An Unlikely Cast of Johns

© by Dan Graves

The odds against the coincidence had to be steep. Sixteenth-century Scotland was home to myriad James, Alexanders, Douglases, Roberts, Andrews, Walters, Camerons, and men with other given names. Yet each of the six men entrusted to draft the first Confession of reformed Scotland and its first Book of Discipline, was named John.

John Knox, one of the six

John Knox, one of the six

They were:

  • John Knox, the stern visionary;
  • John Willock, the ardent innovator;
  • John Winram, the ambiguous latecomer;
  • John Row, the surprise convert;
  • John Spottiswoode, the quiet supervisor;
  • John Douglas, the learned forerunner.

Two more important documents could hardly be imagined. The Confession set forth the doctrine, and the Book of Discipline the organization, of the Church of Scotland as it took its first steps away from Rome. Who were these six Johns?

Although the six shared a name and a historic stage, their reasons for joining the Reformation differed greatly. Each came by a different path, at a different pace.

John Knox

More than any other, John Knox defined the movement. His strength was forged in adversity. A farm boy, he left the plow for the quill, was ordained a priest, and became a tutor. When George Wishart preached Lutheran-style reformation, Knox became his disciple and bodyguard. Cardinal Beaton, Scotland’s cruel, corrupt and haughty primate, burned Wishart as a heretic. At Beaton’s command, a cleric named John Winram preached the execution sermon.

Wishart’s courage at the stake moved Knox profoundly, but the backlash to the judicial murder transfigured his life. Angry young nobles broke into St. Andrew’s Castle and murdered Beaton. Knox’s employers joined the hotheads and ordered the tutor to bring their boys to them. In the castle, the rebels made him their chaplain, thereby inflicting 19 months of misery on him, for Scotland’s French allies soon recaptured St. Andrew’s and chained Knox in a prison galley. Pulling an oar, his health failed and he neared death. But when his pulse faltered, faith rescued him: he obtained deep assurance he would yet glorify God in Scotland—and recovered.

Following his release from the oar, Knox pastored Scot refugees in England and Geneva, rubbing elbows with reformers Cranmer and Calvin. He refused to settle permanently in Scotland until its people were ready for reformation. But when he returned, he brought the Scots a new order of worship. With his heart strong as an oaken beam, neither queen regent, nor queen, nor vacillating nobles could warp him from his course. Parliament adopted the Confession and constitution he masterminded, and the kirk (church) was reborn.

Knox sometimes lost favor with the Scots, but by his death in 1572 the Reformation was irrevocably stamped on Scotland. Hours before he died, he told friends he had been wrestling with God for the kirk. “I have been in heaven!” he declared.

John Willock

No one can produce a national reformation single-handedly. Most important of the clergymen who backed Knox was John Willock. Willock worked closely with the reformer, even preaching in his stead at St. Giles, but was no yes-man. Years before Knox acquired national stature, Willock shed his friar’s robe, left his native Scotland, and took himself to London to participate in the English Reformation. His university education helped him gain employment as a preacher and chaplain.

For years he ducked in and out of the northern kingdom, seeking the Lord’s work for himself and exerting pressure for reform. When sick, he exhorted visitors from his bed. His appeals to Dundee and Edinburgh were so convincing the inhabitants petitioned the government to allow religious change. Indicted and outlawed in 1558, he preached anyhow, backed by noblemen. In 1559, he frustrated the regent’s attempts to restore Catholicism in Edinburgh, becoming the first minister in Scotland to offer communion in the reformed manner. When the regent broke her word, he backed her suspension, declaring she had forfeited her right to govern; but when she lay dying he explained salvation to her.

Despite his ardor, Willock preferred the English church. In 1562, he accepted a pastorate in England. The Scots begged him to return. Beyond occasionally moderating the General Assembly, he would not. During a 1565 visit, he had to flee because Mary, Queen of Scots, sought to arrest him. He died in 1585, still rector of his English church.

John Winram

John Winram shared none of Willock’s fire. Continual danger taught him to walk cautiously and leave a self-preserving paper trail. While Beaton ruled supreme, Winram appeared in his entourage. As we saw, he preached at Wishart’s execution, although the sermon cautiously endorsed many of Wishart’s aims. Winram actually wept at parting with Wishart and pleaded for permission to give him the eucharist one last time. Beaton refused and accused Winram of Reformation tendencies, but, although the cardinal fumed, he could not find suficient grounds on which to proceed against his underling. Winram appeared at other reformers’ executions, but on the other hand, even before Knox went to the galleys, established reforms at St. Andrews, although well within the Catholic tradition. For example, he created a Catholic catechism in the Scot’s tongue. He seems to have believed the old church could be fixed.

The ambiguity continued. When Winram, the highest Roman authority at St. Andrews after Beaton’s assassination, did not refute Knox, who preached publicly against Rome before his internment in the galleys, Catholic complained. In response, Winram arranged a debate between the Romanists and reformers, but carefully kept his own views private. Later, when the Reformation seemed likely to prevail, Winram switched sides. For this, opponents called him mercenary. Ever the conciliator, his contribution to the Confession was to tone down Knox’s strong theory of resistance to abusive authority. Later he rejected Knox’s demand that the mass be forcibly taken from Queen Mary. Despite such disagreements, Knox valued him as a friend. Others did not.

Year after year, opponents accused Winram of slackness and worldliness. The record utterly refutes the first charge. As superintendent of a large region, to which he was appointed when he was almost 70 years of age, he visited the 100 parishes he was responsible for (often at his own expense), established churches, examined ministerial candidates, held church court, oversaw an expanding network of schools, vetted publications, determined which buildings needed repair, and much more—sometimes in face of extreme Catholic opposition. Little wonder he held influential church positions until his death.

John Row

Like Knox, John Row was a country boy with scholastic aptitude. Because of his legal ability, superiors sent him to Rome to handle Scottish affairs. He might have risen in the old church, but, health declining, returned to Scotland. Rome made him papal nuncio to examine Scottish “heresy.” The plan backfired. Uncovering a hoax in which priests claimed to have restored sight to a blind boy, he began to doubt Rome’s claims of miracles. Convinced by Knox’s preaching, he embraced the Reformation. Thereafter, he sat in its highest councils, and helped prepare the Confession. Appointed to argue for an episcopal government for the kirk (control by bishops), he became convinced that presbyterianism (control by elders) had the better case and supported it all his remaining days.

John Spottiswoode

The cruel persecution of reformers by Catholics in Scotland horrified the fifth John—John Spottiswoode. He left Scotland, intending to abandon the church and seek other employment. But in England, Thomas Cranmer talked him around and ordained him as a Protestant minister. Although active in the Reformation, Spottiswoode, like Melanchthon or Erasmus, preferred quiet. He seldom got it. To the contrary, he was compelled to hold the superintendency of a large region and was continually placed in positions of authority and prominence. He even crowned James VI king of Scotland. He often lamented the more extreme positions of the reformers.

John Douglas

The sixth John was John Douglas, rector of St. Andrews. Formerly a Carmelite friar, he spent a year in France where he was drawn to the Huguenot reformation. He was one of the forerunners of Reformation in Scotland, bringing the people around to the new ideas before Knox’s return. Once the Reformation was a done deal, he sided with Winram against Knox’s more extreme positions. Eventually, Douglas became the first Protestant Archbishop of St. Andrews. Because power had shifted from primates to the General Assembly and because the Earl of Moray elevated Douglas in furtherance of some personal schemes, the position carried little weight. Indeed, despite his personal friendship for Douglas, Knox refused to preach his installation service. Douglas enjoyed his lofty title only two years, dying in 1574.

The lives of the six Johns demonstrate that the Scottish Reformation was far from a monolithic movement. Nonetheless, whether from noble inclinations or mercenary, the six Johns helped transform Scotland into a Protestant citadel. Thanks in no small measure to them, the influence of the Presbyterian model on world history would be immense.


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  3. Hazlett, W. Ian A. “Scottish Confession” in The Westminster Handbook to Reformed Theology. Edited by Donald K. McKim. Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001.
  4. “John Knox” and “David Beaton” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  5. “John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland.”
  6. Knox, John. History of the Reformation of Religion Within the Realm of Scotland. editor, Charles John Guthrie. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1898.
  7. MacGregor, Geddes. The thundering Scot; a portrait of John Knox. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1957.
  8. MacGregregor, Janet G. The Scottish Presbyterian Polity; a Study in its Origins in the Sixteenth Century. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1926.
  9. Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. Grove Press, 2003. p. 338.
  10. Reid, William Stanford. Trumpeter of God; a biography of John Knox. New York: Scribners, 1974.
  11. Ridley, Jasper. John Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  12. Rosie, George. Curious Scotland. New York: Macmillan, 2006.
  13. Scots Confession; A. D. 1560
  14. Whitley, Elizabeth. Plain Mr. Knox. London: Skeffington, 1960.

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The Archbishop Who Killed a Man.
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This Day in Christian History.
366 days in Christian history.