John Knox Jane Dawson

Publication date:
15 May 2016
Yale University Press
384 pages: 197 x 127mm
11 b-w illus.
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The definitive biography of John Knox, a leader of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Scotland

“Never before has there been such a thoroughly and sympathetically critical treatment of the 16th-century Scottish reformer’s thought and times. . . . A joy to read and a book to value.”—Sean Michael Lucas, Gospel Coalition

Based in large part on previously unavailable sources, including the recently discovered papers of John Knox’s close friend and colleague Christopher Goodman, this biography challenges the traditionally held stereotype of the founder of the Presbyterian denomination as a strident and misogynist religious reformer whose influence rarely extended beyond Scotland. Instead, Jane Dawson maintains that Knox relied heavily on the support of his “godly sisters” and conferred as well as argued with Mary, Queen of Scots. He was a proud member of the European community of Reformed Churches and deeply involved in the religious Reformations within England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Casting a surprising new light on the public and private personas of a highly complex, difficult, and hugely compelling individual, Dawson’s fascinating study offers a vivid, fully rounded portrait of this renowned Scottish preacher and prophet who had a seismic impact on religion and society.

Jane Dawson is John Laing Professor of Reformation History, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She lives near Cupar in Fife.

“Carlyle’s characterisation of Knox — “shrewd, observing, quietly discerning”, with a “certain sardonic taciturnity”… would serve equally well as a description of Dawson’s own strengths as a historian… The image of Knox that emerges is more complicated, interesting and – not a word one would expect for Knox – vulnerable.”—Arnold Hunt, Times Literary Supplement

"This trailblazing, thoughtful and attractively written biography reveals with exceptional clarity how the fates of the peoples of this island have long been inextricably linked."—Peter Marshall, Literary Review

"This book… is the very model of what academic biography can achieve. It displays all the virtues of the academy in that it is judicious and even-handed without being hobbled by caution. It brings to bear new source and archive material on its subject and is suffused with deep reading on the period."—Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

"Dawson has brought nuance and peerless scholarly rigour to a cautionary but also rather inspiring tale."—Jonathan Wright, Glasgow Sunday Herald

"The larger-than-life statue dominating the entrance to New College in Edinburgh, has to be viewed alongside the unexpectedly vulnerable face in the posthumous portrait on the dustcover of this excellent biography."—Eric Anderson, Spectator


"This is an exceptionally fine biography—lucid, packed with evidence, and so deeply engaged with Knox’s writings that it seems as if Dawson talked with her subject only yesterday."—Lucy Wooding, THES


"This is an excellent biography . . . highly recommended for both its scholarship and lively prose."—R. Ward Holder, Expository Times


“This is the best biography of Knox to have been written… Dawson’s work deserves a wide readership not only in Scotland but in England and beyond.”—Paul Richardson, Church of England Newspaper

“[A] work of meticulous scholarship. In the tightly-packed but never heavy pages we have a minutely detailed biography”—Rev. Dr. John Harrod, Methodist Recorder 

“It is hard to find fault with this book… Rather like the portrait on the cover of the book, gentle cleaning and restorative work has led us to look at the man afresh.”—Calum S. Wright, Reviews in History

“Prof. Dawson’s new biography of John Knox gives the sixteenth-century Scottish reformer a much-needed facelift. Although Knox’s famed cantankerous manner is on display, Dawson also successfully portrays a deeply sensitive man by drawing on previously unseen primary material… This is a highly readable biography of an important figure in Reformation history.”—Stephen N. Tong, Churchman

“The word definitive has been justly applied to this new biography, not least through Professor Dawson’s access to previously unavailable sources . . . Achieves a perfect balance of the scholarly and the accessible. Her enthusiasm is evident and the story unfolds with a pace and style which readily engage the reader.”
—Finlay A. J Macdonald, Scottish Journal of Theology

'Quite simply, this life of John Knox renders all his previous biographies obsolete. Excitingly enriched by new manuscript discoveries, it expertly fillets Knox's genius for personal myth-making, but leaves him still the most significant Scotsman of his generation. The result is surprising, fascinating and a major achievement of scholarship.' - Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

'This is an excellent book, a fine piece both of research and of writing, and displays a finely balanced judgement. It gets as far as possible "under the skin" of its subject and yet manages to avoid uncritical or overflowing sympathy for him. This balanced and insightful biography should be definitive for many years to come.' - Euan Cameron, author of The European Reformation

'Full-blooded and bloody, compelling and engrossing, the life of John Knox presented by Jane Dawson is a masterpiece of biography. The Scotsman rages against all foes, bows in prayer to a mighty God, and transforms a nation, all brought to life by Dawson's deep knowledge and vivid prose. Marvellous.' - Bruce Gordon, author of Calvin