John Knox: A Life of Faith and Obedience

by Hannah Rae Miller

John Knox. From The Knox family; a genealogical and biographical sketch of the descendants of John Knox of Rowan County, North Carolina by Hattie S. Goodman.

John Knox, like the rest of us, is a man with peaks and valleys. Unfortunately, when we assume what seems to be a peak and what seems to be a valley and thereafter define a person by those, we miss everything. If we solely look upon John Knox as, on the one hand, a man that conquered Catholicism and brought Presbyterianism to Scotland or, on the other hand, a writer that released a book against women, we then miss the most crucial parts of his life. Depending on whom one might talk to, John Knox will have a good reputation or a bad reputation, but like all people when we get to know their story, we no longer seem to hate or categorize them. This article attempts to equip the reader with many missed aspects of the life of this influential Scottish reformer. He was a galley slave, a friends, a pastor of a refugee church, a scholar and most importantly a soldier of the kingdom of heaven and a man of God.

To understand the context of his life we start with his birth. Unfortunately, there is little known about the birth and early childhood of John Knox, but what we can infer is that he was born about the year 1514. Raised in he household of William Knox, John Knox was born in the town of Haddington just seventeen miles out of Edinburgh, Scotland.[1] Strangely enough all we know of his mother, is that her maiden name was Sinclair, the lack of information on his family members further provides the basis for why many think he comes from a humble household and aids in retorting the idea that he might be of nobility or higher class.[2] Haddington, as well as being close to St. Andrews, was also forty miles from the Border to England at Berwick, the place where Knox was eventually placed as chaplain.[3]

During Knox’s youthful years, the scot was always aware of the growing power of the absolute monarchy of England, this was not, of course, without any direct affect. In attempts to understand the context that Knox walks into as a young scot, we must give attention to the context of the greater country of Scotland itself. Just a year before Knox’s birth, King James IV of Scotland, in alliance with France, invaded England. This was named the battle of Flodden and it did not go smoothly for Scotland. While Scotland lost their very courageous King they also lost about half of the total Scottish army. Not only did Scotland enter a time of unrest, as law and order went out the window, but the country was now under the reign of an eighteen-month old king. This weakness became a source of manipulation for the English. After this point of military vulnerability for the Scots began a fight for influence between the French and the English powers.[4]

It is said that Knox’s father William may have died at Flodden. So, not only did this French and English tension affect a large part of his family, but this tension would later effect larger seasons of his life. But first, Knox is to receive a standard Scottish education. At the age of ten, Knox was educated at Haddington Grammar School after attending a song school for a few years. It is often thought that Knox went to St. Andrews to study under John Major in the year 1529, at the age of 15. During his five or six years there, he studied Theology at St. Salvator’s College in St. Andrews.

After his time at St. Andrews, in 1536 John Knox was ordained as a priest by the bishop of Dunblane, William Chisholm. After becoming a priest at the young age of 22, he quickly learned there was too many priests and not enough of a need in Scotland, so he was forced to look elsewhere. Little is known about his years after university except that he had a short career as a lawyer. As he began to write in the year 1540, we learn that he started working as a tutor for the Brounefields.[5] As Scotland was predominantly Catholic, before, during, and after Knox’s higher education, protestants were not favored and therefore being martyred for their beliefs. As execution was a major concern for the protestants in Scotland, Knox laid low when pursuing his theological and doctrinal studies, until he met George Wishart By 1543 he converted to Protestantism and by 1547 he had completely rejected his Catholic ordination and preferred to be defined by his ministerial role at St. Andrews[6].

Wishart was Knox’s first glimpse of a passionate protestant preacher in the “Catholic’s only” land he grew up in. After the martyrdom of the brilliant man in march of 1546, the witness of Wisharts faith and preaching opened the door for Knox as he began to walk boldly into this unfavored new group.[7] final and another emotional part of the story of John Knox converting from Catholicism to Protestantism was the public call of Knox by John Rough in front of the entire congregation at the castle. After bursting with tears, Knox knew he couldn’t resists God’s call and so he responded faithfully in aid to Rough, as some of the Rough’s sermons were under heavy academic criticism by Holy Trinity Catholic Church and St. Leonard’s College.[8] The encouraging possibilities, although risky, of the new protestant movement within Scotland enabled Knox to enter, with strong conviction, into his new role at St. Andrews in 1547.

As academic sermons continued and discussions on the Eucharist continued to divide the Scottish Church, King Henry II of France secretly sent a French fleet towards St. Andrews. The fleet left July 1547 and on August seventh the castle had surrendered and a ship full of Scottish prisoners was sent back to France.[9] Among those prisoners was John Knox. For the next nineteen months Knox found himself a slave in the galley of a French ship, but this, among other attributes of his story, are the uncommon pieces of information that few associate with his legacy. In his writings Knox gives little to no attention to their physical living conditions or his physical state during the time on the ship. As a man in a place of constant demanding physical labor, his omitting of information about this suffering speaks to his humble obedience. Knox had immense faith that God would take care of his flock and bring them to rest. As a slave on a French ship, Catholicism was unsurprisingly the adhered to religious practice. Nevertheless, Knox and various other brave Scots stood un-flinched. This commitment stayed true as they felt pressure to attend the ships mass, as songs and images were put before them, amidst it all they did not waver. The comites, or French officers, soon loosened their efforts to convince the slaves of this Christian tradition.[10] Throughout this, Knox, previously and proudly a minister at St. Andrews, continued his pastoral care while in the galleys. His fellow forsare, Balfour, asked Knox “whether he thought that they would ever get out of the galleys. Knox always told him that he knew that God would deliver them from this bondage, and he never wavered in this belief.”[11] Along with his pastoral role among his fellow forsares, Knox also continued to pursue academics. While aboard the ship he was sent the Protestant Doctrine of Justification By Faith Alone written by Henry Balnaves, an evangelical diplomat.[12] Although seemingly unattached and unable to pastor his congregation in Scotland, this encouraging text allowed him to be refreshed by scholarly works while also step back into his pastoral role with his congregation in Scotland, for he was able to pass along the document as an uplifting note to them.

These nineteen months as a galley slave provided abundant time for Knox to reflect on the hand of God moving in his life, calling him clearly as a minister to the church. Upon release from galley slavery, he found himself in exile in England. Although as a refugee he found himself in the midst of the Church of England, to his assurance, the church had newly accepted the reformed doctrine. Having been landed and released in England, in 1549, he was sent to be an army Chaplin at “Berwick-on-Tweed, a heavily militarized English town located near the border to Scotland.[13] His recent history as a galley slave aided him in his ability to understand the intense militaristic environment as well as it enabled him to better fit in as “one of the boys”. Ironically, later that year, the English army at Berwick failed to take control of Knox’s hometown, Haddington, which proved to be a crucial misjudgment. This cause the English to end all war efforts against Scotland and France.

Just as Knox began his career at Berwick the first mandatory Book of Common Prayer came into use as liturgy for the Church of England. With no intent to hide it, John Knox varied strongly from the suggestions of this book. For example, John Knox administered the Eucharist at a table, wrote his own prayers for communion, and showed clear opposition to the doctrine of transubstantiation.[14] After appearing before a council to defend his actions he arrived in Newcastle and began preaching at the church of St. Nicholas.[15] His time in England confirmed his adherence to “the radical wing of the Edwardian Church.”[16] Nearing the end of King Edward’s reign was only the beginning of many quarrels regarding the doctrine of Eucharist and adherence to the Book of Common Prayer. Just before the end of the reign of King Edward, Northumberland, a political force in England, offered Knox parishes in Rochester and in London. For accepting it would mean he had to adhere to the doctrine of kneeling (1552 Book of Common Prayer) in communion. He was not willing to settle. He convinced Northumberland to let him enter into an itinerant or wandering preaching role. Knox used this specific call to roam to his advantage, using it as a way to admonish the leaders of the Church of England to adhere to God’s law first and foremost. Compromising was not an option, and the way politics began to bleed into the picking and choosing of God’s law was unacceptable.

After King Edwards death on July 7th of 1553, and the passing of the throne to Mary Tudor, John Knox and other foreign protestants were quickly dubbed an “undesirable foreigner[s] with no protection” and were promptly told that “they were not longer welcome in England.”[17] After fleeing to Dieppe, France in January of 1554, Knox journeyed to Zurich. On his journey he made a stop in Geneva and was able to meet the famous reformer, John Calvin.[18] Calvin became a great advocate and friend to Knox as he entered into new and challenging pastoral roles. Regrettably it is to heavy a task to tackle in this short article, but Calvin’s scholarship and life affected Knox immensely, so we appreciate the companion of faith Calvin was to Knox. He continued on his journey and upon his arrival in Zurich he engaged in doctrinal and theological academic dialogues. Most of the conversation was dominated by frustration with the recurring dominance of the catholic church in England and intolerance of Protestantism, enforced by Queen Mary Tudor. This frustration was met with many warnings against direct action toward those they deemed idolatrous people. After this short trip he went back to Dieppe which, being on the coast, served as a proper spot to learn the latest news on England and it also allowed him to keep in communication with his congregation in Scotland. After his return to Dieppe, it wasn’t long that he began to realize how much he missed the scholarship he found during his short visit to Geneva.

So, Knox promptly left for Geneva to continue in his studies of biblical languages and grow through dialogue with many other passionate protestants. To his dismay, in October of 1554, just a few months after his arrival to Geneva, he was asked to minister to an English-speaking church in Frankfurt, Germany.[19] For he was not in mourning over the opportunity to pastor a congregation, but at the fact that he must further delay his biblical studies. In November 1554, upon his arrival, there had already been communication within the members of the new congregation about whether or not they would stick to the 1552 Book of Common Prayer or adhere to the French Order of Service(Anglican). There were parts of the congregation who felt as though adhering to some of the English liturgical practices could offend the French community and host church, the Church of the White Ladies. Still, others felt as though the 1552 Prayer Book should be followed from the first word to the last. In view of this disunity, Knox would not administer communion until there was agreement.[20] To add another layer into the mix, adherence to the French tradition meant Knox was unable to perform the sacraments in a way that aligned with scripture, as seen in the English liturgy. When considering the French tradition, he asked if he could have someone else to administer the sacraments, while he stuck solely to teaching.[21] And if these requests couldn’t be met, he asked to be released from his duties in Frankfurt. In response to his unmet request he then, with the help of others, devised a summary of the Book of Common Prayer. In January of 1555, they sent the summary to Geneva for Calvin to review, along with a note explaining the cause for the compromise.[22] In his response, Calvin wrestles with them, for he does not wish to cause others to stumble so instead decides that a liturgy should be composed that accommodates the liturgical desires of both the local Order of Service and the Book of Common Prayer.[23] In addition, Nicholas Ridley, a Protestant Bishop, along with a few others were English refugees who came at the tail end of the editing of the Book of Common Prayer. In regards to Ridley, unfortunately for Knox, “the argument that to deviate in any way from the Prayer Book would be interpreted as a repudiation of Cranmer and Ridley, who were regarded as the authors of the Book, had great influence among the refugees.”[24] But to the advantage of Knox, Ridley was a man of integrity and aligned with the idea that “except in matters forbidden by God’s Word, all residents in a country, including aliens, should adopt the Church services prescribed by the authorities.”[25] After writing to Calvin for help as to how they might appease the situation, Whittingham and Knox along with the vote of the congregation it was decided to come up with an entirely new layout for the service. This became known as the Order of Service and after adoption in Geneva became known as the Order of Geneva and finally in 1560 became adopted and known as the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland. This work was officially composed by Knox and four other English contemporaries, at the Frankfort church, although hints of this order do show up as early as Knox’s time at Berwick.[26] This new drawing up of the order had great and lasting impacts but for the congregation in Frankfort in 1554.

The peace was made and the peace was kept. The congregation praised God for the ways in which he provided unity. This praise lasted three months, then in March 1555 Dr. Cox and a band of other English refugees came to Frankfurt from England and were unappreciative to say the least when they were told not to recite aloud at their first Sunday service with the other refugees at the church of the White Ladies. Cox was a man who had “frequently been employed in interrogating and persecuting Protestants During the last years of Henry’s reign.”[27] He was also a co-author of the Book of Common Prayer, so inevitably he was a strong advocate for it as it stood unchanged and was less than please to hear of its dilution. The following Sunday some of those that felt disapprovingly toward this compromised liturgy, without permission took the pulpit and began to disrespect the congregation and recite the litany.[28] After inappropriate church interruptions, Cox demanded that his people had a right to vote. So pulling on the conservatives that aligned with Lever, another pastor at Frankfort, they successfully voted Knox out of church office.[29]

These English refugees were so fixated on this Parliament-approved, state-backed, Church-of-England-stamp-of-approval, Book of Common prayer, that they were unable to waver in times of beautiful compatibility. So Knox left Frankfort and arrived back in Geneva in April 1555 after a dedicated try at unifying a church and a community. He returned to his studies in Switzerland only to be sent back home to Scotland four months later. The rest of John Knox’s life consisted with the writing of crucial doctrine, the opposing influence of Mary Tudor and further Scottish Protestant influence. This courageous scot produced controversy as his words and writings flooded Scotland and beyond until the day he died on the 24th of November 1572, at 58 years old.

From what seemed like a glimpse, we learn of his great intellectual and pastoral integrity as a Christian Leader while a galley slave.[30] We learn of his great emotional thoughtfulness when considering the Kingdom of God and his role within it. It is clear his ability to adapt wherever he is sent while still holding fast to the convictions of his heart. And harshly we learn from his time in Frankfort and elsewhere that fixed forms of worship don’t allow for differences in the greater Church. Knox is greatly aware that each person holds to their own convictions regarding traditions and practices within the faith so with integrity he brings each one together in unity never wavering from the authority of scripture. From the galleys to a refugee congregation, His mission is consistent is one of truth strongly rooted in scripture.



[1] Crook, Isaac. John Knox: The Reformer. Men of the Kingdom. (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1906), 15.
[2] Ridley, Jasper Godwin. John Knox. (London: Clarendon Press, 1968), 13.
[3] Ridley, 7.
[4] Ridley, 11.
[5] Marshall, Rosalind Kay. John Knox. (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000), 3.
[6] Dawson, Jane E. A. John Knox. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 19.
[7] Dawson, John Knox, 33.
[8] Dawson, 43.
[9] Dawson, 52.
[10] Dawson 54.
[11] Ridley, John Knox, 75.
[12] Dawson, John Knox, 58.
[13] Dawson, 58.
[14] Dawson, 60.
[15] Dawson, 61.
[16] Dawson, 69.
[17] Dawson, 81.
[18] Dawson, 85.
[19] Dawson, 90.
[20] Whitley, Elizabeth. Plain Mr. Knox. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), 81.
[21] M’Crie, Thomas, and Knox, John. Life of John Knox. (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1991), 69.
[22] M’Crie, 70.
[23]Peterson, Eugene H. NIV, the Message: parallel Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2004. Romans 14:13
[24] Ridley, John Knox, 199.
[25] Ridley, 199.
[26] Ridley, 201.
[27] Ridley, 203.
[28] M’crie, Life of John Knox, 70.
[29] Whitley, Plain Mr. Knox, 82.
[30] Percy of Newcastle, Eustace Percy. John Knox. American ed.]. ed., John Knox Press, 1965. 163.



Burgess, Stanley M. The Holy Spirit : Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (sixth-sixteenth Centuries). Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Crook, Isaac. John Knox: The Reformer. Men of the Kingdom. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1906.

Dawson, Jane E. A. John Knox. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

MacGregor, Geddes. The Thundering Scot; a Portrait of John Knox. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957.

Marshall, Rosalind Kay. John Knox. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000.

McEwen, James S. The Faith of John Knox. Croall Lectures ; 1960. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961.

M’Crie, Thomas, and Knox, John. Life of John Knox. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1991.

Percy of Newcastle, Eustace Percy. John Knox. American ed.]. ed., John Knox Press, 1965.

Peterson, Eugene H. NIV, the Message: parallel Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2004.

Whitley, Elizabeth. Plain Mr. Knox. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960.

Ridley, Jasper Godwin. John Knox. Clarendon Press, 1968.