A native of Haddington, East Lothian, Knox was ordained a priest in 1536 after a liberal education at Glasgow University. He was employed at first as an apostolic notary or church lawyer and then as a tutor in the families of Douglas of Longniddrie and Cockburn of Ormiston both of whom were sympathetic to reform. During this period Knox became an avowed Protestant “when it pleased God to call me from the puddle of papistry”, attending upon Wishart’s public ministry and acting as his bodyguard!
Following Wishart’s martyrdom, a band of men, sickened by Cardinal Beaton’s cruelty, assassinated him in his own castle at St Andrews and retained the castle, fortifying it, and making it a protestant stronghold. Knox, already in danger, sought refuge in it. Castle numbers having swelled to about 150, they called a John Rough to preach, who declined and challenged Knox in the name of God and the congregation to take the Call. Knox, overcome, burst into tears and withdrew to his chamber. Fearless before men, his attitude before God was one of humility and reticence. Yielding to the call. His first sermon laid down the principles of the Reformation from Daniel 7:24-25. Yet so great was his sense of responsibility that he trembled when he ascended the pulpit to preach!
In July 1547, a French fleet assisting the Regent Arran battered the castle into submission, capturing the defenders who then became galley slaves (rowers) in French ships. After eighteen months Knox was released – to spend the next twelve years wandering through Europe and England, visiting the main centres of Protestantism and confirming his knowledge of the Reformed faith. Knox was never first a Lutheran and then a Calvinist but appears to have apprehended and embraced the Reformed faith directly so that when he arrived for the first time in Geneva he immediately found in it a spiritual home! From 1549-54, Knox was in England where, for short periods, he served as minister in Berwick, Newcastle and London, followed by six months in Frankfurt in 1555. He made a brief visit to Scotland in 1556 during which he preached incessantly and was instrumental in converting three of the nobility as well as many others. During this time he celebrated the Lord’s Supper after the Reformed practice but judging the time was not yet ripe for a national reform movement he returned to Switzerland and visited Geneva, considered by Knox to be the ‘most perfect school of Christ’ he had seen. Though his stay there was brief, it was invaluable for the furtherance of the Reformation.
Meanwhile despite the increasing strength of the Reform movement, the pro-French party felt strong enough to dismiss Arran as regent and appointed the Queen Mother in his place. But the nation was now divided, and the new regent sought to strengthen her position by means of a French army – unwisely alienating many Scots who might otherwise have favoured her cause. Meantime her daughter, the young Queen Mary, was married to the Dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne. The possibility of a French take-over of Scotland alarmed not only the Scottish Protestants but also the new English government of Queen Elizabeth who had succeeded her half-sister Mary in 1558.
An English fleet was despatched to assist the protestant forces commanded by the Lords of the Congregation, resulting in the French troops being defeated and finally expelled in 1560 in accordance with the Treaty of Leith (or Edinburgh) whereby hostilities were concluded. Shortly thereafter the Queen Regent died.
During his 1556 visit to Scotland Knox exhorted those nobility who had embraced the cause of the Reformation to separate them selves from the Church of Rome and its worship. This they did, signalling their separation by receiving the Lord’s Supper in its protestant form at the hands of Knox. Formerly the Reformation had meant the reception of Reformed doctrine but now it also became a Congregation of professed ‘brethren in Christ’ in Scotland. These protestant nobles and chiefs now banded together in 1557 and subscribed to a Band or Covenant, part of which reads; ‘We, perceiving how Satan in his members…cruelly doth rage, seeking to destroy the evangel of Christ and His Congregation…do promise that we (by God’s grace) shall with all diligence continually apply our whole power, substance, and our very lives, to maintain, set forward and establish the most blessed Word of God and His Congregation; and shall labour at our possibility to have faithful ministers purely and truly to minister Christ’s Evangel and Sacraments to His people…unto which Holy Word and Congregation we do join us, and do forsake and renounce the Congregation of Satan.’ The signatories to this remarkable Covenant were the Earls of Argyle, Glencairn and Morton, the Lord Lorne (Argyle’s heir) and John Erskine of Dun. It was a visible demonstration of separation on proper biblical grounds. Not surprisingly, this act was divinely blessed in a rapidly growing reform movement over the next three years!