Yale University Press, 384 pages
Jane Dawson teaches Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity. Her newest book, “John Knox,” presents a detailed and compelling portrait of the fiery Scottish reformer. Most of what we know about Knox is from the six volumes of his “Works,” published in the mid-19th century. Dawson has sharpened many fuzzy areas by drawing on previously unknown or underutilized sources.
Knox began as a lowly notary, deacon and priest in the Catholic Church in Scotland, before converting to Protestantism in the 1540s. He was captured by the French during a rebellion at the Castle of St. Andrews in 1547 and spent 19 months as a galley slave aboard the Notre Dame, chained to a rowing bench. As a religious refugee in the England of Edward VI, Knox joined the radical clerics, finding his true vocation as a “preacher, pastor and prophet.” He preached before the king and succeeded in having the celebrated “black rubric” added to Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.
During the era of Queen Mary, he was exiled a second time to Frankfurt, Germany, where he locked horns with Richard Cox. The “troubles at Frankfurt” between the Knoxians and Coxians over the nature of the worship service foreshadowed the later struggles between Anglicans and Puritans under Elizabeth and her successors.
Finding himself expelled from Frankfurt, Knox entered upon his third exile to Geneva. Calvin was just then consolidating his hold over the city, which Knox found to be “the most perfect school of Christ.” Knox was the pastor of the church for English exiles, who were too busy to engage in unseemly squabbles. Instead, they produced the Geneva Bible, “The Psalms of David” and “The Forme of Prayers” – works that, Dawson observes, were later recognized as crucial to forming “the English-speaking Reformed or Presbyterian tradition.”
Riding high, Knox then stumbled badly with his most notorious tract, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558).” Knox’s trumpet blast was directed against Mary Tudor, who died the following year. The new queen, Elizabeth, was understandably incensed. She never forgave Knox’s misogynist rhetoric or call for tyrannicide.
Knox returned to Scotland in 1559. His wilderness years behind him, he found his uncompromising rhetoric to be a perfect match for the needs of the moment and became the father of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Later when Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to rule the land as a Catholic monarch, he engaged in famously frosty conversations with her and never tired of inveighing against that “wicked woman.”
While presenting a generally positive portrait of Knox, Dawson is not uncritical of her subject. She notes his limited, black-and-white view of the world and that at times he could be a showman, socially inept and brutally abusive of others in public while being thin-skinned himself. If there is a fault in the biography it is that the author does not make full use of the reformer’s colorful life. She does not pause, for example, to describe life as a galley slave or seek to dramatize the confrontations between Knox and Scotland’s Catholic queen. Nevertheless, Dawson has probably written the definitive biography of Knox for our generation.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.