When I was a grad student studying History at the University of St. Andrews, a benevolent professor led me up stone steps into a small, brown interior, moldy and musty with the Scottish mist, where I found a portrait of John Knox hanging above a small and unused fireplace. The portrait was unfinished and the artist anonymous. The painter had completed only Knox’s face before some disease or death or tragedy had pulled them away. Our unknown painter had filled the background with black and had placed the hued browns and reds on top of it, as if Knox’s visage had grown out from the darkness with which it was surrounded. He was a tight collection of black eyes, a small nose, and wrinkles furrowed deep and dark into his forehead and chin. In the daylight, the glare on the black shrouded Knox’s face as if it was not even there, and at night his cheeks and eyes and chin shone out glaringly into the dark like a secondary moon.
It scared me then, and it still scares me now.
John Knox wept.
If you have encountered Knox in art, you have probably had a similar reaction. Artists depict Knox as one of history’s scariest Christians. The statues of him around Edinburgh sculpt him like a diseased version of Michelangelo’s Moses. Masses of clothes billow around a decrepit figure. A smushed hat rests above a yellowed face, long and thin. Small, dark eyes, drooping wrinkles around his chin and his shriveled, spindly hands seem to make it into every portrayal. His beard is modeled as either shockingly pointed or flowing down to his chest in sheaves and layers. These images make him not only scary but one of the most despised historical Christians. I watched once as a tour guide took a bumbling group of Americans out into the courtyard of St. Giles Cathedral to stomp on Knox’s forgotten grave.
Centuries of artists and historians hold your hand as you come to the conclusion that John Knox must surely be in the group of scary old men who bullied and conned their way into historical relevance. I don’t know enough about Knox to say that he didn’t, but I care little for that argument. Because I recently learned that John Knox was a crier.
Knox didn’t just tear up on the odd occasion. Knox was a blubbery, embarrassing, tears-down-his-cheeks in public type of crier. When his youngest son was baptized in Geneva, he stood in front of the church of Protestant farmers and cried big blobs of tears.
John Knox, a man who led mobs of Protestants to loot and destroy the St. Andrews Cathedral—the destruction of which I walked by every day on my way to our shared university—sheltered a tender heart.
In the days between meeting with the Scottish nobles and haranguing Mary Queen of Scots, he would sit in a small dark room off of the Queen’s Mile in Edinburgh and think of his first wife who died too young and too beautiful. Was he lonely? Is that why he married a young woman when he knew he was dying?
He patiently wrote letter after letter to a woman who had lost her husband, sharing a message of kindness that she was not alone. I imagine his eyes welling as he wrote to his congregation in England, asking them to remember him and pray while he was enslaved in a French galley boat.
He died nearly destitute in Edinburgh, unsure whether he had done anything good or worthwhile, unaware that he would become a father of Protestant Christianity.
This tenderness feels inconsistent to us, but for John Knox, his softer qualities coexisted with his fierce determination and uncompromising vision.
Emotion in History
Emotional complexity is beautiful. It is also daunting. And although emotional complexity may be the most real and consistent part of our human past, it is documented the least.
What historians find in the archives are not ancient pages filled with sexy details, even though we all wish that’s what lay in history’s vault. Instead, we sift through dry legal records or marriage annals or property agreements or business catalogs to piece together a bit of a person’s world. If we’re lucky, we get to read letters or diaries. And if we’re really lucky, we get to read letters or diaries that say more than what that person has bought, sold, or eaten that day. Thousands of historical magnum opi waste away in our university libraries because historians can’t harness the emotional connection that readers want out of the past. And after years of training as a historian, I feel the disconnect between what historians find in the archives—what we feel like we can honestly report to people in a book—and what people really want to know about other people.
The kind of information available to researchers does not make it easy to frame historical figures like John Knox compassionately. The most evident remains of his life are eroding cathedral ruins and a body of literature that is angry and scathing. The peripheral sources on John Knox’s life—the letters to grieving widows and stories of tender tears and confusing financial records—seem bizarre when placed next to his destructive tendencies.
Emotion is hard to find in the archives. So, maybe historical research is about finding the inconsistencies in a person’s life—the places where a person should have done something or been something that they were not. Maybe some compassion can begin when we trust that these people felt and remembered and dreamed with the same poignancy that you and I do. Maybe those inconsistencies are glimmers of emotion shining through our objective texts, waiting to be pondered and adored.
Like all of us, I want to declare the judgment on John Knox’s life, but then I remember how little I know even about myself. Why dare to understand someone who lived in a different time and place, someone who had a family life unlike mine, a person whose emotions and actions seem contradictory and errant? Can I categorize historical figures with confidence? Do I want people to do the same to me one day? No. What a misconstrued, belittlement of God’s grace, change, and formation in my life if I am one day believed to have been only good or only bad.
Contemplating history gives us as Christians a chance to develop and hone our compassion. With history, we get a practice test-run at understanding the neighbor whom we dislike and the parent with whom we disagree. With history, we get to look at someone and wonder if there is something more, imagining and trusting that they live with the same deep, complex, emotional life that we do.
Cover image by Tom Pumford.