The Real John Knox

Dawson introduces us to Knox as a family man, a Christian brother, and a believer

“What a pleasure, then, to read Jane Dawson’s recent biography, simply titled John Knox, where we meet Knox the man. His life was a remarkable one by any account. He was the key figure not only in the Scottish Reformation, but also a major player in the Reformation in England and on the Continent.”

 

If you ever go to see the John Knox statue at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, you won’t come away with warm and fuzzy feelings. Knox, in statue and in Scottish historical memory, comes off as stern, formidable, and unapproachable. To admirers, he was also a man of deep principle and driven conviction. But still, our conventional Knox can seem hard and cold.

What a pleasure, then, to read Jane Dawson’s recent biography, simply titled John Knox, where we meet Knox the man. His life was a remarkable one by any account. He was the key figure not only in the Scottish Reformation, but also a major player in the Reformation in England and on the Continent. But Dawson introduces us to Knox as a family man, a Christian brother, and a believer struggling (as do we all) to remain faithful to the Lord.

Dawson opens the book with an illustrative story of the 1557 baptism of Knox’s son in Geneva. Knox is cradling the newborn in his arms and weeping, as he was a man “to whom tears came easily.” The minister, Christopher Goodman, was Knox’s longtime closest friend. Goodman and Knox had been involved in writing the baptismal liturgy which Goodman now performed. Although his wife Marjorie was not at the service (birth mothers typically did not attend baptisms), his relationship with her was tender, and he depended heavily on friendships with a number of Reformed female associates.

As Dawson suggests, this picture of close relationships and warm personality contrasts with the stereotypical image of Knox as an arch-Puritan and a woman-hater. The latter characterization has been tied to Knox’s ill-considered tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which denounced women rulers and earned him perpetual enmity from Queen Elizabeth I, among others.

Aside from his strong day-to-day relationships with female relatives and friends, the bond that stands out most in Dawson’s portrait is that between Christopher Goodman and Knox. It is tough for any biographer to find new material about someone so well-known as Knox, but Dawson uses newly-discovered letters in Goodman’s papers that illuminate previously unknown aspects of Knox’s career, and his edifying friendship with Goodman.

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