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Knox, John (c. 1514–1572) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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John Knox, the fiery Protestant Reformer of the Church of Scotland and self-styled prophet of God, was born between 1513 and 1515 in or near Haddington, East Lothian. Details concerning his family and early life are few. His father, whose exact profession is unknown, was William, and his mother was a Sinclair. He had an older brother named William, who became a businessman in England. His education most likely began at the local school in Haddington. Although a student named “John Knox” appears in the records of the University of Glasgow, there is no other evidence that this was the Reformer. Knox studied with John Major, professor of logic and theology at the University of St. Andrews. However, there is no documentary proof that Knox attended or graduated from St. Andrews. His writings indicate that he studied Latin, but he does not seem to have the scholarly preparation enjoyed by other Reformers such as John Calvin* and Martin Luther. At some point in his education, he studied law and theology, since in 1540 he was acting as a notary and was named in documents as Sir John Knox, a title used in that era for priests. From 1540 to 1543, he served as notary, and by 1544, he had become tutor to the sons of two prominent Scottish families who had become Protestants.

Knox gives no date of his conversion to the Reformed faith nor the circumstances that led to it. However, once convinced of the rightness of Protestantism, he became one of its most ardent champions and defenders. In 1546, Knox served as a bodyguard to George Wishart, a Protestant preacher, during the latter’s preaching tour in East Lothian. Wishart was soon arrested, tried as a heretic, and executed on 1 March 1546. Knox’s association with Wishart identified him as a Protestant sympathizer, making him liable to Wishart’s fate. Wishart’s death no doubt contributed to Knox’s commitment to the Reform movement while at the same time it intensified his hatred of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, a hatred that pervades his sermons and writing. In May of the same year, Cardinal Beaton, who had ordered the trial and execution of Wishart, was murdered by a group of disgruntled lairds who, with their followers, took possession of the cardinal’s Castle of St. Andrews.

On 10 April 1547, in order to escape possible arrest as a heretic, Knox and his students entered the Castle of St. Andrews, where he continued his teaching duties. Within a few weeks of Knox’s arrival in the castle, the leaders of the rebel group, at the suggestion of their minister John Rough, invited Knox to be Rough’s associate. Insisting on a public call to ministry, during a service conducted by Rough, Knox was formally called by the congregation to be a minister. His first sermon, based on Daniel 7:24–25, was an attack on the Roman Catholic Church and its doctrine of justification. He challenged his hearers to a debate if they did not agree with his interpretation of Scripture. A public debate followed in which Knox bested his challengers: his career as the prophet and preacher of the Reformed faith in Scotland had begun.

On 31 July 1547, the garrison at the castle surrendered to the French, and Knox was condemned to the galleys. During his time as a galley slave, his masters attempted without success to force Knox and his fellow Scots to abandon the Reformed faith. Released from the galleys in 1549, Knox went to England, where he became rector of the parish at Berwick. As pastor he considered preaching his primary responsibility and consequently did not use the Book of Common Prayer but rather a Communion service of his own devising that had the sermon as its focus. His sermons reflected his growing antagonism toward the Roman Catholic Mass. As a result of his preaching, Knox was summoned by the bishop of Durham to defend his views. While at Berwick, Knox became friends with Elizabeth Bowes, his future mother-in-law. His letters to her and to her daughter Marjory, his future wife, give a glimpse of the gentler and more pastoral side of his personality.

In the summer of 1551, Knox was transferred to St. Nicholas Church, Newcastle. A year later as a protégé of the duke of Northumberland, he went to London, where he was appointed one of the royal chaplains to Edward VI. By this date, Knox had identified totally with the radical Reform group, which sought to establish the Reformed faith as taught by the Swiss Reformers, most notably John Calvin.* Knox thought that the Reformed church of England was still too close to Roman Catholicism, especially in the liturgy. Thus, in October 1552, preaching before the king and Privy Council, Knox attacked the rubric of kneeling to receive Communion, which had been inserted in the revised and supposedly more Protestant version of the Book of Common Prayer. According to Knox, kneeling was adoration of the Sacrament, an act that had no scriptural foundation, and was, therefore, a form of idolatry. As a result of Knox’s condemnation, a declaration later known as the “black rubric” was added to the Prayer Book that asserted that kneeling was not adoration but simply a sign of reverence. In spite of his strongly held views, he was offered the bishopric of Rochester. He refused, preferring to remain an evangelist of the Reform movement. In July 1553, Edward died, and Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic, became queen. Realizing that Mary was planning to reestablish Catholicism, Knox left England for the Continent.

From 1554 to 1559, with the exception of a year in Scotland, Knox lived in exile. Arriving in Dieppe, Knox went on to Geneva to meet with Calvin and others. With them he discussed some politically sensitive theological issues dealing with allegiance to a sovereign who was both female and Catholic. After a brief trip to Dieppe to get an update on the fate of the Reform movement in England under Mary Tudor, Knox returned to Geneva to study Hebrew and Greek as tools for a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. This period of study was interrupted in 1554, when Knox was called by the English congregation in Frankfurt am Main to be their minister. At the urging of Calvin, Knox accepted. Upon his arrival in Frankfurt, Knox became involved in a controversy over the congregation’s form of worship. At the heart of the debate was the majority’s insistence on changes to the Prayer Book to bring it more in conformity with the practice of the Swiss Reformers and the minority’s desire to retain the Prayer Book without any deletions. At the suggestion of Calvin, a service was drawn up to be used until April of the following year. In March 1555, Richard Cox, former chancellor of Oxford University, and a group of exiles asked to join the congregation but insisted on the use of the Prayer Book. To help solve the dispute Knox, who at this point in his career appeared more flexible and tolerant, persuaded the congregation to allow Cox and his followers to participate in a congregational meeting, a decision that was to be Knox’s undoing as pastor. The Coxians joined forces with the minority group, who wanted to maintain the Prayer Book, to form a new majority. Knox was forbidden to preach and eventually was forced to leave the city. He returned to Geneva, where he was defended by Calvin. The Frankfurt congregation responded to Calvin’s reprimand by accusing Knox of contributing to the Marian persecution by the publication of his Admonition to the Professors of God’s Truth in England .

From September 1555 until the following late summer, Knox was in Scotland preaching and encouraging the people to remain true to the Reformed faith. Mary of Guise, the queen regent who, for her own political reasons, had appeared to tolerate the Protestant faith, was now advancing the Catholic cause. Having been charged with heresy by the bishops, Knox accepted a call from the English congregation in Geneva to be its minister and arrived there with his wife and mother-in-law. For the next three years, Knox was busy with his pastoral duties, publishing several tracts that dealt with the problems of the Reformed church in Scotland and England. During this time in Geneva his two sons were born.

Upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, the congregation in Geneva returned home, and Knox decided to return to Scotland. Leaving his family in Geneva, Knox arrived in Leith in May 1559. Although the Reform movement was growing in Scotland, a Catholic monarch still ruled, creating a dangerous political situation for the Protestant party. Knox immediately began his battle to ensure the ultimate victory of the Reformed faith in Scotland. Although by royal decree he was an outlaw, Knox preached throughout the country and urged the nobility to request aid from Elizabeth. He was elected minister of Edinburgh and was a member of a diplomatic mission to England to request aid from Elizabeth against the queen regent and her French troops. At the beginning of 1560 English warships were sent by Elizabeth to contain the French troops. In June of that year, the queen regent died. At the request of Parliament, Knox and several other ministers drew up a Confession of Faith, which was ratified on 17 August 1560.

Knox returned to his pastoral duties and continued to work on his History of the Reformation in Scotland . In December 1560 his wife died, and three years later he married seventeen-year-old Margaret Stuart, by whom he had three daughters. From the pulpit, Knox exhorted the nobles and others to continue to hold firm against what he perceived to be a weakening on their part in the face of strong pressure by the new queen, Mary Stuart,* to maintain Catholicism. In December 1566, the General Assembly gave Knox permission to travel to England to visit his sons. During his absence, events in Scotland were moving against Mary Stuart. She was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James and to make the earl of Moray regent. Upon his return, Knox continued to write and preach. In October 1570, Knox suffered a stroke but recovered sufficiently to continue preaching. Two years later on 24 November 1572, he died.


Contemporary criticism of Knox’s works divides into three major areas, theology, politics/history, and literature/linguistics.

In the area of theology, critics debate the sources of Knox’s views of pre-destination, Sacraments, soteriology, and church polity, among others. Of special interest to scholars is the influence of John Calvin and other Continental Reformers on Knox’s theological perspective. Kyle’s study is an excellent bibliographic source for the major scholarly debates on Knox’s theological sources and influences.

Criticism of Knox’s political/historical writings tends to focus on two major topics. The first is the origins and development of Knox’s resistance theory with a special emphasis on armed rebellion against a ruler. Kyle devotes a lengthy chapter to the scholarly debate on this issue. Dawson, departing from the traditional criticism of the political writings, offers a different interpretation of the so-called political tracts of 1558, which include The First Blast . Dawson argues that the tracts must be viewed within the context that “by 1558 there were two Knoxes: Knox the Scotsman by birth and Knox the Englishman by adoption” (556). The First Blast is written by Knox the Englishman and is directed to a specific audience, the English nation, which is exhorted to depose and execute Mary Tudor. The remaining three tracts ( Letter to the Queen Regent [Augmented], The Appellation, The Letter to the Commonality of Scotland ) are written by Knox the Scotsman to a specific audience, the Scottish nation, which is exhorted to press for the Reformation of the church without recourse to rebellion against the sovereign.

The History of the Reformation in Scotland has received much critical attention. Although scholars agree that Knox is a biased historian, they disagree, according to Kyle, over the “degree and depth” (13) of Knox’s lack of impartiality. The role of women in society, especially as rulers, is the second major topic addressed by critics. Although Knox’s basic attitudes toward women reflect those of other theologians of the era, his views, particularly in The First Blast , move beyond those of Calvin and others. Healey analyzes Knox’s application of sola scriptura and the sixteenth century’s views of women (a debate not unlike our own in the twentieth century regarding women in society, especially their ordination to the ministry). In spite of his denunciations in The First Blast , some critics do not think that Knox’s reputation as a misogynist is justified. Kyle observes that “out of Knox’s surviving letters, more than half were written to women and many of them showed a high regard for the female sex” (267). This view is echoed by Healey, who states that “in all his dealings with Mary Stuart, Knox never demeaned her as a woman” (385).

Literary/linguistic scholars have had only minimal interest in Knox’s prose. C. S. Lewis opined that Knox is a minor author who is “about as important a literary figure as More would have been if he had written neither the Utopia nor the Comfort against Tribulation ” (197). In his assessment of Knox’s corpus, Lewis acknowledges that at times Knox “writes a good level prose” (197), but in a critique of the History , he asserts that Knox’s use of “original documents, a popular poem, large passages from Foxe and other authors… spoil the narrative flow” (201). More recent scholars have taken issue with Lewis’ judgments. For Lydall, Knox is the “most original and most important Protestant prose writer” (177). Lydall’s study is also of particular interest to philologists, since it addresses in some detail Knox’s Scots/English bilingualism and its influence on his writings. R. D. S. Jack also discusses Knox’s bilingualism, asserting that Knox is “a master of Scots and English, knowing when to move from one to the other and employing his ‘bilingual’ inheritance to marked effect” (239). According to Jack, The History contains “the thickest Scots employed by Knox” (242). Both Kenneth D. Farrow and Jack discuss Knox’s use of humor, particularly in The History , where, according to Farrow, it is often “scathing and highly derisory” (159). Recent criticism has addressed Knox’s use of rhetoric, imagery, metaphor, and simile. However, more literary criticism of Knox remains to be done. Students of literature would do well to distance themselves from C. S. Lewis’ opinion of Knox’s literary worth and instead take up Farrow’s challenge that “it is perhaps time that literary critics stop just reacting to him [Knox], or writing him off to save themselves some effort, and start thinking about him” (195). He is, however, no Calvin.

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