Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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John Knox

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins

Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015). ISBN: 978-0300114737, 384 pp., £25.00.

HP[1] John Knox was the leading Scottish Reformer of the sixteenth century. Although he spent most of his life in and out of exile, he had a tremendous zeal to see the Protestant Reformation take hold in his native Scotland and perceived himself to be the prophetic preacher to call the nation to join with God in a covenant. In most presentations of him, Knox is presented as the quintessential dour Scotsman. He is usually pictured as the tyrannical Reformer, bent on having his way, full of hard-nosed judgment for those who may disagree with him. Perhaps most of all, he is remembered for his opposition to female regency and he is often painted as the model of misogyny. Jane Dawson, however, has written a terrific new biography that makes a point to turn over each stereotype of the Scottish Reformer and examine them afresh. She predominantly lets him speak for himself, showing model historiography in returning again and again to primary sources. Recently discovered documents shed new light on aspects of Knox that were previously obscure and offer new dimensions to her portrait of him.

[2] Dawson presents a careful and detailed narrative of Knox’s life. At each turn, the reader is given a little more of the puzzle that shows how over-played the stereotypes have been. We find good detail of his conversion from notary for the Roman Catholic Church to full-blooded Protestant. He was a man who spent his much of his life in exile. He was captured and served as a slave on a French galley, forbidden to re-enter Scotland and spent many years in England. He suffered persecution under Mary Tudor and fled to Geneva to learn from John Calvin. He spent time stuck in Dieppe, apart from his family, waiting for political circumstances to allow for his return to Scotland. He even went into self-imposed exile, giving up the pastoral call of his dreams in Edinburgh to seek solitude in St. Andrews to deal with his depression.

[3] Events which occurred in Geneva reveal interesting aspects of Knox’s character. He is often known as the over-assertive Protestant Reformer but we also get to see a side of him where he doubts himself. When presented with various calls, particularly a pastoral call to Frankfurt, Knox becomes heavily dependent on the advice of others and seems hesitant. Although this does not completely strip away the harder aspects of his personality, it does add a layer of complication for those who would reduce him to a one-dimensional figure.

[4] Dawson presents Knox as having a very experiential theology. Many of his views were forged or refined in light of the events happening in his life. His ecclesiology was one which viewed the church as the people of God who were destined to be the small and remnant flock. This is not shocking coming from someone as Protestant as Knox who lived during the Marian persecution and it makes even more sense for someone who continually moved in and out of exile, even if it was self-imposed. He saw himself as a preacher and prophet. He never really counted himself as a theologian aimed at presenting refined theology disconnected from the situational demands of preaching, and more specifically of reforming.

[5] One striking point is how Knox continually managed to make enemies. It appears that he was hardly ever without a major foil. He managed not only to alienate other major ecclesiastical figures, but even found himself particularly despised by Queen Elizabeth I. His battles with women in power may be one of his most enduring legacies. Although it is true that Knox had very stated objections to female regency, Dawson again undoes the stereotype of a purely chauvinistic Knox by exploring his deep dependence upon circles of female friends in spiritual, emotional, and material support.

[6] There are a few criticisms. The importance of the regulative principle of worship, the doctrine of predestination, and the doctrine of justification by faith frequently come up in the biography. These are largely left undefined, which is problematic, given how important they were to Knox. It would have been very helpful to have a summary of how Knox expressed these teachings. Although the majority of the narrative is precise and clear, there are also a few spots where it could be easy to get lost in the stream of events and where and when they are taking place – although some of this has to do with how Knox returned to the same places several times. A discussion on Knox’s legacy in Scotland would also have been useful.

[7] Dawson’s book is certainly an important work. For those interested in Knox for his own sake, this is an indispensable resource. It is also valuable to those who desire to see how politics are handled in the religious landscape of the sixteenth century. Most of all, it is useful as a model of historiography, showing us the importance of returning to primary sources, and how this often overturns long-standing assumptions.

Queen’s University Belfast, November 2015

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