Under the Fearful Cross: John Knox and the Cost of Reformission

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will already be familiar with the concept of reformission. It is, of course, the overriding theme of all that I write about here at Reformissio. The idea of reformission is not original to me, but I have tried (and am trying) to develop it further. Succinctly stated, reformission is short for “reformation as mission”. That is to say, reformation is the form that Christian mission takes in places where the church exists but in a form that neglects or distorts or forgets the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the reformissionaries of history that, for all his faults, I greatly admire is the Scottish Reformer John Knox (how could you not admire someone with a beard like that?). Having had the opportunity to finish reading Jane Dawson’s excellent biography 10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624of Knox during the holiday season, I was struck by a number of the fascinating aspects of his life and mission that she recounts, some of which I hope to share in the days ahead.

For my first post of this new year (which incidentally is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!), it seems opportune to share one particular section in which Dawson recounts the great risks and fears that Knox had to face and overcome in order to carry out his vocation as a reformissionary. To set the stage for what follows, we need to remember that Knox had been compelled to leave his native Scotland and spend time among the English exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. Although seeming like a setback for his work in Scotland, it was in Geneva that Knox was able to formulate, under the tutelage of John Calvin, a strategy for promoting the Scottish Reformation. It was also in Geneva that Knox found the courage to return to his homeland, even though it meant persecution and possibly even martyrdom “under the fearful cross of Christ”. Dawson writes:

[While in Geneva] Knox had direct access to the most experienced team in Europe with expertise in cultivating an underground Protestant church. Over the previous decade Geneva had acted as the motor engine of French Reformed Church. Its large and expanding population of French exiles turned the city into a printing centre, despatching French books; a training camp for clergy to be sent back into the field; and a communications hub for the intelligence network that kept in touch with the French Protestant communities, or Huguenots as they were known. The Genevan pastors would have briefed Knox on what to do, what information to collect and which types of contacts to make in Scotland. Like later resistance fighters, he was being sent into occupied territory and would be working with a network of cells. The French were experts at this type of mission: how to proselytize and survive amid persecution. Although the Scottish Regent’s regime had a much lighter touch than the royal government in France, Knox remained a wanted man. Shortly after he had left Scotland he had been condemned in his absence as a heretic and his effigy had been burned at the market cross in Edinburgh in July 1556. If he were arrested on his return he might be executed without further trial and even denied the public witness [that his personal hero and mentor] Wishart’s death had achieved.

Although Knox had previously faced the possibility of having to die for his faith, in 1557 the odds had lengthened against a safe return. With details from the English persecution fresh in his mind, he wrestled with the prospect of his own execution. In a letter probably written in March 1557, he countered the accusation of cowardice, that “my fleing the contrey declaireth my feir’. Though addressed to Janet Henderson, Knox was talking to himself not her when he wrote about the fear ‘of the death temporall’. He argued that, since everyone had to die, it was a great opportunity ‘to be Chrystis witnes’ in death and for the price of momentary suffering gain eternal life and joy.

Yf we knew, I say, what comfort lyeth hid under the feirfull cross of Chryst, we wald not be sa slak to take up the same. Yf we knew that lyfe is bureit with Chryst in his grave, we wald not feir to ga and seik him in the same. We prais and extoll the martiris and sanctis whilk by affleictionis hath overcum this warld, and yit we having the same occasioun offirit, do flie frome the battell.

Towards the end of the letter he mentioned ‘my awin motioun and daylie prayer is, not onlie that I may visit you, but also with joy I may end my battell amangis yow’…

A farewell party was held for Knox’s family and friends on the night before he left Geneva in September 1557 and there was hardly a dry eye as they prepared to send him on his way…For the Genevan Company of Pastors farewells had become routine as they sent another trained cleric to minister to a newly formed congregation in France. With the list of French martyrs growing each year, everyone in Geneva appreciated the high risks of being sent to serve a church ‘under the cross’. Knox was part of an international effort to spread the Reformed faith and he was particularly conscious of his solidarity with his Huguenot brethren.[1]

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to add a few thoughts of my own. First, Dawson makes clear that the notion that the Reformers were not interested or engaged in mission and evangelism is erroneous. Under Calvin’s leadership, Geneva trained numerous pastors (reformissionaries!) and sent them into occupied territory in France to further the Protestant faith by evangelizing and planting churches. Second, this task of reformission in France was a highly dangerous, and many of the people sent from Geneva for this purpose paid with their lives. Knox himself was to discover this as he planned to return to his own country where he was considered a heretic worthy of death. Yet, third and finally, though Knox struggled mightily with the prospect of martyrdom (and he did struggle!), he ultimately realized that however “fearful” may it be to labor “under…the cross of Christ”, great “comfort” lay hidden there. Knox knew that whatever tears might be shed in the calling to reformission, the joy to be found in obedience to Christ would far outstrip the sorrow. For this reason, Knox steeled himself for his return, determined that he would not “fly from the battle” but would endure to the end in the effort to reclaim the land of his birth for Christ.

At the beginning of this year marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Knox’s example gives me great encouragement, and it inflames my heart to devote greater energy, passion, and commitment to the work of reformission still to be done where I live in Italy, whatever the cost may be. I hope that it does the same for you, wherever you have been called into the service of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 129-132