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‘John Knox’ – A Review by Gervase Charmley

Category Book Reviews
Date October 28, 2015

A review by Gervase N. Charmley of John Knox, by Jane Dawson (Yale University Press, 2015), 384 pages, clothbound, ISBN 978-0-30011-473-7, £25/$45.

John Knox was born in either 1514 or 1515, and so this period has called forth a welcome variety of works celebrating, or at least commemorating, the Scottish Reformer. This handsome volume, standing squarely in the Yale tradition of recent years, is one of the weightiest of these. Since George Marsden’s magnificent biography of Jonathan Edwards in 2003, we have begun to expect that each new significant anniversary will bring forth a worthwhile and scholarly biography from Yale, and they have not disappointed us with regard to Knox. The author, Jane Dawson, is Professor of Reformation History in the Divinity School of the University of Edinburgh, and well qualified to write about Knox.

John Knox is one of the towering figures of the Reformation, the man who brought the Reformed faith to Scotland. As we might expect, many books have been written about him, both critical and appreciative. And yet, all things considered he has been singularly ill-served in terms of biographers in the last century. In 1811, Thomas M’Crie issued his Life of John Knox, and remarkably, in 1961, James S. McEwen could state that M’Crie’s work, was still the ‘standard’, and cite only Henry Cowan’s 1905 biography and that of Eustace Percy published in 1937 as adequate works produced in the twentieth century. Since 1811 there has been considerable research done on Knox, and many discoveries made concerning him, not least that he was not in fact born in 1505 as M’Crie thought, but nine or ten years later. And there remains a need for a standard biography for modern readers incorporating the results of discoveries made since the 1930s.

We are glad to be able to say that this book amply answers that need; Dawson gives us a fresh appraisal of Knox that is not merely ‘a sustained sneer’, and which does not ‘confuse historical criticism with mere malice.’ She does not fall into the error of using her work as a platform to launch an ill-informed attack on Calvinism, or to engage in some other form of iconoclasm. On the positive side, she draws on a significant amount of material that has only recently been discovered, including a number of letters written by Knox, and offers a fresh look at the Reformer of Scotland that is neither uncritical nor unfair.

The fashion today in biography rarely errs on the side of hagiography; we have no objection to ‘warts and all’ presentations, but the ‘all’ is necessary – warts and nothing else are never attractive, nor overly helpful, for that matter; it is one thing to correct mythology, quite another to play the part of the cynic. Thankfully Dawson is a sympathetic, though not an uncritical, biographer. Her declared aim is to present Knox the man, not the myth – and readers of this may need to be reminded that the most widely known myth about Knox is not exactly sympathetic; as the blurb of this book says, it is that Knox was ‘a strident and misogynistic religious reformer whose influence rarely extended beyond Scotland.’ Not so, Dawson argues; Knox was a loving husband who worked well with godly women, and he was a figure of European importance who played a major role in the English Reformation as well as in that in Scotland. His main concern was for the glory of God and the good of the Church, and for this he was willing to spend and be spent.

This is a compelling book about a passionate man whose great passion was for the glory of God and the Reformation of the Church. His flaws – for after all he was human – are neither ignored nor exaggerated, and we are left with probably the best portrait of Knox it is possible for a writer five centuries after his birth to give. Knox lives, in his happiness and in his sorrows, in the pages of this biography. We meet him first as a happy husband and proud father, rejoicing in the birth of his firstborn; we meet him as a young man, earnestly going before Patrick Hamilton with a great sword, and passing from the work of a Notary Apostolic to that of preacher of the Gospel. We see Knox as a prisoner chained to an oar, and as a candidate for an English bishopric.

At a time when there are those proposing a breach of the Union between England and Scotland, it is instructive to read of Knox as a man who believed passionately that the two kingdoms would be ‘better together’, as a united Protestant realm. Knox appears here as a father, or perhaps a grandfather, of The United Kingdom; perhaps Scotland’s modern political leaders would benefit from the wisdom of a man who certainly deserves to be known as the greatest Scotsman of his generation?

Dawson conveys Knox’s sense of calling throughout this book as she shows him speaking to those in power. We suppose that most today would regard his argument in The Monstrous Regiment of Women to be flawed, but his sincerity is without question. Knox was not, as Dawson is at pains to point out, a revolutionary (again, contrary to myth), but he was a man who spoke his mind to those in power, even when it might have been more to his personal advantage not to have done so. Though attended with perhaps a certain amount of tactlessness, the straightforwardness of Knox is quite a breath of fresh air compared with the political pussy-footing of some modern theologians.

To propose a definitive biography of John Knox for this generation is certainly bold, but Professor Dawson has accomplished it, and for that she is to be commended. This will be the standard work on Knox for many years to come.

Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, 2015:4, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, and written by the editor, Gervase N. Charmley.

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