Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.
Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.
One key theme is Knox’s “intense biblicism,” which “saturated his writings” (7, 314). He recalled on his deathbed that John 17 was where he cast his “first ancre,” where he found a summary of the gospel (26). He loved the Old Testament, especially the Prophets—Ezekiel in particular (7). Two of his favorite images for his role as a preacher were the biblical images of the shepherd and the watchman’s trumpet (48–49). The Psalms also provided a source of comfort and a guide in worship for Knox, who rehearsed the Psalter monthly (15), and for his congregation in Geneva (149, 163)—just as the Psalms have done for generations of Christians. Knox’s devotion to Scripture was seen in his support for the creation of the Geneva Bible, whose unique format with notes constituted the first ever English study Bible (153).
Dawson’s treatment of Knox also gives us a window into his complex personality. To the surprise of some today, Knox could have a good laugh. He found great happiness in his first wife and then second wife and in his children. He enjoyed close friendships with many people (80). His years in Geneva were an especially happy time in his life (109).
At the same time, Knox was typically black-and-white in his outlook and failed to recognize or express nuance on theological and political issues. Because he was “never comfortable with grey areas” (29), Knox found himself at odds with many people throughout his life. Once he made up his mind about something, he rarely backed down, and it was the exception when someone could persuade him to change course. He was so confident in his positions because he believed them to be grounded in Scripture. While this made him a stalwart defender of the Reformed faith, it also brought strain to even good relationships at times because Knox “conflated loyalty of friendship” to himself with “loyalty to God’s cause and religious commitment” (57). The failure of some people to live up to this standard of loyalty sowed seeds of mistrust in his mind, and Knox thus became at times overly suspicious of others. And as Dawson traces throughout the book, Knox was increasingly prone to depression and pessimism, which became heightened as he encountered personal trials (such as the death of his first wife) and reformational setbacks.
We see Knox’s personality in the works he wrote. We have only one complete sermon extant (7, 224). Knox was very comfortable speaking from the pulpit, and he was ultimately more of a preacher than a theologian. He did write a book defending predestination—his longest published volume (81)—which linked him closely with Calvin and the Reformed wing of the Reformation, but he was not a constructive theologian. Dawson concludes that Knox “did not develop an original doctrinal position,” though “he did produce a distinctive blend of Reformed ideas” (314). Perhaps his best-known book is his History of the Reformation in Scotland(1644). Dawson holds that it “contains some of the best of his writing, with humour and wit helping to drive home his message,” and it actually “helped mould Scottish identity down to the present” (266).
Beyond his History, Knox’s long-term influence was felt in other areas as well. For example, while in exile in Europe, Knox settled for a period in Frankfurt, but during his tenure there, the English-speaking church met an impasse over proper worship. The Frankfurt “Troubles,” as they came to be known, saw a split over Knox that would later be viewed as “the foundation of English nonconformity and the Puritan movement” (99). Another way Knox influenced the Elizabethan Church was in the effect he had on Queen Elizabeth herself; one of Knox’s publications so incensed her that she rejected all things Geneva, including John Calvin and Theodore Beza (164, 169–70, 175). That meant that as the congregants from the congregation that Knox had pastored in Geneva returned to England after Elizabeth’s coronation, they found themselves—because of Knox!—sidelined in the Elizabethan Settlement and in the leadership of the Church of England. Again, these faithful few became “one of the core components of the Elizabethan Puritan movement” (175).
What led to such an extreme response from Queen Elizabeth? It was Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a polemical attack on rule by the female sex. Writing in the context of Queen Mary Tudor’s reign in England and Mary of Guise’s regency in Scotland, Knox was drawn to the “attractive simplicity and directness of an argument based upon female rule” that might overthrow two Catholic rulers opposed to Protestantism (143). Though other leading Protestants like Calvin rejected such an argument about female rule, Knox ignored them. However, by failing to consider the long-term implications of such an argument, Knox made “one of the costliest mistakes of his career” (143). It alienated him not only from his opponents but even from some of his friends and colleagues. And as noted, it also led Elizabeth to associate anyone from Geneva with sedition (175).
Perhaps the most significant influence of Knox was his rejection of “the cerebral, humanist brand of Protestant belief”; instead, he believed that true belief included affections and zeal. It was this “affective piety” in public and private worship that bore long-lasting fruit in the heart religion of the Scottish Reformation and Presbyterianism (319). One might also argue that this mark of Knox’s ministry eventually helped launch the movement of evangelicalism, with its penchant for heart religion, since Scottish Presbyterianism was one of the key streams feeding the birth of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century (see, e.g., Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening).
While Dawson’s book is less developed in its treatment of Knox’s theology, it is strong in its portrayal of Knox as a complex person. Knox was indeed a complicated individual. His life was marked by a zeal for Reformed religion and theology, and his personality rallied many in support of the Reformation. Yet his stubborn approach to issues also alienated others, even some close friends.
In some ways, we find in Knox a conundrum about human nature and leadership. On the one hand, such charismatic figures are far more effective in garnering followers than more cautious and careful thinkers; on the other hand, such fiery figures can leave unnecessary damage in their wake that one with a more nuanced outlook might avoid. Said another way, Knox embodied conviction but lacked grace. Blessed are those who find both qualities in their leaders!
Like all leading figures from the sixteenth-century Reformation, Knox left a mixed legacy, as Dawson’s John Knox shows well. There is much to be grateful for and yet not a few things we could do without. Perhaps his warts show all the more because of his sharp tongue and unyielding personality. We can be thankful for historians like Jane Dawson who help us better understand such figures from the Christian past so we might celebrate their successes, avoid their pitfalls, and better grasp how they influenced the church as it has come to be in our own day.