John Knox was born near Haddington, East Lothian, about 1514, the son of a prosperous farmer. The future reformer became a priest in the Roman Church, and a notary, authenticating legal documents and drawing up ecclesiastical papers. As a young man, his anchor of faith was first cast on John 17, where he saw "that the counsel of God is stable and his love immutable towards his elect, received by him in protection and safeguard." Reflecting on Christ's words, "thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me," Knox later wrote: "O that our hearts could without contradiction embrace these words, for then with humility should we prostrate ourselves before our God, and with unfeigned tears give thanks for his mercy! So straight and near is the conjunction and union between Christ Jesus and his members, that they must be one, and never can be separated."
By 1543 Knox was serving as personal tutor to the sons of two Protestant lairds, and the following year was bodyguard to George Wishart, a preacher who was braving the wrath of the church authorities. After Wishart's death, Knox and the scholars under his care took refuge at the castle in St. Andrews, where Knox continued his instruction of them in John's Gospel. These expositions were overheard by John Rough, chaplain of the garrison, who then preached on the election of ministers, and publicly called on Knox to join him in the work of the ministry: "In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you that ye refuse not this holy vocation, but that as ye tender the glory of God, the increase of Christ's kingdom, the edification of your brethren, and the comfort of me, whom ye understand well enough to be oppressed by the multitude of labours, that ye take upon you the public office and charge of preaching, even as ye look to avoid God's heavy displeasure and desire that he shall multiply his graces with you." Knox burst into tears and left the room, but was persuaded to accept the call.
Attending a debate between Rough and the dean of St. Andrews Cathedral, Knox sought to prove that the Church of Rome was more degenerate than the church which consented to Christ's death. His amazed hearers said, "Others chopped off the branches of the Papistry, but he strikes at the root, to destroy the whole." From the outset, his critique of the Roman Church was based on an assertion that observing ceremonies not commanded in Scripture does not come from faith, but is sin, for which he cited Deuteronomy 4:2. The castle soon fell to the French fleet which was assisting the Roman Catholic regime in Scotland, and Knox was enslaved for nineteen months as an oarsman on a French galley. He remained assured that he would not die until he had opportunity to preach Christ again in St. Andrews.
The English government, which was supporting the Protestant cause in Scotland, secured Knox's release, and sent him to preach to a garrison of soldiers at Berwick, where he met the Englishwoman he would later marry. Finding that the local bishop was reluctant to enforce the Protestant reforms authorized by the Church of England, Knox took advantage of the laxity of oversight to introduce an even more radically Protestant order of worship. Summoned to defend himself before the Council of the North, Knox declaimed, "All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God without his own express commandment is idolatry. The mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God. Therefore it is idolatry."
Knox became one of the six chaplains appointed to preach to the Protestant king, Edward VI. When the king died in 1553 at the age of sixteen, Knox regarded it as a judgment on England for failure to appreciate its opportunity to implement full reform. Knox foresaw the persecution which would follow under the new queen. Before leaving for France, he wrote of the great attachment he had formed to the English: "My daily prayer is for the sore afflicted in those quarters. Sometime I have thought that impossible it had been, so to have removed my affection from the realm of Scotland, that any realm or nation could have been equal dear unto me. But God I take to record in my conscience, that the troubles present (and appearing to be) in the realm of England are double more dolorous unto my heart than ever were the troubles of Scotland." From this period his speech and written words were notably anglicized. From the continent he wrote pastoral letters to those he left behind, exhorting believers not to return to the Roman Church, but to meet in secret for prayer and mutual exhortation. Many of his former associates, such as John Rough, were soon put to death.
Knox now visited several of the Swiss reformers to learn their opinions about resistance to tyrannical authority. Calvin urged him to become the minister of a church of English exiles at Frankfort. Knox accepted the call, but arrived to find the congregation rent by a controversy about liturgy. In short order, Knox was undermined by dissidents, who made allegations against him to the magistrates, resulting in Knox's expulsion from the city. Nevertheless, the liturgical compromise prepared by Knox while in Frankfort was now to be utilized by a congregation of refugees whom Calvin invited to assemble at Geneva, and Knox became one of their pastors. The same order of service would be adopted in Scotland when the Reformation was established there five years later.
Knox made a visit to Scotland in 1555 and 1556, responding to "the fervent thirst of our brethren, night and day sobbing and groaning for the bread of life." Knox was surprised by the progress being made by the gospel in his native land, even in Edinburgh, where "the trumpet blew the old sound three days together, till private houses of indifferent largeness could not contain the voice of it. Rejoice, Mother, the time of our deliverance approacheth. For as Satan rageth, so does the grace of the Holy Spirit abound and daily giveth new testimonies of the everlasting love of our merciful Father." Knox enlisted the support of local lairds in Ayrshire, Lothian, Angus and Montrose, who were also involved in resistance to French political intrusion into Scotland.
A contemporary provided a description of Knox's appearance. "In bodily stature he was rather below the normal height. His countenance, which was grave and stern, though not harsh, bore a natural dignity and air of authority; in anger his very frown became imperious. Under a rather narrow forehead his eyebrows rose in a dense ridge; his cheeks were ruddy and somewhat full, so that it seemed as though his eyes receded into hollows. The eyes themselves were dark-blue, keen and animated. His face was somewhat long, with a long nose, a full mouth, and large lips."
Knox went back to Geneva, where he studied with Calvin and was made a citizen of the city. He urged others to see for themselves what had been achieved in Geneva, "where I neither fear nor am ashamed to say is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places, I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place." The reformation carried out in this Swiss city of ten thousand inhabitants would become the model for what would be erected in Scotland, which numbered upwards of a million.
Knox left in January 1559 to return to Scotland, but was delayed until May at Dieppe, where he acted as pastor to a French Reformed congregation, and then sailed to Leith. Knox had become a leading exponent of the propriety of using political and military leverage to resist an oppressive regime and depose rulers. He acted as the spiritual guide to several Scottish nobles and lairds who earlier had banded together to work for recognition of a reformed church, and who eventually undertook armed revolution against the Roman Catholic regent for the young queen. Throughout the summer of 1559, and into the winter, there were moments of triumph and also of defeatism. Knox was intrepid in admonishing his associates when they trusted in clever stratagems, rather than relying on God as their protector. After rebuking them, Knox would call them to press forward with renewed hope in God. The English ambassador reported of Knox's preaching at such times, "The voice of one man is able in one hour to put more life in us than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears." The struggle consumed Knox, who wrote in December: "I have read the cares and temptations of Moses, and sometimes I supposed myself to be well practiced in such dangerous battles. But alas! I now perceive that all my practice before was but mere speculation; for one day of troubles since my last arrival in Scotland hath more pierced my heart than all the torments of the galleys did the space of nineteen months; for that torment, for the most part, did touch the body, but this pierces the soul and inward affections."
When a parliament gathered in August 1560, it abolished papal authority in Scotland, outlawed the mass, and embraced a confession of faith written by Knox and others. Knox was settled as a minister at St. Giles, Edinburgh. At the close of the year, the young Mary Queen of Scots suffered the death of her husband, the king of France, and returned to Scotland. About the same time, Knox as well lost his spouse, who died at the age of 24, leaving him with two sons. Calvin wrote to console him. "Farewell, excellent sir and brother, worthy of the heart's affection. Your widowhood is to me grief and bitterness, as it ought to be. You found a wife whose like is not found everywhere; but as you have rightly learned whence consolation in sorrow is to be sought, I doubt not that you bear this calamity with patience." Knox remarried four years later.
The next years were a further contest to ensure that the Protestant cause would hold on until it had taken root, and to safeguard what had been gained. Although a Protestant council governed the country, it allowed Mary to maintain the mass in her chapel. This was the cause of tension between the council and the church's ministers. Knox in particular was alarmed. Mary also finagled that the financial resources of the church would be allocated largely to those who had held office in the pre-Reformation church, with the remaining third of the patrimony being divided between the lavish expenses of her court and the support of impoverished Reformed ministers. Knox, who in conversation with the queen withstood her demands, was discouraged by the pragmatic accommodations to her by many of the Protestant nobility. Mary eventually undermined her own credibility, by marriage to a man who was suspected of involvement in the murder of her previous husband, and she was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567.
Knox lived on until November 24, 1572, already an old man at age 58. In his later years he felt deeply the vanity of temporal affairs, and referred to "this my churlish nature, for the most part oppressed with melancholy." James Melville, a student at St. Andrews, often heard the great man's preaching about a year before the close of life. "I had my pen and my little book, and took away such things as I could comprehend. In the opening up of his text he was moderate the space of an half hour; but when he entered to application, he made me so to shudder and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write." At the end of his days, so feeble was Knox outside the pulpit that he had to be lifted into it by two men, "where he behooved 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 fly out of it!" When he was laid in the grave, the Earl of Morton said of him, "Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man: who hath been often threatened with pistol and dagger, but yet hath ended his days in peace and honour. For he had God's providence watching over him in a special manner, when his very life was sought."