John Knox (c. 1514–72)
Amongst the many significant religious figures that have come from East Lothian, John Knox stands head and shoulders above them all. In a life of barely sixty years he rose from a position of obscurity, a tutor to the sons of East Lothian gentry, to unquestioned patriarch of the reformed national church and the father of Presbyterianism, a revolutionary whose acts and teaching continue to reverberate around the world.
Despite the significant body of writing that Knox produced and the horde of scholars who have pored over every scrap of evidence the facts surrounding his early life are scanty. Nineteenth-century antiquaries would point to a property in Haddington’s Nungate suburb as his birthplace – and indeed, marked it with oak tree and stone – but the trail was cold even then and certainty remains wanting. His schooling was at Haddington’s ancient grammar school and then university. Little in the years that followed marked him out for great works. He seems to have acted as a lawyer, and perhaps priest, for the Kerrs of Samuelston but by 1545 he was tutor to the family of Douglas of Longniddry.
Throughout this, while the cause of Church reform had been bubbling away in Scotland, Knox’s association with Douglas placed him at the heart of the cause. Douglas hosted George Wishart, an undercover evangelical preacher, and it’s clear Knox was inspired by this contact. After preaching around the county, Wishart was captured at Ormiston by the authorities and martyred. For some months longer Knox remained tutor at Longniddry but he was, in fact, already launched on the trajectory that took him on to revolution, exile, English service, continental sojourn and, in 1559, triumphant return.
The political and religious environment of Scotland was then in a state of flux. Knox and like minded revolutionaries seized the initiative and soon held the reins of government and in the parliaments that followed the church was reformed. The proposed structure, within the strictures of the rule of Biblical law, was democratic through and through – key points included the election of pastors, self-governing sessions, assemblies and the creation of a system of universal education supported by revenue from appropriated ecclesiastical lands. Not all the reforms came about – the swirl of crises that swept around Mary Queen of Scots distracted attention – but by Knox’s death in 1572 Presbyterianism was firmly rooted in Scotland and, in the present day, far beyond these shores.
The resources of the John Gray Centre can be used to explore in great depth the sites associated with Knox in his home county. If you would like to contribute more to our understanding of this period in East Lothian’s history please use our simple template and send it to us. If you have suggestions about people you would like to see featured in this section, please leave a comment below.