To most people John Knox and the Scottish Reformation are almost synonymous. They feel that he was the man who both originated and carried the Reformation through to its triumph in Scotland so that for the last four centuries Scotland has been a stronghold of Presbyterianism. The trouble with such a view is it does not realize that the Reformation in Scotland as elsewhere was the work of more than one man. While Knox was important for the effectuation of the major action, he himself realized, as one may see by even a superficial perusal of his History of the Reformation in Scotland, that the religious revolution came as the climax to a long historical development which only reached its peak in the year 1560. Thus to understand Knox’s part in the Reformation, one must go back a good many centuries in Scottish history.

Some of those who have attempted to explain the Reformation in Scotland have sought its origins in the by no means Protestant Columban Church of the sixth century, but there seems to be little connection between the two. From the days of Kenneth MacAlpine in the eighth century, the Scottish church became increasingly “Romish” in character until by the middle of the twelfth century practically all vestiges of the old Columban Church had disappeared. As one looks at it in 1200, one can see little difference in doctrine, worship, and government between it and the continental branches of the medieval church.

The first step in the direction of a break from Rome may have come during the War of Independence (1296–1328). Throughout Robert Bruce’s struggle with Edward II of England, the pope sided with the English king and used every means to make the Scottish clergy do the same. He was, however, completely unsuccessful, for the clergy stood with their monarch who was both excommunicated and placed under a papal interdict. When peace between England and Scotland was restored, the Scots were received back into the fold; but the antipapal feeling, developed during the struggle, seems never to have entirely disappeared. In the fifteenth century this attitude continued. Monarchs such as James I enacted laws forbidding the taking of money to Rome and the appealing of law cases to the papal court. Similarly when political troubles disturbed the country and the pope tried to interfere, he was told very firmly to mind his own business. Scottish nationalism and antipapism went hand in hand. Although the latter was primarily political, it undoubtedly helped also to weaken papal ecclesiastical and spiritual authority.

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Probably the most important reason for this situation was that Scotland during the fifteenth century, like a good many other countries in Europe, was experiencing something of a social revolution. With the expansion of trade, which began in Western Europe about 1450, the Scots began to develop a middle class which in turn gradually linked up with the lower nobility. Both these groups, nationalistic and individualistic in their outlook, were restive under the church’s attempted control of their lives, while at the same time it was failing so obviously to meet their spiritual needs. Here was ground for the sowing of the Protestant seed.

That this element in society was prepared to revolt against the old doctrines in favor of more evangelical teachings is indicated by the hearty reception it gave in Scotland to the works and missionaries of the “heretical” Englishman, John Wycliff. His teachings infiltrated Scotland early in the fifteenth century and continued to cause the ecclesiastical authorities trouble and difficulty down to the time of the coming of the Reformation itself. The Lollards, as his followers were called, were persecuted, even burned at the stake, but still the movement grew and expanded despite all that the church could do. Particularly popular among the townspeople and the gentry, Wycliffism laid the groundwork for sixteenth century Protestantism.

This became evident once Lutheranism began to invade Scotland. By 1525 Protestant books had appeared in the east coast ports, and before very long some of those who had been Lollards had accepted Luther’s more clearly expressed evangelical doctrines. Very much disturbed at the spread of the new ideas, the ecclesiastics employed their usual tactics of forcible repression, the first martyr being Patrick Hamilton, burned in 1528. The merchants, however, continued to import Lutheran books with the result that the evangelical views gained an ever-increasing number of adherents. Furthermore, many of the clergy themselves, by the low moral level of their lives, only tended to emphasize the correctness of the Reformers’ judgments on the Roman church.

King James V (1513–1542), while at first apparently not violently opposed to the new ideas, gradually gave increasing support to the church’s anti-Protestant campaign. Married to Mary of Guise, a member of one of the most vigorous Roman Catholic families of France, and dependent upon the church for a considerable part of his revenue, he could do little else. This situation was intensified after his death by the accession of his very young daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, as his successor. The first regent, the Earl of Arran, was at first sympathetic to Protestantism; but under pressure of the church he changed his attitude. In 1548 he sent the young queen to France for her education, and in 1552, again under pressure, he went so far as to resign the regency in favor of Mary of Guise. Thus from about 1544 on, the civil government increasingly aligned itself with the old church’s repressive anti-Protestant policies.

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Had Lutheranism continued to dominate the Protestant forces in Scotland, what might have happened is hard to say since Luther had not provided any revolutionary organization for his followers. In order to succeed, the Lutheran movements seem to have needed at least the neutrality of the state. Just about this time, however, a new force entered the picture in the person of George Wishart, who had apparently received his training in Switzerland under John Calvin. He came ready to lay down his life for the cause, and in 1546 he made the supreme sacrifice in the presence of the Archbishop of St. Andrews. Yet while he died apparently without accomplishing anything, he did in truth begin a veritable revolution. He had succeeded in rousing, and to a certain extent organizing, the Protestant forces so that they would be ready to resist oppression. Equally important, he seems to have given them the first Scottish statement of faith in a translation of the confession of the French Swiss churches. The Reformation was beginning to take shape.


It was during Wishart’s missionary activities that John Knox first appeared on the scene. He tells us that he accompanied the preacher as his bodyguard, carrying a two-handed sword. Wishart sent him away before his arrest, but when a group of nobles captured St. Andrews Castle and killed the archbishop after Wishart’s martyrdom, Knox joined them. Up to this time Knox seems to have been only the tutor of a nobleman’s sons, but the men in the castle now persuaded him to accept a call to the Christian ministry. His preaching to them and his debates with the St. Andrews cathedral clergy soon came to a close, however, for in 1548 he and his companions were forced to surrender to a French fleet and were carried off to France. After serving for a time in the French galleys, Knox obtained his freedom, finally ending up in Geneva as pastor of the congregation of English-speaking refugees who had fled from persecutions imposed by the English Queen Mary Tudor (1553–1555).

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Meanwhile, the Reformation had been making headway in Scotland. Despite efforts of both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, Protestantism had extended its influence, particularly in the eastern shires. The gentry and townsmen of Fife, Angus, and the Mearns had accepted the new doctrines, while in the west the Lollard country of Ayrshire, and even the Campbell country of Argyll, had begun to swing over. Yet while this was taking place, there seems to have been a genuine reluctance to come out in open rebellion against the church and the government. Leadership of the movement had fallen into the hands of such men as the Earls of Cassillis, Argyll, Glencairn, and Rothes, who apparently felt that they could accommodate their evangelical views to those of the Roman church. Sometimes for political, sometimes for economic, and sometimes for religious reasons, they seem to have thought in terms of compromise.

The consequence of this attitude was uncertainty and lack of cohesion among the Protestant forces. Therefore, it was decided that the best thing to do was to call Knox from Geneva. He arrived in May, 1559. In 1557 he had spent a short time in Scotland encouraging the brethren, but now he returned for good and the result of his appearance was an immediate acceleration of the Reformation’s pace.


Knox’s importance after his return from Geneva lay in his ability to clarify the issues involved in the struggle with Rome. With his Genevan background, he could see the situation as the more provincial Scots could not. Consequently, he set the sights of Scottish Protestantism on bringing Scotland as a whole to an acceptance of the Reformed faith. This meant a long-drawn battle, the end of which Knox himself did not see, but which nevertheless he believed to be the true objective. By his inspiration and under his direction, the first stage was reached when Parliament in August of 1560 accepted the Calvinistic confession, prepared by Knox and three other ministers, and made it the creed of the Scottish church.

Thus when one thinks of John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, one must realize that while others planted, he in a sense reaped the results of their “blood, sweat, toil and tears.” The ground was already prepared that his labors might be successful. He was in the providence of God an instrument used to bring to fruition a long process of history. And in this there is nothing strange, for every reformer and great apostle in the Church comes in the fullness of time to bring to completion the work of those who have gone before. While the Reformation in Scotland owed much to Knox, like every other such movement, it also owed much to each faithful Christian who had preceded him and striven in his own place and circumstances to serve his Lord and King. This is the secret of true reformation.

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Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.

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