John Knox (c. 1514–1572) was the Scottish Reformer who founded the Presbyterian Church and laid the theological groundwork for the American Revolution.
John Knox was born in Scotland and appears to have attended the University of St. Andrews. He may have been ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Whatever the details of his early life, by 1544 Knox was working as a private tutor. During that time, he met the Reformer George Wishart and became hostile toward the Roman Mass. Viewing the Mass as a form of idolatry, Knox became fully invested in the Scottish reform movement.
By 1547, Knox was preaching at St. Andrews. When the French (who were Catholic allies of Scotland) attacked a Scottish castle to quell a Protestant uprising there, Knox was captured and then spent nineteen months as a slave in France. After his release, Knox returned to Scotland and began his attacks upon the Catholic Mass, writing his tract A Vindication That the Mass Is Idolatry. His work in Scotland was put on hold, however, when the Catholic Mary Tudor ascended to the English throne. Her coronation and reign as “Bloody Mary” drove Knox from England, sending him to Europe where he travelled to Geneva and met John Calvin, who further instructed him in Reformed theology. Knox eventually left Geneva to pastor the English refugee church in Frankfurt, Germany.
Knox returned to Scotland in 1555, only to be driven out by persecution the next year. Returning to Geneva, Knox accepted a call to pastor the English church there. During this time, Knox offered his best-known contribution to the Reformation. Until Knox, and for some time afterward, the Reformers believed that a Christian must always live in submission to secular authorities. From Romans 13, they reasoned the King (or Queen) was established by God and, therefore, must be obeyed. Even wicked monarchs were to be obeyed, insofar as their commands didn’t violate Scripture. For Knox, this unquestioning obedience was unacceptable.
His experience and witness to persecution along with his view of idolatry led Knox to disagree with the prevailing view of subjugation to the throne. Focusing upon the Old Testament, Knox came to a different conclusion. Central to Knox’s position were the prophets and their insistence upon purifying the nation of Israel from idolatry. For Knox, the implications were obvious: just as Christians could not obey wicked laws, they should not submit to wicked rulers. In his mind the Catholic Mass was idolatry, and, therefore, the Catholic was an idolater. Any Catholic monarch—such as Queen Mary I—was, therefore, an idolatrous and wicked ruler. Christians should not submit to such rulers but oppose them.
Returning to Scotland in 1559, Knox led the Reforming party of Scotland. He continued to promote reformation and raised troops to assist in that goal. Over the last thirteen years of his life, Knox passionately fought for reform in Scotland and opposed the Catholic Church and Catholic rulers. Despite Knox’s hard work, his goal was not realized until after his death in 1572.
Knox is remembered as a firebrand Reformer who was either loved or hated. But his greatest legacy may not have been the Scottish Reformation. By arguing for rebellion, violent if necessary, against wicked rulers, Knox laid a foundation upon which others would build. His thinking about the relationship between God, the Sovereign, and the Subject, though extreme for his day, was key to what became the American Revolution. Without John Knox and his influence upon later men such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, it is possible the American Revolution would never have occurred. Oxford historian Jonathan Clark noted that a principled right to revolt, as described in the American Declaration of Independence, is built upon the foundation of three men: Theodore Beza, John Ponet, and John Knox.