Biography of John Knox, Scottish Theologian, Founder of Presbyterianism

16th-Century Scottish Reformation Leader

Vintage engraving portrait of John Knox
Vintage engraving portrait of John Knox, Scottish leader of the Protestant Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian denomination. Engraved by Henry Thomas Ryall (1811 - 1867) after a painting by an unknown artist. Published in 1835 in a collection of English portraits.

Getty Images 

John Knox (c. 1514–1572) was the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and a key character in the history of Presbyterianism. During the reign of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, John Knox grew in political influence and opposed Catholic worship practices. Following the doctrinal principles of John Calvin, Knox’s ideas set the moral tenor of the Church of Scotland and helped shape its democratic form of government.

Fast Facts: John Knox

  • Known For: 16th-century Scottish preacher, theologian, religious reformer, and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland
  • Born: Between November 1513 and 1514 in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, UK
  • Died: November 24, 1572 in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
  • Spouses: Marjorie Bowes (first wife) and Margaret Stewart (second wife)
  • Education: University of Glasgow and St. Andrews University
  • Published Works: First Blast of the Trumpets Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1556–58); First Book of Discipline (1560); Book of Common Order (1564); History of the Reformation in Scotland [until 1567] (published posthumously in 1584).
  • Notable Quote: “A man with God is always in the majority.”

Early Life

Both the place and date of John Knox’s birth are uncertain. Most historians assign Giffordgate, a small hamlet within Haddington, south of Edinburgh, Scotland, as his birthplace, and sometime between November 24, 1513 and November 24, 1514 as the most probable date of his birth.

Knox was born into a middle class farming family. He received his education at the University of Glasgow and St. Andrews University, studying theology under John Major (1467–1550), one of the leading Scottish scholars of his day. Major strongly advocated for a conciliar form of church government and condemned Roman Catholic abuses.

After graduating from the University of St. Andrews, Knox was ordained to the priesthood in 1536. But due to an abundance of priests in Scotland, he was never appointed to a parish. Instead, Knox worked as a notary public and tutor.

From Bodyguard to Courageous Reformer

By the mid-1540s, as reformation literature continued to reach Scotland and reformed preaching became increasingly widespread, the Catholic Church fought vigorously to suppress these influences. At the time, Knox had begun to follow the energetic Protestant preacher George Wishart (c.1513–1546), who, after returning home from Switzerland and England, traveled around Scotland preaching the gospel. Armed with a two-handed sword, Knox acted as bodyguard and assistant for Wishart. He also enthusiastically embraced Wishart’s teachings. Shortly before Wishart was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake as a heretic, he sent Knox back to his students, claiming, “One is sufficient for one sacrifice.”

Following Wishart’s death, Knox began preaching at St. Andrews and speaking out strongly against the Roman Catholic Church. He criticized the selling of indulgences, pilgrimages, enforced fasts, and clerical celibacy as unscriptural, blasphemous practices in conflict with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

John Knox admonishes Mary, Queen of Scots
John Knox admonished Mary, Queen of Scots, for supporting Catholic practices, 1561-1564. Holyrood Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland. Nastasic / Getty Images

Imposing as he had been as a bodyguard, Knox grew even more frightening as a preacher. He was narrow-minded, biased, and intolerant. Nevertheless, he commanded powerful influence over his fellow Scotsmen and became one of the most persuasive preachers of the Reformation period. Knox fearlessly declared the Pope to be an anti-Christ, the Catholic Church to be a harlot rather than the Bride of Christ, and observance of the mass to be idolatrous.

From Prisoner to Preacher

In 1547, St. Andrew’s castle came under French siege, and Knox’s ministry there was cut short. He and his Protestant companions were taken prisoner as slaves aboard the galleys. Knox was assigned to rowing at the oars, where he battled severe sickness and torment until his release in 1549.

Knox went to England after his release. There he was given a minor recompense and made the minister of a Protestant congregation in Berwick and then later in Newcastle. While in Berwick, he met Marjorie Bowes, who would become Knox’s first wife and mother of his two sons. Marjorie was an avid reader of the Bible who embraced Protestantism.

In the fall of 1551, Knox, along with five others, was honored with an appointment to Royal Chaplain, which included preaching before the king of England, then King Edward VI. During this time, Knox aided in the revision and composition of the second (1552) edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

John Knox Preaching before the Lords of the Congregation
John Knox Preaching before the Lords of the Congregation. From Bibby's Annual (1912), Artist David Wilkie. Print Collector / Contributor / Getty Images

The Black Rubric

Knox harshly opposed the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion, calling it idolatry. In the first Book of Common Prayer, kneeling to receive communion was a requirement. Knox insisted that an annotation printed in black letters be included in the second prayer book to clarify that kneeling to receive communion did not constitute acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation, or the bodily presence of Christ in the elements. This clause came to be known as the “black rubric.” Knox’s concerns on kneeling were superseded by those of Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556). Rather than explicitly reflecting Knox’s position, the 1552 prayer book reflected Cranmer’s stance that kneeling to receive communion does not imply adoration of the sacrament. Nevertheless, Knox defiantly refused to kneel at communion.

After the death of King Edward VI in 1553, his staunchly Catholic sister, Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor), began her reign, causing the Reformation movement to come to a violent halt in England. Knox, not wanting to become a victim of the “wicked English Jezebel,” as he referred to the queen, fled first to France in 1554, and then to Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied under John Calvin.

John Knox (1514-1572) in the Abbey of Scone (1559)
John Knox (1514 - 1572) preventing the destruction of the Abbey of Scone, the Scottish coronation church (1559).  ZU_09 / Getty Images

During his time in Geneva, Knox wrote his First Blast of the Trumpets Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1556–58), a notorious work opposing the female monarchy and firing directly at Catholic Mary Tudor. In the book, Knox ruthlessly claimed male dominance, using Scripture references and quotes from early church fathers to abrasively attack women. Highly controversial, the work also advocated for rebellion against ungodly rulers. The piece earned Knox many enemies, both male and female, including the next Queen of England, Elizabeth.

Scottish Reformation Leader

In 1559, after twelve years in exile, Knox returned to Scotland to resume his position of leadership in the Scottish Reformation movement, which was once again surging forward. He became minister of St. Giles Church in Edinburgh, now under the influence of Protestant forces. Knox would hold this affluent position until his death. The following year, in 1560, the Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority in Scotland, outlawed the observance of mass, and adopted a Reformed Scots Confession of Faith, written under the guidance of John Knox.

In 1560, Knox published a lengthy dissertation on predestination. That same year, his wife Marjorie died. Also, in that year, Knox successfully negotiated the political Treaty of Berwick, causing both French and English forces to evacuate Scotland and ensuring the future of the Scottish Reformation.

In 1564, Knox was remarried to a teenager named Margaret Stewart, with whom he would have three daughters. Also, in that year, Knox’s Book of Common Order became the official prayer book regulating Scottish worship. Nevertheless, the issue of religion in Scotland remained unsettled.

With two churches now in existence in Scotland—the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church—much work needed to be done to establish governmental and financial support for the Protestant church. Knox continued to play a vital role in the developing process, all the while feuding with Mary Queen of Scots—a devout Catholic sovereign presiding over an officially Protestant country.

Knox’s hatred of the Queen intensified as her suppression of Protestantism brought civil war and chaos to Scotland. These embittered years of battling for change took their toll on Knox, and his health began to deteriorate. Belligerent to the end, he continued preaching, even when he had to be carried to the pulpit. So weak that he could barely be heard, John Knox preached his final sermon at St. Giles’ on November 9, 1572. Five days later he died and was buried at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.

St. Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, with Statue of John Knox
St. Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, with Statue of John Knox. Mary Fairchild

The Thundering Scot

John Knox is remembered by some as a hater of women and a ruthless revolutionary. As prophets have often tended to be, he was not a man of tact. Yet, the Scottish people were ready to lay down their lives for the advancement of Protestantism at his mesmerizing command. How did this often shocking and bigoted leader earn the respect and allegiance of noble kings and ordinary people alike?

Knox was deeply aware of his human shortcomings. Of himself he wrote, "I sometimes am wounded knowing myself to be criminal and guilty in many, yea, in all things … that I reprehend in others ... I am worse than my pen can express ... Externally I commit no idolatry, but my wicked heart loveth itself and cannot be refrained from vain imaginations, yea, not from such as were the fountain of all idolatry ... I am no man-killer with my hands, but I help not my needy brother so liberally as I may and ought ... there is no vice repugning to God’s holy will expressed in his law, wherewith my heart is not infected."

Knox was real with himself and authentic with others, concerning himself with individuals and calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. He was fiery, forceful, dynamic, and compelling in his expository preaching of Scripture, earning him the nickname, “The Thundering Scot.” He was a devout student of the Word of God who stood fearlessly for truth. For his courage and tenacity as a revolutionary, Knox is admired and honored.

Few preachers have influenced the course of their nation’s history as strongly as did John Knox of Scotland. His ability to motivate people to action resulted in the shaping of a formidable reforming force that left its mark on Protestantism, Presbyterianism, and the people of Scotland for centuries to follow.