John Knox: A Weak Man Made Mighty
“John Knox felt toward [Scotland’s] idolaters,” wrote historian Roland Bainton, “as Elijah toward the priests of Baal.”[i] Bainton’s comparison of Knox and Elijah is an apt one. Elijah was called, by the express command of God, to draw his sword and cut down 450 deceitful priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:20–40). Men called to be prophets—to do feats such as Elijah was called to do—are not generally touchy-feely, kinder-gentler, metro males. In redemptive history, the Elijahs have been tortured voices crying in the wilderness, lonely figures called to stand against teeth-gnashing critics, men charged with the profoundly unpopular task of declaring God’s Word to people who have taken their stand with the enemies of that Word. Though he was not a biblical prophet, Knox was cast in this mold.
Is it mere hyperbole to say that “Knox was a Hebrew Jeremiah set down on Scottish soil”?[ii] With the zeal of a Jeremiah, Knox thundered against the “motley crowd of superstitions” that infested religious life in sixteenth-century Scotland, for he considered his country’s devotion to such errors to be far worse “than the idols over whose futility Hebrew prophets made merry.”[iii]
When God’s messengers have mounted the rooftops to decry people’s transgressions against Yahweh—Hebrew ones or Scottish ones—the multitudes have responded, not surprisingly, with rancor and violence. Elijah, for example, drew the wrath of Queen Jezebel. For his Elijah-like zeal, Knox is—like his spiritual, theological, and pastoral mentor, John Calvin—“as easy to slander as he is difficult to imitate.”[iv] As is the case for any mere man besieged by controversy in turbulent times and called upon to do significant things that affect the fortunes of many people,[v] critics have found much in Knox to attack.
Hostility and neglect
In his lifetime, Knox was denounced by regents, queens, and councils, and his effigy was hoisted high and burned at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh.[vi] Ridiculed as “Knox the knave” and “a runagate Scot,” he was outlawed and forbidden to preach by the archbishop of St. Andrews, and orders were issued that he be shot on sight if he failed to comply. Knox did not comply. Years later, a would-be assassin fired a shot through a window of Knox’s house at Trunk Close in Edinburgh, narrowly missing his mark.[vii] Still Knox preached.
What of his legacy since his death in 1572? The English Parliament, 140 years after Knox’s death, condemned his books to public burning. In 1739, George Whitefield was ridiculed for preaching “doctrine borrowed from the Kirk of Knox” (“kirk” being the Scottish equivalent of the English “church”). Perhaps more than any other, he has been portrayed as “the enfant terrible of Calvinism,”[viii] and has been characterized in books and film, and at his own house, now a museum, as a “blustering fanatic.”[ix] Moderns dismiss him as a misogynist for his untimely treatise against female monarchs and for his unflinching stand before charming Mary Queen of Scots, denouncing her sins and calling her to repent.
In 1972, the four hundredth anniversary of his death, it was decided that such a man as Knox was an inappropriate subject to commemorate on a Scottish postage stamp. As a crowning blow, the Edinburgh Town Council ordered the removal of the stone marking his grave, relegating his earthly resting place to obscurity under a variously numbered parking stall.[x] In my most recent visit to Edinburgh, the “JK” once legible on a small square marker was completely obliterated. As faithless Israel resented Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom and destruction for her whoredom against the Lord, so, for the most part, Scotland has resented the life and ministry of Knox.
Why John Knox?
However, Knox himself would have been little troubled by such neglect, even hostility. It seems to be an essential quality in truly great men of God that they care far more for the glory of Jesus Christ than for themselves, which is reason enough to examine closely the life of such a man as Knox.
Furthermore, when Knox is stripped of his God-given might and the thundering power of his calling, what remains is a mere mortal, a small man, “low in stature, and of a weakly constitution,”[xi] one who, when first called to preach, declined, and when pressed, “burst forth in most abundant tears” and fled the room.[xii] In this, too, he was like Elijah, who cowered in a hole, feeling sorry for himself and begging God to deliver him from his enemies—even after his judgment on the priests of Baal (1 Kings 19:1–8). Yet by the grace of God, who alone makes weak men strong, Elijah and Knox lived lives that were characterized far more by power and influence than by weakness and obscurity.
The life of Knox, then, is not just for people who like shortbread and bagpipes, kilts and oatcakes. Neither is it just for Presbyterians or people whose names begin with Mac (or who wish they did). Knox is a model for the ordinary Christian, especially the one who feels his own weakness but who nevertheless wants to serve Christ in a troubled world. Knox is imminently relevant to all Christians who have ever been forced to come face to face with their own littleness.
Who has not felt deep within him that he was too simple a man with too little to contribute to so great a cause as that of Christ and His church? What young woman, wife, mother, grandmother, or aged spinster has not wrung her hands, fearful and weak against the enemies of her soul and the church? Who has not thought that his gifts were too modest, that others could serve far better, and that he was too frail and timid to help advance the gospel of our Lord Jesus? Or who has not felt that he was being unjustly maligned by critics, assaulted by the mighty, mocked and insulted by the influential? So it was for Knox, but as he wrote of the Reformation in Scotland, “God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.”[xiii] His contemporary, Thomas Smeaton, said of Knox after his death, “I know not if God ever placed a more godly and great spirit in a body so little and frail.”[xiv]
[i] Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon, 1952), 181.
[ii] Mark Galli, “The Hard-to-Like Knox,” Christian History (Issue 46, Vol. XIV, no 2, 1995), 6.
[iii] Alexander Smellie, The Reformation in Its Literature (London: Andrew Melrose, 1925), 245.
[iv] Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin (London: L. B. Seeley and Sons, 1834), 76.
[v] Patrick Fraser Tytler, The History of Scotland from the Accession of Alexander III. To the Union (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1869), 2:355.
[vi] John Howie, The Scots Worthies (1870; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 52.
[vii] Ibid., 56–57.
[viii] Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989), 365.
[ix] Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 180.
[x] Iain Murray, John Knox: The Annual Lecture of the Evangelical Library for 1972 (London: Evangelical Library; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 3.
[xi] Howie, The Scots Worthies, 63.
[xii] John Knox, John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland, William Croft Dickinson, ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 1:83.
[xiii] John Knox, cited in Burk Parsons, preface to John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, Burk Parsons, ed. (Lake Mary, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2008), xv.
[xiv] Howie, The Scots Worthies, 64.