Theologians who just won't die
Why Read Christian Biography?
- Faith Cook is an author and hymn writer, known for her biographies of Lady Jane Gray, William Grimshaw, and John Bunyan. View all resources by Faith Cook
A musical celebrity once visited our school. The girls listened spellbound to her talented performance. Then as the final applause died away there was a sudden rush towards the platform as dozens of us swarmed forward, autograph books opened, anxious to obtain the signature of so notable and gifted a musician. At that same moment the headmistress stepped forward, august and angry. ‘Go away!’ she said to the pupils, with a wave of her hand, ‘Go away, and make your own autographs worth having.’ Disappointed, the girls slunk back to their seats. But it was a lesson never to be forgotten.
And strange as it may seem, the reading of Christian biography is one way to set before ourselves noble standards, goals and aspirations which can only help the Christian man or woman to make progress, not to gain any earthly accolades, but towards that ultimate prize of our heavenly calling – the glory to come.
Publishers and sellers of Christian books sometimes complain that whereas books on theology may sell satisfactorily, and books with such evocative titles as How I overcame addiction or How to live with Impossible People disappear speedily from the shelves, biographies of the great men and women of the church are far harder to sell. I would therefore like to set out a number of reasons for the immense worth of reading Christian biography and why it can have a powerful effect on one’s outlook and often exert an undying influence on thought and action.
God's past acts
First, such reading sets before us a grand overview of the progress of the Christian church, a panorama of God’s mighty acts in previous generations. It gives us a perspective on the outworking of God’s purposes – purposes into which we may begin to slot our own times, and therefore gain an understanding of the significance of our present experiences. Sadly there is a view abroad, not only in the churches but in secular society as well, that events that took place before we were born must now be confined to the rubbish bin of history in terms of their relevance for today, and opinions that were held before the moderns expressed their views are long outmoded. On the contrary, it is only through an understanding and knowledge of the past that we are able to make mature judgements regarding the present and grasp God’s purposes for our own lives and the reason for our birth in this particular era of history. ‘The true end of reading,’ maintained Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), principal of Northampton Academy and well-loved hymn-writer, ‘is to furnish the mind with materials on which to exercise its own powers.’
So to gain a quick overview of God’s past acts we might start with a life of the great Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). To read a book such as Here I Stand by Roland Bainton, immediately provides a key to understanding the momentous significance of an event that took place on 31 October 1517 when a monk nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, protesting against the widespread corruptions of the Catholic Church. We could continue by learning of the lonely labours of the exiled William Tyndale (c1494-1536) as he translated the Bible into English so that even an unlettered ploughboy could read it for himself; we grieve over his cruel death as he was first strangled and then burned – a sorry recompense for his priceless contribution. David Daniell’s magnificent work, Let there be Light, William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible can hardly be bettered.
Perhaps we will then discover how John Foxe (1517-1587) catalogued the fearful sufferings of the common people in Mary Tudor’s reign as they chose the stake rather than compromising their faith. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs shaped English religious thought for many generations and explains in part why John Bunyan (1628-1688) and two thousand other pastors and teachers were prepared to face prison, torture and homelessness during the 1660s and beyond, foregoing livelihood and promotion for the sake of their principles.
Or perhaps we will turn the pages of history and rejoice in the power of God in the eighteenth century revival as the preaching of George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, William Grimshaw, John Cennick, Daniel Rowland and many others, resulted in significant changes in the nation. Such a work of God paved the way for the great revivals of religion that would transform considerable areas of the country in the early nineteenth century. These in turn prepared for the ministries of notable Victorian preachers like C H Spurgeon (1834-1892) and Archibald Brown (1844-1922). But what brought about the Downgrade Controversy towards the end of Spurgeon’s life? An understanding of this would give us a key to interpret the sad decline in British church life with its accompanying consequences leading inexorably onwards to the godlessness of our own day. Clearly a few well-chosen biographies can provide the backdrop against which we may both interpret and influence the present.
Appreciating the spiritual life
A second advantage to be gained from Christian biography is the development of a deeper appreciation of the basic principles and progress of the spiritual life demonstrated in those about whom we read. We may learn much from our pulpits each Sunday about the meaning of individual passages of Scripture, but can often fail to understand its significance for our own lives as Christians. These records from the past help towards supplying that vital link between theory and its outworking. For example, we will quickly learn the amazing variety of ways in which men and women are brought into the kingdom of heaven. When William Grimshaw of Haworth (1708-1763) surveyed the diversities of the Spirit’s work during the revival that broke out in Haworth in 1744, he could exclaim:
Nay, there are not two in 500 of God’s children that are born again or brought into Christ every way alike. Scarce any two of them have been wrought upon in the same way. Some have sunk down in church under a terrifying sense of divine wrath, while others have been drawn with cords of love. Some have received a seal of pardon in a few weeks or days while others have been held many months under a spirit of bondage.
Grimshaw went on to explain that when Christians talked together and some discovered that their own experiences were quite different from those of others, they might easily fear that their conversions were not genuine. But a reading of biographical records quickly reveals the many different ways in which God works, indeed, one mark of false religion and of the sects is the stereotyped experiences of most adherents.
A child like Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur (1867-1951), brought up in a god-fearing home and taught the truths of God’s word from infancy, may not recall any crisis at conversion, yet a subsequent life of love and obedience to God demonstrates its reality. Spurgeon, on the other hand, also from such a home, passed through stormy days of temptation and desperate searching before that moment on 6 January 1850 in the Primitive Methodist chapel in Colchester when the lay preacher suddenly addressed him personally: ‘Young man, you look very miserable, Look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look!’ and Spurgeon records, ‘Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away.’
In the case of a complex character like John Bunyan it is hard to be sure of the moment of conversion because his anguished search for assurance, lasting almost four years, blasted his joys, and snatched from him every consolation until at last he understood that only the righteousness of Christ imputed to him by faith could meet the standards God required. Realising this, he cried out, ‘Oh, methought, Christ! Christ! there was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes…Now did my chains fall from my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away.’
Hugh Bourne (1772-1852), co-founder of Primitive Methodism, struggled to gain peace with God for almost twenty years, whereas at the age of forty-five Brownlow North, greatly used by God in the 1859 revival, suddenly feared he was dying and was converted in the course of a single day. To read of these, and many, many other conversion narratives, brings insight, clarity and an understanding of one’s own spiritual position.
Gospel theology in action
Thirdly, Christian biography serves to show us what may be called ‘gospel theology in action’. We see the outworking of faith in the experiences of widely differing individuals. God is a God of the unexpected, and it comes as a strong encouragement to discover that he sometimes takes up and uses a man or woman whom society might regard as inadequate – perhaps a semi-literate girl like Susanna Harrison (1752-1784). Her Christian verse, written mainly in times of serious illness, has actually earned her a place in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Christian Watt (1833-1923), a poor fish-gutter from Fraserburgh in Scotland, who had known grievous adversity was confined to a mental hospital in Aberdeen from the age of forty-four until her death at ninety. Nevertheless she gave herself to a constant service of testimony and spiritual consolation, not only to other patients and to the fisher folk of Aberdeen, but later to the shell-shocked victims of the First World War. That her story is still bringing comfort to sorely tried Christians through her biography is a demonstration of a faith that speaks through action.
In the case of others the outworking of their faith may be an earnest, diligent but apparently fruitless labour in the cause of the gospel. When Hans Egede left Greenland in 1735 after fourteen years of pioneer work, he preached on Isaiah 49:4 ‘I have laboured in vain and I have spent my strength for nothing.’ But he was wrong. Years afterwards his toil yielded an abundant harvest. Or we may think of William Carey (1761-1834) who preached for seven long years in India before he saw his first convert. He believed unshakeably in the final triumph of the kingdom of God and such faith was eventually richly rewarded. In our own day of little apparent gospel progress, records like these can give us the determination to hold fast to the promises of God.
We could read about Selina Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791) and her selfless support of gospel ministry. She established and financed a college to train young preachers when she was over sixty years of age and went on to open up numerous chapels up and down the land, labouring on until her last week of life. At her death, now aged eighty-three, she could only whisper, ‘My work is done; I shall go to my Father this night.’
Perhaps we would be challenged and encouraged by the account of Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866) and his steadfast aim to take the Scriptures into North Korea in 1866. His was a brutal death as he was bombarded with a hail of stones from hostile Koreans when he disembarked and attempted to cross the beach. Undaunted he struggled on, all the time offering his Bibles to his murderers. Some collected up the Bibles left strewn on the beach after Thomas was dead and later papered the walls of their houses with them. Here they were able to read the Scriptures in secret and when missionaries eventually gained admittance to the country they discovered to their amazement a small group of believers, converted through the pages of the martyred missionary’s Bibles.
The devoted testimony of Lavinia Bartlett (1806-1875), described as ‘Spurgeon’s best deacon’ is sure to inspire us as we learn how a middle-aged widow in poor health gave all her strength to serving the needy women and girls of London. Her weekly Bible class climbed in numbers from three when she started to anything between seven and eight hundred at her death. Examples of such Christian convictions translated into devoted service, tucked in among the pages of some biography, are legion and well-worth seeking out.
Active Christian service flows from a life of godliness and devotion to Christ. Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) expressed her love for the Saviour and zeal to influence others in many of the hymns she wrote. Despite recent changes in hymnology, much of her work has lasted and by it she still speaks to our own generation. Charles Wesley (1707-1788) once wrote ‘Happy if with my latest breath I may but gasp his name’ – lines which sum up his sacrificial life of service to the church of Jesus Christ. And it was a prayer God granted. ‘Do you want anything?’ asked his wife Sally as she saw Charles slipping away. ‘Nothing but Christ,’ whispered the dying man.
By reading the biographies of such people we learn of the hidden springs of communion with God that nurtured and sustained their spiritual lives. Nothing can serve to humble us more than to discover the standards of godliness attained by others, and to realise what the Spirit of God can do in the lives of those who seek him. A young preacher was recently heard advising his congregation to throw away any Christian biography that made them feel unworthy in any way. How wrong he was! A major benefit of such reading is surely to instruct, challenge and lead us forward in our spiritual endeavour. True, some authors have been guilty of hagiography, and this can have a discouraging effect on the reader, but to reject a biography because it reveals our own low achievement or inadequacy is cowardly.
William Bramwell (1759-1818), a Methodist preacher greatly used by God in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, has been called a ‘man of prayer and power.’ One who knew him reported, ‘Frequently when at prayer, so powerfully did he wrestle with God, that the room seemed filled with the divine glory in a manner most extraordinary.’ We cannot then be surprised to learn that in Leeds during 1793 over five hundred were savingly converted from an ungodly way of life under Bramwell’s preaching. ‘No man can ever fast and pray in vain,’ declared the preacher.
Little can be more challenging than to read of Jonathan Edward’s (1703-1758) seventy ‘Resolutions’ all written out before his twentieth birthday. In our day when many professing believers flirt with the world it can be a most searching experience to read such aspirations as these from this young man: ‘Resolved, To strive every week to be brought higher in religion and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before’ or, ‘Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least slacken my fight against my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.’
Fourthly, and equally as important as the positive challenges derived from our reading of Christian biography, are the warnings it gives, the signposts along the way of dangers to be avoided, of pitfalls awaiting the unwary. The Bible itself never brushes over the failures even of good men and we readily recognise the value of such warnings. Peter’s betrayal of Christ and his restoration has served to give new hope to many whose faith has failed in a time of crisis. Even Hezekiah, among the most outstanding of the kings of Judah, allowed pride to cause him to stumble (Isaiah 39). John Wesley was a colossus of the Christian church, yet his insistence that perfection was attainable for the Christian in this life by an act of faith (although his statements were often accompanied by numerous caveats and qualifications), is a warning that even the best men can be stubborn and wrong. Echoes of his teaching recur from time to time in various sectors of the church. Christmas Evans was one whose preaching could hold captive huge congregations at the Welsh Association meetings and whose powerful ministry was used by God in Anglesey, transforming that community. Yet he fell prey to Satan’s devices and embraced Sandemanian teaching, which brought his usefulness to a temporary standstill. With its damaging teaching that saving faith requires nothing more than mere notional assent, Sandemanianism dismissed the inner movements of the Holy Spirit in the heart as unnecessary for salvation. At last after many years in a prayerless and powerless spiritual wilderness, Christmas Evans was restored while on a lonely journey across the Welsh mountains. He then saw how wrong he had been. There is a new form of this same teaching abroad in our evangelical churches today, reducing conversion to little more than a matter of ‘explanation’ followed by a mental acceptance of Christian truth. So Christmas Evans’ experience stands as a warning.
A fifth and more positive lesson which we can glean from our reading of Christian biography is how to suffer rightly. Such accounts stand out on every page in the lives of some of our forebears in the faith. Omitting for a moment the unspeakable sufferings of the martyrs, we learn how to face those afflictions which are the common lot of our humanity with dignity and confident trust in God. Catherine Boston, wife of the Scottish preacher Thomas Boston of Etterick (1676-1732), lost six of her ten infants in death. Her sufferings brought about a mental collapse, and for many years she was ‘as the living among the dead,’ as her husband expressed it. Yet whenever her condition eased, she reaffirmed her strong faith in God. After eight years of illness she could still declare on one of those few days of mental clarity, ‘I did take God to be my God…and with my whole heart gave up myself, soul and body, to be the Lord’s for ever.’
Contrary to our natural fears and apprehensions, trials and sufferings have often proved the single greatest incentive to growth in grace. Perhaps it is at this point that Christian biography can be of the greatest help. As we read we discover that at such times God often favours the believer with unusual disclosures of his love. John Bunyan, one who had tasted the depths of suffering both through family deaths and his own long imprisonment, could say:
He [God] can make those things that in themselves are most fearful and terrible to behold, the most pleasant, delightful and desirable things. He can make a gaol more beautiful than a palace; restraint more sweet by far than liberty; and the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.
And Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), writing from house arrest in Aberdeen, would add his warm assent to such words: ‘It is your part to believe, and suffer, and hope, and wait on…Whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if he come himself with it, it is well! Welcome, welcome, Jesus, what way soever thou come.’ Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), the Scottish hymn-writer, buried five out of his eleven children in their infancy. Yet he regarded suffering as a God-sent privilege – the family badge of the Christian. One day, he assures us, we shall thank God most of all for being allowed to suffer, for then we grew most in grace and in our love for Christ.
Following on naturally from their fortitude in suffering is the courage and confidence with which many believers have faced death itself. Unlike the Victorians, our society today is reticent to speak about death; it has become a taboo subject even among Christians. Despite the plethora of new hymns available for Christian worship today, few songs touch upon the subject of death and the joys of the eternal world. But to read the life of the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691), followed by his classic, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, would transform our perspective. William Grimshaw taught his people to meditate often on death. With the average age of only twenty-six in Haworth at the time, death was an ever present reality in their homes. ‘When you put off your clothes’ [each night] he would say, ‘think of putting off your earthly tabernacle…and close your eyes in this world as you would open them in another. Today is your living day; tomorrow may be your dying day. Meditation on death will prepare you for death.’
Christians who have prepared themselves mentally and spiritually to face this last of enemies have often left behind testimonies of God’s special grace at such a time. When John Knox was dying in November 1592 he was still pleading with God for the troubled church in Scotland. Nor did Satan leave off his vicious assaults on the sick man’s soul. But the day before he died Knox could declare, ‘I have fought against spiritual wickedness and have prevailed. I have been in heaven where presently I am and have tasted of the heavenly joys.’ Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) too experienced unspeakable joys as he was dying. An hour before the end he was heard to say, ‘It will not be long before God takes me, for no mortal man can live after the glories which God has manifested to my soul.’
And who could fail to be moved by the steadfast courage of young Lady Jane Grey, called the ‘Nine-day Queen of England’, as she faced the cruel scaffold at only sixteen years of age. Writing to her younger sister the night before her execution she could say:
As touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption and put on incorruption. For I am assured, that I shall, losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life, the which I pray, God grant you, and send you of his grace to live in his fear and to die in the true Christian faith, from the which (in God’s name), I exhort you, that you never swerve, neither for hope of life, nor for fear of death.
Principles and patterns
A final benefit to be gained from reading of the lives of other believers, and one that overarches these individual aspects, is the facility it provides for tracing certain recurring principles and patterns of the activity of God, repeated in every age. Among the most important we discover the place of prayer in the purposes of God. C H Spurgeon once said:
When a man really prays it is not a question whether God will hear him or not, he must hear him; not because there is any compulsion in the prayer, but there is a sweet and blessed compulsion in the promise. God has promised to hear prayer and he will perform his promise. As he is the most high and true God, he cannot deny himself. Oh! to think of this; that you, a puny creature, may stand here and speak to God, and through God may move all the worlds.
These words can be verified again and again as we read the lives of Christians in the past. Secret intercessory prayer has almost always been the precursor of a revival of spiritual life in a community. When John Oxtoby, known as ‘Praying Johnny’ wrestled with God for his mercy on the God-rejecting town of Filey, he would not stop until a divine assurance was given to him of an answer to his pleas. Then rising from his knees, he cried out, ‘Filey is taken! Filey is taken!’ And indeed, Filey was taken for the kingdom of God as the people wept over their sins when they heard Johnny preaching, and hundreds were converted.
The same may be illustrated time after time as we read of individuals burdened to pray for some loved one. The great Augustine of Hippo had a praying mother, Monica. Distraught at the godlessness of her son, she wept and prayed ceaselessly for him. In her distress she spoke to a local bishop whose advice can still console praying parents: ‘Let him alone a while, only pray God for him…for it is not possible that the son of these tears and prayers should perish.’ Shortly after Augustine’s dramatic conversion, Monica herself died, but not before she had seen all her hopes fulfilled.
Perhaps the greatest blessing of all that comes from reading Christian biography, and one that should encourage us to start if we have not done so already, is the assurance that our God is an unchanging God. All that he has done in the past he can repeat in our day. His power in unlimited, his grace as plentiful. He is still able to take up men and women who earnestly seek him and use them effectively in whatever sphere he may chose. As we read, we enter into a great heritage of two thousand years of devotion and service to the God of heaven. And who can tell what he might yet do for us even today?