John Knox Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Knox 1514?–1572

Scottish religious reformer, theologian, and historian.

Credited by Thomas Carlyle as the man who caused the people of Scotland to live, Knox was a key figure in the Scottish Reformation and the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. Considered by many to be responsible for Scotland's religious and political freedom, Knox was the author of many letters and pamphlets which attacked the Catholic Church, which he termed the "Antichrist," and its priests, "vermin of shavelings utterly corrupted." It was Knox's fervent belief that all worshipping and service invented by man without God's expressed commandment was idolatry; the Roman Catholic mass fit this criterion and so constituted idolatry. In addition to trying to rid religion of the influence of the hated Pope, Knox also vocally attacked women as rulers. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) was aimed at Mary Tudor, Queen of England, but was interpreted generally, with international application. Knox's preaching inspired and incited Scotland to fight the Catholic Church; eventually the Pope's authority was abolished, as were the jurisdictions of the prelates, and celebration of the mass was made a crime. His Scots Confession (1560), co-written with five other ministers at the end of the Scottish Civil War, became the Scottish church's official theological text.

Biographical Information

The exact date of Knox's birth is unknown. Although 1505 was generally believed to be the year of his birth, this date was challenged, and now 1514 is widely accepted as the correct date. Knox was born near the burgh of Haddington in East Lothian. Little is known of his parents or of Knox's early life. It is presumed that Knox attended the University of St. Andrews to train for the priesthood and that he took his priestly orders around the age of twenty-five. He also held a minor governmental post and worked as a tutor. Knox met George Wishart in the winter of 1545-46, just weeks before the reformer was burned at the stake by Cardinal Beaton. Knox was inspired by Wishart and soon became a zealous Protestant. From this point on most of Knox's life would be spent in violent opposition to the ruling powers about him. When Beaton was assassinated, Knox was accused of plotting the murder and fled to a castle garrison at St. Andrews. In June of 1547 Knox was the preacher at the castle when it fell to the French, and he soon found himself a galley slave. His first work, directed to his

congregation of St. Andrews, now prisoners of France, was written during his nineteen-month imprisonment. Upon his release Knox traveled to England and preached there for five years. After Mary Tudor became Queen, Knox fled to the continent. In Geneva he met and studied with John Calvin; although heavily influenced by him, Knox did not hesitate to differ with Calvin in print. It is thought that The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was published anonymously so as not to openly disagree with the powerful Calvin, but it was widely known that Knox was the author of the pamphlet. The first half of 1558 also saw the publication of two other of his most important writings: the Appellation from the Sentence Pronounced by the Bishops and Clergy: Addressed to the Nobility and Estates of Scotland, and the Letter Addressed to the Commonalty of Scotland. Knox attempted to bring Mary, Queen of Scots, to Jesus; she in turn offered bribes of political power to Knox to bring him back to Catholicism. Neither was swayed, though Mary is said to have feared the sight of Knox on his knees in prayer more than all the assembled armies of Europe. Although Knox was successful at removing the Catholic Church from Scotland, starting a new church proved much more difficult, as he was hampered at every turn, and his final ten years were full of disillusionment. Knox died in Edinburgh on November 24, 1572.

Major Works

The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, invoking the words of the Old Testament against female rule, is an attack on the Catholic Mary Tudor, referred to as Jezebel. Its publication unfortunately coincided with the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I, and Knox spent much effort on assuaging the feelings of the new Queen. Two planned sequels were never realized, although Knox published an outline of the proposed second work. The Appellation from the Sentence Pronounced by the Bishops and Clergy is a response to having been tried in absentia by the prelates, condemned, and burned in effigy. Knox calls on the nobles to exercise their duty to defend the innocent and punish the evil. He calls for the establishment and defense of Protestant worship and resistance to "idolatrous" tyrants. In Letter Addressed to the Commonalty of Scotland Knox again urges everyone to heed the word of God, insisting that it is one's duty to oppose false religion and one's right to defend one's conscience against persecution. The History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland was not published during Knox's lifetime, possibly because the political situation described therein was rapidly changing. When it was published in London in 1587, Queen Elizabeth immediately suppressed it.

Critical Reception

Critics have pointed out that Knox was not a systematic thinker or writer. His individual writings were intended for particular purposes and addressed to particular audiences, so there is no one work that encompasses Knox's views in a fully developed fashion. This has led many critics to charge Knox with being disorganized, contradictory, and inconsistent. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women received quick critical response, from both Catholics full of opposition and Protestants wishing to distance themselves from what they felt were Knox's overly strong views against women. One writer called the author an "impudent, vile and shameless villain traitor." Even in the century after his death Knox was considered a threat to established order in England and his writings were banned and burned at Oxford University. Knox did not appear to have literary ambitions; he wrote to incite his readers to follow God's word, and there is general agreement among scholars that he was a forceful motivational speaker. B. K. Kuiper has likened Knox's preaching to a spark in a keg of gunpowder. But other critics have also focused on aspects of Knox's writing style. William Croft Dickinson has commented that Knox's English is "robust in style and rich in vocabulary" and that "in language and style the History is a masterpiece written by a man who could marshal words to meet his mood." Kevin Reed has described Knox the author as riveting, possessed of extraordinary zeal and knowledge. Emphasizing his influence on Scottish history, P. Hume Brown has written that Knox "revealed the heart and mind of the nation to itself." Many Scots still revere Knox and consider him the greatest man their nation has produced.