Knox and Lever invited to pastor the Frankfurt church

     Acting under the words of our Lord concerning shaking off the dust and moving on where the gospel falls on barren ground, many English, Scottish and Irish Christians fled their countries when the tares of Mary’s bloody reign and French influence in Scotland choked true religion. Most of these exiles journeyed to Holland, Germany or Switzerland though others moved to far away Scandinavia, Austria and even Spain and Italy. Anywhere, it seemed, was safer than in Britain. The foreign churches which had been licensed by Edward also fled the country often to meet their English brethren again on the same church premises abroad. The main centres of these exiles on the Continent became Basle, Geneva, Zürich, Straßburg and Frankfurt. The latter church was given a spacious place of worship by the Senate where the French church in exile, formerly formed in England, now also worshipped.

     When John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, Ireland, was compelled to flee in 1554, he settled down with his family in Frankfurt where the church had no pastor. The church looked to Bale for leadership but, perhaps because he felt called to complete his great work on the history of the church and the martyrs, he suggested that other men be called. At this time John Knox, who was an Anglican minister, though a Scotsman, and had been chaplain to Edward, had fled to Geneva. On September 24, 1554, finding that Knox was leaving Geneva, where he had been doing research1, Bale persuaded the church to invite Knox as pastor.2 Knox hesitated but Calvin told him to accept the invitation. Meanwhile, Bullinger had persuaded Thomas Lever, a leading Reformer, to be co-pastor with Knox. Lever, who was working as a middle-man or link up between the various German and Swiss refugee churches was delayed because of his work abroad so it appears that Knox reached Frankfurt first. The decisions of Bale, Bullinger and Calvin unwittingly caused a terrible controversy which soon split the Frankfort church.

     The story of this dark patch in the history of the Reformation can be traced in the two volumes of Parker Society Original Letters from 1537-1558 and in the society’s large volume of Zurich Letters (1558-1602). There is also a report of this event in the six volumes attributed to Knox and edited by David Lang entitled The Works of John Knox. This work has been quite mutilated over the centuries and the original authorship and composition is most dubious and much of its contents is obviously fictive. The actual name given the controversy, however, is taken from that unique and fascinating book, Troubles at Frankfort (1554-1558), attributed to William Whitingham of the Frankfurt church and compiled by Edward Arber.

What the controversy was not and what it was

     It has become traditional amongst certain denominational writers to look upon the troubles at Frankfurt as a water-shed between alleged ‘Anglican’ (Episcopal) and ‘Puritan’ (Presbyterian) factions. The role that such as Bale, Grindal, Cox, Lever, Becon, Sampson, Whitehead and their associates played in contrast to that played by John Knox at Frankfurt has been summarised by T. M. Lindsey of the Scottish Free Church College in Glasgow in his History of the Reformation in the words:

     “The years 1554-58 . . . . . . witnessed the trouble in the Frankfurt congregation of English exiles, where Knox’s broad-minded toleration and straightforward action stands in noble contrast with the narrow-minded and crooked policy of his opponents.”3

     This view, which brands some of Britain’s greatest reformers as rogues, though nowadays sadly common, presents a totally false picture of both sides in the controversy, besides being guilty of chronological error, anachronisms and guilt by association. Knox’s agitation and intolerant, un-Reformed behaviour at Frankfurt cannot be claimed as anything but a great set-back to the English and Continental Reformation.

The Frankfurt church was established before Knox and Lever joined

     The extant Frankfurt letter inviting Knox, with Bale’s signature uppermost, is of great importance in the controversy as it shows clearly that Bishop Bale was in Frankfort before Knox, whereas modern defenders of Knox argued that as he was there before the ‘Anglican’ faction, he had a greater right than the Church of England majority to determine the church’s policy. Just a very few months after Knox’s arrival, we find Bale voting to have him removed. We know from the author of Troubles at Frankfort that the Frankfort church members were open on the matter of forms of worship but wished to use those approved by the Reformed churches whether British or Continental. When Knox arrived, it was suggested that he should use the 1553 Book of Common Prayer which had banned popish vestments, ceremonies and imagery. Knox refused point blank for the most surprising of reasons. These being that the Prayer Book allowed for the public reading of Scripture and responses by the laity and furthermore, it had been abolished by Queen Mary. Rather inconsistent with these arguments, Scots Knox insisted that the church had thus ‘an English face’ which it must change. He also refused to work with a co-pastor.

Knox rejects John Foxe’s advice

     Surprised at Knox’ stance, the congregation, supported by John Foxe, said that he was quite welcome to use the Genevan Order as they were no stickers to forms but had used mostly a similar order as the Belgic church up to that time.4 Again, Knox refused the offer on the self-contradictory grounds that the Order was not generally used in all the English churches in exile. He wanted a fixed order for all churches in the diaspora according to his conceptions only. So the puzzled but patient Frankfurt church asked Knox to state what his ideal form of worship was and resolved to set up a committee to work with him. Several of the brethren, who had previously worked with Knox, warned the others that he had taken the same defiant go-it-alone stance against the authors of the Edwardian Prayer Book and that Dean Weston had protested at Knox’ insistence that his own ability must be the measure of all things. Knox now gave the church the ultimatum, either to accept an order yet to be drawn up by him, and allow him merely to preach but not to administer the ordinances, or he would leave instantly. Thus baptisms and celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were cancelled until Knox gave the go-ahead and Lever came.

Whittingham and Knox’s highly questionable strategy

     This was the status quo prevailing when a further group of exiles including Cox, Grindal and Becon joined the church and, at last, Lever. Grindal had come to persuade Knox not to press for an either-or solution to his problem and thus split not only the church but the Reformation cause. As Knox continued to adopt a go-it-alone attitude, but refused to administer the Lord’s Supper, until everybody promised to be led by him, the church now became suspicious of Knox’s strategy as he refused to cooperate with the senior members of the church not with the man chosen to be pastor with him of equal rank. Knox now protested against the church’s practice of reading through the Bible publicly at morning service and demanded that the congregation people should not take part in the responses but only priests. Both Reformed practices were anathema to Knox and continued to be so through the debates. The latter demand was rather ridiculous as almost all the church members were ordained ministers. Nor had Knox had a Reformed ordination as many of the members had.

Whittingham appeals to Caesar

     Whittingham, wishing to pacify both sides but without consulting either, turned to the Senate for arbitration. This angered the brethren but, for the sake of peace, they agreed to bide by Senator Johan Glauberg’s findings. Glauberg ruled that the church should adopt the French Order as they shared the same premises with the French and Walloon brethren. This was a similar order to that of Bucer, Poullain and Calvin. Cox, formerly the King’s tutor and high-ranking Church of England minister and the new leader of the majority, felt this was a fair compromise as the church had been using a similar order before Knox’s arrival and urged the church to agree. The majority happily gave their consent. Knox, who seemingly did not like a ‘French face’ either, though the French Order had been accepted by Edward’s Council and the French and Belgic Churches had been given an official Royal license to worship after that pattern, was now asked to keep quiet and accept the order by the magistrates for the sake of peace.

Knox’s faked ‘scoffing analysis’

     The Scotsman, however, assisted by Whittingham, made an extraordinary move. He sent to Calvin what he called a Latin Plat (summary) of the English Prayer Book, which the church did not use anyway, and told the Reformer that what he had not put in he had left out not because of shame but pity for those who expressed such beliefs. This garbled, Latinised compendium of mock-ups, (Arber, Knox’s chronicler, calls it a ‘scoffing analysis’), he assured Calvin, was the Frankfort church’s order of service. It never was and never would be.

     In a later letter to Calvin, the new pastor, Whitehead told him that Knox’s act was ‘criminal’. Indeed, the Frankfurt exiles had already published a French verbatim translation of their thoroughly Reformed order of service. This had also been printed in Switzerland and was widely known amongst English and French immigrants and in Reformed circles. French was also Calvin’s mother tongue. So the question is why did Knox refer Calvin to his own Latin botched up version rather than send Calvin a copy of the official French translation? That the two were radically different became plain from the continued correspondence between Frankfort and Geneva. We might also ask why Knox did not inform Calvin that the Frankfurt church had even been prepared to accept other forms, including Calvin’s own? Why, too, had Knox rejected Foxe’s intervention?

Cox and Lever denounced by Knoxians quite unjustly

     Sadly in this taking of sides, great injustice is done to the characters of Richard Cox and Thomas Lever. The latter had been invited to the Frankfurt church at the same time as Knox to be a preacher under the Scotsman’s pastorate. It is said that this was a strategic move of the more ceremonial minded ‘Anglicans’ to balance off Knox. This again is an opinion which quite contradicts all the evidence. Lever was a Non-Conformist and his strong views against ceremonies, ‘habits’ and ‘garments’ have been recorded by Strype. Cox was one of the foremost men of the Reformation and tutor to Edward VI. When Elizabeth insisted on displaying candles and crosses in her private chapel, supposedly for the benefit of foreign diplomats, Cox risked his bishopric and his head in protesting that such relics of Rome had no place in Christian worship.

Knox silenced and advised to leave by the civic authorities

     Now Knox’s political writings against Emperor Charles V (Mary’s cousin and Father-in-Law), placed the Frankfurt church under strong suspicion as the city was under direct imperial rule. The Frankfurt majority asked Bale and the other office-bearers to explain to Calvin the embarrassing situation in which Knox had placed them and the Reformation, asking him to intervene. To impress Calvin with the urgency of the situation, Whitehead’s letter, rather more sternly worded than that of Bale and Cox, pointed out that only after Mary had read Knox’ extreme political views, including a denial of the right of women to inherit crowns, had she started to execute the Reformers.

Those who stood nearest Knox advise him to leave Frankfurt

     According to Whitehead, when the Frankfurt exiles had become familiar with Knox politics, they discussed the matter with his ‘intimate friends’, and advised against him remaining in the church. It appears that these friends, in turn, gave Knox the advice to leave but he refused. Then, two members of the church, Edward Isaac and Henry Parry, following Whitingham’s example, turned to the Senate again for arbitration. This time Glauberg himself advised Knox to leave Frankfort and gave the church permission to worship as they wished. Knox gave Bale (the man who had invited him) and Cox the blame for this, believing they had set up Isaac and Parry against him. However, Whitingham, Knox’ closest friend, and one of the longest members at Frankfurt, but now losing his patience, warned Knox that that he was splitting the church and so should leave. Knox boasted that when he left, he would take others with him but Whitingham said, “Without me!” The church majority now accused Knox of open schism. After a very brief stay in Geneva, Knox returned to Scotland, where, for ten months, he occupied himself by preaching (with success) and plotting political revolt (without success).

     At Geneva, whether because of language difficulties or the heat of fierce argument, Knox gave the Calvin a picture of the Frankfurt majority which defied all reality. It appears from Calvin’s letters that he believed the Frankfurt majority were now against reforms and were defying the German authorities, wishing to remain ‘English’ at all costs. He thus wrote at least two letters to the church scolding them severely as if he were in authority over them. This event has often been used to show that Cox, Grindal, Jewel and Bale were less than Reformed and Anti-Calvinists. The balanced and objective response of the Frankfurt Reformers is ignored as also is the nigh immaculate testimony of these Fathers in Israel.

The Frankfurt Church Answers Calvin

     Bale and his friends told Calvin, whom they highly respected, that although they had been given full freedom of worship by the Frankfurt authorities, they were in no way stubbornly ‘wedded to their country’ so as not to adopt other forms. Indeed, the policy in the church was for members to take on German citizenship as did Coverdale and Sandy’s. They had specifically removed all matters of church order which were doctrinally unsound or unacceptable to the local, political authorities. Relinquishing all hierarchical ties with the Church of England, they had founded a church originally with one pastor over them, two preachers, four elders and two deacons. As the authorities had demanded that election of officers should be accompanied by a declaration of faith, the church declared with very few exceptions that their basis of doctrine should be the Forty-Two Edwardian Articles. These, together with the churches order of worship had been printed at Zürich both in English and French, because of the French exiles who worshipped with the Englishmen and the English exiles in French speaking ‘free’ areas. The Englishmen also stated that in thus reforming themselves, they had further banned private baptisms, crossings, confirmation of children, saints’ days, wearing vestments and even kneeling at communion. Notwithstanding, the church was shocked to hear that Calvin had been told that they still practised imagery and crossing which had no basis whatsoever in truth.5 Indeed, anti-Anglican complaints to Calvin and their apparent misuse of Calvin’s replies have continued to stoke the fires of prejudice since 1555. The author of Troubles in Frankfort, for instance, professes to give Calvin’s reply in full on being sent the Latin mock-up of the Second Edwardian Prayer Book. Calvin is made to say to Knox and Whittingham, “In the Liturgy of England, I see there were many tolerable foolish things. By these words I mean, that there was not that purity which was to be desired.” What Calvin actually said was, “In the Anglican Liturgy as you describe it6, I see many trifles that may be put up with.”7 It would appear here that Calvin is carefully guarding his comments should Knox’s version not be a faithful representation. Heedless of this, Calvin is invariably quoted by anti-Anglicans as backing Knox to the hilt. They forget that Calvin and Beza were the men who banned Knox’s and Goodwin’s works from the Bernese Protectorate of Geneva.

     Knox returned to Geneva in 1556 to find that many of the exiles, including Bale, Whittingham, Coverdale and Knollys had moved to Switzerland. Knox was then elected pastor of the Genevan church which included men from both former parties. The great bulk of his church returned to England in 1559 to take up posts in the Church of England on Elizabeth’s rise to power, and Knox returned to Scotland where he had, ironically enough, been invited by the Protestant Nobility to lead the church on the basis of Edward’s reforms.

 

An attempt to shed light on this dark subject

     More recent writers, such as James Heron in his A Short History of Puritanism, are clearly mistaken in making this controversy out to be a battle between Arminians and Calvinists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, Nonconformists and Conformists, Puritans and Anglicans. No such divisions were present. Both the majority in the controversy, dubbed ‘Anglicans’ by such as Heron and Edward Arber, and the minority, dubbed ‘Puritans’ were Calvinists, or rather Bullingerites, to a man. Even the taunt of ‘Episcopalian’ falls flat in the case of the Frankfurt majority as they elected pastors and preachers, not bishops. They had even elected Knox! For these men, whether one was called ‘bishop’ or ‘presbyter’, was a matter of indifference and purely a utility question. So, too, the quite unjustified generalisation that the split was a matter of Non-Conformists versus Conformists has no evidence whatsoever to stand on and is a misuse of contemporary terms. In the 16th century, the Non-Conformists were a most influential part of the Church of England and embraced every function within the church from deacon to Archbishop. The idea that a Non-Conformist was a Non-Anglican came with the Great Rebellion. The fact is that both sides contained the entire range of churchmen from moderate Conformists to fairly radical Nonconformists. Whitehead, whom Abner believes was the ‘Anglican’ ringleader and a Prayer Book man, was an Ultra-Non-Conformist and certainly too Non-Conformist for Knox. Indeed, the most outspoken Frankfurt opposition against Knox was from the more radical Non-Conformists. Wrong also is the polarisation of the terms ‘puritan’ and ‘Anglican’. The modern denominational tendency to make their own highly differing systems synonymous with ‘Puritanism’ fails completely in the light of contemporary usage. As Baxter, a Puritan himself, recorded, the term was used of anyone who showed an earnest concern for religion. Who would deny that exiles Bale, Cox, Grindal, Jewel, Sandys, Becon, Lever, Sampson, Coverdale and Whitehead were puritans? Who could possibly postulate that they were less puritan than Knox without utterly changing the meaning of the word? Edward Arber in his 1907 Introduction to The Troubles at Frankfort, admittedly calls the Knox party the ‘Calvinists’ and the Cox-Grindal-Bale party the ‘Anglicans’, coming down on Knox’s side. Yet he is far more balanced than most commentators, arguing that the ‘Anglicans’, in the controversy were mostly ‘noted puritans’. He also points out Knox’s inconsistencies and adds, “How Knox could write such violent books, in such dangerous times, is another mystery in his life.” He also comments “Then, amazing as it seems to us, in men who made God’s Word their sole rule in everything, these Frankfort Calvinists regarded the Public Reading of the Scriptures in Divine Service “as an irksome and unprofitable form’” and claims that the Frankfurt opposition to Knox were well able to defend themselves against Calvin’s misinformed criticisms.

Knox was not the hero of the day

     Far from being the hero of the day, in 1554-5 Knox, who had only turned from Rome some eight years before, was not yet up to the Reforming standard of many fellow church members. These were defenders of Reformed principles in the mother tongue, irrespective of national or even international politics. Knox was still a lover of Latin forms of worship not only in 1554 but even when he returned to Scotland in 1559 to find the Reformation well under way. He insisted on translating the Scots order of worship into Latin, the Confessio Scoticana only being replaced by the Westminster Confession in the middle of the following century. Knox obviously preferred Latin to any other language. He had equally obviously difficulties with the English tongue and lacked the English Exiles’ ability to preach and teach in several Continental languages. Most of the complaints such as Whitehead, Grindal and Ridley had against Knox were that he pronounced judgement on English texts which he had obviously misunderstood. His Reforms were more in the realms of Church Order, Discipline and politics rather than doctrine. It must be also emphasised here that Continental Reformers such as Bullinger and Calvin never agreed to Knox’s views concerning his ‘Christian State’.8 Sampson, on the majority side, was as firm a denouncer of church hierarchies and papist customs as was Whittingham on the minority side. But even Whittingham censured Knox. Before Knox arrived, the Frankfort Church was local, free and democratic and had less formal structure than many a contemporary or later Presbyterian or Anglican order of service. Indeed, arch-Non-Conformist David Whitehead sided with and led the majority because he found them more Reformed and had a better Christian spirit than Knox. Whitehead protested to Calvin that the Knox faction had ‘bold and wicked designs’, almost scolding him for allowing himself to be influenced by their ‘bare-faced manner’. He tells Calvin concerning the schismatic whom the Frenchman was protecting:

     “We wish, however, that those persons who are filling your ears with these calumnious and slanderous accusations, had never abused our lenity, the kindness of the magistrates, and your authority which has given them no small encouragement to stir up this controversy.”9

     Whitehead also tells Calvin that the supposed ceremonies which the break-aways protested against included the public reading of God’s word and speaks of Knox politics as ‘infamous libel’ couched in ‘violent language’. We must further note that Knox at Frankfurt, refused to work with Bale, Foxe, Jewel, Whitehead, Grindal and a host of other staunch Puritans who are now named by Knox’s admirers depreciatingly ‘Anglicans’ because they sought a compromise with Knox rather than to follow him blindly. These men were of the purist Reformed calibre and thus can truly be called ‘Puritans’, though ‘Reformers’ is a more descriptive word. We must also remember that they were men of the deepest learning, at least sixteen of them in Divinity, others in literature and law, and the argument that Knox outdid his Frankfurt opponents in academic ability cannot be justified. Whittingham, however, had unquestionably far higher academic qualifications. Admittedly, Knox education is veiled in obscurity, biographers such as Schaff/Lee arguing that he never took a degree. It is known that he began to learn Greek in middle life and Hebrew even later. He could thus hardly compete with leading university men such as Cox and Bale and great expositors and theologians such as Grindal and Jewel. A good number of the Frankfurt exiles such as Bale were in Christ and preaching the gospel decades before Knox.10 Furthermore, Anti-Anglican Heron calls Knox’s English Church at Geneva which he led for a brief period after leaving Frankfurt, ‘The First Puritan Congregation’. However almost all the members left for England in 1558-9 to take up Anglican orders. Thus obviously Heron’s ‘Puritans’ were, or became, Anglican almost to a man.

Summing up

     It is a travesty of history and the truth for modern authors to enhance their own denominational preferences by setting up non-existent sides. Indeed, the Frankfurters were Non-Conformist almost to a man and their church order was simple in comparison to the seven-tier11 system Knox had as his ideal, i.e. 1. Over-regional and regional presbyteries, 2. superintendents, 3. ministers, 4. teachers, 5. elders, 6. deacons, 7. readers. Knox’s method of ‘electing’ the Higher Clergy was through direct appointment by the Lords and Privy Council with the churches merely given the right to protest. Furthermore, Knox was hardly Non-Conformist or even Puritan in his love for ceremonies and enforced unity and the direct interference of the political arm in inner- and inter-church matters. Although Knox condemned others for unscriptural worship, Ninian Winzet, perhaps the only opponent Knox failed to combat, revealed dozens of ceremonies practised by Knox which had no warrant from Scripture. He points out how far Knox’s view of baptism was alien to Scripture and attacked him on the Lord’s Supper for not distributing the bread and wine as Jesus did and Paul commanded lawful ministers to do. He wanted to know why Knox was so fussy about the white cloth on the Communion Table yet, on the other hand, celebrated the Supper before dinner time. Winzet told Knox that he trampled his own Scriptural principles and doctrines in the mud. Though Winzet was a papist, Hugh Watt in his most sympathetic work on John Knox in Controversy, says of him “it is evident that very little would have made Ninian Winzet one of our leading Reformers.” He also states that in the initial years of Knox’ coming to power, his opponents were seldom chosen from the papist forces but were almost all “on his own side of the fence:” Most of Knox’ controversies were about his own preference of certain forms and ceremonies before others’ and thus he placed himself outside of the main spiritual thrust of the Reformation. The trouble those on Knox’ side of the fence had with him was that he wished State and Church to conform to his principles alone. Knox was able to gain acceptance for his ideas of absolute state-controlled uniformity in religion in Scotland, but he was quite unable to enforce them at Frankfurt. Nor were his efforts to assume control in Scotland easy. Ironically enough, Knox Scottish friends and foes criticised him for assuming ‘an English face’ in his ideas of church order and also because of his nigh inability to speak the vernacular. He had been too long amongst the English and was too much of a Latin speaker to be judged a Scot! Though non-Conformity played an influential part within the Church of England until the Usurpation almost a hundred years later, when the Knoxians eventually came to power in the Westminster Assembly, absolute conformity was still their catchword. When Cromwell finally rebelled against their views, they risked – and in the case of such as Christopher Love, lost – their lives by inviting Charles II back, hoping that he would help them unite the country under one state-Presbyterian religion with a new doctrine of the Covenant and a new doctrine of the Church. Their ideas of forced unity backfired as they were ousted more and more from the ecclesiastical stage in England.

  1. Lindsay in his History of the Reformation claims that Knox was preparing a treatise on the right of subjects to rebel. Hastings Robinson suggests this was Knox’ Genevan associate, Goodman. My research shows that the two worked together.
  2. Letter from Frankfort, Sept. 24, 1554.
  3. Vol.2, pp. 287-288.
  4. This is most probably the order which Calvin found in Straßburg when the Genevan Council exiled him in 1538 and then took with him back to Geneva when Bucer and Bullinger intervened for him.
  5. Letters dated April 5, 1555 and Sept. 20, 1555.
  6. My emphasis.
  7. See Troubles at Frankfort, p. 51, Lang’s John Knox, p. 58 and footnote.
  8. See Knox versus Calvin, in John Knox and the Reformation, Andrew Lang, p. 47, Longmans, Green & Co., 1905.
  9. David Whitehead and Others to John Calvin, Sept. 20, 1555.
  10. Schaff/Lee say that Knox first publicly professed the Reformed faith at forty. Dates for Knox’ birth vary from 1505-1515, thus exact dating is impossible.
  11. The papists had a seven-tier system whereas the Anglican Reformers held to a three or four-tiered system.