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biography

August 22, 2011

I mentioned a short time ago that my parents are committed readers of biography (which makes Christmas and birthday shopping really easy). A couple of years ago I bought them a copy of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning life of Harry Truman. My mother was particularly taken with the biography and its subject and I’ve since enjoyed hearing her reflections on Truman. I asked her if she would write some reflections and what follows is the result. I loved reading it and hope you will too!


McCullough TrumanTo my great surprise, I have come to heartily respect a New Deal Mason. And who is that? Harry Truman—someone I knew little about until I recently received the Truman biography by David McCullough. I am trying to learn more about American history, specifically the history of the twentieth century, so I took it on willingly. I became fascinated by this man almost immediately. Who doesn’t love to read the obscure beginnings of someone destined for fame, and try to understand the hows and whys of his life?

The golden thread that runs through Truman’s life, from first to last, is that of an honorable, incorruptible character. The tributes paid to his integrity would be unbelievable did they not come from so many people over such a long span of time. Here is a sampling, from everyone from his housemaid to Winston Churchill:

A fellow military officer from World War One said he was, “…one of the cleanest fellows morally that I ever saw or know….he was clean all the way through.”

Vietta Garr, a servant in the Truman home for many years said, “I never heard a squabble the entire time I was with them. I have never seen Mr. Truman angry.”

His long-term secretary said, “Never in all the years I worked for him did I ever see him lose his temper. He was always soft-spoken and very considerate to his staff.”

Winston Churchill called him a “man of exceptional character.”

And, from General Marshall, “The full stature of this man will only be proven by history. … It is not the courage of the decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man.”

When Dean Acheson, his final Secretary of State, asked him to speak at Yale, he said, “it is not what he says but what he is which is important to young men, and gets communicated.”

And, finally, Eric Sevareid looked back on Truman with these words, “…It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.”

And where did his noble bent of mind come from? From a mother who was unbending in her desire that he “be good”, and from extensive exposure to historical heroes and to the Bible–which he had read twice by the time he was twelve years old. Truman was by no means a Christian–rather, he was a committed Mason–but he loved the ethics of Scripture and tried his best to live by them. His respect for Scripture, as he understood it, was both deep and sincere. As with his great hero, Andrew Jackson, he kissed the Bible at both of his inauguration ceremonies.

March 02, 2011

Albert Pujols is a phenom. 10 years into his career he has already broken the 400 mark in homers, he has driven in more than 1200 runs and has maintained a batting average of .331. The closest player comparisons to him are men who inhabit the baseball pantheon—Frank Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Ken Griffey. But there’s more to Pujols than his dominance of the game of baseball. He is also a committed Christian who seeks to submit all that he does to the Lord. Pujols happens to be the subject of Pujols: More Than the Game, a new biography written by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth.

A baseball player’s career on the field is easily tracked by numbers. Statisticians have found innumerable ways of measuring and dissecting every component of the game, from the plate to the field to the base paths and everything in between. A man’s entire career can be distilled to a handful of numbers—a few lifetime statistics followed by a number that represents his career earnings. And then he retires and gets old and is forgotten, replaced by the new young superstars. What cannot be easily measured is his impact on those around him—his family, his teammates, his fans. What is special about Pujols is his desire to be an example not just in his statistics but in his life and his legacy. He is seeking to build a legacy not just of phenomenal numbers, but of gospel impact.

Born in poverty in the Dominican Republic, Pujols immigrated to the United States at 16 and immediately began to dominate the game of baseball, first in high school and then in college. Drafted by St. Louis, he spent just one year in the minor leagues before graduating to the big show where he quickly won Rookie of the Year honors (batting .329, hitting 37 homers and knocking in 130 runs; amazingly, that was to prove his weakest season). And he was just getting started. He has played for the All Star team in 9 of his 10 seasons, has won a World Series and has taken home MVP honors 3 times. And heading into his eleventh season he is only 31—just getting warmed up.

Pujols More Than the GameBut there is far more to Pujols than baseball. He says, “In the Pujols family, God is first. Everything else is a distant second.” And he seeks to bear that out. He is known for continually seeking to point others to Christ, including the guys who end up standing beside him on first base, many of whom have heard him ask, “If you were to die tonight, where do you think you would go?” He is firmly committed to his wife, Deidre, and to their four children. He heads up the Pujols Family Foundation which seeks to “promote awareness, provide hope and meet tangible needs for families and children who live with Down syndrome.”

February 08, 2011

Eric LiddellYesterday I shared the first part of a brief biography of Eric Liddell. Today I would like to complete it. In the first part we got as far as Eric Liddell returning to Scotland after winning two Olympic medals.

And here he is, just 23 years old, a sports hero who still had at least another Olympics or two in him. He could have played professional rugby, he could have kept running. The world was before him. But he shut it all down and gave it all up, heading to China so he could preach the gospel. And here is a second lesson I see in his life. He was willing to give up everything for the sake of the gospel. Would you be willing to give up fame and money and popularity and everything else in order to heed the call of God? Let’s not make light of this and pretend like it was an easy thing. He was giving up everything most of us dream of. And it seems like it wasn’t difficult for him at all. He knew what God was calling him to do and he had no regrets, no second thoughts. Could you do that?

1925 marked the beginning of Eric Liddell’s second career, the one he cared about far more than the first. He had loved running, but now he was to be a teacher, and best of all, a teacher who could share the gospel with his students. He became a science teacher at Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College. This was a college that catered to the sons of many wealthy Chinese politicians and businessmen. The college’s founder thought this would be a way of reaching the next generation of rulers with the gospel.

Eric’s parents were serving in that very area, so for the first time in many years, Eric got to live with his family—his parents, his younger sister and his younger brother. Rob had married in the meantime and was heading to a different part of China to work as a doctor and missionary. It wouldn’t be long before Eric also started pursuing a wife.

There was just one problem.

February 07, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve posted a couple of short biographies I wrote this summer. I want to post just one more—this one about the olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell.

What may be most interesting about Eric Liddell is that he is remembered for something he didn’t do far more than than something he did. And he did some great things! He was one of the best rugby players in the world, one of the fastest men in the world, a two-time Olympic medalist. He was a profoundly godly guy, a pastor, a missionary. And yet he is known for what he did not do.

His story begins in China in 1902 and ends in China in 1945, so he lived from the turn of the century, right near the end of the Victorian era, to almost the end of World War 2. He was born in January of that year in Tianjin, the second son of James and Mary Liddell. His father was a missionary with the London Missionary Society, that great organization that sent so many missionaries around the world (perhaps the best known of them being David Livingstone who is best remembered for what someone else said to him!). His parents were Scottish Presbyterians and were noted for their zeal for evangelism, something that was not very popular in the part of Scotland they had come from.

China at the time was a very unstable place. This was just two years after the Boxer Rebellion, when Chinese nationalists took up arms against foreigners. They were particularly angry at Christians, killing hundreds of them including nearly 200 missionaries. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Missions was hit hardest with 58 of their missionaries being put to death.

January 25, 2011

Continued from yesterday…

Stonewall JacksonYesterday I began a two-parter on the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I got as far as the part about slavery and ended there. I can only cover this briefly today as this is an article primarily about his life and his faith, not about his view of slavery. So forgive my brevity.

Virginia was a slave state and through his life Jackson either owned or leased at least 8 slaves. He disliked slavery and thought that it would eventually die a natural death. But he felt that for a certain time God had decreed that a race would be slaves and that this was God’s will. End of story. If God decreed it, he wasn’t going to fight it. This somewhat hard-headed view was consistent with her personality. When Civil War came he didn’t fight for the South in order to protect slavery. The slaves he had he treated very well and loved dearly. All of his slaves had to be part of family devotions (which was illegal) and most of them seem to have become believers. His biographers think that his Sunday school for blacks actually grew out of family devotions which the slaves would attend and ask their friends to attend as well. So though he was not entirely opposed to slavery, he wanted all people, slave or free, to hear and respond to the gospel. And he was determined to make sure they all heard it.

And here’s the second lesson I’ve learned from his life: love. Jackson obeyed Romans 12:16. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He was not too proud to work with the lowest of the low. He loved them as brothers and sisters and treated them with dignity. He was a man of his time, a person who could tolerate slavery even if he didn’t really like it. It is easy to portray him as some kind of a monster for having slaves. And yet we can’t deny his love for them, his desire to treat them well and to see them become brothers and sisters in Christ. This is probably the most difficult tension we find in his life: he owned people and yet he loved those people. It is easy to caricature slaveholders as moral monsters; the reality is not nearly so neat.

In 1852, Jackson fell in love. He suddenly began to notice a young lady in the community and was completely unaware of why this was. He went to a friend and said, “I don’t know what has changed me. I used to think her plain, but her face now seems to me all sweetness.” The friend laughed and told the shocked Jackson that he was in love. As he always did, he thought about this for a while, considered it and concluded that it must be true. And so he began to act in his own awkward way. In August of 1853 he married Eleanor Junkin or “Ellie” as he called her. He loved her dearly. Their marriage was a happy one but sadly it was also short. Eleanor became pregnant and carried the baby to full term. But the baby boy was stillborn and just an hour later Eleanor began to hemorrhage and she died as well. After just a year of marriage Jackson had his son and his wife taken from him. He had lost a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a wife, a son. The story is told that after Ellie’s funeral his friends couldn’t find him. One went to the cemetery and found Jackson lying on his wife’s grave, weeping and crying out for her.

January 24, 2011

Stonewall JacksonNot too long ago I had the opportunity to prepare a few short biographical addresses on various Christians. For one of these addresses I spoke on John & Betty Stam. For another one I spoke of the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I’m sure many of you are familiar with his life, but let me tell the story again…

We’ll start the story near the end, on July 21, 1861. It was on this day that nearly 61,000 men fought in what was the first major battle of the American Civil War. Over the previous years the United States had fractured and split with many southern states seceding from the union to form the Confederate States of America. America had become two nations, the Federals or the Union in the north and the Confederates or the Rebels in the south. And these nations were at war, state fighting state, sometimes even brother fighting brother. It split a country, it split churches, it split families. On July 21 these two nations met on the plains outside a small Virginia town called Manassas.

On that afternoon a battle raged. Already thousands of men had fallen. The Federal forces pushed hard against the Confederate army until it looked as if the line might break and the battle would be lost. One of the Southern Generals, General Bee, had already seen his forces fight a long and devastating battle. He had seen many of his men die or leave the battle terribly wounded. Though he tried to rally the men who remained, they were tired and terrified and he just couldn’t convince them to follow him. He spurred his horse and rode over to Thomas Jackson who commanded the brigade next to his. Pulling to a stop near the general he called out “General, they are beating us back!” Jackson’s reply was short and calm, “Then we will give them the bayonet.” Jackson’s confidence inspired Bee. Galloping back to his troops he called to them “Look! There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!” Inspired by Jackson’s stand, Bee led his troops in a charge and was killed in the effort.

But the Confederates won the battle that day, though between the two armies nearly 5,000 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. On that day a legend was born, the legend of General “Stonewall” Jackson. The man who had stood fearlessly like a stone wall in the middle of the battle would quickly become one of the most famous generals in American history and establish himself as one of the greatest military minds of all-time. But there was far more to Jackson than his military ability. He was also a man who loved God and sought to honor him in every part of his life.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this story.

July 24, 2010

While I was on vacation I did a lot of reading about Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a man I’ve long admired but one I had barely gotten to know. Having returned home, I turned to a biography of his contemporary, Robert E. Lee.

In the foreword to this particular biography, author Emory Thomas has some very useful things to say about writing biography. Though it applies to Lee in particular, I think we can extend it to any historical figure. He warns against the tendency to deify subjects and shows, rightly I think, that heroism tells as much about the society that admires as it tells about the figure himself.

Here is what Thomas says:

Lee, the enigma, seldom if ever revealed himself while he lived. To understand him, it is necessary to look beyond his words and see, for example, the true nature of the lighthouse keeper Lee encountered during his surveying mission in 1835. It is also important to peer beyond Lee’s words and recall what he did as well as what he said. Sometimes the existential Lee contradicted the verbal Lee.

There is a third caveat to understanding Lee. In addition to looking behind and beyond his words, it is well to remember that Lee was once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image and myth have supplanted reality. Lee has become a hero essentially smaller than life.

People usually venerate as a hero someone who exemplifies (or who they think exemplifies) virtues which they admire or to which they aspire. Heroism thus reveals more about the society that admires than about the hero. Lee has been several sorts of American hero, and within the American South he has attained the status of demigod. Over time Lee has been a Christ figure, a symbol of national reconciliation, an exalted expression of bourgeois values, and much, much more. In life Lee was both more and less than his legend.

The time has come—indeed, the time is long overdue—to review and rethink Lee alive. History needs Robert E. Lee whole.

Reading these few paragraphs gave me a lot to chew on (to the point that I put the book down for a day and just thought about it). I think Thomas is essentially correct. Looking at this from the perspective of a Christian, I can see that at any time Christians have certain character traits, certain virtues that they value above all. What we tend to do, I think, is to find heroes who displayed these characteristics, and we then describe our heroes as if they were only these characteristics. When we do this, we make our heroes both more and less than what they truly were—we make much of those few strengths and ignore other strengths and inevitable weaknesses. And in this way we miss out on many of the lessons we ought to learn from them. Along the way, we tell a lot about ourselves but not nearly so much about these old heroes.

What do you think? Is Thomas on to something here? Do we, as Christians, tend to fall into this trap, where we create and even desire one-dimension heroes?

July 08, 2010

You are familiar, I think, with the Reading Classics Together program. Over the past few years, I and many of the readers of this site have read a series of classics of the Christian faith. We’ve read them concurrently, a chapter or two at a time, and then have met up here at the blog once a week to discuss what we’ve read. After we finished the most recent version of this program (which saw us read The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes) I thought it would be fun to try something new. And thus I proposed that we read a biography together. Today we begin.

The biography we are reading together is Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biography. Of course it’s not that new anymore, having been first printed in 1985. Nevertheless, it is a good biography and one that is thorough enough without being too long or too dense. Dallimore was a Canadian pastor and biographer who ministered not too far from where I live. He is best-known for his work on George Whitefield, a massive two-volume set that is still regarded as the definitive biography of the great evangelist. Tomorrow I’ll share a guest article written by Dallimore’s granddaughter and will allow her to introduce you to her her grandfather.

As we turn from classics of the faith to biographies, I am not entirely sure what I ought to maintain as a format as I try to share just a few thoughts on the week’s reading. So I may mix things up a little bit week-by-week as I attempt to find a workable format.

May 17, 2010

Of all the books I read I often feel that the biographies are most helpful to my Christian walk. I developed an early love of the genre from my mother who taught me the importance of reading about and understanding the lives of the great saints of the past, that we might be able to learn from their example. As a child I remember reading biographies of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Eric Liddell and many dedicated but relatively unknown missionaries. I have little doubt that the lives of such people did much to shape my growing faith and I am forever indebted to them.

I was thinking recently about the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, that “hall of fame” of great men and women of the faith. The author writes about many Old Testament figures—Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and others. He seeks to encourage the readers of the epistle to be confident in the certainty of what God has promised but not yet actually given. He encourages his readers to learn perseverance from the examples of these saints. Having done that, he begins chapter twelve with these words: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” He paints a picture of the Christian as a runner. He is in a stadium surrounded by multitudes of people cheering him on as he runs a race. These people who are cheering him have already run and successfully completed this same race. They shout encouragement to those who are still running and encourage them if and when they stumble.

August 26, 2009

A few years ago I wrote about Edwin Alden, a missionary and pastor who served in the United States in the nineteenth century. I have since updated the article and thought I’d share a little bit of what I found.

Edwin H. Alden, was born in Connecticut River Valley, on January 14, 1836, born into a line directly descended from the Pilgrims. He went to Dartmouth College and then to Bangor Seminary in Maine. After graduating, he married Anna Maria Whittemore, was ordained as a minister and enlisted in the service of the American Home Missionary Society, a ministry of the Congregational Church. A document on the website of Wheaton College provides a bit of detail about this organization:

A group of small missionary societies, the earliest of which was the Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York (formed in 1815) along with the New York Evangelical Missionary Society (formed in 1816) and other small agencies combined to make up the United Domestic Missionary Society in 1822. This group was supported by Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian Church. In May 1826, representatives from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches met to form the American Missionary Society. During the convention, the United Domestic Missionary Society voted to merge with the American Home Missionary Society.

Its purpose was to assist congregations in the United States and its territories primarily until they could become financially self-supporting. Women’s groups within the society were recognized when a Women’s Department was formed in 1883. Operations of the Society were carried out through auxiliary societies, agents and agencies. In the 1890s the Society membership increased from 17 to 203. However, by 1893 the interdenominational character of the Society had been lost and it was renamed Congregational Home Missionary Society, which was still in existence in 1975.

Reverend Alden was pastor of a Congregational Church in Waseca, Minnesota, but as part of his missionary duties often traveled to other churches, many of which were congregations without pastors. In his travels he followed the railroad west, preaching at newly founded towns and villages such as New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall where the railroad ended abruptly at the wide prairie. Where the train stopped, he would stop, attempting to gather a crowd to hear the preaching of the good news of the gospel. Wherever possible he would encourage the construction of a church building and he was often responsible personally for much of the construction. Despite the hardships of his profession, he once wrote, “So far the Lord has prospered us though it has made me many a weary walk and journey, besides many a day’s toil with hammer and saw when nothing would induce anyone to help me—it was so cold—besides many a weary night of anxiety.” Little wonder that he was much respected.

Reverend Alden has been immortalized in the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, though unfortunately, more people remember him for his inaccurate role in the long-running television series loosely based on the books. Laura recalls the building of a church in their small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The church had been founded in 1874 and was meeting in the home of one of the members. Being founding members of the congregation and the first two people baptized into membership at the new congregation, Laura’s parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls were eager participants in the construction of this building. Laura records that her father donated three dollars for the purchase of a bell to complete the building. Three dollars was a sacrifice for so poor a family. Later records show, though, that her father had actually donated the handsome sum of twenty-six dollars and fifteen cents! Charles served as trustee and was active in the service of this church. The bell he helped purchase now hangs in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove.

The church at Walnut Grove was not the only building constructed under the leadership of Reverend Alden. What follows is his account of attempting to build a church in Marshall during the winter of 1873. It provides just a glimpse into the hardship faced by such frontier missionaries.

The lumber was ordered in October from Winona, 250 miles off. We waited anxiously for the lumber, day after day, but it did not come. Then we heard that it is on a side track sixty miles away, will be here in the next train. Volunteers with teams hurry in from the county to unload it and haul it to the site. It does not come, and the men returned disappointed. After a few days comes—only one car; the other two not heard from. We are anxious. The beautiful October weather is almost gone. Winter is at hand. The road has more than it can do to haul material for the seventy miles yet to be built. Engines and men are taxed to their utmost. Ninety tons of iron for each mile of track must come from Chicago; bridge timber from Winona, 275 miles; ties and piling from the Big Woods, 150 miles.

Night and day they drag their immense loads, carrying back 35,000 bushels of wheat daily. What if they cannot bring our lumber at all! We go eastward eighty miles and find one car. “Can you ship the car for our church tonight?” “Very doubtful. We are obliged to leave here several carloads that have been waiting for days.” After dark, in the rain, with a lantern, we see our car coupled to the westward train and return with a light heart. How it poured, all the night, the next day and the next night, a steady torrent! But our lumber arrived.

Shortly it was framed, raised and partly sheathed. A day or two after came the first great snow-storm of the season, to be followed by others unprecedented for severity and numbers in the history of the state. The house, though held with extra braces, could not stand the fearful gale. It was prostrated soon—buried by the drifting snow. What can be done? The road is blockaded, all the trains but one snowed in, the engines dead. One conductor walks twenty-five miles and telegraphs to the Superintendent. He hastens to the rescue with snowplows, car-loads of provisions and several hundred men with shovels. In time they dig their way to Marshall.

We go by the next train. The weather is beautiful and we move rapidly for seventeen miles. The snowplow comes to a drift; the men ply their shovels; the sky is suddenly overcast; the wind rises, mercury falls, and in thirty minutes all must take refuge in the cars. We are “snowed in.” The next morning, your missionary vies with the rest in the use of the shovel. We make seven miles a day. The train can go no further; no team can be found; we dare not try forty miles on foot over that desolate waste, so we return with the train—only to be snowed in again and find our way to New Ulm as we can—most of the way on foot. Nothing daunted, we take the next train several days later, reaching Marshall at night after a four days’ journey, visit the church site.

A few boards are seen on the foundation. The rest is covered by a deep snow hard enough to bear a loaded team. Can it be dug out and raised again? The carpenter says “Yes.” So says a young lawyer, promising to work his subscription all over again. So say others, and I say “Amen!” Soon the spot is thronged with willing volunteers, shovel in hand, and in two days or so we have the building about where it was before the gale, and passed it over to the contractor for completion. Of course the disaster made us great additional expense which we have not the means to meet.

Will not individuals and churches in the East help us?

I have never know a missionary to end a speech or letter without asking for support. Missionaries who do so today are part of a long and faithful heritage!

The Ingalls family was to run into Reverend Alden again. After only a few years in Walnut Grove, the family moved to De Smet, South Dakota. One wintry evening the family was thrilled to find Reverend Alden once more upon their doorstep. He was as surprised and delighted as they were to find himself in the company of friends. What a small world! The first church service in De Smet was soon held in the Ingalls’ home with twenty-five locals attending. Reverend Alden later wrote a letter of recommendation supporting the Reverend Brown, who was to become pastor of the first church officially planted in De Smet and who officiated the marriage of Laura to her husband, Almanzo Wilder. Alden continued to move west as the frontier pushed toward the coast.

After this time we do not know much about the life of Reverend Alden, save that he married again after the death of his first wife, that he worked among the Indians and settled in North Dakota. He went to the Lord on May 6, 1911, at the age of 75, in his native Vermont.

This is, as far as I can tell, almost all of the information that has been handed down to us about this man. And that’s a pity. He sounds like rather an interesting individual and one I would love to read more about. He was a faithful servant of the Lord and one who played a unique role in a unique time.

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