John Knox

Posted on: 19th May 2016  |
Book author: Jane Dawson
Publication details: Yale University Press, 2015; 384 pages
ISBN: 9780300114737
Tags: book, Scotland, Reformation, John Knox

As a cradle Scottish-Irish Catholic, I have never found much generosity in my heart for the central figure of the Scottish Reformation. The Scottish historian, Jane Dawson, who is John Laing Professor of Reformation History at Edinburgh University, begins her biography of John Knox by making her subject appealing. This is already a shock to my system. How does she do it?

The composition of place is Geneva, 1557, on 23 May. The scene we are asked to contemplate is Knox, a proud-as-punch father, holding his child who is awaiting baptism by Knox’s friend, Christopher Goodman, along with the godfather, William Whittingham. These three men had worked together in Geneva on the translation of the Bible and the re-writing of the liturgy, including the rite of baptism. There is something remarkable about the question that Goodman asks of the other two:

Do you present this child to be baptised, earnestly desiring that he be ingrafted in the mysticall bodye of Jesus Christ?

Most Catholics would very much identify with that formulation, and would be surprised to hear that it comes from the pen of the Reformer. Indeed, given Knox’s systematic programme of purging non-biblical expressions from the prayers, it is interesting that this formulation survived. As a phrase it seems to originate in the Eucharistic controversies in the ninth century.

Given the astonishing mobility of people in the early modern period, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that John Knox shared a teacher with Ignatius of Loyola. John Mair [Major] taught Knox in St Andrews as Knox was training to be a Catholic priest, and he taught Ignatius in Paris. He is described as a nominalist in philosophy and a Scotist in theology. In his commentary on the Fourth Book of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Mair had talked about ‘positive theology’. We find this phrase also in Ignatius’s eleventh rule for Thinking with the Church (an example of early modern ressourcement?):

We ought to praise both positive theology and scholastic theology. For just as it is more characteristic of the positive doctors, such as St Jerome, St Augustine, St Gregory and the rest, to stir up our affections toward loving and serving God our Lord in all things….. the scholastic teachers, being more recent, can profit from a correct understanding of sacred scripture and the holy positive doctors. (Spiritual Exercises §363).

Essentially, Mair is a transitional figure who remained a Catholic till his death. His emphasis on the free power of God’s grace and the importance of individual belief and submission would have found sympathy with Ignatius as well as with Knox.

Ignatius was only one of a whole group of Spaniards who gathered round Mair, prominent among them being Pedro Ortiz and Pedro de Peralta.[i] One could speculate that ultimately Francisco Suárez, too, was influenced by Mair’s view that authority resided not with the king but with the people, who could retake their power from a king who failed them. It is a view articulated already in the Declaration of Arbroath, and perhaps rings bells with watchers of Braveheart, where the Bruce was definitely shifty:

Yet if [Robert the Bruce] should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. (Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320)

Mair, who was a conciliarist, also emphasised that authority lay with the whole Church and not with the pope, something that the Declaration of Arbroath (addressed to the pope) did not mention, nor for that matter did the Rules for Thinking with the Church.

Issues of papal and royal power swirled around Europe in that sixteenth century. The spotlight tends to be on the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis (1570) and its excommunication of Elizabeth of England. One of Knox’s more reckless publications was The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), an argument against Mary Tudor based on her gender, which is all the more curious since Knox clearly loved his two wives, his friend Anne Locke, his mother-in-law even, and showed himself able in some cases to work effectively with Mary Queen of Scots. (They tried to sort out the unravelling marriage of the Earl and Countess of Argyle: their man to man and woman to woman division of labour patched up the marriage for a time.)

Dawson suggests that Knox completed that tract in Dieppe, far away from the cooler heads of his Genevan congregation and the political shrewdness of John Calvin. For some reason which Knox could never fathom, Gloriana felt herself included in the indictment. She never forgave Knox and, worse for the Reform party, distrusted anything to do with Geneva ever after. One of Dawson’s apposite chapter headings, all sayings of Knox, expresses it well: ‘England, in refusing me, refused a friend.’

Jane Dawson makes an excellent case for Knox’s prophetic consciousness taking him over the edge into recklessness. He was both a speaking and a writing prophet. He fulfilled his self-appointed task as Scotland’s Ezekiel, the watchman of the Lord, or Jeremiah, the prophet of tough political choices, from his Edinburgh pulpit, which was the first and most important locus of his ministry, but the pen also was felt by him to be inspired. Dawson observes: ‘If Knox was a bruiser in debate, he was also a wordsmith in his writing and speaking.’ (p.18)

I am struck by the similarities between British Jesuits and Knox preparing to return to their own countries and waiting for the right time. On occasion Knox would be in Rouen where he would gather information about what was happening in Scotland from Scottish sympathisers with the Reform. Curiously, decades later, in the same Rouen, John Ogilvie was hearing about the state of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and the report of the desire for the sacraments encouraged him to petition to be sent home. Like many of his English counterparts, he lasted a very short period of time before his execution and martyrdom.

Dawson suggests that Knox was deeply marked by the martyrdom of George Wishart in 1546 at the behest of Cardinal Beaton. She suggests that Knox, who left us an account of Wishart in The History of the Reformation in Scotland, always felt that his courage might fail him if he was put to the test.

Perhaps Knox could see himself in the words of a 20th century martyr, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had his own struggles with Church and State. In his notes from his final retreat just before his death, he writes

It’s hard for me to accept the idea of a violent death, which in these circumstances is very possible……I place my entire life under the loving providence of God, and I accept death, no matter how difficult, with faith in Him. I do not even offer a prayer of intention, as I’d like, for peace in my country and for the flourishing of our Church, because the heart of Christ will know how to take things to their desired destiny. It is enough for me to be happy and confident, knowing for sure that my life and my death are in his hands, and in spite of my sins, I have placed my trust in him. In this I can’t be mistaken. Others will continue with more wisdom and holiness, all of the works of the Church and of the country.


The reviewer, James Crampsey SJ is Director of the Lauriston Jesuit Centre in Edinburgh.

[i] Enrique García Hernán, Ignacio de Loyola (Madrid, 2013), p. 193 (from the series Españoles Eminentes).



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