Oct

04

2013

Justin Taylor|6:00 am CT

The Best Biographies? Survey Says…

I recently surveyed 18 scholars (most of them history professors) asking them for their top recommendations of those biographies that represent biography writing at its finest. I did not specify that they had to be studies of religious figures, but given whom I asked, it is not surprising that this was the dominant field for recommendations.

All in all, they offered 90 nominations, and you can see all the posts here.

In this unscientific survey, the top vote getting (by a wide margin) was George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, followed by second-place tie Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography and Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, and then Darryl Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern AmericaIn addition, there were nine other books that each received two nominations a piece.

Here are the top vote getters and the comments by their nominators.

Happy reading!


marsdenJE1. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003).

[9 nominations]

Mark Noll: “Marsden succeeds in bringing biography to theology and theology to biography with unusual clarity about both the person and the times.”

Bruce Gordon: “From start to finish, pure elegance of prose and a magisterial command of Edward’s thought and character.”

Doug Sweeney: “This is the definitive biography of our most important evangelical intellectual.”

John Fea: “The best biography of Edwards ever written and a model for religious biography.”

Thomas Kidd: “At the top of my list.”

Tom Nettles: “For the purposes of seminary class, I use Murray’s biography. To show, however, in a charming but serious-minded way to a secular public how seriously and deeply a Christian can think about issues of ultimate importance, this is the book to loan (you could not give many of them away).”

Nathan Finn: “Marsden’s work is the gold standard for a scholarly biography that is at the same time sympathetic toward its subject. His A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is also great.”

Mike Reeves: “Marsden shows beautifully what a biography can do, for he not only tells a good story, his sensitive observations and reflections humanise you as you read.”

Sean Lucas voted for this one, too.


brown2. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1st ed., 1967; new edition with an epilogue, California University Press, 2000).

[5 nominations]

George Marsden: “A classic work and a great exposition of the man and of his era.”

Allen Guellzo: “A stupendously erudite re-creation, not only of Augustine, but of the entire world of late antiquity.”

Fred Sanders: “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. They’re all here: the wild youth who wanted ‘chastity . . . but not yet,’ the ladder-climbing young professor of rhetoric, the idealistic convert, the pastor who had to adapt his theology to the needs of the masses, the celebrity bishop pushed into more and more responsibility, and the consolidator of Christian orthodoxy as the lights of Rome were winking out.”

Doug Sweeney: “Brown has spent his career recreating the world of late antiquity. This biography places our most fecund doctor of the church in that context beautifully.”

Nathan Finn: “Many church historians consider this to be the best scholarly biography of a major Christian leader, and I’m often inclined to agree. A close second to Mardsen’s biography of Edwards.”


bainton3. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950; reprint, Penguin, 1995).

[5 nominations]

Mark Noll: “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.”

Doug Sweeney: “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.”

Darryl Hart: “A colorful treatment of an even more colorful figure that captures the central dynamic of the Reformation, namely, how to be right with God.”

Tom Nettles: “A beautifully crafted story of a rough and resolute man whose discovery of truth so melded itself into his soul that he feared to distinguish between his truth-informed conscience and the final claim of God on his life.”

Mike Reeves: “A true masterpiece of a biography, Here I Stand draws you deep into Luther’s life so you both understand and feel the significance of what he faced and what he did.”


hart4. D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Johns Hopkins, 1994; reprint, P&R, 2003).

[3 nominations]

Carl Trueman: “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.”

Kevin DeYoung: “Hart writes lucid prose about a figure he knows inside and out. By helping us understand Machen, we come to understand an entire era in American church history.”

Sean Lucas voted for this one, too.


Never-at-Rest-Westfall-Richard-S-9780521274357Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[2 nominations]

Allen Guelzo: “A glowingly comprehensive and sympathetic biography of one of the greatest of scientific minds.”

George Marsden: “Excellent at presenting Newton’s thought in the context of its times.”


JADavid McCullough, John Adams (Touchstone, 2001).

[2 nominations]

Kevin DeYoung: “The guy can flat-out write. No one does popular (yet substantive) biography as well as McCullough.”

Nathan Finn: “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.”


Churchill-by-Paul-JohnsonPaul Johnson, Churchill (Viking, 2009).

[2 nominations]

Kevin DeYoung: “Johnson demonstrates that you can write meaningfully about a massive subject in a short biography (181 pages). This book is especially strong in the lessons it draws from Churchill’s life.”

Mike Reeves: “This little book reads like champagne, Johnson’s very style of writing capturing the fizz and pop of his subject.”


ALAllen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Eerdmans, 1999).

[2 nominations]

Kevin DeYoung: “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.”

Sean Lucas voted for this one, too.


JCBruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009).

[2 nominations]

Darryl Hart: “A smartly conceived narrative that allows Calvin’s ‘greatness’ to emerge not from hindsight but from the accidents of sixteenth-century Europe.”

Sean Lucas voted for this one, too.


stoutHarry S. Stout, A Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1991).

[2 nominations]

Darryl Hart: “A provocative account that looks past hagiography to capture the human (and sometimes unflattering) aspects of Protestantism’s greatest evangelist.”

Sean Lucas voted for this, too.


william-grimshaw-haworth-faith-cook-paperback-cover-artFaith Cook, William Grimshaw of Haworth (Banner of Truth, 1997).

[2 nominations]

Michael Haykin: “A biography that I hold dear because it is a challenge to my wimpishness, something this Canadian Christian historian deeply laments. Grimshaw was a true radical.”

Mike Reeves: “Atmosphere, action, great character: it’s Wuthering Heights meets Whitfield-Wesley revival.”


AJCourtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore (1956; reprint, Judson Press, 1987).

[2 nominations]

Nathan Finn: “This is my all-time favorite biography. Anderson provides an appreciative, but realistic portrayal of an inspiring missionary pioneer.”

Michael Haykin: “A riveting missionary narrative of the life of Adoniram Judson.”


Lloyd-Jones_SET_IMAGEIain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Volume 1, The First Forty Years, 1899-1939 (Banner of Truth, 1982) and D. Marty Lloyd Jones: Volume 2, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 (Banner of Truth, 1990).

[2 nominations]

Tom Nettles: “This provides great encouragement and instruction for pastors seeking a ministry given to scriptural and doctrinal edification of the Bride of Christ.”

Michael Haykin: “The two-volume biography of Martyn Lloyd- Jones, the most powerful twentieth-century influence on my life.”

Categories: Biographies

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