The Real John Knox

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.

The statuary image of Knox is of a prophet set apart. Of course, we have known about his relationship with Calvin and other leading Reformers. But like Luther, in our mind's eye Knox seems like a man willing to stand alone. All this is true, but I was struck by how his friendship with Goodman and others undergirded all of Knox's work. Goodman is little known today, but one could argue that he was just as important to the Reformation as Knox. If nothing else, Knox would likely tell us that he would not have had the career he did without Goodman. The only surviving image of Knox during his lifetime is a woodcut of the two-man team blowing their prophetic trumpets.

This is a good reminder to pastors and all believers laboring in the church today. The Lone Ranger model of the great Reformer is a myth. (Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, after all.) Knox spoke regularly of the "comfort" he received from Goodman's steadfast presence and counsel. Goodman changed Knox's mind on some critical issues, such as the controversy over ministers wearing traditional vestments.

Sometimes today we speak of brothers and sisters "walking together" in the Lord. But Knox and Goodman literally walked together for miles on end, sorting out pastoral, political, and theological challenges as they strolled along. Our hyper-sexualized culture would probably misread the deep devotion Knox and Goodman had for each other, as Knox once testified that he thirsted for Goodman's presence more than his own wife. (Dawson, thankfully, interprets such statements correctly as reflecting how dependent Knox was on their friendship.) The church today struggles to sustain and define male companionship, but Knox and Goodman knew what it meant for Christian men to be brothers side-by-side in spiritual battle together.

I also found it strangely comforting to see how often Knox struggled with doubt, desperation, and what Dawson calls "depression." (I think she means this in a non-clinical sense, although at times she does imply that Knox became nearly suicidal.) Figures like Jonathan Edwards spoke of similar emotional struggles. We sometimes imagine that the great heroes of the faith must not have struggled like we do. But I believe instead that they consistently obeyed in spite of, not in the absence of, their struggles.

In 1566, Knox wrote in the midst of one of the darkest stretches of the fight for Scotland's Reformation that, even after decades in the cause, he still found nothing in himself but "vanity and corruption. For, in quietness I am negligent, in trouble impatient, tending to desperation, and in the mean state, I am so carried away with vain fantasies, that (alas) O Lord, they withdraw me from the presence of thy Majesty." This was Calvinist theology personalized, in ways with which we can all identify. As much as we might advance in sanctification in this life, we should still find no reason for spiritual pride, or imagine that we have somehow "made it" in our journey to holiness.

I heartily recommend Dawson's biography for its thorough, realistic, and (generally) sympathetic portrait of Knox as a real person. He wept, struggled, and sensed his deep need for vital relationships with his brothers and sisters. And as he did these things, God turned him into one of the great pillars of the faith.

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father.