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.
Fourth-century Christianity is perhaps best remembered for the Trinitarian controversies that flared with the rise of Arius early on and continued until the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the East, some of the key figures involved in that controversy were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Lesser known is the life of Saint Macrina (ca. 327–379), the eldest sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, yet her faith influenced her brothers in profound ways. And her brother Gregory memorialized her in an account of her life, The Life of Saint Macrina, which offers readers today a portrait of female piety in the early church.
Whenever people mention the Salem Witch Trials, they tend to vilify anyone even remotely connected with them. Whenever people mention Cotton Mather, they tend to associate him with the Salem Witch Trials and summarily dismiss him. In reality, life is far more complex than either of these broad-brush strokes of the past suggest, and one of the great benefits of the historical discipline is that it helps us appreciate that complexity—it helps us understand.
In The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans, 2015), Rick Kennedy helps us understand Cotton Mather and taste the complexity of his life and world. For starters, Cotton Mather played a far lesser role in the Salem Witch Trials than is commonly assumed—while he preached one of the execution sermons, he never attended the trials and actually recommended a more hands-on, reparative approach to those charged with being witches. He was certainly more moderate than has been suggested.
Beyond this event, Mather’s life was filled with a fair bit of drama. Here we find a man who experienced tremendous loss. He buried two wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. He also was thwarted more than once from his ambition to become president of Harvard. And he failed to secure a publisher for what became his largest work, his Biblia Americana, a compendium of notes on the Bible (though this book is now seeing the light of publication). Despite these disappointments, Kennedy paints a portrait of a joyful, generous man who gave himself to loving people and to learning as much as he could. Kennedy thinks it is best to “embrace” Mather (xiii), and though he could bring out more of Mather’s foibles, Kennedy’s book is a delightful way to get to know the man Cotton Mather.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Philip Jenkins’ book commemorating a major anniversary in 2014, the centennial of the launch of World War I. This year marks another important anniversary in religious history, the birth of George Whitefield three centuries ago. And Thomas Kidd, a colleague of Jenkins at Baylor University, has done us the service of writing a new biography of the great evangelical preacher, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014; source: publisher).
In this volume, Kidd approaches Whitefield as an academic historian who also identifies with Whitefield’s evangelical movement. He has “high regard” for Whitefield, but does not hesitate to share his warts (4). What one finds, then, is a narrative that sympathetically helps readers understand what motivated Whitefield’s indefatigable preaching of the gospel while setting the flawed itinerant in his context. It is this kind of balanced history that best guides readers in wrestling with the past in constructive ways.