April 7: John Knox Licensed to Preach (1549)

A True Portrait of the Man

Mention the name of John Knox, and what comes to your mind?  Founder of Presbyterianism, the land of Scotland, Protestant Reformer, author, rigid leader, ever ready to prove his preaching orthodox by “apostolic blows and knocks”? Such is the picture which we have of this sixteenth century individual.

We always could expect negative views of him from his enemies in those centuries in assailing the character of this leader. They didn’t want his brand of Reformation truths and practices to become the norm in the Kingdom of Scotland. But often his friends in both those  years and today have felt that they must apologize for his fierce statements and actions, where and when no apology was needed. Of course, what doesn’t help is the familiar picture of John Knox, so familiar in all our minds, where his expression and especially his beard makes the present day characters of Duck Dynasty tame by comparison. And then there was that sermon written overseas entitled “First Draft of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women,” which diatribe was against the female rulers of England. All this causes us to be thankful for the result of the establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland, and our country, but sometimes apologetic about the instrument used to bring it about.

Yet all these negatives were challenged by the discovery of four unpublished papers of John Knox in a collegiate library in London near the close of the nineteenth century. These papers were not originals to be sure, but transcripts from the originals written in the sixteenth century. And from them, we get a true portrait of the character of John Knox.

In addition, they reveal a little more of his ministry spent—are you ready for this?—in England. In fact, half of his ministry was spent either in England, or among English exiles in Germany and Geneva. Further, today in April 7, 1549, we remember his license being issued as a priest of the Church of England.

John Knox himself in his great work, The History of the Reformation in Scotland, describes his time in the Church of England with a very succinct paragraph on page 98. He said, “The said John Knox was first appointed Preacher to Berwick; then to Newcastle; last he was called to London and to the south parts of England, where  he remained to the death of King Edward the Sixth.” His whole five years of ministry was reduced to thirty-seven words.

The footnote under that quotation reads on the same page, “In this modest sentence John Knox disposes of his English residence of five years, making no reference to his appointment as a Royal Chaplain to Edward the Sixth, before whom he frequently preached at Windsor, Hampton Court, St. James’s and Westminster, nor to the share he took in preparation of the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles to the Church of England, nor to his declination first of the Bishopric of Rochester, and afterward of the vicarage of All Hallows in London. His appointment as preacher to Berwick and Newcastle was made by the Privy Council of England.”

As the English Reformer, the papers referenced above reveal the true character of Knox as exhibiting “a combination of tenderness with strength, of playful humor with the profoundest seriousness, of all genial sympathies with fervor of devotional and burning zeal for truth.”  (p. 443)  Knox is shown as a guide of souls in trouble, with remarkable wisdom and moderation. To be sure, John Knox did not compromise his divine calling as a pastor in the Church of England. He stood fast by his conviction that Scripture alone must command his actions as a servant of God.

Suffice to say, while this author rejoices in the Scottish Reformation, with no little gratitude that his ancestors were members of the Church of Scotland on his mother’s side, we must also rejoice in the influence that John Knox had on the English Reformation, where, preaching from the Word of God, he proclaimed the unsearchable riches of God’s grace, while defending the historic Christian faith from those who would seek to destroy it.

Then too, in cooperation with those Reformed members of the Church of England, Knox was a powerful influence in framing the Book of Common Prayer and the English Articles  of Religion. It was only with the death of Edward the Sixth that Mary Tudor came to the throne with the intention of restoring Romanism to the realm, which in turn forced Knox to flee to the Continent with countless other Protestants.

Words to Live By: And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness, God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” — 2 Timothy 2:24 – 26, ESV.


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