In this series, I will examine the ways that some people have misread Knox’s most well-known and controversial work by framing it in terms of postmodernist sentimentality and feminism. If you are already well up to speed on John Knox, the history of the Scottish Reformation and have read his First Blast, you might want to read on ahead to part 3, in which I critique the recent American Vision article.
Part 1: Background and Timeline
If you have read any one thing of John Knox, it is likely The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. At about 40-pages, it is lively, readable and continues to be as controversial as it was when it was first published in 1558. This polemical pamphlet was not an attack on all women, but aimed specifically at the “monstrous” or “unnatural” regimes of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Mary of Guise in Scotland, and her young daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who was being groomed in France to take the throne.
Knox was not a misogynist who believed that women were inferior to men. Rather he was dismayed at the unprecedented appearance of two Roman Catholic ruling queens in Scotland and England, both of whom were hostile to the Protestant movement. To Knox, this was evidence of the judgment of God on the two nations. Most Reformed theologians of his day agreed with him, although few were as strident as the fiery Scotsman. His purpose in using loaded words to vilify these “Jezebels” was political as well as theological. He not only wanted to depose the “three Marys,” but execute them as tyrants if they did not repent. His widely distributed prophetic tract was dangerous because it amounted to treason.
A recent biography of John Knox by University of Edinburgh professor Jane Dawson offers a much different portrayal of the Reformer acting in a tender and respectful way toward women. On one hand he’s defiant and incendiary toward his enemies, but on the other hand, hopeful for their salvation, as one reviewer described beautifully.
Scotland has a problem with John Knox. His is a contested legacy, with part of the country seeing in him an intransigent killjoy and bullying misogynist, whose ideas ground the dour into Scotland’s soul…. Very few people nowadays read Knox’s prose – and most will know only the notorious First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women – but his History of the Reformation ushered in a new kind of historical writing: personal, indignant, sometimes sarcastic, utterly committed…. [T]he major elements in Knox’s life – his conversion from Catholic priest and canon to Protestant reformer under the influence of George Wishart; his enslavement on a French galley; his dealings with Calvin in Geneva; his return to Scotland; and his clashes with Mary Tudor, Mary Guise and Mary Queen of Scots – enabled the Reformation.
Knox’s experience in Geneva led to a double focus in the Reformation. It has to do with one’s own spiritual struggles and beliefs, but it needed to be grounded in political actuality…. [O]ne of the paradoxes of Knox’s career is the establishment of a national church out of “resistance groups,” which thought of themselves as a beleaguered remnant…. Although the stereotype of Knox is of an inflexible individual whose self-confidence sheers into self-righteousness, new sources reveal a far more conflicted man, often uncertain of his calling and prone to depression. His reliance on his wives, his “Edinburgh sisters” and particularly the friendship of Christopher Goodman has perhaps been underplayed in previous biographies. That Knox evidently struggled makes him more heroic rather than less (Book Review of John Knox by Jane Dawson).
Who was John Knox?
There are numerous good resources that more fully describe the life and work of Knox in Scotland. Rather than compile a lengthy biography here, I have put together a few quick primers in articles and videos I have produced.
Models for Reformation: John Knox
Models for Reformation: Covenantal Lawsuits – Church of Scotland
The following video clip from Ron Avil explains Knox’s importance as a Scottish “Founding Father” of the United States of America.
The United States of America 2.0: The Great Reset is a short booklet that shows how civil resistance to tyranny has a long tradition in Reformed theology – from Calvin, Knox, Cromwell, the Puritans to the time of the American Revolution. Understanding this model is of vital importance today since our Founders designed our Constitution to be an instrument of frequent peaceful revolution and defiance to federal tyranny.
I also recommend a video teaching series about John Knox by Bruce Gore.
Scotland’s Forgotten History is a more lengthy treatment of the results of the Scottish Reformation. This is an important documentary because it highlights the fact that the work accomplished by John Knox led to one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in history that paralleled the Puritan movement almost a century later.
Iain Murray’s book, The Puritan Hope, uses quotes from numerous source documents to show that hardly a family in Scotland was not affected by conversions to Christ during this later revival in the 1600s.
John Knox by Jane Dawson is a recent work of scholarship that has been called the definitive biography of John Knox. She makes use of unpublished manuscripts to paint a much different picture of the Reformer than the popular caricature.
- LATER YEARS IN SCOTLAND
- 1559 – Knox returns to Scotland; preaches sermon condemning “idolatry”; it leads to a rebellion
- 1560 – Mary of Guise dies; Reformation Parliament adopts Protestant “Scots Confession”; Knox’s wife Marjory dies
- 1561 – Catholic Mary Queen of Scots returns to Scotland; Knox helps write First Book of Discipline; Knox ministers at St. Giles’s in Edinburgh; first interview with Mary Queen of Scots
- 1564 – Marries Margaret Stewart
- 1565 – In July, Mary Queen of Scots weds Lord Darnley; confers on him the title of “King Henry”
- 1566 – James VI (the future king of England and Scotland) is born to Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley
- 1567 – In February, the Earl of Bothwell murders Lord Darnley (King Henry); on May 15th, Mary Queen of Scots weds the Earl of Bothwell to public outrage; in August, Mary Queen of Scots is deposed by the Scots General Assembly
- 1568 – Mary, now the deposed Queen, escapes her captivity by fleeing to Elizabeth I in England expecting her cousin to help her regain her throne; a long series of intrigues ensues ending with Mary being convicted of treason against Elizabeth and executed in 1587
- 1570 – Civil War breaks out in Scotland; a bullet is fired through Knox’s dining room window
- THE END: ST. ANDREWS AND EDINBURGH
- 1571 – In July, Knox moves to St. Andrews due to the Civil War that has broken out; Knox finishes compiling material for his History of the Reformation in Scotland
- 1572 – In August, Knox returns to Edinburgh and resumes preaching at St. Giles; on November 24th after hearing his wife Margaret read aloud John 17, “Where I cast my first anchor,” John Knox dies in his bed at Edinburgh
Knox’s Role in History
John Knox’s role in the history of Scotland, let alone his influence on the English and American Puritan movements, was monumental. In fact, Knox ought to be considered one of America’s founding fathers. He was the fourth most important among the magisterial Reformers after Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. Though he was Calvin’s student, it has been argued the Knox himself was more consistently covenantal than his teacher. Though he was by no means perfect, he altered the course of history for the better.