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Ten Great Biographies

In my recent review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy I mentioned that it might just make it onto my top ten list of favorite biographies. A couple of people subsequently asked if I’d write out such a list. It took some thinking and some rummaging around my bookcases, but eventually I got one together. Now I can’t remember every biography I’ve ever read, but I rummaged through my mind to recall as many as possible, put together a list of favorites and then winnowed that down to ten. And so here you have them in no particular order—ten favorite biographies.

John Adams by David McCullough. Probably the most important work by a highly-regarded historian and biographer, this is about as much of a must-read as you will come across. If you’ve watched the PBS series you have the basics, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the book. As with all good biographies, try to get a copy of the hardcover rather than the more recent paperback. (my review)

Calvin by Bruce Gordon. One of several biographies of Calvin to be released by publishers this year, this one is, I think, the best of the bunch. Gordon does an especially good job of setting Calvin within his historical context, showing how Calvin was a product of his time, his nation, his church. (my review)

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. One of two excellent biographies by Metaxas to make it to the list, Bonhoeffer is hot off the press. A lengthy but still not exhaustive (or exhausting) account of his life, this is a fascinating account of a fascinating life. (my review)

Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas. Metaxas’ second biography, which was actually written first, this one deals with the life of social reformer William Wilberforce. I have heard it has close competition with Kevin Belmonte’s William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. But since I haven’t read that one, all I can say is that Metaxas’ book is well worth the read. (my review)

Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. Dallimore also gets two books on the list. Spurgeon was the first of all the books on this list that I read but it is one I remember having a profound impact on me. I find it quite surprising that there is not a longer, more recent go-to biography of Spurgeon. I doubt, though, that any could be significantly better than this one. (my review)

Jack by George Sayer. This is a life of C.S. Lewis written by a friend and contemporary. He tells the life of Lewis very well and at a very human, personal level. (my review)

George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore. Where Dallimore’s biography of Spurgeon is quite short, this biography of Whitefield is a massive two-volume set that tells the life of one of God’s more unusual servants. This may be one of the most impactful biographies you’ll ever read. (my review)

Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden. Marsden brings to life the great preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. I haven’t yet read Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards, so cannot compare the two. I’ve heard great things about it but have a tough time believing it could be better than this one! This would be very near to the top of my list, were I to put them in order. (my review)

The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate. Henry Ward Beecher was everything Edwards and Whitefield were not. A fake, philanderer and apostate, he still remained one of America’s most celebrated preachers in his day. This biography is worth reading to see how men, both good and evil, may rise to prominence even within the church. (my review)

Fearless Pilgrim by Faith Cook. Faith Cook is one of my favorite biographers and in this book she tells the life of John Bunyan. Well-written and nicely paced, this is one of the better biographies of Bunyan and certainly the best from recent years. (my review)

And here are a few biographies I’ve heard are really good, which I’ve got on my to-read shelf, but which I haven’t actually gotten to yet:

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones by Iain Murray.

American Lion by Jon Meacham (a biography of Andrew Jackson).

Truman by David McCullough.

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson.

Churchill by Martin Gilbert.