Introduction

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Author: Roger A. Mason
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 6,990 words

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[In the following excerpt, Mason provide an overview of Knox's ideas, the political world around him, and his major writings.]

I

There was little in John Knox's background to suggest that as a self-styled instrument of God he was destined to wield considerable influence over the course of the Reformation in Britain. Of his early life, in fact, very little is known. Even the date of his birth—c. 1514—is conjectural, though we can say that he was born of humble parentage in the Scottish burgh of Haddington in East Lothian and was probably educated at the local grammar school before attending St Andrews University. There is no record of his graduating from St Andrews, but he did take holy orders in the later 1530s and, unable to obtain a benefice, eked out a living as a notary apostolic (a minor legal official) and a tutor to the children of the gentry. The date of his conversion to Protestantism is similarly obscure, but it must: have occurred in the early 1540s as Knox was closely involved with the ministry of George Wishart who returned to Scotland in 1543 after five years of exile in England and on the continent. Wishart's return appears to have been prompted by the Protestant and anglophile policies pursued by the Regent Arran following the death of James V in 1542 and the accession to the Scottish throne of the infant Mary Stewart. If so, it proved a fatal miscalculation. The powerful Catholic and pro-French party, led by the queen mother, Mary of Guise, and ably seconded by the archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton, ensured that Arran's `godly fit' was short-lived. Wishart was arrested in January 1546 and burned at the stake outside the cardinal's castle at St Andrews two months later.

It was fear of suffering the same fate as his mentor that drove Knox to seek refuge in the castle the following year. There he joined the Protestant lairds who had avenged Wishart's death by murdering the cardinal and who were now under siege vainly awaiting relief from England. It was in these inauspicious circumstances, during a prolonged armistice, that in April 1547 Knox preached his first Protestant sermon. According to his own account, however, he did so truly reluctantly, at first refusing `to run where God had not called him'. It was only when publicly summoned in the face of the congregation and after several days of soul-searching that he became convinced that this was a `lawful vocation' which he could not deny. It is surely significant that, while he tells us nothing about his conversion in his History, Knox describes the circumstances of his calling in such detail (Laing, vol. I, pp. 185-93; Dickinson, vol. I, pp. 81-86). If he suffered a conversion experience, it paled into insignificance when set beside the public drama—and personal trauma—of discovering his vocation. Nor is this surprising. For it was precisely the fact of having been singled out by God through the agency of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420015440