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From Scotland to Geneva and Back Again

Many of the first reform-minded men appeared in Scotland when England began persecution of the Lollards. Many Lollards feared for their lives and escaped to Scotland. Early reformers in Scotland had little luck with their messages there. All too often, Lollards, Hussites, and Lutherans alike met the same fate: burning at the stake at the hands of Catholic officials.

Nevertheless, Reformation ideas crept into Scotland and took hold. Despite the best efforts of clergy there to keep the Bible and Reformation literature out of the hands of the Scots, the Scottish people read anyway. Frustrations with the unusually corrupt Scottish Church mounted, and, after reading the scriptures for themselves, the people of Scotland were primed for a Reformation of their own.

Knox and Presbyterianism

The Scot John Knox (c.1505-1572), on his own amazing journey from being merely an uneducated priest, led the Reformation movement in Scotland. Theologically, John Calvin had perhaps the greatest influence on Knox. In life, though, a man named George Wishart (1513-1546) caught Knox’s attention.

Wishart, a reformer in Scotland, served as Knox’s mentor until Wishart was burned at the stake in 1546. Wishart’s followers asked Knox to take over the Scottish reform movement later that year. Knox knew his safety could be in jeopardy but he agreed anyway. Catholic officials arrested Knox and others and he was sent to be a galley slave aboard a French ship for a year and a half.

Upon his release, Knox traveled to England and joined the Anglican Church. From there he could safely preach against the corruption of the Catholic Church. He did just that until the Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne in England. Knox did the smart thing and fled to Geneva. (More on this later.) Knox studied Calvin and the things he was doing in Geneva. After a time, Knox returned briefly to Scotland— only to turn right around and return to Geneva. Finally, in 1559, Knox returned to Scotland for good.

Becoming the Scottish National Church

As soon as Knox arrived in Scotland, he took over as Scotland’s most important reformer and preached passionately against the Church. Soon violence broke out across Scotland as Protestants smashed windows and statues and stormed monasteries. Knox didn’t incite the violence, but he didn’t stop it, either.

Protestantism spread like wildfire. In 1560, the Scottish parliament ratified the Scots’ Confession of Faith, legislation that officially wiped Catholicism out of Scotland. Although he had some help, Knox did most of the work on the Confession. The document addressed theological issues like the sacraments and the Lord’s Supper, two of the major points of difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Protestants in Scotland were so different from the traditional Catholic Church that they actually asked citizens to report errors in the Confession, as long as the Bible supported the refutations.

Knox and his advisors got to work organizing a new church for Scotland. They wrote The First Book of Discipline, which helped outline the organization and basic beliefs of the new church. Three years later, Knox added The Book of Common Order. They designed the church so that it was led by elders, much the way the New Testament Church had been. Because elders were such a vital part of the leadership of the church, it became known as the Presbyterian Church—the word presbyterian means “elder” in Greek.

This was yet another example of how Scottish Protestantism differed greatly from Catholicism; both clergy and nonclergy, or laymen, could become elders and hold leadership positions. In the Catholic Church, laymen were not considered equal with clergy. Individual Presbyterian congregations were governed by a presbytery in much the same way Catholic congregations belonged to a diocese. Collectively, all the Presbyterian congregations belonged to a synod. Knox and the others purposely designed the structure of the Presbyterian Church so that the people, not a pope, made the decisions that affected the members.

Knox had managed to turn a Catholic country into a Protestant country, but his hard work almost went up in smoke. In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) returned to the throne of Scotland, having been in France most of her life. Mary tried hard to return the country to Catholicism. She started by attending her own private mass, something that was forbidden by the Scottish parliament. Mary brought Knox before her and tried to intellectualize a return to Catholicism. Knox didn’t budge, so she resorted to lying, bribing, and threatening anyone she could in an attempt to bring back her religion. Before long, virtually no one supported Mary. Although she was arrested, Mary escaped and fled to England where she eventually was beheaded for leading several assassination plots against her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant.

Knox died in 1572, so he never saw the official adoption of Presbyterianism as the national religion of Scotland in 1590. Nonetheless, what he and his followers accomplished in Scotland was nothing short of remarkable. The Reformation in Scotland likely never would have taken place without John Knox.

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