, Knox devoted himself to being the bodyguard of George Wishart. This seems to be his first gesture of publicly defending Reformed teachings. At Wishart’s arrest in 1545, Wishart insisted that John Knox stand down and return to their congregation. After Wishart’s death at the stake at St. Andrews Castle, in March 1546, all his obligations and mission were passed on to John Knox. Within a short time, St. Andrews Castle became a Protestant stronghold, and Knox found himself preaching, teaching, and tutoring there. He was quickly gaining recognition for his convicting messages and Reformed views.
In 1547, a French fleet invaded, and the castle was taken. Knox and the others refused to recant their Protestant Reformed beliefs and became galley slaves to the French. He was finally released in 1549, but history doesn’t tell us under what circumstances this occurred. After this, he immediately went to England, where his reputation preceded him. In England, Knox defended the Reformed faith against Roman Catholicism. In December 1551, the Privy Council conferred on him a mark of their approbation, by appointing him one of King Edward’s Chaplains-in-Ordinary—as an honorary chaplain to the king.
Knox was also consulted about the Book of Common Prayer, which was being revised. At the special request of Edward VI and with the concurrence of that Council, Knox was offered a bishopric, which he refused. He remained in London after the death of Edward VI and the coronation of Queen Mary. In 1554, because of persecutions under Queen Mary, he left for France. From there, he spent some time in Switzerland, visiting the particular churches, and conferring with the learned men, and he also became personally acquainted with John Calvin.
When Knox returned to Scotland, he found that those who subscribed to the Protestant Reformed doctrine were still following Roman Catholic worship practices. He successfully debated this point, and as a result, a formal separation was made with the Roman Church, which was a defining point for the Scottish Reformation.
In 1556, he was asked to serve as pastor for a Geneva congregation, so he returned to Switzerland. The following year, he participated in the translation of a new English Bible—the Geneva Bible.
John Knox was a prolific writer of and an advocate for the Reformed faith and doctrine. Some consider him the founding father of English Puritanism. Although only a fraction of his writings have survived to the present, Knox has left us with a legacy of Reformed theology as a passionate preacher and prominent Scottish Reformer.