Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knox, Alexander (1757-1831)

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KNOX, ALEXANDER (1757–1831), theological writer, born at Londonderry, 17 March 1757, was descended from the Scottish family to which John Knox the reformer belonged. The father was a well-to-do member of the corporation of Derry. In 1765 John Wesley, while in Ireland, became acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Knox, who both joined his society. Alexander formed an intimacy with Wesley, which was kept up until Wesley's death in 1791. Knox always expressed the deepest obligation to Wesley's influence, but denied that he owed to him his early religious impressions, which he attributed entirely to his mother (Letter to Mr. Butterworth in 1807). When he was twelve years old he lost his father. At an early age he became for a time a member of Wesley's society, but ‘a growing disposition to think for himself’ caused his ‘relish for their religious practises to abate before he was twenty.’ His weak health prevented him from passing through any regular course of education at all, though his writings prove that he managed to pick up a considerable knowledge of the classics and of general literature. He attributes his low spirits to his having been brought up to no regular employment; but he was also subject to epileptic fits. Twenty letters to him from Wesley, published in the ‘Remains,’ gave him much pious and rational advice. For a while he threw himself into politics. He was a good public speaker, as well as writer, in support of parliamentary reform in Ireland. His alarm at the proceedings of the United Irishmen convinced him that ‘any degree of popular reform would infallibly lead to complete democracy,’ and he finally became ‘an unqualified supporter of the existing constitution.’ In 1797 he renewed an intimacy with John Jebb [q. v.], which had commenced when Jebb was a boy at Derry school. He was private secretary to Lord Castlereagh during the rebellion of 1798 and afterwards. After the union Lord Castlereagh urged him to accept an offer of representing his native city, Derry, in the united parliament, and also to write a history of the union. Knox, however, retired from public life and devoted himself to theology, in which his chief interest had always lain. He lived a recluse life in lodgings in Dawson Street, Dublin. He spent 1801 and 1802 in England, where he made the acquaintance of Hannah More, William Wilberforce, and others of similar tendencies. This society, perhaps, deepened his religious impressions, for after his return to Ireland he commenced in 1803 a stricter course of life; but he always differed widely on many important points from the evangelical party. He now made the acquaintance of the La Touche family, and spent much of his time at their country residence, Bellevue, near Delgany, amid the Wicklow mountains. Bellevue became practically his home, though he still retained his lodgings in Dawson Street, Dublin, whither he retired on the death of Peter La Touche in 1827, and where he died, unmarried, 17 June 1831. He kept up a close intimacy with many attached friends, the chief among whom were John Jebb, bishop of Limerick; Charles Brodrick, archbishop of Cashel; Hannah More, whom he enthusiastically admired; William Wilberforce, whom he charmed with his conversational powers; and the whole family of the La Touches; Joseph Butterworth, to whom several of his most interesting letters are addressed. George Schoales, J. S. Harford, and Adam Clarke were among his frequent correspondents in his later years.

Knox was universally admitted to be an admirable conversationalist; and people used to visit him in Dawson Street, much in the same way as people used to visit S. T. Coleridge at Highgate. Unfortunately no records of his talk have been preserved. Coleridge and Knox resemble each other as having done much to stimulate thought by unsystematic methods, and to influence the succeeding generation. But, as Cardinal Newman points out, Knox differed from Coleridge in that ‘he realises his own position, and is an instance in rudiment of those restorations which he foresaw in development’ (British Critic for April 1839).

Knox published a volume of ‘Essays on the Political Circumstances of Ireland during the Administration of Lord Camden; with an Appendix containing Thoughts on the Will of the People’ (1799). This is merely a collection of ‘papers intended in almost every instance for insertion in newspapers, or for circulation in the form of handbills.’ They were written at intervals between 1795 and 1797, in a bright, lively, popular style. In 1802 he published a pamphlet in defence of Wesley against a Calvinistic clergyman, James Walker, fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, who had published an ‘Expostulatory Address to the Members of the Methodist Society in Ireland.’ Knox's ‘Remarks’ on this address called forth a ‘Defence’ from Walker. A little later he wrote two articles for the ‘Eclectic Review.’ In 1820 he issued a short tract ‘On the Doctrine respecting Baptism held by the Church of England,’ in which he shows the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in the case of infants to be that of the church of England. In 1822 he contributed some short but interesting ‘Remarks,’ which were inserted at the end of the second edition of Southey's ‘Life of Wesley.’ In 1824 he published ‘An Enquiry on Grounds of Scripture and Reason into the Use and Import of the Eucharistic Symbols.’ He also published prefaces to Jebb's two editions of Burnet's ‘Lives.’

‘The Remains of Alexander Knox,’ edited by Mr. Hornby of Winwick, appeared in 4 vols. 8vo in 1834–7, and in 1834 appeared ‘Thirty Years' Correspondence between Bishop Jebb and Alexander Knox,’ edited by the Rev. C. L. Forster, Bishop Jebb's biographer. These letters show his close agreement in many points with the leaders of the Oxford movement, then beginning. In an article in the ‘Contemporary Review,’ August 1887, Professor Stokes traced the movement of thought from Wesley to Knox, from Knox to Jebb, and from Jebb to Hugh James Rose, Newman, and Pusey. The theory was impugned by Dr. Church, dean of St. Paul's, and defended by Professor Stokes in the ‘Guardian’ (7, 14, 21, and 28 Sept. 1887); but both agree that Knox anticipated much of what was afterwards insisted upon by the leaders of the revival. Keble, while admiring Knox, thought him an eclectic, looking down upon all schools with an air of superiority (Coleridge, Memoir, p. 241).

Knox contends that ‘the church of England is neither Calvinian nor Augustinian, but eminently and strictly catholic, and catholic only;’ that ‘our vitality as a church is in our identity of organisation with the church catholic;’ that the church of England is not protestant, but a reformed branch of the church catholic; that the English church is the only representative of the spirit of the Greek fathers, and that we ought to aim at union with the Greek church. He dislikes Calvinism in every form; and he argues that our justification is an imparted, not an imputed, righteousness. This last view was specially obnoxious to the evangelicals, and was opposed, among others, by G. S. Faber [q. v.] in ‘The Primitive Doctrine of Justification investigated’ (1837). Knox laments the general deadness of the services as conducted in his day; he rebels against the identification of churchmanship with toryism, and takes the primitive church in ancient times, and the seventeenth century in modern, as his models. Like Wesley, he admired mystical writers like à Kempis, De Sales, and De Renty. He had no tendency to Rome, although he was a steady advocate of catholic emancipation and a supporter of Maynooth.

He exercised a great influence through his friend Bishop Jebb. The appendix to Jebb's sermons in 1815 (not quite accurately described as the first publication that recalled men's attention to Anglo-catholic principles) was avowedly the joint production of Knox and Jebb, and it is plain that Knox was really the inspirer of the thought expounded by Jebb.

[Remains of Alexander Knox, Esq., 4 vols.; Thirty Years' Correspondence between John Jebb and Alexander Knox, 2 vols.; Alexander Knox, by the late Mrs. Alexander Leeper, an article in the Churchman, July 1889; Alexander Knox and the Oxford Movement, an article by Professor G. T. Stokes in the Contemporary Review, August 1887; Guardian, 7, 14, 21, and 28 Sept. 1887; Wesley's Journals; Forster's Life of Bishop Jebb; letters from Knox in the Castlereagh Correspondence, vols. i. and iv.]

J. H. O.