In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Knox

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and General Studies
  • Editions of Knox’s Writings
  • Bibliographic Aids
  • Other Primary Sources Relating to Knox’s Life and Times
  • General Overviews of Reformation Scotland
  • Knox as Theologian and Minister
  • Knox as Political Theorist
  • The Martyrdom of George Wishart and the “Castilian” Episode
  • Knox and England
  • Knox, Frankfurt, and Geneva
  • The Reformation Rebellion
  • Knox’s Later Years and the Later Reformation in Scotland
  • Knox, Language, and Debate
  • Knox, Women, and Gender

Renaissance and Reformation John Knox
Steven J. Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0330


Although historians are sharply divided over the exact extent and nature of his leadership of the early Scottish Protestant Kirk, John Knox (b. c. 1514–d. 1572) is still regarded by many as the father of the Scottish Reformation, and he made important contributions to the development of Protestant settlements in both the British Isles and the wider international Reformed community. Born in Haddington in East Lothian, Knox spent his early career as a priest and notary in Haddington before preaching tours by Thomas Guillaume and George Wishart enacted a profound religious conversion in him. He took part in the year-long Protestant occupation of St. Andrews Castle in 1546–1547, at which time he experienced his first call to the ministry, and in the decade that followed he preached and ministered in Berwick, Newcastle, and London as well as across Lowland Scotland and in Frankfurt and Geneva. During this period of exile Knox wrote the political tracts for which he gained notoriety, including the (to modern eyes) deeply misogynist First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, whose principal focus was Mary Tudor’s rule of England. Although only his account of the episode survives, Knox preached a sermon “vehement against idolatry” at Perth in May 1559, which triggered the riot seen as the beginning of the Scottish Reformation Rebellion, and he was essential to the Protestant Lords of the Congregation as a secretary, information gatherer, and rousing orator. Knox’s firsthand experience of Calvinism materially shaped the direction of the early Scottish kirk, through both his direct contributions to the writing of the Scots Confession of Faith and the First Book of Discipline (the kirk’s first polity) and through the usage in Scotland of the biblical and liturgical texts that the community at Geneva under Knox had written in the late 1550s. Knox’s frequent and bitter denunciations of the political establishment for compromising his vision of a “pure” Scottish church (particularly his vehement criticism of the Catholicism of Mary, Queen of Scots) led to his political marginalization soon after the rebellion. However, he continued to play an important role in the Scottish church as a national figurehead until his death, and during the 1560s he completed his masterwork, The History of the Reformation in Scotland, which framed how the story of the Scottish Reformation was told and understood until the modern era.

Biographies and General Studies

Many biographies of Knox exist, and all the works cited here provide a suitable narrative. However, Dawson 2015 and Marshall 2000 provide the best and fullest accounts of Knox’s life and times in clear modern English that incorporate all the previous scholarship, with Dawson’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (Dawson 2008) being the most condensed and useful if a student is looking for a single short work on Knox’s life. Hume Brown 1895 and Percy 2013 (originally published in 1937) are dated, but they address the European and English dimensions of his career. Janton 1967 makes a biography of Knox available to a non-English-speaking audience. Mason 1998, Ridley 1968, and Reid 1974 assess Knox’s life and career with particular interpretative slants.

  • Dawson, Jane E. A. “Knox, John (c. 1514–1572).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The most accessible and digestible account of Knox’s life, which also briefly covers his political thought, theology, and legacy. Institutional or personal subscription required for access.

  • Dawson, Jane E. A. John Knox. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

    Now the standard modern critical biography of Knox, and makes use of all his known writings, including the newly discovered letters to Goodman (see Letters from Exile: New Documents on the Marian Exile, 1553–9) and a range of new sources relating to the Marian exile and early Elizabethan England, chief among them Goodman’s own letter book.

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

    Now outdated but still an extremely detailed narrative account of Knox’s life. The first major biography to trace his contribution to the wider international Reformed church and to the early English Puritan movement.

  • Janton, Pierre. John Knox, ca. 1513–1572: L’homme et l’oeuvre. Paris: Didier, 1967.

    The most extensive treatment of Knox in a language other than English, featuring a full treatment of his life (Part 1), his thought (Part 2), and the style and genres of his writings (Part 3).

  • Marshall, Rosalind Kay. John Knox. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000.

    More popular in style than other biographies of Knox but gives a useful range of insights into Knox’s relationships with others, particularly the women in his life.

  • Mason, Roger A. John Knox and the British Reformations. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

    The largest collection of critical essays on Knox to date and covers all aspects of his life and writings from a range of perspectives (individual chapters are highlighted in other sections).

  • Percy, Eustace. John Knox. Reprint. Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth, 2013.

    Originally published in 1937. Percy’s biography gives good coverage to Knox’s career in both Scotland and Europe, presents a relatively balanced account of his successes and failures, and is engagingly written.

  • Reid, W. Stanford. Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1974.

    A self-professedly “interpretative” biography, which approaches Knox via the “specifically Protestant-biblical point of view of himself and the world in which he lived” (p. xiv), and argues that he saw himself as another Jeremiah.

  • Ridley, Jasper. John Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

    Portrays Knox in a largely critical light, which is a useful corrective to other biographical studies, but while it is strong on English and Continental aspects of Knox’s career it is weaker on the Scottish dimension.

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