Learning about the Past: Reading Christian Biographies
Over the past month or two, I’ve put forward a few suggested reading lists in the field of church history. These lists have included surveys of church history, books on the history of Christian doctrine, books that discuss church history in specific areas of the world, and books related to Baptist history. In this last post of the series, I am going to recommend a few Christian biographies. There are so many good biographies available that it was hard to decide which ones to mention. Below is a list of six Christian leaders from the past 500 years with a recommended biography of each. If your favorite biography doesn’t appear in the list, feel free to mention it in the comments at the end of the post.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) is generally credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation. He was a bold, courageous voice at a pivotal time in church history. There are many good biographies of Luther and several great ones. One of my favorites is still the classic work by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950). There are certainly a number of more detailed and more recent biographies of Luther, but in terms of spiritual encouragement and enjoyable reading, Bainton’s work remains one of the best.
Sometimes people think of John Calvin (1509–1564) and Martin Luther as being contemporaries who interacted on a regular basis. However, Calvin was a young boy living hundreds of miles away when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg, and although the two men eventually read each other’s works, they apparently never met. Luther and Calvin shared some similar goals, but they were in many ways quite different from each other. Whereas Luther was a fiery prophet of sorts, Calvin was naturally reserved, and of the two, Calvin was the more careful thinker. Like Luther, Calvin has been the subject of dozens of biographies, and there are a number of very good works on his life. One of the best biographies of Calvin was published just a few years ago. Written by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (2009) is both rigorous and readable. It’s a great introduction to a deep thinker who continues to influence large portions of the Christian church.
Many people regard Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) as the greatest theologian ever born in America. One could argue that designation, but Edwards was clearly an important figure within the Great Awakening, and he was a profound thinker who authored a small library of influential theological works. While there are several good biographies of Edwards, George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003) stands as the definitive work on Edwards’s life and thought. At about 600 pages, this one’s a bit longer, but it is worth the effort to read. In addition to being a great study of Edwards, this book is a model of how to write an intellectual biography.
In contrast to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, George Müller (1805–1898) is not usually remembered as a key figure in shaping the direction of the Christian church. He didn’t leave behind any significant theological works or begin a new school of thought within the church. What he did leave behind were thousands of children who had been cared for and taught the Scriptures in the orphanages he built west of London. And in building these orphanages, Müller also left behind remarkable evidence of God’s ability to hear and answer prayer. A. T. Pierson was a contemporary of Müller. Shortly after Müller died Pierson decided to compile a memoir of Müller for the benefit of American readers (Müller was born in Prussia and ministered primarily in England.). Pierson’s George Müller of Bristol (1899) appeared about a year after Müller died. In terms of spiritual encouragement, I can think of few better places to turn than to biographies of Müller, and in particular this one by Pierson.
James Petigru Boyce (1827–1888) is best known within Southern Baptist circles. He was a pastor, a theologian, and an educator. One of my favorite Baptist historians has written the definitive biography of Boyce. Tom Nettles’s James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman (2009) is a sympathetic, well-researched study of a key leader among nineteenth-century Baptists.
The last figure I want to highlight in this post is Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892). Known as the “prince of preachers,” Spurgeon was a uniquely gifted Baptist pastor who ministered in London during the mid-to-late 1800s. A number of good biographies of Spurgeon have been written in recent years. A shorter one, and in fact the shortest book in this list, is Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biography (1984). Several longer, more detailed works on Spurgeon are definitely worth reading. But this little volume by Dallimore is a good place to find a quick overview of Spurgeon’s very fruitful life and ministry.
If you are not in the habit of reading Christian biographies, I’d challenge you to try to read at least one during the second half of this year. Good biographies of imperfect but faithful Christians can be great tools for encouraging spiritual growth.
Don’t forget Marsen’s “A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards” – it isn’t quite as long, but covers all the bases and adds some angles he didn’t include in the larger book. I’ve read both and recommend reading both. Well, basically, I guess I should say I have never been disappointed in anything I’ve read of Marsden. Don’t agree with all his conclusions, but he is an excellent historian.