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BWW Reviews: Reissue of JOHN KNOX Holds Up History's Mirror and Allows Us to Gaze Upon Ourselves


"It is useless to write of such a man's life in terms of comfortable certainties"--E. Percy

John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, emerged from a densely tangled thicket of sixteenth century history, politics and theology. Making sense of his life and legacy is no easy task. Fortunately, Eustace Percy, whose 1937 biography of Knox has just been reissued by The Lutterworth Press, was the right man for the job.

Having scant, sometimes contradictory, evidence of Knox's childhood, and not much more of his personal life even after his fame rose in the era when Catholic France and newly divergent and roiling England were contesting for Scotland's soul and soil (much as they would for North America's two centuries later), Percy wisely chose to concentrate on Knox's personality and its effect within a larger context which is far more knowable: the history, geography, politics and theology of sixteenth century Europe in general and the Scotland of the Protestant Reformation in particular.

In all honesty, it helps the reader to be somewhat conversant with these things as well. Percy assumed a level of historical (and even linguistic, as more than a few of Knox's own words, liberally quoted here, have either lost or switched their meanings in the ensuing centuries) awareness in his audience which was probably a bit more common in the 1930s--an era in some ways closer to Knox's time than to our own--but is now pretty much the domain of the academic specialist. Certainly the last third of the book is heavily reliant on familiarity with a welter of mostly obscure proper nouns which somewhat dulls the effect of the narrative.

That being said, this is still an immensely valuable read for any modern reader who has even a scintilla of interest in its subject.

In any case, Percy's approach, using Knox's writings as the best available avenue to his mind and treating that mind--more than his documented actions or the responses of his contemporaries--as the thing most worth studying, requires a good deal of intellectual and moral authority to achieve resonance.

As a writer who is able to render large ideas and complex political intrigue in short, crisp sentences that nonetheless reflect the contemplative spirit of the sixteenth century mind, Percy is able to achieve such authority in part because he isn't afraid to let us know when he's standing firmly on the historical record and when he's supplying his own version of the period's controversies.

Those controversies--many of which (the proper place of the Mass and manner of its observance in both public and private worship, for instance) now seem arcane--were the Protestant Reformation's life blood. Not for the first or last time in history, momentous changes sprang from the smallest of spats.

Of course such patterns never emerge in a vacuum and the ferocity of Knox's commitment, following Martin Luther and running parallel to John Calvin's on the continent, grew from one of history's reliably repeating themes: the corrosive effects of concentrated power. This Percy ably and meticulously documents. Faced with a church which could confiscate "ecclesiastical dues" in whatever form it preferred, from a king's gold to the poorest parishioner's family cow, and then bar the sacraments to any who were unwilling or (more often) unable to pay, Reformers spoiling for a fight found themselves preaching to open minds. Even after Catholicism had, under pressure, taken considerable steps to reform itself, the die was cast.

Even so, success was the longest of long shots and the path forward was fraught with very real dangers. George Wishart, the Scottish preacher whose fiery sermons brought Knox directly into the public arena, was burned at the stake, a lesson which Percy's narrative rightly keeps circling back to as Knox himself was hardly likely to have forgotten it, even in the moments when his own influence seemed grandest.

At low ebb, such moments must have seemed a long way off. As Percy states: "For indeed, in this Scottish summer of 1556, the whole future of Christendom hung on a knife edge. The Protestant Reformation was being offered its last chance of achieving something more than a social revolution."

As he makes clear throughout--and as Knox himself certainly learned repeatedly and at cost--that "knife's edge" was being wielded by a very familiar set of weaklings ,scoundrels and pragmatists. If "the commonest spectacle in history is the cautious politician, visited in the end by all the calamities which he had pleaded in defence of inaction and half-measures," then Knox's age, like our own, was very common indeed.

Having spent the first third of the book making all this abundantly clear what's left is to get at the source of Knox's uncommon ability to wield influence without direct access to political power and the greatest strength of Percy's approach is his insistence that Knox's writing style is both a reliable barometer of the man and the best record we have of his preaching style, for his preaching was what won the day in an age when Percy himself convincingly claims the very shape of modernity was at stake.

John Knox's success had some rather breathtaking implications for history, not least for those very forms of modern liberalism which (following yet another familiar pattern), would eventually condemn Knox and his contemporaries for the "excesses" which made their own existence possible. As Percy notes, in what is apparently an attempt to make self-congratulatory "enlightened" heads spin, then and now:

"For progress and perfection are specifically Christian ideas; it was the Christian faith that, once and for all, transferred man's Golden Age from the past to the future."

That "transference" will always be worth revisiting, as will the lives of the men who, whatever their flaws (and Percy does not skirt his subject's flirtations with fanaticism or the dangers inherent in giving mystics their head simply because we've reached a point of exhaustion with the usual forms and fashions of corruption and moral bankruptcy) made it possible. The Lutterworth Press has done us a service by making this lucid, entertaining account--written while the shadow of another great transformation fell over Europe--readily available to a new age where the intelligentsia both Knox and Percy took to task in their respective times has forgotten yet again the lessons they strove to teach us.

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John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)