Neither the place nor the date of the birth of John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer, is settled beyond dispute; but the weightiest considerations favour Giffordgate, a suburb of the town of Haddington (16 m. e. of Edinburgh) as the place, and 1513 or 1514 as the year. He died at Edinburgh on November 24, 1572.
His father was William Knox, of fair, though not distinguished, descent, who fought at the Battle of Flodden, and had his home in the county of Haddington. His mother's name was Sinclair. He received the elements of a liberal education in Haddington, which possessed an excellent grammar school-- one of those schools originally monastic and due to the public spirit which, at least as regards education, animated the Scottish Church even before the Reformation.
Thence he proceeded either to the University of Glasgow, where the name "John Knox" occurs among the incorporati in 1522, or to St. Andrews, where he is stated to have studied under the celebrated John Major, a native, like Knox, of East Lothian and one of the greatest scholars of his time.
Major was at Glasgow in 1522 and at St. Andrews[?] in 1531. How long Knox remained at college is uncertain. He certainly never made any pretense to be such a scholar as his contemporaries George Buchanan and Alesius; nor is there evidence that he even graduated. That he was a fair Latinist, and accustomed to study, appears from the fact, which seems to be well attested, of his familiarity with the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome. He acquired the Greek and Hebrew languages at a later period, as his writings indicate.
He was ordained to the priesthood at some date prior to 1540, when his status as a priest is first mentioned. It that in 1543 Knox had not yet divested himself of Roman orders; at any rate, in his character as a priest, he signed a notarial instrument dated Mar. 27 of that year, the original of which is still to be found in the charter-room at Tyninghame Castle.
Up to this time, however, he seems to have employed himself in private tuition, rather than in parochial duties; and, at the moment when he last signed his name as a priest, he was probably already engaged in the office -- which he held for several years -- of tutor in the family of Hugh Douglas of Longniddry, in East Lothian, with the further charge of the son of a neighbouring gentleman, John Cockburn of Ormiston. Both of these lairds, like Knox himself, had even at this time a leaning to the new doctrines.
Knox first publicly professed the Protestant faith about the end of 1545. His mind had in all probability been directed to that faith for some time before the change was avowed. According to Calderwood, Thomas Guillaume, a native of East Lothian, the order of Blackfriars and for a short time chaplain to the Regent Arran in 1543, was the first "to give Mr. Knox a taste of the truth." His original change of opinion has been attributedto the study in early manhood, as already stated, of Augustine and Jerome.
The immediate instrument of his actual conversion was probably the learned and amiable George Wishart, who, after a period of banishment, returned to his native country in 1544, to perish, within two years, at the stake, as the last and most illustrious of the victims of Cardinal Beaton. Among other places where he preached the Reformed doctrines Wishart had come to East Lothian in Dec., 1545, and there made Knox's acquaintance.
The attachment which the latter formed for the person as well as for the doctrine of Wishart, must be described as of the nature of a youthful enthusiasm. Knox followed the Reformer everywhere, and constituted himself his body-guard, bearing, it is said, a two-edged sword, that he might be prepared to defend him against the cardinal's emissaries, who were known to be seeking Wishart's life.
On the night of the latter's apprehension, Knox was hardly restrained from sharing his captivity, and consequently, in all probability, his fate. The words of Wishart's remonstrance are well known:
Knox was first called to the Protestant ministry at St. Andrews, which was throughout his life intimately associated with the Reformer's career. There appears to have been no regular ordination. Of course, he had been already ordained as a priest in the Church of Rome. But imposition of hands and other forms were not regarded by Knox as of more than secondary importance. A graphic account of the whole proceedings connected with his call to the ministry, together with a report of the first sermon he delivered in St. Andrews, will be found in his History of the Reformation.
At this time he was residing in the castle of St.Andrews. After Beaton's death, this stronghold became a place of refuge for many of the Protestants. Along with his pupils, the sons of the lairds of Longniddry and Ormiston, already mentioned, Knox passed there some comparatively peaceful months. His repose was rudely interrupted by the investiture and capitulation of the castle in the end of July, 1547, succeeded, as regarded Knox and some of the rest of the efugees, by confinement in the French galleys.
He spent nineteen months as a galley-slave, amid hardships and miseries which are said to have permanently injured his health.
"How long I continued prisoner," he said at St. Andrews, in 1559, "what torments I sustained in the galleys, and what were the sobs of my heart, is now no time to recite." He adds, however, that he always continued to hope for a return to his native country. In the History (vol, i., p. 228), the same confidence of a return is referred to as never having forsaken him; and he gives a curious testimony to the fact by mentioning how, on one occasion, "lying betwixt Dundee and St. Andrews, the second time that the galleys returned to Scotland, the said John [Knox] being so extremely sick that few hoped his life, Maister [afterwards Sir] James [Balfour, one his fellow prisoners] willed him to look to the land, and asked if he knew it.
On his release, which took place early in 1549, through the intervention, apparently, of the English government, Knox found that, in the existing state of the country, he could be of little use in his beloved Scotland. For nearly ten years, accordingly, he submitted to voluntary exile, like many of the worthiest of his countrymen in those troublous times. All these years, however, he devoted himself to ministerial labors in connection with the Reformed Church. His first sphere of duty was provided for him in England, for the space of about five years as a minister of the English Church.
It is to be remembered that, during the whole reign of Edward VI., the Church of England was in a transition state; some of its most marked peculiarities (to which Knox himself and others in Scotland and abroad afterward objected) were then in abeyance, or at least not insisted upon as terms of communion. Thus the use of the prayer-book was not enforced, neither was kneeling at the communion. Episcopal government was of course acknowledged; but Knox held his commission, as a Reformed preacher, directly from the privy council, and was virtually independent of diocesan jurisdiction. Moreover, he seems to have had no strong objection to episcopacy itself, although he disapproved of "your proud prelates' great dominions and charge, impossible by one man to be discharged;" and on this, along with other grounds, he declined the bishopric of Rochester in 1552.
The offices he held in the Church of England are briefly indicated in the History, which says, "He was first appointed preacher to Berwick, then to Newcastle; and last he was called to London and to the southern parts of England, where he remained till the death of King Edward VI of England" (Works,i., p. 280).
From other sources it appears that in 1551 he was appointed one of the six chaplains in ordinary to the king; and in this capacity there was submitted to him, and, after revisal, he joined the other chaplains in sanctioning, The Articles concerning an Uniformity in Religion of 1552, which became the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles[?] (q. v.) of the Church of England.
From England, after the death of Edward, Knox proceeded to the continent, traveling for a time from place to place in some uncertainty. In Sept. 1554, while living at Geneva, he accepted in accordance with Calvin's counsel a call to the English Church at Frankfurt. Here controversies in connection with vestments, ceremonies, and the use of the English prayer-book met him, and, notwithstanding the great moderation which he showed from first to last, led, in Mar., 1555, to his resignation of his charge (cf. his treatise, A Brief Narrative of the Troubles which Arose at Frankfurt, reprinted in Laing's edition of his works). He returned to Geneva, where he was invited to become minister of the refugee English congregation. In August, however, he was induced to set out for Scotland, where he remained for nine months preaching Evangelical doctrine in various parts of the country, and persuading those who favored the Reformation to cease from attendance at mass, and to join with himself in the celebration of the Lord's Supper according to a Reformed ritual.
In May, 1556, he was cited to appear before the hierarchy in Edinburgh, and he boldly responded to the summons; but the bishops found it expedient not to proceed with the trial. In July an urgent call from his congregation at Geneva, along, probably, with the desire to prevent the renewal of persecution in Scotland, caused him to resume his Genevan ministry. His marriage to Marjorie Bowes, daughter of Richard Bowes, captain of Norham Castle, had meanwhile taken place, and his wife along with her mother accompanied him to Geneva, where they arrived in September
The church in which he preached there (called the Eglise de Notre Dame la Neuve) had been granted, at Calvin's solicitation, for the use of the English and Italian congregations by the municipal authorities. Knox's life in Geneva was no idle one. To preaching and clerical work of an exacting kind he added a large correspondence; and he was constantly engaged in literary work. His publications at Geneva included his First Blast against the Monstrous Regiment [Rule] of Women; and his long and elaborate treatise on predestination (published 1560) was composed in Geneva.
With the exception of some months spent at Dieppe (1557-58) when he was contemplating a return to Scotland, he continued to officiate in Geneva (while deeply interested in his native land and in constant communication with the reform party there) till Jan., 1559, when he finally left for home.
He arrived in Edinburgh May 2, 1559. The time was a critical one. During his absence the reform party had become more numerous, more self-reliant and aggressive, and better consolidated. The queen dowager, Mary of Lorraine, acting as regent for her daughter, the young Mary I of Scotland, then in France, had become more desirous to crush the Protestants and determined to use force. Civil war was imminent, but each side shrank from the first step. Knox at once became the leader of the Reformers. He preached against "idolatry" with the greatest boldness, and with the result that what he calls the "rascal multitude" began the "purging" of churches and the destruction of monasteries. Politics and religion were closely intertwined; the Reformers were struggling to keep Scotland free from the yoke of France, and did not hesitate to seek the help of England.
Knox negotiated with the English government to secure its support, and he approved of the declaration of the lords of his party in Oct., 1559, suspending their allegiance to the regent. The death of the latter in June, 1560, opened the way to a cessation of hostilities and an agreement leaving the settlement of ecclesiastical questions to the Scottish estates. The doctrine, worship, and government of the Roman Church were overthrown by the parliament of 1560 and Protestantism was established as the national religion. Knox, assisted by five other ministers, formulated the confession of faith adopted at this time and drew up the constitution of the new Church-- the First Book of Discipline
Queen Mary returned to Scotland in Aug., 1561, thoroughly predisposed against Knox; while he and the other Reformers looked upon her with anxiety and suspicion. Fundamental differences of character and training made a keen encounter between the two inevitable. Five personal interviews between Knox and the queen are recorded (each at Mary's invitation).
He found her no mean opponent in argument, and had to acknowledge the acuteness of her mind, if he could not commend the qualities of her heart. His attitude for the most part was unyielding and repelling, his language and manner harsh and uncourtierlike. In his preaching and other public utterances he was sometimes even violent.
It must be remembered, however, that the momentous issues at stake required a plain-spoken prophet, not a smooth-tongued courtier. Still it might have been wiser as well as more Christlike for Knox, at the outset of their intercourse, to seek to win rather than repel. Perhaps the Reformer feared Mary's well-known power of fascination and steeled himself against it. Later his heart became wholly hardened toward the adulterous accomplice, as be believed, of her husband's murderer.
Knox's life from the time of his return to Scotland in 1559 is a part of the history of his country and its full story is to be sought in the histories of Scotland. Only details which have a more personal interest can be noted here. When the Reformed religion was formally ratified by law in Scotland in 1560 he was appointed minister of the Church of St. Giles, then the great parish church of Edinburgh. He was at this time in the fulness of his powers, as is manifest abundantly in the style of his History of the Reformation-- a work which appears to have been begun about 1559, and completed in the course of the next six or seven years.
The History, if sometimes rough and even coarse in language, and not always commendable in temper and spirit, is written with a force and vigor not surpassed by any of his other writings-- of all which it may be said, that, whatever their faults, they are works of true genius, and well worthy in their character, upon the whole, of the great leader and statesman who wrote them.
At the very beginning of his labors as minister of Edinburgh, he had the misfortune to lose his much-loved and helpful young wife, whom John Calvin described as suavissima. She left two sons, one of whom, Nathanael, died at Cambridge in 1580; the other, Eleazer, became vicar of Clacton Magna in the archdeaconry of Colchester and died in 1591. In 1564 Knox made a second marriage, which was greatly talked of at the time because the bride was remotely connected with the royal family and still more because she was a maiden of seventeen while Knox was three times as old. The young lady was Margaret Stewart, daughter of Andrew, Lord Stewart of Ochiltree. She bore Knox three daughters, of whom the youngest, Elizabeth, became the wife of the famous John Welsh, minister of Ayr.
At this time the Reformer lived a very laborious life. He was much engrossed with the public affairs of the national Church, and at the same time devoted to his work as a parish minister, to say nothing of his continual, and perhaps, in his position, unavoidable controversies, more or less personal, with the ecclesiastical and political factions of the day, which he regarded as his country's enemies. He was, however, not without social and family enjoyments. A fair stipend of four hundred marks Scots, equal to about forty-four pounds of English money of that day, enabled him to exercise hospitality and to advance money to a friend in need. He had a good house, which was provided and kept in repair by the municipality.
His home, during the greater part of his ministry in Edinburgh, stood on the site now occupied by the City Council Chambers. Another house in Edinburgh, still preserved with little change and known since the eighteenth century at latest as "John Knox's house," may have been occupied by him toward the close of his life. With all his severity, there must have been much sympathy in a man who was repeatedly invited to reconcile the sundered, husband with wife, friend with friend. He lived in kindly relations with his neighbors, many of whom, in every rank, were among his intimate friends, and he was not indisposed to mirth and humor, of which, as of other traits of his character, his writings furnish abundant evidence.
An interesting description of Knox's appearance, and especially of his style as a preacher, in his later years, is furnished in the Diary of James Melville (published by the Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh, 1829, pp. 26, 33). Melville was at the time a student in St. Andrews, and the period he refers to is the year 1571, when Knox, for his personal security, had, not for the first time in his life, taken refuge in that city.
"Of all the benefits I had that year," writes Melville, "was the coming of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, Mr. John Knox, to St. Andrews, who, by the faction of the queen occupying the castle and town of Edinburgh, was compelled to remove therefrom, with a number of the best, and chose to come to St. Andrews. . Mr. Knox would sometimes come in, and repose him in our college-yard, and call us scholars unto him, and bless us, and exhort us to know God and his work in our country, and stand by the good cause; to use our time well, and learn the good instructions, and follow the good example, of our masters. . He was very weak. I saw him every day of his doctrine go hulie and fear [slowly and warily], with a furring of martriks about his neck, a staff in the one hand, and good godly Richard Ballantyne, his servant, holding up the other oxter [arm-pit], from the abbey to the parish church; and by the said Richard and another servant lifted up to the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entry; but ere he had done with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous that he was like to ding that pulpit in blads and flee out of it."
A Latin epistle sent by Sir Peter Young to Beza in 1579, contains a description of the Reformer's personal appearance in later years. His stature was "a little under middle height"; his "limbs were graceful"; his head "of moderate size"; his face "longish"; his nose "beyond the average length"; his forehead "rather narrow"; his brows "standing out like a ridge"; his cheeks "somewhat full" as well as "ruddy"; his mouth "large"; his "complexion darkish"; his eyes dark blue (or bluish grey) and his glance "keen"; his beard "black, with white hairs intermingled" and a "span and a half long." In his countenance, which was "grave and severe," "a certain graciousness was united with natural dignity and majesty."
John Knox died as he had lived-- full of faith, but always ready for conflict. He found a devoted nurse in his young wife; and all the noblest and best men of Scotland hung about his house for tidings of the progress of his malady, in the vain hope of his being longer spared. His servant, Richard Ballantyne, after detailing the incidents of his last hours, says of him:
A higher testimony to the worth of a man not without faults was pronounced at his grave in the churchyard of St. Giles by the Earl of Mortoun, the regent of Scotland, in the presence of an immense concourse, who had followed the body to its last resting-place: