17.  John Knox and
Presbyterian Polity (Mid1500s)

Mary (Stuart)  --
Queen of Scots
"Bloody" Mary I (Tudor)
Queen of England
Elizabeth I (Tudor)
Queen of England

How was it that Protestantism first came to Scotland?

  • Scotland's interest in Protestantism came at a time when the Scottish were very sensitive to their own national feelings.  England had long been a problem for Scotland.  But by the mid 1500s France was just as big a problem.
  • Scotland had been under the rule of the Stuart family and now the rights of the throne belonged to Mary Stuart, a young woman engaged to marry Francis, the Dauphin or Prince of France.  When she moved to France to be with Francis the Scottish felt a bit betrayed.  She left the rule of Scotland to her rigidly Catholic mother, Mary of Guise, who would serve as regent until Mary Stuart came of age.  The Guise family was well known for its hatred of Protestants.
  • It was also well understood that when Mary Stuart finally did marry Francis, Scotland would be offered to him as a gift.  Scotland would thus lose its position as an independent nation and become merely a province of France.  The Scots did not like this idea at all.
  • Rumors about Protestantism were swirling through Scotland--and the people seem sincerely interested.  Even the noblemen were interested.  George Wishart preached the Protestant vision to the Scots--based on his own interest in the ideas of Martin Luther.  In essence Wishart was a Lutheran--and a very prominent voice in the affairs of the Scottish church.
  • One of those who became closely involved in Wishart's preaching and teaching was a young Catholic priest named John Knox.
  • When in 1546 the Catholic Cardinal of Scotland arrested Wishart and had him burned at the stake as a heretic, mobs of Scots went wild.  They finally attacked and killed the Cardinal and took over his castle at St. Andrews.  Others began to rally to their cause--including John Knox, who came to St. Andrews to preach to and inspire the rebels against the Catholic cause.
  • Mary of Guise called in French troops to crush the rebellion at St. Andrews and punish the rebels.  Eventually they overwhelmed the Protestant rebels and led them off to captivity, including John Knox who was put in chains and forced to work as a galley slave on French ships.
  • Through the intervention of the pro-Protestant English King Edward VI, Knox was finally freed--after having served 19 months of this horrible sentence.  Knox journey to England--now a Protestant minister rather than a Catholic priest and a radical voice for the Protestant cause.  For the next few years Knox served as a pastor in some English churches, and then was called into service as royal chaplain.  It during this time that he became part of the group that was assigned the task of rewriting England's Book of Common Prayer (which in the end he felt had not gone nearly far enough in the call for reform of English worship).

How did Knox become such a supporter of Calvin's form of Protestantism?
  • When Edward died in 1553 and Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") replaced him on the English throne, Knox decided that it was time to get out of England.  He eventually came to Geneva, Switzerland where he found Calvin's teachings to be very much to his liking.  The two men got on together very well.
  • Here he joined up with a number of other English and Scottish refugees living in Geneva--and together they put together an English translation of the Bible, known as the "Geneva Bible." (This would soon become the Bible of choice of English Protestants--such as the Pilgrims and Puritans who came to America to build a new Christian commonwealth in the early 1600s).
  • And here in Geneva Knox first  outlined in the tract, Faithful Admonition (1554) his fervently democratic views on the rights of common people to overthrow godless rulers--a political view even more radical than Calvin's.  This was to find a sympathetic audience back in Scotland.
  • In 1555 Knox dared to return to Scotland for six months and to preach his strongly politicized gospel.
  • But finding the situation still very dangerous, he returned to Geneva in 1556.  There he became pastor of the English church (1556-1558).
  • During this sojourn in Geneva he also published his "First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" (1558), harshly critical of the rule of the two female Catholic rulers:  Mary of Guise, regent of Scotland, and Mary Tudor, Queen of England.  [His anti-female language did nothing to endear Knox to Elizabeth who became Queen of England in 1558!]

How did Knox and the Scottish Noblemen finally bring Protestantism to Scotland?
  • Meanwhile in Scotland in 1557, a group of Protestant Scottish noblemen, called the "Lords of the Congregation," signed a covenant among themselves declaring for Protestantism in Scotland.  The motivations were mainly political--though Knox, even from the distance away of Geneva Switzerland, had been writing them and giving them ideas and understandings that they would need in order to take such a strong position against established Catholic authority.  Even from a distance Knox was shaping events in Scotland
  • Then in 1558 Mary Stuart finally married the Dauphin of France (future King Francis II of France) finally putting Scotland in the position of one day becoming merely a French province under a French king.  Anti-French, and thus anti-Catholic, feelings now grew stronger throughout Scotland.
  • Realizing that the situation was now ripe for Protestantism in Scotland, Knox, who had been in close correspondence with the "Lord's of the Congregation," returned to Scotland in May of 1559.
  • His first sermon ignited the flames of anti-French and anti-Catholic revolt.  In the town of Perth where he had delivered the sermon, mobs destroyed monastic buildings--provoking Mary of Guise to strike back with her French troops.  But the result was only a deadlock.  Meanwhile the mobs grew even more enraged, burning and plundering monasteries and churches (to the horror of Knox who had not intended for things to get so completely out of hand).
  • Then in July of that year (1559) Henry II died and his son Francis (Mary Stuart's husband) became French king.  More French troops were then rushed to Scotland to help Mary Stuart's mother, Mary of Guise, put down the Protestant uprising.  Things began to look grim for the Reformers.
  • Then in early 1560 Elizabeth, realizing that a Catholic victory in Scotland would give her a Catholic enemy to the North as well as to the East (France), sent English troops to help the Protestants.  This proved to be very important help.
  • But even more helpful to the Protestant cause was the death of Mary of Guise in June of 1560.  With her death the French and Catholic cause was left helpless.
  • A treaty signed in Edinburgh in early July between France and England called for the removal of all French troops from Scotland and the barring of all Frenchmen from political posts in Scotland.  But Scotland was also to remain free from English influence.
  • This treaty not only secured national independence for Scotland, it opened the way to Protestant control of the nation.

How did Knox reshape the Scottish Church into a "Presbyterian" form?
  • In August the Scottish Parliament declared itself a Protestant nation and adopted the Scots Confession prepared by Knox and five other clergy at the Parliament's request.  Catholicism was not to be practiced in Scotland, under penalty of death.
  • Knox then set about the task of reorganizing the Scottish church.  In December of 1560 a General Assembly of the Scottish church was held. The following month, January of 1561, the first Book of Discipline was presented to the Scottish Parliament in which Calvin's "Presbyterian" system of church government in Geneva Switzerland was adopted for the entire Scottish nation.
    • Each parish was to be governed by a pastor and council of Elders (forerunner of the church "session"), elected by the congregation in recognition of their "call" by God to leadership.
    • In larger towns containing several parishes, joint meetings of representatives of those parishes would be called as "presbyteries."
    • Regionally the church was to be supervised by even larger councils called "synods."
    • And the entire Scottish church was to be supervised by a national council called the "General Assembly."
  • Knox also attempted to define in the Book of Discipline a system of education and welfare to be supervised by the reformed Scottish church--financed from the proceeds of the sale of church abbeys, landholdings and other assets.  Here he was following the Calvinist vision of the church as the leading instructor and caregiver of the faithful, even more vital to life than the civil authorities.
  • But Parliament balked at this idea.  Instead the money that came from the confiscations of the former Catholic church went directly to enrich the Lords.  Consequently in Scotland the church was unable to give support to the social vision that Calvin had outlined and Knox had taken up as his hope for Scotland.  Indeed, the Scottish church became notable for its great poverty.
  • Knox busied himself with reforming the nature of worship in the Scottish church--most of the reforms having been first formulated in Geneva when he was pastoring the English congregation there.  These reforms he published in 1564 in his new Book of Common Order.  Following the teachings and practices of Calvin's Geneva (and Zwingli before him), Knox took the stand that if there could be found no support in scripture for a particular practice of the church, then it was to be done away with.
  • Thus among other things he did away with all of the old feast days, leaving only Sunday as a holy day.
  • And also with Calvin, he moved to free up worship from its long-held ritualism--though worship was still to be conducted "decently and in order."
    • For instance, sermons were to be the result of the personal inspiration and careful preparation by the pastor--not the fixed lectionaries ("readings") which the old church used to distribute to its relatively uneducated clergy.
    • Also, ritualized prayers were to be discouraged--to be replaced by prayers uttered from the heart.

Continue on to the next section:  18. The Spread of Protestant Reform
Return to the home page: The Spiritual Pilgrim

  Miles H. Hodges