“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” argued Thomas Carlyle, the proponent of what has come to be known as the “Great Man Theory of History.” This theory suggests that the broader movements and contours of history all go back to the leadership of great individuals who exerted unique influence on their times. Whether or not Carlyle’s theory proves true is debatable, but that certain individuals cast long shadows is not.
More than a cultural observation or historical phenomenon, this is biblical reality. Repeatedly in Scripture we see God providentially calling forth individuals for consequential, kingdom tasks. Names like Moses, Joshua, David, and Peter dot the biblical landscape. In fact, Hebrews 11 in many ways is a biographical summation of the great lives of the Old Testament—mini-biographies, if you will.
As one who is entrusted with a leadership position, I find it profitable to read of others who have led. Wherever you find me, you’ll likely find a good biography nearby. Why is this the case?
First, I find good biographies fascinating. I’ll occasionally read a novel, but I’ve never been overly drawn to fiction. Yes, I have enjoyed strolling through Wendell Berry’s Port Royal, John Grisham’s court rooms, and of course C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. But for me, well-told biography is more intriguing—and often stranger—than fiction.
I have found myself unable to sleep while in the throes of the Battle of Britain in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms is riveting in Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. David McCullough’s recounting of Eisenhower wrestling with the D-Day invasion is gripping. For me, not to read biographies—like foregoing family-time, a round of golf, or other enjoyable opportunities that add gratification and spice to life—would leave a void of pleasure in my life.
Second, I find good biographies informative. A good biographer tells not only the story of a person, but also of their times. Reading a good biography is like strolling through an intellectual shopping mall. The anchor store is what drew you there, but you will be pleasantly surprised along the way at what other items grab your attention.
You’ll find no better recounting of the British Empire at its zenith than the opening chapters of Manchester’s Visions of Glory, volume one of his The Last Lion. Robert Caro’s The Life and Times of Lyndon Baines Johnson will teach you about LBJ, but you will also be confronted with the calamitous effects of the Great Depression, the underbelly of twentieth-century American politics, the machinations of the United States Senate, the death of a president, and the national quagmire known as the Vietnam War. Ian Murray’s Jonathan Edwards will give you an informative look into colonial America, while Francois Wendell’s John Calvin will help you not only know the reformer, but also Reformation Europe. Strictly speaking, a biography is but a slice of history; but when well done, it opens for the reader a panoramic view into the providential unfolding of God’s cosmic plan.
Third, I find good biographies relaxing. Winston Churchill once noted a man who works with his hands should have a hobby that engages his mind, and a man who works with his mind should have a hobby that engages his hands. Another way to apply Churchill’s maxim is to supplement technical, pen-in-hand vocational reading with leisurely, feet-on-the-ottoman biographical reading. Indeed, few things are more relaxing to me than winding down the evening and entering into another world—a world of martial glory, national crisis, intrepid missionary efforts, or world-shaking preaching.
Fourth, I find good biographies inspirational. Though not prone to self-pity, like anyone I can occasionally use a good dose of perspective. Not only can a good biography bring words of consolation, it can also magnetically pull the reader to new heights of personal aspiration and self-sacrifice. I read of D.L. Moody purposing to evangelize daily; William Carey’s attempting great things for God and expecting great things from God; John Knox’s willingness to stand against Mary, Queen of Scots; or Jim Elliot’s death at the end of a native’s spear, and I cannot help but redouble my pursuit of God’s call on my life.
Beyond the Christian, ministerial realm, I have marveled at Pete Maravich, who excelled at college basketball like none other. Margaret Thatcher bucking up her own cabinet ministers in the Falkland Islands crisis. Or Churchill “mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle.” I never shot basketball with Maravich, visited prime minister’s questions with Thatcher, or plotted war strategy with Churchill, but I have enjoyed the next best thing by reading their biographies—and have been motivated in so doing.
Fifth, I find good biographies sanctifying. How can I not grow in my love for evangelism and missions while reading of Adoniram Judson in To the Golden Shore or Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret? How can I not grow in my devotion to prayer while reading of A.W. Tozer putting on his praying pants in In Pursuit of God? How can I not recommit myself to meditating on Scripture and to a life of faith while reading Man of Faith, the biography of George Mueller? How can I not give more effort to sermon preparation after reading Ian Murray tell of Jonathan Edwards’ 13-hour days in the study? How can I not renew my efforts in preaching after having Arnold Dallimore describe George Whitefield preaching himself into his grave? How can I not stand for truth after reading of Spurgeon’s Downgrade Controversy; sacrifice for missionaries after reading of Lottie Moon; or resolve to live with abandon for Christ after reading of Stephen Olford’s maxim that “only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last”?
In the spirit of Hebrews 11, reading good biographies summons forth a veritable chorus of cheers, encouraging us to lay aside every encumbrance and sin that so easily entangles us and to run with endurance the race set before us.
This, and so much more, is why I love reading good biographies, and why I pity the person who neglects them. Don’t be counted among their number.
*This post previously appeared on 24 June 2013.