John Knox and His Role in the English Reformation
Presbyterians are typically aware that John Knox was a leading figure in the Reformation in Scotland. He was also involved in the effort to establish the Reformation in England. Knox was born around 1514, and raised in Haddington, Scotland. Educated as a Roman Catholic priest, he did not join a priestly order but worked as a notary and as a tutor to the sons of Scottish nobles.
The Scottish government supported the Roman Catholic Church as the only true religion and allowed them to burn Protestants at the stake as heretics. During the 1540′s Knox became a Protestant, and in fear of being arrested and executed, he joined other Protestants who were seeking refuge from the Scottish government in St. Andrews’ Castle in April 1547. While at St. Andrew’s, Knox received his call to preach, and his sermons vigorously defended the Reformed faith. In August 1548 the Castle fell to the French allies of Scotland, and the inhabitants became prisoners of war. Some were imprisoned in castles in France; Knox and a few others were consigned to French galleys as slaves. After nineteen months, and extensive negotiations between the Duke of Somerset in England and the French King, some of the prisoners were released, including Knox.
In Scotland the people embraced Protestantism and opposed the government imposition of religion. In contrast, in England the people believed the King had the right to establish the religious doctrine for the country and appoint the clergy. Preachers were licensed by the King to preach. The advisors to Edward VI, who was a minor, had begun to implement Protestant reforms and they needed strong preachers to support the new doctrine.
In the spring of 1549, the English and Scots were fighting each other along the Scottish border, and Knox believed he was still in danger of arrest and execution by the Roman Catholics in Scotland for his Reformed views. Knox was offered, and accepted, a position as a preacher in Berwick-on-Tweed, an English military post three miles from the Scottish border, located in the diocese of Durham. Although the first Book of Common Prayer (“common” meant public) had been published and by law was to replace the Mass, the Bishop of Durham continued to support the celebration of the Mass. Knox was the first in the diocese to preach Reformed doctrine, and he won many converts.
Reformed preachers brought a very different experience to worship from the Roman Catholic priests. Priests gave short homilies since the primary focus of the service was celebration of the Mass. In contrast, Reformation preachers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger, and Ulrich Zwingli, typically preached on Scripture for two or three hours at a time, sometimes several times each week. Knox preached from both the Old and New Testaments, first reading the passage, then explaining it. His preaching, which he maintained was inspired by the Holy Spirit, influenced many to convert to Reformed beliefs. Knox looked to 2 Timothy 4:2 as his guide: “Preach thou the word, be fervent, be it in season or out of season: Improve, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”
He later preached in Newcastle-on-Tyne, the seat of the diocese, as well as Berwick. His preaching is believed to have attracted Reformed Scots across the border to move to Berwick and Newcastle. During 1552 Knox was appointed as one of six Royal Chaplains to Edward VI. His role was to travel and preach. The Royal Chaplains also preached at court to the King and Council.
In the autumn of 1552, the second Book of Common Prayer was being prepared to address the shortcomings of the first edition. This contained a new instruction that the communicant was required to kneel while receiving the bread and wine. The Reformed preachers were concerned that this would encourage the communicant to worship the elements instead of Jesus. Knox rode to London with the Duke of Northumberland in October.
A few days before the Book of Common Prayer was to go to press, Knox preached a sermon to the King and Council at Windsor Castle against the new requirement to kneel during communion, preferring to sit at a table as the disciples did in the Gospels. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer defended the practice of kneeling, but the Council appeared to have been swayed by Knox’s reasoning. When the Book of Common Prayer went to press, it contained the “black rubric” that kneeling was an act of respect and did not constitute worship of the elements. A rubric was an instruction, and was normally printed with red ink. In this case, the printer was out of red ink and so printed it in black. Jasper Ridley wrote in his biography of Knox that “The black rubric would never have been issued if it had not been for Knox’s sermon at Windsor.”
That same autumn Knox also preached against one of the articles of the Forty-two Articles of Religion which declared the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer to be consistent with Scripture. Although several of the preachers collaborated in writing the sermon, it was Knox who delivered it before the King and Council. His objection was primarily the requirement to kneel for communion. This article was modified to state that the doctrine of the Book was consistent with Scripture. Ridley considered Knox to have been one of the leaders of the Reformed preachers in England (John Knox 126-128).
The Duke of Northumberland, a Regent for Edward VI, was displeased with the immigration of Scottish Protestants to Berwick and Newcastle to hear Knox preach. Knox was offered the post of Bishop of Rochester, and a position as Vicar at All Hallows Church in London, both of which he refused, arguing that he would better serve the church elsewhere. He was concerned that these posts would corrupt him, and he wanted to return to Berwick and Newcastle where he had close friends and a fiancée. However, he was assigned to Amersham in Buckinghamshire that spring, which was near London.
As discussed above, as a Scotsman he was not limited by the English worldview that the monarch had the right to establish the religion of the people. He was aware of two things in spring of 1553: Edward’s half sister Mary was still being allowed to celebrate Mass, and Edward was terminally ill with tuberculosis. He predicted that the Roman Catholics would again take control of England and persecute the Protestants. In the summer of 1553 Edward VI died and Mary I ascended the throne. She reinstated the Roman Catholic religion and began to arrest the Reformed preachers and bishops. Knox continued to travel and preach until the early fall, at which time he went into hiding and eventually fled to the Continent in January 1554.
While on the Continent, Knox accepted a call to preach to English exiles in Frankfurt. He participated with William Whittingham, Christopher Goodman, and others in drawing up an order of service known as the Book of Common Order as a substitute for the Book of Common Prayer. Due to political machinations by an English preacher, Dr. Cox, who preferred the Book of Common Prayer, Knox lost his post and moved to Geneva. Part of the congregation in Frankfurt followed him to Geneva and they formed a new church. John Calvin approved the Book of Common Order and its format was used by the Presbyterians in England and the Reformed Church in Scotland.
Peter Lorimer wrote that the manner in which Knox celebrated the Lord’s Supper was influential in the Puritan religion in England later that century. When Mary I died, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, reinstated Protestantism. During her reign Knox’s approach to worship spread in the northern borders of England. Goodman, Whittingham, and others of Knox’s colleagues on the Continent returned to England and formed the Puritan church. Knox returned permanently to Scotland in 1560 and was involved in the establishment of the Reformed Church in that country.