ohn Knox was born in the town of Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland, in 1514.1 The son of a yeoman farmer, Knox described himself as of “the middling sort.”2 Knox did not covet a great place in state or church. He told Mary, Queen of Scots, that he was not “a lord or baron,” though he was indeed a “profitable” member of society.3 A few years before he died he expressed gratitude that God had been pleased to make him “not a lord-like bishop, but a painful [careful] preacher of his
Little is known about Knox’s early life. After study at St. Andrews University, he was ordained as a priest of the Catholic Church. He studied law and worked as a papal notary. He also became a tutor to the sons of two wealthy men. At some point Knox became a Protestant and accompanied George Wishart, his example and inspiration, on preaching missions, serving as his bodyguard with a two-handed sword. On a December night in 1545, Wishart preached his last sermon. Expecting to be arrested, he sent Knox home with the words “Return to your bairns and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.”5 George Wishart was taken to St. Andrews, where, on the orders of Cardinal David Beaton, he was burned at the stake on March 1, 1546.
The opening scene in the movie Chariots of Fire shows a group of young men, and a few dogs, running happily along the shore at St. Andrews.6 The Martyrs’ Monument, erected in 1843 near the Royal and Ancient Club House, appears briefly in the background. It commemorates four men, including George Wishart, martyred in St. Andrews. Wishart celebrated the Lord’s Supper with a few friends, then, as he had promised, “suffered gladly for the Word’s sake.”7
A few weeks after Wishart’s death, a group with mixed motives—political, personal, and religious—murdered Cardinal Beaton and took possession of his castle in St. Andrews. Sympathizers joined them, including John Knox and his two pupils. When a few leaders asked Knox to become the preacher for the occupying rebels, he refused, because, he said, “he could not run where God had not called him.”8 The entire group then issued a public call, which Knox reluctantly accepted. At times during the standoff the people in the castle were free to come and go, allowing him to preach his first sermon at Holy Trinity Parish Church in St. Andrews. Knox later wrote, “How small was my learning, and how weak I was of judgment, when Jesus Christ called me to be his steward.”9
A few weeks later, with French ships assisting in the governmental siege, the “Castilians,” as they are known, were forced to surrender. Taken prisoner, Knox rowed as a galley slave for the next nineteen months, making at least two trips from France back to St. Andrews. When he was asked on the ship if he recognized the port in the distance, Knox replied: “Yes, I know it well, for I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to his glory, and I am fully persuaded, how weak that ever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life, till that my tongue shall glorify his godly name in the same place.”10
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