Among the books that have been the greatest help and blessing to me and to a great many reading Christians are biographies of the saints. This should not surprise us. There is, of course, a great deal of biography in the Bible. We are provided, among others, the life stories of Abraham, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul in at least some detail and that biography is used to instruct, warn, and inspire us. We learn to live by faith by observing how Abraham practiced his faith; we learn obedience both from the faithfulness of Moses and David and from their falls; we are spurred on to live for the kingdom of God by reading Paul’s consecrated life, and so on. And for the same reason the biography of saints has continued to help Christians live faithful and fruitful lives ever since. Nothing helps us more to see our own life as a whole, to see it for what it is and can be, to realize how it will be measured in the judgment of God, than to read the lives of other believers. Biography adds the weight of reality to the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life. It has the power to make the life of faith more beautiful and desirable than we might think it to be if our only acquaintance with that life is what we observe either in ourselves or in the Christians that we know. Biographies are typically written about people who have something to show us, whose lives adorned the gospel, and were unusually fruitful as a result. Athanasius’ 4th century biography of St. Anthony – perhaps the first great Christian biography – was a major catalyst of Christian monasticism and inspired generations of believers to devote themselves to the service of the Lord. It is still an inspiring read. John Sargent’s biography of Henry Martyn, the pioneer missionary, convinced a large number of men and women to devote themselves to gospel work elsewhere in the world. Elizabeth Elliot’s 20th century biography of her martyr husband, Jim, performed a similar service in our own day.
Biographies come in different forms. Some are critical – that is they are scholarly works of research and evaluation – others are popular. There is a vast difference between J.N.D. Kelly’s magisterial biographies of Jerome and Chrysostom – works of impressive and original scholarship by a master of classical learning, who incorporates into his narrative the results of his own elegant translations of Chrysostom’s Greek and Jerome’s Latin – and a popular work such as A.T. Pierson’s biography of George Müller of Bristol. The former works are of immense value, are an education in patristic Christianity in their own right, and are still very accessible to the lay reader (Kelly is a master of English prose!) – but Pierson’s admiring and uncritical biography of the famous English pietist, founder of an orphanage, and the modern apostle of faith-based missions has been by far the more influential book.
Many books by Christians about Christians – often Christians the authors knew personally or at least greatly admired – can be and have been criticized for being fawning and unrealistically complimentary. Iain Murray’s valuable biography of Jonathan Edwards somehow omits to mention that Edwards owned slaves. George Marsden’s new biography of Edwards shows the man warts and all and, in my view, is the more helpful and inspiring a treatment for doing so. People who were introduced to the Great Awakening through Arnold Dallimore’s valuable and in some ways ground-breaking two volumes on George Whitefield, were unprepared to read of some less flattering aspects of Whitefield’s character and ministry found in the smaller biography by the Yale professor and conservative Presbyterian, Harry Stout. Iain Murray, who wrote an impressive and wonderfully interesting two volume biography of the great London preacher, Martyn Lloyd Jones (whose assistant Murray was at the beginning of the latter’s professional life) can find nothing to say in criticism of the great man. In those two large volumes, as I remember, the only thing said to Lloyd Jones’ discredit was that he wasn’t at his best delivering children’s sermons! Edwards, Whitefield, and Lloyd Jones were great men; their life stories are immensely important, stimulating, instructive, and helpful in many ways; but they had faults and it helps Christians to know what they were and that their great usefulness to the kingdom of God was not diminished by the fact that they were sinners like the rest and like all men had weaknesses as well as strengths. It can be positively unhelpful to feel that great Christians, holy men and women of the past, lived lives on a different plane and of a different order than you and I can live today. It is also not true! Many popular biographies do not tell the whole story and one needs to read them remembering that the man whose life the author is narrating was a sinner like you and me, had his critics as well as his friends, and stumbled often enough. It is sometimes very helpful to read both sorts of biographies of the same person, the story and the rest of the story. The medieval Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, full of matters of great interest to piety but also full of miracles – an unashamedly adoring narrative – is no less appreciated even after Francis is brought down to earth in a modern biography like that by Lawrence Cunningham.
I am a minister, so it should not surprise anyone that many of the biographies that I have read and most appreciated are of ministers. But Christians ministers have been, from the beginning, not only preachers and pastors, but representative Christians and for that reason their biographies are among the most numerous and most useful for lay readers. Has there been a more inspiring study of the Christian life in the Reformed world of the last two centuries than the Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne, written soon after McCheyne’s death by his close friend and fellow pastor, Andrew Bonar? Every Christian should know something of St. Patrick, a so-called Roman Catholic saint, whose actual theological confession is pure evangelicalism and contains almost nothing resembling the distinctive views of Roman Catholicism. There is a splendid new short biography of Patrick by Philip Freeman. If you have not yet read Roland Bainton’s sprightly biography of Martin Luther, you have a treat in store. Some passages in that book have stayed with me since I first read them many years ago and most of those are passages not about Luther the theologian or preacher but Luther the husband and the father. I learned a number of lessons for my own battle with sin reading both Hugh Evans Hopkins and H.C.G. Moule on the great Anglican pastor of Cambridge, Charles Simeon. I have a first and a seventh edition of G.F. Barbour’s splendid biography of Alexander Whyte, which tells the story of the great man’s life from his birth to his unwed mother in rural Scotland in 1836 to his death in 1921 and educates us about many interesting things and introduces us to many fascinating people along the way. You have in recent sermons heard illustrations taken from Stephen Tomkins’ new biography of John Wesley, Alistair McGrath’s biography of J.I. Packer, and Timothy Dudley Smith’s two volumes on John Stott. It is the measure of a man’s influence and popularity when biographies begin to appear during his lifetime. All of these new biographies are a delight to read and repay the interested reader in many different ways.
But it is by no means only men and ministers whose lives have been written for the encouragement of the saints. Modern English speaking Christians should know something of G.K. Chesterton and his disciple, C.S. Lewis, and both have been served well by their biographers. I especially like Michael Finch on Chesterton and George Sayer on Lewis. Many of you have read Elizabeth Elliot’s wonderfully written and spiritually stimulating biography of the English missionary, Amy Carmichael. I have read with great profit several biographies of the 16th century Spanish nun and mystic, Teresa of Avila. David Bebbington’s biography of William Gladstone and Kevin Belmonte’s new narrative of the life of William Wilberforce introduce us to the lives of two very different British politicians whose earnest Christian faith shaped their political philosophies. The list goes on and on. I am a human being and a Christian. Nothing is as interesting to me as the story of human life and supremely of Christian life. That is why biography has been for me and will continue to be one of my principal sources of instruction and encouragement. The easiest book to read is the one you want to read because you find it so interesting!