In recent weeks I’ve encountered a number of people who have never read a biography. While there’s no law commanding the reading of biographies, there are certainly many good reasons to make them a regular part of a reading diet. Today I want to offer just a few suggestions and recommendations for people who are approaching biography for the first time, or for the first time in a long while.
I’ll begin with a few suggestions for getting started in biography.
First, I’d recommend beginning with a biography that is relatively short. While William Manchester’s three-volume set on Winston Churchill is brilliant, it is also more than a little daunting (the audiobook is 131 hours long!). You’re probably better-off beginning with something more manageable.
Second, I’d recommend beginning with a biography that is generally positive in its tone. While there’s value in reading about false teachers or even tricky figures—those who may have been brilliantly sold-out for the Lord in one way but living in open defiance in another—it can introduce a level of complexity to properly interpreting a life. Before reading about heretics, charlatans, and the ones who aren’t so easily categorized, it may be helpful to get a good baseline of godly characters.
Third, start with a well-known figure. Though it’s not always the case, it’s generally true that history mostly remembers the best and the worst figures of any period. There are a few people in every generation who tower over their peers and they represent a great place to begin.
Here are ten biography recommendations for people who are just getting started. I’ll try to keep them focused on Christians and keep them shorter than 300 pages. Before I do that, let me recommend a few series. Christian Focus’s History Makers are biographies of key figures that tend to be around the 200-page mark. I’ve read quite a few of them and they have all been excellent. Steve Lawson’s A Long Line of Godly Men series is meant to serve as introductions to notable figures, both in their lives and impact, so they tend to include a relatively short overview of the subject’s life followed by topical discussions of his accomplishments. John Piper’s The Swans Are Not Silent series contain several short biographies per volume.
And now, the biographies:
- Amy Carmichael: Beauty For Ashes by Iain Murray. Carmichael was a missionary to India who receives a short but solid treatment from Iain Murray. I love the respect he has for her, even though she represents quite a different theological tradition.
- Spurgeon: A Biography by Arnold Dallimore. This biography is almost too short to tell such a life, but it serves as a great introduction to Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers. (Next steps: Living by Revealed Truth by Tom Nettles or Spurgeon’s autobiography.)
- Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. Traces the life of the British politician who dedicated his life to revoking slavery. (If you enjoy this one, please upgrade to William Hague’s William Wilberforce which, though quite a bit longer, is quite a bit better.)
- John & Betty Stam: Missionary Martyrs by Vance Christie. The Stams were missionaries martyred in China in the 1930s. Their deaths sparked a great resurgence of missionary fervor.
- John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by Robert Godfrey. You won’t do better than this as a short introduction to John Calvin. And whether you’re for or against Calvinism, you can’t deny the impact of Calvin in the making of the modern world, so he’s a figure worth knowing. (Next step: Calvin by Bruce Gordon)
- George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century by Arnold Dallimore. This is a condensed version of Dallimore’s two-volume set. (Next steps: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas Kidd.)
- A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden. This is a short biography that pairs well with Marsden’s larger account of Edwards’ life.
- John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain Murray. There aren’t too many biographies available for subjects who are still living, but this one is an exception. Murray actually set out to write just a small work, but kept going until it became full-length.
- The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War by Jared Brock. Josiah Henson should probably be better known (since he was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”). This biography introduces his life and impact.
- John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas by Paul Schlehlein. Paton is a courageous figure who deserves to be known, and this biography does a great job of introducing him.
I promised ten, so will stop there. And even if none of these look particularly appealing, do consider picking up a different biography and giving it a read. I suspect you’ll be glad you did.