John Knox Essay - Critical Essays

Knox, John


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.

Principal Works

A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass Is Idolatry (essay) 1550

A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God's Truth in England (essay) 1554

Two Comfortable Epistles to His Afflicted Brethren in England (letters) 1554

The Copy of a Letter Delivered to the Lady Marie, Regent of Scotland (letter) 1556; augmented 1558

The Appellation from the Sentence Pronounced by the Bishops and Clergy: Addressed to the Nobility and Estates of Scotland (letter) 1558

The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (essay) 1558

Letter Addressed to the Commonalty of Scotland (letter) 1558

The Scots Confession [co-author] (manifesto) 1560

The History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland (history) 1587


Robert Louis Stevenson (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: "John Knox and Women," in Familiar Studies of Men & Books, Chatto and Windus, 1882, pp. 295-356.

[In the following excerpt, the famous English novelist discusses the political expediency of Knox and the compromises Knox made concerning the controversial issue of female rule.]

When first the idea became widely spread among men that the Word of God, instead of being truly the foundation of all existing institutions, was rather a stone which the builders had rejected, it was but natural that the consequent havoc among received opinions should be accompanied by the generation of many new and lively hopes for the future. Somewhat as in the early days of the...

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Edwin Muir (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The End," in John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, The Viking Press, 1929, pp. 291-302.

[In the following excerpt, Muir considers Knox's personal strengths and weaknesses.]

…[Knox was] a man who, for almost a generation, had amazed everybody, princes, statesmen, divines, burghers, students and common people alike, by three magnificent qualities: his vehemence, his persistence, and his incorruptibility. The first of these was his distinguishing quality; the others only served to emphasise it. Other great men of action have been vehement and placable, capable of both devouring ardour and repose; what distinguished Knox was the uniformity of his vehemence, his...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

J. H. Burns (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "John Knox and Revolution, 1558," in History Today, Vol. VIII, No. 8, August, 1958, pp. 56573.

[In the following essay, which emphasizes Knox's writings of 1558, Burns explores the motivating factors that led Knox to become openly political.]

Early in 1558 John Knox returned to Geneva from Dieppe. He had gone there in the previous autumn, having been invited by four Protestant leaders to come back to Scotland and resume the successful preaching of the winter of 1555-56. But "contrary letters"—and, as he later acknowledged, certain hesitations of his own—interrupted his journey at the Channel. His final return to Scotland was delayed until May 1559. Before...

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James S. McEwen (lecture date 1960)

SOURCE: "Predestination," in The Faith of John Knox: The Croall Lectures for 1960, John Knox Press, 1961, pp. 61-79.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture at New College, Edinburgh, McEwen compares and contrasts Knox's sometimes inconsistent views on predestination with the views of Calvin and of Luther, and examines Knox's interpretations of election, assurance, free-will, and reprobation.]

There are certain historical facts that are known to everybody: as, for example, that the Norman Conquest dated from 1066, and that Calvinism was a predestinarian faith. One might go further and say that everyone is aware that Calvinism was not only...

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Richard L. Greaves (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Calvinism, Democracy, and Knox's Political Thought," in Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation: Studies in the Thought of John Knox, Christian University Press, 1980, pp. 169-82.

[In the following excerpt, Greaves finds certain of Knox's writings to have some, albeit unintended, democratic implications.]

In the course of the long-standing debate on the possibility of democratic tendencies in the thought and practice of John Calvin and his followers, recent attention has focused on limited case studies. Certain of these studies have a direct relevance to understanding the role of John Knox in the history of Calvinism. It is [my] purpose… to...

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Jane E. A. Dawson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Two John Knoxes: England, Scotland and the 1558 Tracts," in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 42, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 555-76.

[In the following essay, Dawson maintains that Knox's writings were intended for different readers and various purposes, and that attempts to interpret them as a unified whole are misguided.]

The tracts which John Knox wrote in 1558 are regarded as the core of his political writings and the key to his entire political thought.1 The most famous—and infamous—of his works, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, was published in the spring and was followed in July by...

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Robert M. Kingdon (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Calvinism and Resistance Theory, 1550-1580," in The Cambridge History of Political Thought: 1450-1700, edited by J. H. Burns with Mark Goldie, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 194-218.

[In the following excerpt, Kingdon asserts that Knox and others whose arguments were based on Calvinism had little impact on Political thought in Europe.]

Well before Calvin's death … one group of his followers developed a body of resistance theory. These were the English and Scottish Marian exiles, refugees from the England of Mary Tudor and the Scotland of Mary of Guise, resident in a number of Reformed cities on the continent, including Calvin's own Geneva. Like many...

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Roger A. Mason (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: An introduction to On Rebellion, by John Knox, edited by Robert A. Mason, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. viii-xxiv.

[In the following excerpt, Mason provides an overview of Knox's ideas, the political world around him, and his major writings.]


There was little in John Knox's background to suggest that as a self-styled instrument of God he was destined to wield considerable influence over the course of the Reformation in Britain. Of his early life, in fact, very little is known. Even the date of his birth—c. 1514—is conjectural, though we can say that he was born of humble parentage in the Scottish burgh of Haddington in...

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Further Reading


Brown, P. Hume. John Knox: A Biography. 2 vols. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1895.

Classic scholarly examination of Knox.

Cowan, Henry. John Knox: The Hero of the Scottish Reformation. 1905. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1970, 404 p.

Examines Knox's career and works in historical context.

Lang, Andrew. John Knox and the Reformation. 1905. Reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1967, 281 p.

Sound historical study, but unsympathetic to Knox's religious views.


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