How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria (and Mary, and Mary, and Elizabeth) ?


How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria (and Mary, and Mary, and Elizabeth) ?

Sean Morris

This is one of the articles from the third issue of our journal Ad Fontes.

For many, the name “John Knox” probably evokes some association with authoritarianism, misogyny, or at least an overbearing, severe personality.

Indeed, when I was in Edinburgh this past summer standing outside of St. Giles’ Cathedral near the site where Knox’s grave had been (quite unceremoniously) paved over to make way for a parking lot, I overheard a nearby leader of a walking-tour describe the Scottish minister as a “fanatic given to sentiments of treason and anarchy, known for his bigoted, antiquated, and chauvinistic views, his antagonism and disdain toward Mary Queen of Scots, and his strict religious control over the city of Edinburgh.”

Now to be fair, when one considers that the Father of Presbyterianism’s best-known work is titled  The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women…well, his detractors might be forgiven for having an unsavory impression of the man.

Knox was certainly “a man of his times,” but that cliché hardly does justice to the content of his theology or the contours of his politics and or his concern for justice and religious liberty in a land where Protestants were being persecuted and slaughtered by the thousands–never mind the fact that this man was an outspoken advocate for education and care for the poor. As students of history well know, the truth of an historical matter is usually far more complicated, muddled, disorienting, confusing, and fascinating than a first glance would suggest.

So when Pastor Knox refers to Mary, Queen of Scots (or Maria Regina Scotorum, if you like) as “…that idolatress Jezebel, mischievous Mary, of the Spaniard’s blood, cruel persecutrix of the church,” we cannot be satisfied with a run-of-the-mill charge that he is a  “religious bigot and hater of women” like that from my tour-guide friend. A provocative line like that from Knox must drive us to dig further.  

Women within and without the Throne

In The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Knox called for rebellion against England’s Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) and protested all female civic rulers. He argued that women must never govern because God had created women as helpers and subordinates to men–it was God’s created order that men should own the burden and responsibility of ruling and governing. Rule by women was a “monstrous regiment;” an unnatural, deformed government. For Knox, having men pass the responsibility of civil government and rule on to women was to abdicate their God-given responsibility, tantamount to cowardice or laziness. On the other hand, Knox had tender and congenial friendships with  many women in his life. He had the highest regard for numerous women whom he regarded as prayer warriors, friends, builders of the kingdom of God, and he counted their faithful efforts as indispensable to the cause of the gospel in Scotland. Consider this text of tender gratitude to his own mother-in-law :

“Since the first day that it pleased the providence of God to bring you and me into familiarity, I have always delighted in your company; and when labor would permit, you know that I have not spared hours to talk and commune with you, the fruit thereof I did not been fully understand nor perceive. But now absent, and so absent that by corporal presence neither of us can receive comfort of other, I call to mind how that ofttimes when, with dolorous hearts, we have begun our talking, God hath sent great comfort unto both, which for my own part I commonly want.”

At Odds with Calvin

Interestingly, Knox’s position on the appropriate role of women in government was not shared by John Calvin (by whom he had been mentored during his years of exile in Geneva, at various points from 1554-1559) nor by Heinrich Bullinger, another influential reformer. These men noted the biblical accounts of Deborah and Huldah as examples of God’s willingness to suspend the natural order and place women in positions of civil authority; this could be done in needful circumstances, by God’s discretion (especially in situations where the men of the realm had shirked their duty). Calvin believed it to be both unlawful and unwise to interfere with long-standing practices of monarchical inheritance, themselves established by God. Knox, however, disagreed. While acknowledging such cases as the biblical examples of Deborah and Huldah, he believed those to be legitimate only in the context of Old Testament theocratic Israel. He believed that God had so ordered creation that in the contemporary political realm, it was never appropriate for a woman to permanently rule—even in cases when there was no male heir to the throne.

A Pastoral Tenor

While acknowledging Knox’ rather sour and tempestuous relationships with Mary Guise (the Queen Regent in time of Mary Stuart’s childhood), Mary Tudor, and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, we would be remiss if we did not note other important women in Knox’s life: his first wife, Marjorie, his second wife, Margaret, his mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes, and his friend Anne Lock.  His interaction with these women paints a rather different portrait of the Scottish reformer.

The letters written to these latter women are windows into the heart of kindness and tenderness that Knox had for them. The evidence of these letters demands our attention as we see tremendous warmth and pastoral sensitivity in these relationships. Here we see a man who loved his wife dearly, who greatly appreciated the able help of his mother-in-law and carried on an appreciative and affectionate discourse with her (as noted above), and who deeply valued the godliness, insight, and friendship of Anne Lock. A man of his times? Certainly. A man whose position on women in government was more hard-line than that of his fellow reformers? We have seen so.  But a surly woman-hater, dismissive of the value of women to the Kingdom of God? This conclusion cannot be sustained.

Sean Morris is a Presbyterian minister serving at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, Virginia. He also serves as the Provost of the Roanoke Valley Center for Theological Studies. He received his B.A. from Grove City College (2010), his M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary (2014), and is currently enrolled as an MTh candidate at the University of Glasgow, with a view toward a Ph.D in Scottish theology and church history. He and his wife, Sarah, have one son, Benjamin, and an adorably useless beagle, Max.