What Are The Best Biographies?

Over at The Gospel Coalition blog, Justin Taylor has been asking leading church historians to name their top five biographies. Two stand out so far, having been mentioned repeatedly:

Marsden, Jonathan EdwardsGeorge Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

“The best biography of Edwards ever written and a model for religious biography.” (John Fea, Messiah College)

“From start to finish, pure elegance of prose and a magisterial command of Edward’s thought and character.” (Bruce Gordon, Yale Divinity School)

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther

“Newer scholarship has altered details (the book was first published in 1950), but it remains a captivating account of a life-changing person in a life-changing era.” (Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame)

“It remains the most widely read bio of Luther for good reason. It is a wonderful read on the most important Protestant pastor in history.” (Douglas Sweeney, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

Then a few of the others that have received multiple nominations — here too, the choices may tend to reflect the theological commitments of TGC, but it was interesting that two biographies of American presidents with distinctly non-orthodox Christian worldviews appeared as well:

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

“Exquisitely well written, Brown’s book rises above merely reporting the stages along the way of Augustine’s life—though it narrates them well, so readers who need the basic facts can use this as an introduction—and somehow lets the reader empathize with Augustine at each of his different ages.” (Fred Sanders, Biola University)

Bruce Gordon, Calvin

“A smartly conceived narrative that allows Calvin’s ‘greatness’ to emerge not from hindsight but from the accidents of sixteenth-century Europe.” (D.G. Hart, Hillsdale College)

Guelzo, Abraham LincolnDavid McCullough, John Adams

“McCullough is a master storyteller. If I ever write a biography, I hope it reads half as well as this excellent popular biography of America’s second president.” (Nathan Finn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President

“This book shines because Guelzo is an excellent writer, with a knack for penetrating insights and fresh interpretations. I felt like I got to know Lincoln, so much so that by the end I was terribly sad when he showed up at Ford’s Theater.” (Kevin DeYoung, University Reformed Church – East Lansing, MI)

D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in America

“An important study of a key figure in the fundamentalist-modernist debate which also helps to demonstrate why the simple polarities of liberal/conservative are incapable of capturing the nuances of what actually happened.” (Carl Trueman, Westminster Theological Seminary)

If you’d like to get beyond famous theologians and presidents, the lists from John Fea and especially Thomas Kidd are helpful. Kidd’s includes two of the only biographies of women to show up in the whole series: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale; and Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World.

I’m not really a church historian, but I’ll go ahead and recommend two very different biographies of two very different Christians: Jon Sensbach’s retelling of the life of Rebecca Protten, a former slave-turned-Moravian preacher in the 18th century Atlantic world; and John Milton Cooper’s account of Presbyterian preacher’s kid-turned-Princeton University and United States president Woodrow Wilson.

– Chris Gehrz

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