Monday, March 20, 2017

"John Knox" by Jane Dawson: A Review

This particular day in his life has been reconstructed to challenge many of the traditional assumptions made about John Knox. he has been regarded, especially within Scotland, as the personification of the puritanical kill-joy who championed the strictest Presbyterian tenets on all issues and delighted in haranguing Mary, Queen of Scots. Having been claimed as the country's Protestant Reformer, Knox's activities in Scotland have taken centre stage, downgrading or even excluding other periods of his life. The concentration upon his famous tract with its eye-catching title, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, has given rise to the view that Knox was a misogynist or a woman-hater and has distorted understandings of Knox's political thought and his other writings. The reconstruction of the happy day in 1557 when Nathaniel Knox was baptized in the English-speaking exile church in Geneva offers a sharp contrast to that conventional image. The relaxed and happy John Knox was not preaching or prophesying doom, but behaving as an ordinary father and family man. He was not expounding misogynist ideas but was surrounded by female friends and about to return to his dear wife. He was not in Scotland bringing in the Protestant Reformation, but was part of an English congregation located in a Swiss city. He was not behaving as a puritanical Calvinist, but was laughing, joking and looking forward to a celebration. This biography also acknowledges, and even emphasizes, the darker side to Knox with his 'holy hatred', increasing intransigence, bouts of depression and gloomy predictions about the future of Protestantism. By challenging the monochrome portrait of the dour Scottish Reformer that has dominated popular perceptions, it shows the many different shades within Knox's character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject. This fresh and more nuanced account of Knox's life reveals new aspects of the interconnected and many-layered story of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. The biography also provides a re-assessment of the worlds through which Knox moved as he lived during the age of Reformations in Scotland, Britain and Europe. (3-4)


One of my favorite pastor-theologians from history is the Scottish Reformer John Knox who is often overlooked among the great 16th century Protestant Reformers but is certainly one of the great giants of that era behind Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwinglii. In 2015 Yale published a new biography written by Jane Dawson which promised to unveil new information on Knox that shed new light on him. As such it has been on my reading list. In short, the biography, simply entitled John Knox serves as one, if not the, standard bearer of John Knox biographies.

First, Dawson is a gifted writer of history. I have always believed that history well-written is better than fiction and books like Dawson's is a reminder of that truism. The art of writing history requires thorough research, familiarity with the world of the subject, and an expertise with storytelling that does not compromise the historians responsibility to history itself. Dawson does an excellent job balancing all of these.

Secondly, the author reveals the significance of the new material. I will let her discuss it herself, but the discovery of six previously unknown letters from Knox fills in significant gaps in the Knox narrative and Dawson navigates those gaps and how the new material helps historians and scholars alike.

Thirdly, and most notable to me, Dawson presents a unique side of Knox. Most biographies of Knox either present him as a violent monster who hated women and advocated rebellion or borders hagiography that emphasizes the softer side of Knox the pastor and letter writer. Dawson, however, while pointing out both extremes of Knox's personality, repeatedly directs us to note the Reformer who struggled with depression.

It is no secret that ministers frequently struggle with depression. Knox was no different. Dawson's biography reveals the frequency of his melancholy. For example:
Overwhelmed, Knox burst into tears and rushed out to hide in his own chamber. For many days he was miserable, his heart full of 'grief and trouble'. Normally gregarious and ready with a joke, he shunned company and could not even raise a smile, let alone a laugh. Teaching his pupils in the chapel would only remind him of the painful experience of that public call. When backed into a corner Knox's instinct was to come out fighting, but in this situation the only person with whom he could fight was himself. (43)
On the next page, Dawson notes Knox "sat weeping and praying in his room in the castle in St. Andrews, Knox was not sure if the Holy Spirit would speak though his mouth when he stood in the pulpit." (44). Again, looking at Knox the pastor, Dawson notes that "Knox remained vulnerable to inner doubts about his performance as a pastor of his flocks." (90) Before long, in a moment of deep despair, Knox "was searching for a way to leave this ministry and possibly the city." (95) And then there is the death of his first wife Marjorie which wounded him deeply. One of the best sections exploring this aspect of Knox's life is as follows:
In the Order of the General Fast one rvealing phrase summed up the paralysing effect of doubt upon a Christian's life: 'the murtherer of all godly exercise is desperation'. Although Knox appeared to have few doubts about his personal salvation, he was deeply afflicted by what had happened in Scotland since the return of the Queen. his withdrawal in 1565 from his previous style of political engagement placed much greater stress upon the spiritual weapons of preaching, pentience and prayer. His own inner spiritual strength was tested when he was banned from preaching and the first period of ministry at St. Giles' came to an end. As one disaster followed another during that year, Knox lost his decisiveness and slide into doubt and desperation. In his characteristically dramatic fashion, he described his mood swings in a deeply gloomy letter written on 12 March 1566 and concluded that he had learned little from the experiences of his long life and many troubles. 'In youth, myd age, and now, after many battelles, I find nothing into me bot vanitie and corruption. For, in quyetnes i am negligent, in trouble impatient, tending to disperation; and in the meane state, I am so caryed away with vane fantasizes, that (allace), O Lord, they withdraw me from the presence of thy Majestie." (247-248)

To a minister like myself, there is much comfort to gain from such giants. We are not alone today. Dawson reminds the reader that in such despairing moments, Knox "was sustained by the conviction that he was 'cald by my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowfull, confirme the weak and rebuke the proud by tong and livelye voyce'." (38) When life became difficult and he felt all alone, Knox returned to that divine calling and moved on. This was a side of Knox that I enjoyed exploring with Dawson in this volume.

The author also explored an aspect of Knox's life regarded his almost-ministry in Ireland. Knox ultimately turned his good friend Goodman down in joining his work there. Yet Dawson contemplates the great "what-if." One can only imagine what would have happened if Knox and Goodman, along with the other Protestants already there, had the opportunity to spread Protestantism more fully in Ireland. No doubt, Dawson suggests, the history of Ireland would have been very different.

Overall, Dawson has written one of the most important works on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation. It is neither critical nor hagiographical. Instead, she tells the story of Knox and his world. The discovery of new sources is vital to telling the full story of Knox and Dawson does an excellent job showing its significance. In the end, anyone serious about Knox or the Scottish Reformation must read Dawson.


Books on Knox:
"John Knox: Fearless Faith" by Steven Lawson - A Review
"John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works" - A Review
"John Knox" by Rosalind Marshall: A Review
"The Mighty Weakness of John Knox" by Douglas Bond: A Review
"John Knox & the Reformation" by M. Lloyd-Jones & Iain Murray: A Review
"John Knox For Armchair Theologians" by Suzanne McDonald: A Review
 

For more on Knox:
"Scottish Theology" by T. F. Torrance: A Review
A Nestorian Heresy?: John Knox & His Rejection of Particular Redemption
Douglas Bond on the Legacy of John Knox
"The School of Faith" by Thomas F. Torrance: A Review
John Knox on the Threefold Office of Christ
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead
John Knox on the Importance of the Ascension 
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