John Knox

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Jane Dawson
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , May
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Widely known for his vitriol and polemical bent, John Knox has proven a thorny subject for scholars of the Reformation. From his incisive broadsides directed against theological opponents to his convictions about the dangers of female political leadership, Knox has rankled the sensibilities of many across the intervening centuries. Yet in her biography of the Scotsman, Jane Dawson does well to eschew the portrait of Knox rendered by the conventional historical narrative, relying instead on a fresh inquiry that is aided by the discovery of new material found in the manuscript papers of Knox’s close confidant and friend, Christopher Goodman. Dawson’s biography thus evokes a properly nuanced image of the Scottish reformer that is tied intricately to the extant primary sources. To that end, Dawson supplies a trenchant analysis of her subject that corrects past misconceptions about Knox’s character, while remaining artfully distant from obsequious sympathizing.

Signaling her fidelity to the primary sources, Dawson’s nineteen chapter titles are replete with Knoxian phrases that, en précis, elucidate a theme which then manifests within the chapter. Her choice of chapter denomination is an apposite stylistic mode for the first four chapters, as Dawson guides the reader through Knox’s early life and transition to Reformed doctrine. The titles helpfully track his progression from childhood to his final transformative conversion. In these chapters, Dawson enumerates three stages of transition that suitably demarcate Knox’s path from “Catholic priest to Protestant minister” (38). The first evidence of Knox’s spiritual awakening appears in his decision to stop “practising [sp] both as a notary apostolic and as a Catholic priest” (24). In so doing as a learned man from his time at the University of St. Andrews, Knox took up an appointment as a tutor for the sons of Hew Douglas and John Cockburn, who were both men sympathetic to the Reformed cause. After having begun the move away from the Catholic Church, Knox experienced the penultimate stage of his transition upon hearing the sermons of the Protestant preacher, George Wishart. As Dawson notes, “Wishart made a profound and lasting impression on Knox. He [Wishart] gave a renewed sense of certainty and clarity of thinking to him [Knox] at the turning point of his spiritual journey” (32). Finally, the soon-to-be Reformer entered the last stage of observable conversion, as he felt the call of God to ministry. Dawson makes clear that the last stage of this process was the most formative, as Knox’s “call to be a preacher defined him and created an exceptionally strong self-image” (38).

The importance of Dawson’s understanding of Knox’s divine call is not to be missed, as it informs much of the remainder of her work. Indeed, the “exceptionally strong self-image” she describes is funneled directly into her portrayal of Knox as having been aware of, and actively pursuing, his own prophetic authority. Dawson states, “Knox was able to recognize that he was by any standards an exceptionally good preacher and that his status as one of God’s watchmen had been confirmed” (69). In the remaining chapters she continually alludes to, or explicitly details, Knox’s self-understanding of his role as a prophet for the Reformed cause in Scotland and England. As such, Dawson demonstrates how Knox exhorted his various reading and aural constituencies, particularly those vested with political power, to act according to the dictates of his understanding of the Bible. When his exhortations remained unheeded, and a subsequent harmful blow was dealt to the evangelical reform efforts in Scotland or England, Knox seemingly felt his exhortations were then shown to be active prophecies. As Dawson describes, “like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, Knox felt he was foretelling and then witnessing his country and his own life falling apart” (267).

By prodding the depths of Knox’s written works, Dawson ably exhibits that Knox felt called to exhort and warn, and subsequently made sure to note when his forewarnings were born out on the plane of history. At times, Dawson’s analysis of the extent of Knox’s identity as a prophet melds into the realm of unsubstantiated theory. By continually presenting Knox as a figure who identified with the Old Testament prophets, and could “foretell future events,” her construction of Knox’s self-understanding can also move into the preternatural (280). This proves problematic given Dawson’s lack of substantiation for such wide-reaching claims. For a work assiduously well documented and inexorably tied to the available primary sources, her analysis on this point tends toward speculation. Certainly, Knox would have felt well-placed to provide insight into the consequences of actions, or non-actions as the case may have been, but that confidence was equally likely to be lodged in his Biblicism and high-view of the scriptures as the revealed word of God. This would, then, necessarily detach Knox himself from the Old Testament prophets who often received revelation directly from the God of the Bible. From the evidence Dawson provides, Knox’s claims never seem to extend that far.

Nevertheless, Dawson supplies a penetrating account of the life of John Knox that skillfully weaves narrative prose with historical analysis in a manner that reveals the Reformer as he exists in the available sources. Although Knox’s views may continue to provoke—and even offend—Dawson’s biography will serve as a tremendous aid in softening the edges to reveal the man as he was. As Dawson makes clear, the same man whom Queen Elizabeth I reviled for his treatise condemning, in acerbic terms, the leadership of women, was also a man whose “most loyal and devoted spiritual kindred were women” (319). The complexities of subjecting such a dynamic individual to scholarly examination are vast, but Dawson uses her keen historical insight to overcome those hurdles and offer up a compelling, accurate and all-encompassing account of Scotland’s “watchman” (7).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a graduate student in the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jane Dawson is John Laing Professor of Reformation History, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She lives near Cupar in Fife.


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