The Beard that Changed a Nation: The Making of Scotland’s Great Reformer

While reading Jane Dawson’s excellent biography on the life and work of the Scottish Reformer John Knox, I was amused by a brief story that she recounts from a key period in Knox’s formation. First some background information: Knox’s predecessor and primary source of inspiration was a man named George Wishart who traveled through Scotland fearlessly preaching and promoting reform. Knox was irresistibly drawn to Wishart and became was of his close associates. It was thus largely under the tutelage of Wishart that Knox became the towering figure of the Reformation that we remembertumblr_m71pbqmfdn1rq40r4o1_1280. Wishart is not as well-known to us as Knox, yet, as Dawson describes, it is likely that had there be no Wishart, there would have been no Knox. Wishart was tragically put to death for his efforts, yet like Elisha who took the prophetic mantle from Elijah to follow his footsteps, it was Wishart’s passion and constancy that provided Knox with the pattern for his own vocation. Dawson explains:

Wishart’s example through deeds as well as words gave Knox a fresh understanding of what constituted the Church. It opened up new possibilities for Knox and, less dramatically and much more slowly, for his fellow Scottish evangelicals. Little of the theological content Wishart had brought on his return to Scotland was entirely new, but his charismatic preaching and personality made an incalculable difference. He gave the Scottish evangelical groups a dynamism and sharply defined direction that produced the nascent Protestant movement. For a recent convert such as Knox, no other man could compare to his ‘Master George’. Wishart was a shining living embodiment of a new vision of the Church. Having lost his Catholic anchors, once he had heard Wishart’s sermons Knox was able to grasp this new certainty with relief and conviction. Wishart had proved to him that the new anchor of his Protestant faith would hold and that he was aboard the vessel of the true Church. He had given Knox a new ecclesiology and a model for his future ministry.[1]

This indeed is an illuminating glimpse into the making of Scotland’s great Reformer. What I found particularly amusing, however, was the following little tidbit that Dawson includes in her account:

Wishart inspired his disciple Knox to follow his doctrine and his ministry. With that sincerest form of flattery, Knox imitated his hero. He might have started in a superficial way by growing a black beard as long as Wishart’s and for the rest of his life he sported a beard down to his chest in best prophetic style.

When I (as one who similarly sports a Reformer-inspired beard) read this, I couldn’t help but smile. I realize that Knox’s growing a beard, and an especially long one at that, was not the reason that he was able to do what he did. However awesome it may be, growing a beard does not a Reformer make, and as Dawson points out in Knox’s case, it may have been a superficial form of imitation at best! I would say, though, that if growing a beard could possibly inspire someone, as it did for Knox, to accomplish much greater and more significant deeds in the service of the gospel, then all I can say is: “Bring on the beard!”

I think we can all agree that the Lord often works in mysterious ways. Maybe even through abundant facial hair.

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[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), p.37.

[2] Ibid., pp.34-35.

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