John Knox: like the blast of 500 trumpets

Jane Dawson’s biography of John Knox suggests that the strident leader of the Scottish Reformation may have had a sensitive side after all, says Eric Anderson

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

John Knox Jane Dawson

Yale, pp.373, £25, ISBN: 9780300114737

John Knox, Cranmer complained, was ‘one of those unquiet spirits, which can like nothing but that is after their own fancy, and cease not to make trouble and disquietness’.
Yet this awkward cuss, son of a merchant in Haddington and initially a young Roman Catholic priest, became a pillar of the Reformation in Europe and the inspiration for Presbyterianism in Scotland. The recent Scottish political television debates remind us also that his strident tone is still fashionable in Scotland. The black and white judgments proclaimed rather than discussed, and the winning of arguments by out-shouting opponents, are exactly in the style of Knox.

He knew precisely what reforms were needed in the church. It was only necessary to follow the word of God: ‘add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.’ The Bible did not prescribe vestments, the worship of saints, or sacraments other than baptism and communion. Such accretions were ‘idolatrie’.

The trouble was that almost everywhere the idolatrous Roman Catholic church (‘the synagogue of Satan’) was overwhelmingly powerful. In Knox’s lifetime Mary Tudor re-established Catholicism in England. Scotland was ruled by Mary of Guise and then by her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, that ‘wicked woman’, widow of a French Catholic king. Huguenots were massacred in France. Knox himself was a galley-slave for 19 months after being captured by a French fleet off St Andrews. In Geneva and Frankfurt he was an exile and in both England and Scotland he lived in danger of arrest or worse — although, unlike his heroic mentor George Wishart, he was burned as a heretic only in effigy. Even at Knox’s death he remained deeply pessimistic about the very survival of the Reformation. To complain that he was ‘hatit and raillit on, but also perscutit most scharply, and huntit from place to place’ was no more than truth.

After six years in England, where he became a preacher to Edward VI and a lifelong anglophile, Knox fled from Bloody Mary’s England to Calvin’s Geneva. There he ministered to a highly able congregation of English and Scottish exiles, and helped them produce the foundation texts of Presbyterianism: the Book of Common Order, the Metrical Psalter and the Geneva Bible with its Protestant commentary. Geneva was for Knox ‘the maist perfit school of Christ’ where, better than anywhere else, manners and religion were ‘sinceirlie reformat’. It was the happiest time of his life, made even better when he was joined by his wife Marjorie Bowes, who was, as Calvin told him, ‘a rare find’.
Her mother eloped with her to continue her lengthy discussions on religion with Knox.

His First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (a title which everyone remembers) was the biggest mistake of Knox’s life. He never fully considered, or perhaps could not understand, the effect his violent strictures had on other people. The First Blast was aimed at Mary Tudor (‘that Jezebel’) and Mary of Guise, but he must have realised that their successors in ruling England and Scotland were likely also to be women — and women with whom the reformers would want to do business. Queen Elizabeth did not forgive Knox and distrusted as a result everything that came from Geneva.

When Mary returned from France to rule as Queen of Scots. Knox feared a rapid return to Catholicism. The exhausted 18-year-old, miserable at leaving France, arrived in Edinburgh, in August, in thick fog. This was symbolic, Knox warned, of what she was bringing to Scotland: ‘sorrow,dolour,darkness and all impiety’.He kept her awake that first night by having metrical psalms sung under her window accompanied by violins. Their famous interviews did not lead to a meeting of minds; Knox prayed publicly and regularly for the ‘blynde and obstinate Princesse’, and when she fled to England Knox criticised the Scottish nobility for the ‘foolish pity’ which prevented them from executing her when they had the chance.

Jane Dawson has pulled off the difficult trick of writing a scholarly book which is also a thoroughly good read. We have always known that Knox was a moralist, preacher and prophet on the grand scale. To hear him preach, according to the English ambassador, was ‘like having 500 trumpets blowing in one’s ears’.

Dawson finds just enough, in some newly discovered letters and elsewhere, to suggest that he was also a complicated and sensitive man. Both his marriages were happy; members of his Geneva congregation printed a presentation copy of the Great Bible for him, and his periods of depression suggest that he agonised over the certainties he preached from the pulpit. The larger-than-life statue dominating the entrance to New College, in Edinburgh, has to be viewed alongside the unexpectedly vulnerable face in the posthumous portrait on the dustcover of this excellent biography.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Eric Anderson is a former Provost of Eton and rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • justejudexultionis

    Scotland, and Europe, needs Gospel Christianity now more than ever. If only our contemporaries would acknowledge the massive debt we owe to Knox and the Reformers in establishing the foundations of liberty and democracy in this country.

  • Philip James Collinson

    There have been massive changes and a great shift away from our foundations during the past 50 years but God, the Word of God and the gospel of salvation preached by John Knox are still true and unchangeable.

  • Jack Haggerty

    Jane Dawson’s book on John Knox is now on my reading list. Yes, we owe a ‘massive debt’ to ‘our John’. But there have also been ‘massive changes’ in our society as Philip James Collinson writes. C.S. Lewis (‘our Saint Augustine’ as Paul Johnson wrote in the Catholic Herald in October 2013) gave a lecture some time around 1952-53 I think, and he spoke of the ‘de-christening of the West’. The dean of Shanghai University asked Os Guinness if he could account for the massive collapse in Christian belief in Europe. The Chinese are extremely puzzled by this mass apostasy. (You can hear Os Guinness on YouTube). It perplexed Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s; Belloc foresaw the return to paganism and to ‘New Age’ thinking as did G..K. Chesterton. ‘Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe,’ Belloc wrote. Evangelical preachers who are going out into our communities are the John Knoxes of the present day. We should all be supporting our street preachers by joining them, handing out Bible tracts and engaging people in conversation. A good starting point is to ask them the all important question — ‘What do you think of Jesus Christ? Who do think he was?’ (The New Zealand poet James K Baxter used to ask people this question at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.) Many church volunteers throughout the UK are going out into cafes and youth clubs, inner cities and suburbs and housing estates. The Holy Spirit is indeed at work. I would like to see Christian reading clubs and discussion groups being established in our towns, cities, villages, schools, colleges and community centres. We need an ongoing mission rather like the ‘Tell Scotland’ mission of the early 1960s. Christian books are read by Christians. But what of the rest? It saddens me that a great book such as A.T.B. McGowan’s ‘The Person and Work of Jesus Christ’ (Paternoster 2012) will be read by so few people outside our faith communities. I often ask fellow Scots of my own generation if they have heard of Iain H Murray or Donald Macleod or Iain D Campbell or Geoffrey Grogan and invariably draw blank looks. Yet the same people read Karen Armstrong because her books are cleverly marketed in bookshops. I couldn’t find a copy of David Teems’s brilliant biography of William Tyndale in any Waterstone’s shop in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Stirling. Secular bookshops rarely stock the books of Iain H Murray, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Packer, John Stott, R.C. Sproul John Piper etc. People have no grasp of Biblical truth. So it comes as no surprise when the old and young alike tell me they think ‘all religions are saying the same thing’. (I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this nonsense being uttered by intelligent people.) The late and much missed Jack Glass said that you could live all your life in Glasgow and never hear the Gospel. The motto of my city is ‘Lord, let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy Word and the praising of thy Name’. The city fathers shortened this to ‘Let Glasgow flourish’. I would like to see Christian booklets and tracts being handed out in cafes, pubs and libraries. Tracts are most effective as the socialists of the 1930s understood. Surely Christian business people could sponsor such a mission? I recommend ‘The Man Who Changed Scotland – the life and influence of John Knox 1514-1572’ by the Rev. Alisdair MacLeod-Mair and ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters’ by Garry Williams (director of the John Owen Centre in London). Both booklets are published by the Protestant Truth Society I give copies of these booklets to Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Buddhists and New Agers.

  • Kennybhoy

    Did ye no think tae tell when John Knox himsel
    Preached under your branches sae black
    Tae the puir common folk who would lift up the yoke
    O the bishops an priests fae their backs?
    But you knew the bargain he sold them
    An freedom was only ane word,
    For the price o their souls wis a gospel sae cauld
    It would freeze up the joy in their hearts!

    De’il worshipping Calvinist loon! 🙁

    • Jack Haggerty

      Thanks, Kenny, for the great Brian McNeill song – ‘A mile frae Pentcaitland, on the road to the sea/ Stands a yew tree a thousand years old.’ I like the ending too. ‘But a wee bird flew out frae your branches/ And sang out as never before/ And the words o’ the song were a thousand years long/ And to learn them’s a long thousand more.’ Aye, hyper-Calvinism with its ‘gospel sae cauld’, is always a danger. Iain Crichton Smith spoke about the abuse of spiritual power in some unnamed ministers he remembered from his youth; he said he could have lamped yin or twa o’ them. North Britons have a goodly inheritance in the Celtic church: Columba, Cuthbert, Carmac etc. There is nothing cauld or joy-freezing there. Why don’t we all celebrate it instead of the current New Age shit? In 1976 the Ramsay Head Press in Edinburgh published three trenchant essays on Knox, in one short volume. It’s well worth hunting down. The essays are by Hugh McDiarmid, Campbell Maclean and Anthony Ross. All three find the mystery of Knox fascinating and elusive. They all agree – ‘Auld Misery Guts’ was not ‘a nice man’ as our populist politicians, suave spin doctors and mindless media folk understand the word ‘nice’. But then Knox didn’t want to be nice or well-loved or, that modern curse, ‘understood’. So nothing sentimental about the man. Maclean says the kailyard tradition would have set Our John’s teeth on edge. Let us be thankful for that, ay? Would he have enjoyed the Sunday Post Sabbath? Just Oor Wullie, the crispy bacon and black puddin, I should think. Ross thinks Knox’s dependence on women increased his need to dominate them. The old lad has a lot to answer for there. A pity then that we know so little about Knox’s first forty years or we could have had RD Laing analyse him. (Laing attended Bible class as a boy and could impress his London colleagues by reciting long chunks of the Authorised Version.) Surprisingly, McDiarmid comes down the hardest, not on Knox, but rather on Edwin Muir for writing a savage book on Knox. Auld Hugh judged it a bad book. Worse, Muir had dedicated it to McDiarmid. By the way. If you have never done so, try and attend a free church service just to hear the singing of the metrical psalms. A wee bird never sang as sweetly.