Wilfred Knox

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Wilfred Lawrence Knox (21 May 1886 – 9 February 1950) was a Church of England clergyman and theologian. He was one of four brothers who distinguished themselves in different fields, the eldest a writer and editor, the second a classical scholar and wartime code-breaker, and the youngest a Roman Catholic theologian and priest.

After leaving Oxford with a first-class honours degree in classics, Knox joined the civil service, left to work with the poor of London's East End, and then studied for ordination to the priesthood. He served only briefly in parish work, spending much of his life with the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, where he was warden from 1924 to 1940, and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was chaplain and a fellow.

A first-rate classical scholar, Knox approached his studies of the New Testament from the point of view of a Hellenist, and wrote several books on St Paul and other aspects of church history from the Hellenistic angle. He also wrote books explaining Anglo-Catholicism and others giving advice on how to follow the Christian way of life.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

Knox was born at Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire, a village in the English Midlands. He was the third son and fourth of the six children of the rector of Kibworth, the Rev Edmund Knox and his first wife, Ellen Penelope, née French. The other sons were Edmund, Dillwyn and Ronald; his younger sister was Winifred Peck. Edmund became editor of Punch, Dillwyn, after a scholastic career, was a key figure among Second World War code-breakers at Bletchley Park, and Ronald became a prominent Roman Catholic priest, writer, and translator of the Bible.[1]

The rector was ill at ease with the comfortable, conservative way of life of Kibworth, feeling that he could do more good in a deprived urban area. In 1891, when Wilfred was five, the family moved to the parish of Aston-juxta-Birmingham, a poor area of Birmingham.[2] In 1892 Ellen Knox died. Wilfred and his younger brother were sent to live with their bachelor uncle, his formidable widowed mother and his sisters. Two years later Edmund Sr became suffragan Bishop of Coventry, remarried, and reunited his six children. He was persuaded that the boys should attend public schools. He had little money, but all four boys excelled intellectually and won scholarships to Rugby (Edmund Jr and Wilfred) or Eton (Dillwyn and Ronald).

Wilfred had been aware of the plight of the poor at Kibworth; at Aston it was considerably more marked. At an early age he conceived the view that nobody should have to suffer genuine poverty. At Rugby he came under the influence of an older pupil, William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, whose creed combined Christianity and socialism. [n 1] As well as Temple's views, Knox was impressed by the writings of John Ruskin and F D Maurice, all tending in the direction of socialism and the alleviation or abolition of poverty.[1]

From Rugby, Knox won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford. He suffered a temporary crisis in his religious faith while there, which caused him much concern. He threw himself into study and was placed in the first class in classical moderations (1907) and in literae humaniores (1909). On coming down from Oxford he obtained a civil service post as a junior examiner at the Board of Education.[4] His Christian faith no longer in doubt, he moved away from his father's evangelicalism, finding himself drawn to Anglo-Catholicism.[n 2] Bishop Knox was distressed by his son's doctrinal views, but was in full support of his work among the poor in the East End of London. During the Oxford vacations, and later while working as a civil servant, Knox lived at the Trinity Mission in Stratford, of which he later became warden for a short period.[1] His mentors and role models were Temple and George Lansbury, the latter a future leader of the Labour Party, who was a prominent figure in the East End.[6] Through Lansbury's influence Knox became involved with the Workers' Educational Association, of which Temple was president.[6]


In 1913 Knox resigned from the civil service. He studied theology at St Anselm's College, Cambridge and was ordained deacon by the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram in 1914, and priest the following year, serving as assistant curate at St Mary's, Graham Street, Eaton Square, London. He privately made vows of poverty and celibacy.[7] On the outbreak of the First World War, despite his strong pacifist views, he felt it his duty to volunteer to serve as an army chaplain, but was turned down by the War Office, which was suspicious of Anglo-Catholics.[8]

In 1920 Knox moved to Cambridge as a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd until 1922. He then spent two years in parish work at St Saviour's, Hoxton, in east London as assistant priest.[9] In 1924 he left London and returned to Cambridge to become Warden of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. While holding the wardenship he became a member of Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he received the degrees of Bachelor of Divinity (1937) and Doctor of Divinity (1943). In 1940 he was appointed chaplain to the college, and in 1946 was elected a fellow.[1]

In the Dictionary of National Biography, Bishop Edward Wynn divides Knox's published works into three categories. First, the publications that were essentially explanatory, putting the case for the Anglican school of Liberal Catholicism.[10] Knox's younger brother Ronald, having left the Church of England and joined the Roman Catholic Church, was an influential priest and writer. Wilfred, according to Natalie Watson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography "became an outspoken representative of the Anglo-Catholic movement … [In] popular and theological apologetics, he outlined the differences between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism" in such books as The Catholic Movement in the Church of England (1923) and (with Alec Vidler) in The Development of Modern Catholicism (1933).[1] Secondly, there were books of guidance on how to follow the Christian way of life. The best known of these was Meditation and Mental Prayer (1927), which gave "simple and direct teaching on prayer, penitence, and the love of God".[10] Thirdly, Wynn identifies the works of pure scholarship. Knox approached biblical studies from the standpoint of a classical scholar. He examined how Greek culture influenced not only the language but also the thinking of the writers of the New Testament. He was a frequent contributor to the Journal of Theological Studies, and his books on the Hellenic aspect of Christian history include St Paul and the Church of Jerusalem (1925), St Paul and the Church of the Gentiles (1939) and Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity (1944 – based on his Schweich lectures of 1942). His last book, The Sources of the Synoptic Gospels was nearly complete when he died, it was edited by Henry Chadwick and published posthumously in two volumes (1953 and 1957).[1]

Knox died in Cambridge at the age of 63.[10] So many of his past and present students wanted to attend his memorial service in Pembroke chapel that there had to be a ballot for tickets.[11] Canon Henry Brandreth said of him, "There has never been anyone like Father Wilfred and it is impossible to believe that there ever will be … he sacrificed his own interests and inclinations on [the Oratory's] behalf with a wonderful steadfastness."[12]


  • The Catholic Movement in the Church of England, 1923
  • St Paul and the Church of Jerusalem, 1925
  • Meditation and Mental Prayer, 1927
  • The Church in Crisis, 1928
  • (with the Rev Eric Milner-White) One God and Father of All, 1929
  • Life of St Paul, 1932
  • (with the Rev Alec Vidler) The Development of Modern Catholicism, 1933
  • (with Vidler) The Gospel of God and the Authority of the Church, 1937
  • St Paul and the Church of the Gentiles, 1939
  • Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity (The Schweich Lectures 1942), 1944
  • The Acts of the Apostles 1948
  • (ed. the Rev Henry Chadwick) The Sources of the Synoptic Gospels (two volumes, 1953 and 1957)

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Among Temple's posts in his priesthood was Bishop of Manchester, succeeding Bishop Knox on the latter's retirement in 1921.[3]
  2. ^ Knox disapproved of the term "Anglo-Catholics", preferring "'English Catholics' to show that we were still divided from the rest of Europe, but shouldn't be".[5]
  1. ^ a b c d e f Watson, Natalie K. "Knox, Wilfred Lawrence (1886–1950)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2009, accessed 7 October 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Fitzgerald, pp. 34–35
  3. ^ Fitzgerald, p, 156
  4. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 9
  5. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 97
  6. ^ a b Fitzgerald, p. 101
  7. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 122
  8. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 128
  9. ^ "Canon W. L. Knox", The Times, 10 February 190, p. 9
  10. ^ a b c Wynn, Edward. "Knox, Wilfred Lawrence (1886–1950)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography archive, accessed 16 October 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  11. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 167
  12. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 265