John Knox

John Knox – The Thundering Scott
Acts 4:13-22,  Luke 3:7-20

John Knox was arrogant, proud, stubborn, cantankerous, narrow-minded, argumentative and intolerant.   That was the verdict of his friends.  The evaluation of his enemies was much worse.  In their opinion he was a hate monger, woman hater, an enemy of the state, and a danger to the public good.

John Knox of Scotland was a hard man to love.  His friends disliked him.  The great reformers of the day – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli – felt themselves bullied by this man and found themselves always in an argument with him.  The Queens of England and Scotland lived their whole lives furious at the man.

Yet listen to the verdict of the great writer Thomas Carlyle:
What John Knox did for his nation, was a resurrection from the dead.
The people began to live.  Scottish literature and thought, and Scottish industry were infused with new life. Without him great writers such as Walter Scott and Robbie Burns would never have arisen

Wow! Quite the verdict!

But it is true.  To this day, his name adorns thousands of Presbyterian churches around the world.  To this day his name is inscribed everywhere throughout the city of Edinburgh.  It is clear that he changed Scotland forever.  And others add that he changed much of the rest of the world as well.  He will be forever listed among the great names of Christian history.  But that did not make him a nice man.  It did not make him attractive.  Very few are tempted to make a saint out of this very unsaintly man.

Almost everyone in his day shook with fear or shook with anger at the words of John Knox.  His words were thundering words in both content and volume.  Towards the end of his life, though he was only 58 years old when he died, he was quite frail. The elders of the congregation would carry him and lean him over the pulpit, but as he preached, he would come alive and almost pound the pulpit to smithereens.    Martin Luther has been called a bull, in a china shop.  John Knox was more like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

So who is this man, and why do we revere him while disliking him?

His story in brief.

He was born just south of Edinburgh, Scotland in the year 1514 just three years before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door in Germany.  As far as we know he had a normal childhood.  He went to the nearby university to train as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.  But he couldn’t find a posting in the church when he graduated, so became a tutor to the children of the nobility.

But because of Luther, life had started to change in Scotland.   The new Protestant doctrine was infiltrating the country.  Luther’s writings were being smuggled into Scottish homes.  A man of influence in Edinburgh, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake, for holding Lutheran views.  His death was felt to be unjust and it helped fan the flames of discontent with the established Church.

When Knox is 29 years old he comes to embrace the new teachings.  He repudiated the Roman Catholic Church and joins up with the Protestants and becomes a bodyguard to George Wishart, the leader of the new movement in Scotland.

John Knox carries a big two handed sword.  He looks like a highland warrior ready for battle.  But apparently he is not a very good bodyguard because George Wishart is captured, tried, condemned, strangled and then burned at the stake.   The reaction was immediate on the part of some of the militant Protestants.   A group entered the palace of the Archbishop and murdered him in turn, and mutilated his body for good measure.

Knox was not among the assassins, but he was in agreement with them, and so had to run for his life. He flees from town to town, hiding away with friends from the long hand of the law. Finally, he is captured, and without trial made to serve as a galley slave on a French ship.  It was slavery at its worst.  Chained to long oars under the deck of the ship, there he served for 19 long months.  Those 19 months may have put iron in his soul, but the experience damaged his health.  So he is released, but life will never be easy for this man.

For the next 22 years John Knox will always be on the run. Upon being freed he moved to England, preaching the views of Protestantism.  But his words got him into trouble there, so he fled to France.  Then he is in Germany, then in Switzerland, back to Scotland, on the run again back to Geneva, and again to England.  And everywhere he goes he is writing and speaking and debating matters he counts crucial.   His ideas get him into trouble. His opponents increase throughout the years.

One of his essays really lands him in hot water with both friend and foe.  It is entitled “The first blast of the trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”   In our language it would read “the first warning against the unnaturalness of women governing.”   It is aimed at Mary, Queen of Scots.   Knox believes women should not be allowed to govern or lead.  But it is seen to be male chauvinism in the extreme, and the other reformers cannot share his views.  In other writings he goes on to assert that Christians can overthrow and assassinate rulers that are not true believers.   It is treason of course, and few want to be his followers.

When he dies in 1572, he dies a bitter and disappointed man.

So the question remains: what legacy did John Knox leave behind that makes him one of the revered leaders of the church?

First, He helped revitalized the Church in Scotland

The church in Scotland was dying in his day.  The church leaders were wealthy and powerful, but irrelevant. The church no longer helped people find God or change their way of life.  In fact, Scotland was descending once more into its ancient barbarism.  That alarmed John Knox, so he encouraged people to meet in small groups across the nation – They were called Privy Kirks – We know them as Home Bible Studies.  And faith began to grow in individuals by the dozens, and then by the hundreds and then thousands.   The people in these small groups began to support and encourage one another, and parts of the church began to return to healthy life.

In his preaching across the nation, John Knox yelled so loud that he woke up the saints from their lethargic sleep.  He aroused a sleeping giant.  His words were a clarion call for a nation to take the Christian life seriously.

Second, He gave Power to the People of God,

John Knox is also known for a long lasting legacy in how the church was to be governed.   In his day Mother Church was ruled from Rome by the Pope.  Under the Pope’s direction, bishops ruled the churches and held civil and religious powers in their hands.   Other Protestant bodies jettisoned the Pope, but allowed themselves to be governed by the civic authorities.  In England the King or the Queen was head of the church.   Across Europe the Princes shaped the church in ways that had formerly been done by the Roman cardinals.

John Knox believed that God alone was to rule His church, and that the Holy Spirit was given to all Christians so that the people of God should make the decisions that would influence their lives, and not only the clergy.

So he is one of the fathers of the form of government for the church, known as the Presbyterian form.  While Luther taught “The priesthood of all believers”, John Knox called for the church to put that into practice, and as of this day, much of the Christian church chooses now to govern itself that way.

Third, He taught us Courage

Knox gave a third gift to the church. He gave us back the gift of courage.  There was no cowardice or caution in John Knox.  He lived in a violent world and he gave as good as he got.  He saw that if the church did nothing in the face of wickedness, it would be destroyed.  His courage in the face of tyranny strengthened the backbone of the nation.  They in turn found courage to begin righting wrongs.

He could be called one of the first Liberation Theologians.  He would be the equivalent of Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid in South Africa or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, fighting systemic racial prejudice in North America.  These people were irritating in the extreme, but were used to change their world for God and for good.  They were people of outstanding courage in the face of injustice!

Did John Knox go overboard?  I’m sure he did.  He did not practice passive resistance.  But instead saw himself in the role of an Old Testament prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist, speaking truth to power.  He was called by God to pronounce the judgment of God on the corrupt political structures of his day.  He saw a house on fire and could not afford to speak with quiet voice.  He felt that he must scream a warning to the residents of his nation, that their house was in flames and they would perish unless they did something, and did it now.  His voice was not a pleasant one, but it was sorely needed.

Who was John Knox?  A rough-hewn man, who did many things he should not have done.  But he would argue with us that desperate times demand desperate measures.


Scott Peck the Psychiatrist speaking about the seven deadly sins in the life of America, says that the prevailing sin of North America is

  • Not Anger, though violence seems to grow daily
  • Not lust, though we have pornographized human sexuality
  • Not greed though the recent collapse of the economy was due to it.
  • Not pride, though we are made to think our nation the greatest on earth.
  • Not Gluttony though we have become voracious consumers of the world’s resources.
  • And not Envy, trying to stay ahead of our neighbours, even if it kills us.

These six sins take a terrible toll on national life.   But, our besetting sin, he says, is Sloth. And that same sickness, that same deadly sin, may be the vice that has captured much of the Christian Church in North America.  Sloth makes cowards of us all. It makes us timid in the face of great evils. It causes us to retreat into silence when Christian courage is called for.  It causes the church to want to be pastoral rather than prophetic.   Sloth stills the voice of prayer that pleads with God to intervene in the world’s despair; and instead makes us prone to live and let live.  Apathy in the face of wrong may be polite but it will hardly arrest vice and transpose it into virtue, or change the moral direction of a nation.


There is no better time than right now to sing the hymn “God of Grace & God of Glory” written by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1930.

God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your power;
crown your ancient church’s story,
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving you whom we adore,
serving you whom we adore.