Five biographies you (and I) should read


Yesterday, Sam Allberry gave some great advice:

I love biographies, although, admittedly, I don’t read as many as I’d like. This is simply because I foolishly don’t prioritize them well enough in my reading (I sense a theme for 2015, how about you?). When it comes to getting started with the genre, however, it’s tough to know where to begin. If you start with volume one of Mark Twain’s autobiography, for example, you might be biting off more than you can chew. Or if you read an unauthorized biography of just about anyone, well, then you’ll have other problems.

So, to help us out a little with getting started, here’s a look at a few biographies I’ve enjoyed, and at least one I’m preparing to read.

The Autobiography of Charles Spurgeon

This autobiography is a monster. There’s no other way to describe it. Spurgeon’s autobiography was compiled from notes, letters and journals by his wife, Susannah, and his private secretary. Virtually every other biography of Spurgeon owes a sizeable debt to it. Originally published in four volumes, and then again by Banner of Truth in a lovely two volume set that’s so big you can protect your house with it, this autobiography gives us a picture of the man behind the myth of Spurgeon, one who is just as in need of Christ as the rest of us. A mighty man of God who struggled with his own frailty, but relied wholly on Jesus.

I’ve been poking away at this one for years, both with the Banner of Truth editions, and more recently, a four volume edition courtesy of Logos Bible Software, which has proven invaluable since I’m currently hard at work completing the script for a documentary about the Prince of Preachers. Fourteen year old Spurgeon’s discussion of baptism with an Anglican clergyman, wherein the clergyman convinces Spurgeon of the necessity of believers’ baptism, is almost worth the price of the biography alone.

Buy it at: Westminster Books (volume one, volume two) | Amazon (volume one, volume two) | Logos

Other recommended Spurgeon biographies: The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon by Steven Lawson, and Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon by Tom Nettles.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

This one’s on here not to earn culture cred (I mean, seriously—you have to have read this by now. There’s a movie coming out, for goodness’ sake!), but because Laura Hillenbrand’s account of Louie Zamperini’s life and experiences in the second world war and beyond are so darn compelling.

Buy it at: Amazon

The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones: 1899-1981

This book is a condensed and partly re-written version of Iain Murray’s earlier two volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, intended in some ways as a more accessible introduction to Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry. I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf for a while now (and if you went to T4G in 2014, so do you), so I’m looking forward to digging in sometime in the next few months.

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God

It’s been ages since I read it, I remember finding David McCasland’s biography of the author of My Utmost for His Highest fascinating as it takes readers from Chambers’ youth in Scotland to a YMCA camp in Egypt during World War I. But one story that’s stuck with me involves Chambers’ radical generosity—so generous was he that he frequently gave away all that he had to those who would ask, trusting the Lord to provide for his needs.

Buy it at: Amazon

The Mighty Weakness of John Knox

Douglas Bond’s short profile of Scottish Reformer John Knox focuses on Knox as a man keenly aware of his own shortcomings, and relied on the Lord in all he did, in a way that Westerners today struggle to understand. “Because of his candid acknowledgment of his great need, he sought the aid of the God of the universe, and one way he sought it was through the prayers of fellow believers,” Bond writes. “Empowered by the Almighty, Knox became the single most significant force to be reckoned with in an entire country.”

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

So those are a few biographies I’d encourage checking out. What biographies have you really enjoyed and would you recommend?

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  • Ben Thorp

    I enjoyed the somewhat shorter Spurgeon biography by Dallimore. I would also wholeheartedly recommend “C.T. Studd – Cricketer and Pioneer” by Norman Grubb (who, it took me a while to realise, was Studd’s son-in-law) – it’s a short book, but packs a punch.

    For a slightly different way of producing a “biography”, “Faithfulness & Holiness” is half a sort of biography by way of theology of J. C. Ryle by J.I.Packer, and includes J. C. Ryle’s seminal work “Holiness” as the second half.

    I loved reading “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas (although it’s huge). And I would definitely recommend “The Pastor” by Eugene Peterson – part memoir, part autobiography, full of useful insight and humour, and certainly a great read, particularly in the UK where I think most people simply know him as “the guy who wrote the Message” but little else.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Awesome. I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard great things about Dallimore’s A New Biography, as well as The Forgotten Spurgeon. I’ll have to check out the CT Studd one. Faithfulness and Holiness is great as well.

  • Kim Shay

    Aitken’s biography on John Newton is excellent.

  • scotty smith

    Arnold Dallimore’s biographies of George Whitefield (unabridged or abridged) and his work on Charles Wesley, called, A Heart Set Free, are total awesomeness. Also George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards rocks the house!

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Great recommendations, sir. Thanks!

  • Andrew Bernhardt

    I second the C.T. Studd biography.. read it several times.

    I also recommend “Evidence Not Seen” by Darlene Deibler, “Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne”, “Bruchko” by Bruce E. Olsen, “Queen of the Dark Chamber” by Christiana Tsai, and “Shadow of the Almighty” (Jim Elliot), among others.

  • Adam Cavalier

    “Here I Stand – A Life of Martin Luther” Roland Bainton.
    I’ve also read Marsden’s Bio on Edwards – It’s great. There’s a shorter one available for the less determined though (published by Eerdmans).
    If Augustine’s Confessions counts, I’d include that one.
    For the wild card, I’d choose the recent bio on Charles Hodge “Guardian of American Orthodoxy” by Paul Gutjahr
    Last but certainly not least – “Through My Eyes” – Biography of Tim Tebow (okay, that one is more of a joke).

  • Adam Ford

    I really enjoyed *A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards* by Marsden. It’s only 170-some pages, and it’s awesome.

  • Robert Wille

    I encourage my brothers to read anything they can find on Eric Liddell and Donald Caskie, both of whom performed truly Christ-honoring service during World War II.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Cool; I’ll have to check my local library to see what I can find.