My reason for reading a biography of John Knox was to get a more in-depth view of his character. He is so demonized today, particularly by women, and references to him in my readings on Mary Stewart left me disgusted with him. I eventually decided that any assessment would be unfair until I’d read at least one biography.
At the beginning of this book, when reading of his often-misunderstood relationship with his eventual mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes, I got a picture of a very sensitive, compassionate man able to openly express emotion and affection. By all accounts, he retained his kind nature when dealing one-on-one with his female family and parishioners.
Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were never to see this side of him. The opinion for which he is most disliked today is his outspoken objection to female rule, a sentiment that was largely fueled by the abuses he and his contemporaries suffered at the hands of the Catholic Mary Tudor in England. This prejudice was firmly affixed by the time Mary Stewart took the Scottish throne. Despite her efforts to reason with him and even charm him, as she did most people, he retained his opinion for the rest of his life: a female monarch was acceptable only if she submitted to the true (Protestant) church and, eventually, to a husband. She was never to be considered the final authority, as it was unnatural for women to be in positions of leadership, to say nothing of their natural inclination toward sin. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification of his beliefs, but that’s the basic impression I came away with. A more in-depth look at his views can be found in his treatiseThe First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which angered both Mary and Elizabeth.
While Knox supported the protestant Queen Elizabeth, he did not find much more favor with her than with Mary, largely because of The First Blast. Knox’s genuine surprise at her reaction shows what I consider to be a naivete rooted in the confidence of his doctrine. He expected her to understand that such statements weren’t personal, but true, and if Elizabeth simply followed the correct faith, he approved of her rule within its proper boundaries.
His incredibly obstinate refusal to temper his views or even the expression of his views is what defined his character until his death. Elizabeth’s disapproval and Mary’s tearful rage did not faze him, even when Mary came close to charging him with treason. It is certain he would have chosen to be martyred before he would recant.
While his belief in the Protestant cause overrode his sense of self-preservation - an admirable trait as far as convictions go – his focus on establishing an earthly kingdom is disconcerting from my personal Christian perspective. As the daughter of a minister descended from a line of ministers on both my paternal and maternal side, and someone who has chosen the Christian faith of my parents, I cannot read such a biography from a purely objective perspective. Instead, I find myself despairing over the state of the spiritual kingdom that surely must have been stunted while Knox wreaked havoc in its name. Yes, historically, it was a tumultuous time and it was the way of things to shed blood over doctrine, but even Calvin had to occasionally distance himself from Knox’s proclamations. By contrast, I cannot see Knox as merely a product of his time. His antics baffled his peers almost as much as they do our more moderate, modern minds.
Of course, Knox was patterning himself after the Old Testament prophets, much as many Christian historical figures have. It really isn’t clear how appropriate such a role is anno domini.
My final conclusion as to Knox’s character is that he was a generally kind-hearted man, but without the slightest sense of ecumenism or diplomacy. His resolve helped establish Protestantism in Scotland, but also alienated two monarchs as well as hosts of their subjects – on both sides of the religious argument.
There are so many “what-ifs” that come to mind should Knox have been more moderate: What if Mary Stewart had been swayed toward Protestantism, what if Knox had been better able to join forces with Calvin, and – most importantly to me – what if, by showing grace and love, Knox had managed to further the real, unseen kingdom over the earthly one?
I don’t propose to have the answers, nor am I assuming that Knox always did the wrong thing in the eyes of God. The Church has passed through many unseemly phases and only in the end will we be able to fully distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
As far as books go, this one wasn’t an overly fascinating read, but I feel it did give as objective a view of Knox as possible. I would personally like to see Jane Dunn undertake a biography on Knox, but he isn’t the most fascinating character to write about. Rather than the soap-opera drama of his monarchs, his life was characterized by the “straight and narrow,” his famous flares of anger against the Catholic church and its supporters eventually falling into the rhythmic noise of artillery – always loud, but always the same.