John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie
Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman
Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire
Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.
Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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60 thoughts on “John Knox by Jane Dawson

  1. It certainly sounds like an excellent biography, FictionFan. And it certainly sounds to my unsophisticated self that it’s been well-researched. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Knox as a misogynist, and your top-notch review hasn’t changed my opinion. But still, it’s interesting to learn more about him, and especially so to see how he was influenced by the times and politics. Doesn’t sound too heavy on ‘information dump,’ either, which is always a plus for me.

    • It definitely felt well researched to me too and she clearly has a great understanding of all the surrounding political situation of the time too. I can’t say Knox is a hero of mine, but he’s interesting, and his influence over the last few hundred years, in Scotland particularly, is huge. He also inadvertently had an impact on the later Enlightenment thinkers too – a fascinating subject for biography really.

  2. Very, very interesting. I’ve always been interested in church history and I will admit that my opinion of John Knox has been fairly negative. I think you did a good job of relating a lot of info in a few paragraphs. Not sure I want to read the book, but might like to skim around in it. And the three Mary’s. Those were some women – right? LOL

    • Thanks, Kay! I’m not exactly a Knox fan myself, but at least he stuck to his beliefs, so I suppose he has to be praised for that – maybe! The book is a relatively easy read considering the subject matter, and she’s done a great job of not overwhelming the reader with a lot of unnecessary trivia. Haha! The Marys actually made me feel almost sorry for Knox! What a bunch!

  3. Drat – another one for the TBR. I’m not a fan of Knox (now there’s a surprise), but he was, and to a certain extent is, significant and influential in Scotland, so a timely read.

  4. I’ve been nervous since I first saw that book title on your list. That comes from having read George MacDonald’s biography. MacDonald’s grandfather took George’s violin, destroyed it and put it in the fireplace because he considered it frivolous and one must spend their time wisely in working hard and praying. At that point, I understood why MacDonald turned away from orthodoxy.

    • Yes, I fear that Knox and some of the other reformers really turned religion into a miserable and joyless thing. Odd, really. But it’s only in the last few decades that Scottish Protestantism has changed from the pessimistic view to something a bit more optimistic, and more in line with how Protestantism developed elsewhere. Goodness! We’re even allowed to smile on Sundays now! 😉

      • And you don’t have to sit on a stool in front of the church when you are late for church? 😉

        It is a control thing, I think. There are preachers yet who like to proof text. I was raised in Independent Baptist Fundamentalism. That my father was the pastor did not help. I recall him calling my oldest brother to sit up on the platform because he and a friend were whispering during the sermon. Funny, though, my dad just couldn’t understand why my brother took off when he finished school and wanted nothing to do with religion.

        • I was brought up as an atheist by two atheist parents, one Catholic atheist and one Protestant atheist! But they allowed us to go to Church if we chose, so we wouldn’t feel out of place, since atheism was much more uncommon then. I have to say (it was a long time ago) that those hours spent in Church were some of the most miserable of my existence, and Sundays were a lagoon of boredom we had to wade through to get to Monday. I’m glad to say the Churches seem to have recognised that not many people today are prepared to be bullied, bored and threatened into faith, but it took Scotland longer than most to get there… and I blame Knox!

      • Over the past 25 years I have been evaluating and the church as it is and it has been found wanting. I’ve been bullied in church and humiliated in front of the other members. It actually goes back to before we returned to the states when I got called out for not smiling during the singing. (Note: I was going through post partum depression. I had come to church to be encouraged.) We left Portugal because hubby was the financial fellow on the team and the director would not heed Harry’s sound advice and eventually stopped telling hubby what he was doing. That was when Harry said we had to go. Then it was not long before the whole financial structure fell apart. We grieved for a long time.

        I still I am a woman of faith, but I want nothing to do with church. I don’t think I am alone. A lot of people have expressed similar sentiments.

        • I fear the problem with religion, as with every other organisation, is that it’s run by people. Religion and faith are two entirely different things to my mind. I envy people with faith greatly, but I don’t much envy people who are bound by the restrictions of a particular religion. It seems even in our fairly secular society that the people who run religions can rarely get on with each other which I don’t find inspirational. When you said you were bullied for not smiling, I had a wry smile myself, because as a child we would probably have been told off for smiling in church – it seemed to me at that time that the purpose of religion was to ensure that we were all duly miserable.

          I’m currently reading the Bible for the first time and am trying to view it without the filter of religion getting in the way… I’m not sure I’m succeeding!

            • Haha! It’s funny you should say that. I did consider setting up another blog to document my reading and to maybe have discussions with Christians and atheists alike as to how they viewed the various bits of it. But wisdom prevailed and I realised I’d likely just be opening up a warzone – it’s truly a pity that it’s become a subject that can really only be discussed between people who agree with each other already, without the constant possibility of offence being given or taken.

            • Wisdom indeed. More often than not even people who are on the same side cannot agree on things.

              Then there are actually 66 books. Written by a number of people. And the fact that it is an eastern book written in Hebrew and Aramaic and is not a western book makes for interesting conversations.

            • *laughing* Well, they may not be exactly the interests you to which you are accustomed. The OT tells the story of the Jewish people. It’s more of a narrative thing, and sometimes it is difficult to understand if an event was actual or a poetic picture.

            • My undergraduate studies were religion. My dad the preacher approved that one. Religious school (Definitely not Cambridge)

              You can sum up the whole Bible in a couple of sentences. The Old Testament is there to teach people they cannot please God. The New Testament is there to show God’s grace by letting Jesus take the rap for everyone.

            • *snorts with laughter* Goodness, you’re more of a cynic than I am! You should publish that on Kindle under the title “The Bible – Abridged Version”.

            • Well, that is basically what it is. I didn’t mean for it to sound that way. I’ve heard that more than once from Bible teachers.

              As for women, they are there. And not all of them have a black mark after their names. In context, given the state of the world back then when women were encouraged to shut up and put up, the fact that they are mentioned at all is extraordinary. Jesus, in the New Testament, actually broke the wall down. Men in general and teachers in particular NEVER talked to women in public. They totally ignored women. Right in the beginning of the New Testament Mary’s genealogy was written out along with four other women. Unheard of in that time. Jesus talked to women on the street and encouraged them. In fact, after his resurrection, the first person to see him was a woman.

              The key to reading the Bible is to understand the time in which the books were written. And the customs and such.

            • Yes, as history it’s reasonably interesting, but – and I really don’t want to offend anyone here, or try to change anyone’s opinion – I can’t for one second imagine me worshipping a God who behaves like the one in the Old Testament, I’m afraid. I get that the men were misogynistic, but I’d have thought that should have been something God was doing something about, not condoning. There’s plenty of women in it – sex-slaves, prostitutes, women being raped, stoned to death – and all with God’s approval – approval of the men that is – the women of course are already cursed for eternity. The commentaries do a good job at trying to disguise what the Bible actually says, but they don’t succeed – perhaps because I wasn’t taught to accept it all as a child. And the genocides! But I think my favourite part so far is when he kills two of Aaron’s sons for using the wrong incense – or perhaps the bit where he explains to Moses that disabled people are unclean and should be kept out of the holy places of the tabernacle. (The commentary on that one tries to pretend he meant sinners, rather than disabled people – dishonest.) No, my Bible reading so far has only served to make me happier about being an atheist. Maybe I’ll feel differently about the New Testament.

            • First, I am not offended myself, and second the I don’t want to offend anyone. I was enjoying the conversation, and just really wanted to learn more about your thoughts. And I am glad that you continued on with the conversation because it is rare to be able to talk about differences in a civil manner, and I am glad for that, too. It is rare. As I said, I think I am a person of faith. I have a lot more questions than anything else. Most of them are about the facts that that you put forth. The men who wrote the commentaries are desperately trying to answer those questions and they never have to my satisfaction. Thank you for a good conversation.

            • I’m glad I didn’t offend you. 🙂 Yes, I find it an interesting subject too, but I really hate ranty atheists so have to try pretty hard not to turn into one. The thing is that I’m not at all sure that my problems with the Old Testament rule out faith in a good God – it depends on how literally one interprets it. My assumption would be that a lot of the stuff about treatment of women and minorities and a lot of the sabre-rattling horrors are the perception of the people of the time, particularly the priests – just as Knox was a product of his time. So I do mean it seriously when I say I might well feel differently when I get to the New Testament. Either way, I’ll be better educated!

            • I knew you were not a ranter. 😀 Trust me, I /know/ rant when I see or hear it. Besides, lovers of the feline race do not make good ranters.

  5. I think you have almost surpassed yourself in that wonderful combination of incisive information and analysis………..sweetened and spiced up with your veritable sly wit. Two favourite quotes (especially the former)

    I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.

    Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals

    Mind you, those of us who know our rightful place is UNDER the paw, certainly would never dare think ourselves equal to cats. Goes off to prepare tempting morsels for the sacred felines . (yes, that’s right, many hours spent carefully opening foil packets)

    I don’t think I’m going to read that book, but I learned loads as a result of YOU reading it, thanks!

    • Haha! Thank you, m’dear! If you saw some of the lines that I took out in the editing… I decided to at least attempt not to offend everyone in the Universe!

      Indeed, if only Knox had realised the innate superiority of womankind as we recognise our subordinate and menial role to our feline masters (and mistresses)! But his brain was probably weighed down by his beard, poor man. I wonder what he’d think of Nicola Sturgeon…

  6. What a great review of what sounds like a really good biography. I always enjoy this reading much more when the biographer works in a straightforward fashion rather than picking subjects to examine leaving the less knowing reader to flail without a timeline. I really like your comment about the misogyny and cats which is a very good point!

    • I like a straightforward timeline too, and I like when the author assumes I don’t know much about what’s going on in the rest of the world at the time. Dawson got a good balance – I didn’t spend half my time feeling lost. Mind you, this is one of the few periods of history that I do know a little about, so I don’t know if that helped. Haha! My cats didn’t appreciate that comment at all… 😉

  7. Now this is very interesting. In truth, it makes me want to read about Mr. Knox. A very big interest that Calvin disagreed with him…or sorta disagreed.

    That is a mighty beard. I wonder if he couldn’t find those chopping thingies, or he was just lazy?

    • Quite seriously, I think you might get a lot from this one. She was great at explaining how and where his beliefs were rooted in the Bible and where the differences were between him and some of the other Reformers – I think I mentioned to you, she had me reaching for the Bible all the way through. I found it… fascinating… oddly.

      Now, if you would grow a beard like that, I might let you…

  8. FF, you do such a great job with these reviews — thank you! I’m a “cradle Catholic,” but I haven’t dug too deeply into the early church history (sadly, a LOT of sins were committed under the guise of religion!).

    • Aw, thanks Debbie! You’re very kind! I actually prefer writing the factual ones on the whole – easier. Well, being a half Catholic, half Protestant atheist in a city like Glasgow which is still fighting the religious wars of the middle ages has had the odd effect of making me quite interested in how we got to where we are. (Indeed, and I must say the Protestants and Catholics were pretty equal in the persecution stakes… at least we’re all a bit more tolerant now, in our countries anyway.)

  9. Whether Dawson’s revisionist approach is right or wrong, gotta love that title: ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. Put me in line to write the comedy screenplay for that one!

    • Haha! It’s a goodie, isn’t it? Not… subtle. Apparently he was going to write Second and Third Blasts too, but I’m guessing the reaction of all these Queens put him off a bit… 😉

  10. Haha, yes, I guess he was “born under a bad sign” for those repulsed by women in authority. He’d no doubt be much safer railing against Hillary today than against Elizabeth and all those Marys of the late 16th century. But it seems he made it to old age anyway. And I’m still pondering the satirical screenplay (based entirely on his title, in complete disregard for any historical context), possibly even fulfilling Knox’s destiny by franchising it into Second and Third Blast sequels.

    • Scotland now has a woman First Minister – I was trying to imagine his horror! If it weren’t for the fact that he’s buried under a car park, poor man, I’m sure he’d rise and take vengeance. (I wonder if they buried his trumpet with him…)

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