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.
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 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 judgments 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.’
– to be continued