“Four years after the death of his first wife, John Knox met his second soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Stewart, youngest daughter of Andrew Stewart. Their family was staunchly Protestant, though related to Queen Mary at the time. And indeed, she was taken in marriage on March 26, 1564, when she was but 19 years of age, by the Reformer when he was in his late fifties. Their “courtship” was interesting to say the least.”
It isn’t often that someone in the rough and tumble of ministry in Reformation Scotland would even think of finding a wife. But our Presbyterian founder, John Knox himself, found in God’s providence, two wives who were willing to take his life as their own.
His first wife was Marjorie Bowes. We don’t know much about her history, and no date on which to place down a separate post on her. She is mentioned twice in “The Reformation in Scotland.” The first reference is on page 119 where it states that John Calvin invited him to Geneva. Knox sent on his wife and her mother there, and followed them after a time. Then on page 240, it is stated that Knox “was in no small heaviness by reason of the late death of “his dear bed-fellow”, Marjorie Bowes. A footnote mentions John Calvin writing to a Christopher Goodman on 23rd April, 1564, “I am not a little grieved that our brother Knox has been deprived of the most delightful of wives.” This note spoke of the grief of our Reformer, for his wife had died four years earlier in 1560. This first marriage union brought into the family two sons, who were both youngsters at the time of her death, namely Nathaniel and Eleazer. Both would grow up, but not leave any heirs due to their singleness.
Four years after the death of his first wife, John Knox met his second soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Stewart, youngest daughter of Andrew Stewart. Their family was staunchly Protestant, though related to Queen Mary at the time. And indeed, she was taken in marriage on March 26, 1564, when she was but 19 years of age, by the Reformer when he was in his late fifties. Their “courtship” was interesting to say the least.
In the Introduction of the “Ladies of the Covenant.” it was described by Mr. Robert Millar, minister of Paisley, to the historian of “The Sufferings of the Church of Scotland,” Mr. Wodrow, on November 15, 1722. It follows:
“John Knox, before the light of the Reformation broke up, traveled among several honest families in the West of Scotland, who were converts to the Protestant religion. Particularly he visited often Steward, Lord Ochiltree’s family, preaching the gospel privately to those who were willing to receive it. The Lady and some of the family were converts.
“Her ladyship had a chamber, table, stool, and a candlestick for the prophet, and one night about supper, says to him, ‘Mr Knox, I think that you are at a loss by want of a wife,’ to which he said, ‘Madam, I think nobody will take such a wanderer as I;’ to which she replied, ‘Sire, if that be your objection, I’ll make inquiry to find an answer, ‘gainst our next meeting.’
“The Lady accordingly addressed herself to her eldest daughter, telling her she might be very happy if she could marry Mr. Knox, who would be a great Reformer, and a credit to the church; but she despised the proposal, hoping that her ladyship wished her better than to marry a poor wanderer.
“The Lady addressed herself to her second daughter, who answered as the eldest.
“Then the Lady spoke to her third daughter, Elizabeth, about nineteen years of age, who very frankly said, ‘Madam, I’ll be very willing to marry him, but I fear that he’ll not take me,’ to which the Lady replied, ‘If that be all your objection, I’ll soon get an answer.’
“Next night, at supper, the Lady said to Mr. Knox, ‘Sir, I have been considering upon a wife for you, and find one very willing.’ To which Knox said, ‘Who is it Madam?’
She answered, ‘My younger daughter sitting by you at the table.’
“Addressing himself to the young lady, he said ‘My bird, are you willing to marry me?’ She answered, “Yes, Sir, only I fear you’ll not be willing to take me.’ He said, ‘My bird, if you be willing to take me, you must take your venture of God’s providence, as I do. I go through the country sometimes on my foot, with a wallet on my arm, a shirt, a clean band, and a Bible in it; you may put some things in it for yourself, and if I bid you take the wallet, you must do it, and go where I go, and lodge where I lodge.’ ‘Sir,’ says she, ‘I’ll do all this.’ ‘Will you be as good as your word?’ ‘Yes, I will.’
Upon which, the marriage talk was concluded, and she lived happily with him, and had three daughters from him. She afterward lived with him when he was minister at Edinburgh.”
Now this marriage does not resonate with twenty-first century standards of American Christians, nor did their age difference resonate with seventeenth century Scottish Christians. But she lived as his wife, with a family of five, three daughters and two adopted sons, for the next eight years. All three daughters married and brought forth children of their own to continue the line of John Knox. After his death, the General Assembly granted her his pension for a year. She married again and went to be with the Lord in 1612.
Words to Live By: God often works by mysterious providence to accomplish His sovereign purposes, including that of the bond of marriage.
Wayne Sparkman is the Historian for the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA Historical Senter is located in St. Louis, Mo. This article appeared on the PCA History Blog.