Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 19, 2012

John Knox and the Scottish Reformation: A Brief Look

Two hundred and fifty-eight years ago, a group of Scottish immigrants who would become my ancestors first stepped on American soil. Despite being very interested in that little bit of Celtic heritage, I realized that I knew very little about the Reformation’s spread in Scotland, so I decided to research John Knox. I only remembered hearing of him briefly in school. So who was this man? 

Like Martin Luther and John Calvin, Knox had been a Catholic priest in his younger days. One of Knox’s Protestant acquaintances, English would-be martyr George Wishart, was probably an inspiration for the Scottish “kirk” (church) that Knox would create. The two became close, with Knox even offering to accompany Wishart to prison so they might both keep the faith. Wishart begged him to go home. Knox’s fate changed for the worse in the 1540s when he was taken aboard a French ship and made into a galley slave. Considering that many were martyred for no reason other than their faith, one might consider Knox lucky to have survived, even though great hardship would follow. 

Knox was released of his slavery in early 1549. He fled to England, where he preached and continued to hone his Reformed views. Queen Mary I of England took the throne in 1553, and Knox felt he could no longer remain. His Protestant sentiments were nurtured by a move to Geneva and subsequent friendship with John Calvin, and his theology developed more Calvinist principles. In the 1550s he saw his fatherland once again and was pleased to note that the Reformation had taken swift hold. Soon it was back to Geneva.

John Knox came back to Scotland yet again in 1559 and found that his beloved homeland was on the brink of civil war. In the 1560s he concentrated on firmly establishing Protestant thought in Scotland. Around this time he took on a role as the father of the Scottish Reformation, the Scottish Martin Luther, one might say. He nurtured his new “kirk” and helped write a declaration of faith. He is perhaps most famous for his dialogue with Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) in which he admonished her for seeking to marry the son of Philip II of Spain. Philip II was one of the most hated men in the Catholic circle, a Spanish zealot who sought the destruction of anything and everything Protestant. Mary was horrified that Knox might meddle in her personal affairs and grew so upset with him that she sent him away.

Yet Knox knew, as did most Protestants, that a Spanish alliance with any country that harbored a significant Protestant population could bring only trouble. The year of this exchange was 1563. To put that into perspective, in France the first War of Religion had just ended. It was only a year since the horrific church-burning at Vassy and the siege of Rouen. Martin Luther had been dead for seventeen years and Germany was still burgeoning under the ebb and flow of the Reformation. Queen Elizabeth I of England had been on the throne for five years.

As England had become known for its Church of England, Scottish Presbyterianism grew equally popular. I have always found it particularly fascinating to note the difference between various European countries and their acceptance of the Reformation (or lack thereof). Why did Spain remain virtually Protestant-free, while France had an equal number of both Protestants and Catholics, Scotland and England become mostly Protestant, and so forth? What made these countries responsive or unresponsive to the “new thought”? Also, why did some countries with Protestant majorities become Calvinist and other tend more toward Lutheranism? Fascinating stuff.

And what of Knox’s family? He was married at first to Marjorie Bowes and second to Margaret Stewart. He supposedly had a few children with each. John Knox died November 24, 1572, just three months after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which thousands of French Huguenots were killed. His end was sad: not so much his death in particular, but where he was buried. At St. Giles’ Cathedral near Edinburgh, Scotland, there is a parking lot like any other parking lot, except that one of the spaces has a small plaque that marks John Knox’s burial site. Why this was allowed to happen . . . why his body was not moved, and why a parking lot would have been built over the site of a famous reformer’s gravesite . . . I could not tell. But it is a very sad ending for the earthly form of a giant of a man.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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