Brief Book Note: Jane Dawson’s “John Knox”

I’ve been interested in Knox for a while. There’s a set of framed woodcuts in my office: Luther in the middle, flanked by Calvin and Knox. And I recently read a book about him.


Jane Dawson, John Knox (Yale, 2016).

I read a bit about Knox a few years back. At the time I was finishing my theology class with a unit on the Scot’s Confession, and I put together some lectures on its background – and that included Knox. Come to think of it, I wrote a review of one of the books that I read at the time: Rosalind K. Marshall, John Knox (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000). I enjoyed that book but it isn’t really a scholarly source and ever since I’ve been waiting for a proper, scholarly, thickly footnoted critical biography of Knox from an academic historian.

Suffice it to say that I was very excited when Dawson’s book came out, even if it has taken me a couple years to read it.

Now, I’m not a professional reformation scholar, but I do play one on TV…or in my undergraduate classroom. When it comes down to it, I describe myself as a “gifted amateur” in the field. So take my recommendation for what it’s worth. But I came away with a very positive impression of this work.

For one thing, Dawson draws on new manuscript material from Knox found in the papers of his friend, Christopher Goodman – “the first new Knox material unearthed since 1875” (4). For another, Dawson paints a lifelike picture of Knox, warts and all, emphasizing aspects of his character that had not previously stood out to me, such as his intuitive grasp of language’s power, his effectiveness as a hub for intelligence and its analysis, his deep friendship with Goodman, and his showmanship. I also appreciated how Dawson teased out Knox’s idea of “kindness” and placed it in the context of Scottish social relations, and learning about the six men named “John” who teamed up to accomplish so many key pieces of religious reform in Scotland. There's also a list of further reading by chapter.

But if I go on much longer this book note will no longer be brief.

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