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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.”

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21 thoughts on “The Best Biographies? Survey Says…”

  1. thank you so much justin for the excellent articles, interviews, spoken messages, and book recommendations you continue to search out and provide. you are so good at what you do here, and i am encouraged, challenged, and inspired continually when i visit your blog.

  2. Phoebe says:

    Such a shame to see no women at all in a list of the ‘best biographies’. Maybe its because the 18 scholars were all men? Maybe the title should read ‘The Best Biographies of Men voted for by Men’?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Phoebe, thanks for the comment. If you click on the first link above, you’ll see all the books that were nominated, including biographies by women and about women. This post is just the top vote getters.

  3. T. Webb says:

    Justin, THANKS AGAIN for this list!!!!

    Also, aren’t the first two tied with 9 votes each? Why are they numbered 1 and 2? Wouldn’t Brown’s “Augustine” alphabetically go before Marsden’s “Edwards”? I guess you must have preferred Marsden’s work?

    Much thanks!!

  4. Adam says:

    Wow. I just finished Brown’s on Augustine last night! It is all that they say it is. A recreation of North Africa at the end of the Roman Empire. It is not an easy read though. But a rewarding one. Not entertaining in a popular level but very interesting. A bit difficult sometimes as he often does not properly introduce characters in Augustine’s life very well and the text is full of untranslated Latin.

    Surprised that Stout’s on Whitefield made the list and not Dallimore’s. Dallimore’s is far from hagiographic but much better researched and easier to read. In my humble opinion…:)

  5. Dylan Valliere says:

    The link for Hart’s biography needs to be fixed. It should be:

    1. Justin Taylor says:


  6. S C says:

    I had new interest in trying to read biographies after the onslaught this week. I was shocked that almost half of the top biographies weren’t available on Kindle, and that of those that were, they were all priced high, with the cheapest at $9.47, and the most expensive was $28.68! For an electronic copy of a book!

    Even though I have a library of 3000 paper volumes (mostly Christian), I have stopped buying paper books, and I only read Kindle books. Publishers, take note: you have to be on Kindle to even be considered for my reading edification. And pricing can’t be over $10, and should often be seriously less.

  7. James Visscher says:

    Has no one read Arnold Dallimore’s superb biography of George Whitefield?

  8. David Reimer says:

    I concur with Adam’s comment about Stout’s biography of Whitefield which, to my mind, read like an axe in search of a whetstone.

    On the other hand, in one list it was a delight to see S.J. Brown’s Chalmers biography turn up in someone’s list. An impressively accomplished work, beautifully crafted, it even manages to make the presentation of copious data of social history readable — and not well known, I think.

    It was a little disappointing not see any mention of R.W. Southern’s elegant and magisterial Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (CUP, 1990). (Or even his Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (rev ed; OUP, 1992) – probably not quite as successful as the Anselm book, but we are talking about fine gradations of superlatives here!)

    I just finished Bruce Gordon’s Calvin a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it enormously. I had read T.H.L. Parker’s bio a couple times, but after reading Gordon’s, it made Parker’s (accomplished) work feel like 2D to Gordon’s 3D.

    Thanks for this series, Justin!

  9. Ray Pennoyer says:

    Thanks Justin, there are some great leads here.

    My main question would be the prominence of Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln. Certainly it was very informative and technically accurate I’m sure. However, on closing the book my the overwhelming sense was that I had been treated to “dirty laundry.” It wasn’t the presence of those elements in the book that was the problem, but the fact that (in my opinion) Guelzo somehow manages to downplay the truly inspirational aspects of Lincoln’s life and career.

    With others, I wonder about the absence of Dallimore’s two volume work on Whitefield. I am also surprised at the virtual absence (except for Prof. Nettles) of Metaxas’ excellent biography on Bonhoeffer.

  10. Gary says:

    Thanks for this great list! I haven’t read too many biographies, but I have read Marsden’s on Edwards, and it was outstanding. This post motivates me to make some room in my reading list for more top tier biographies. Thanks for the help prioritizing.

    A minor editorial note: Peter Brown’s bio of Augustine says (9 nominations). It seems like it should say (5 nominations). Sorry if that is nit-picky.

  11. Winnie says:

    But surely all 18 scholars were men. Shouldn’t this religious community fund a literacy program for women considering that women are not considered literate enough to participate? Who really wants to be part of an all male community anyway?

  12. Winnie says:

    I would like to see nominated books on women of the Reformation by Roland Bainton, several books by Marion Taylor, also Sisters of the Sinai, and surely many more. Johanna Eleonora Petersen, Anne Hutchinson, Lottie Moon, etc.

  13. Looks like I need to pick up a few more for my collection. The only one that I’ve read is the Abe Lincoln one. Thanks!

  14. Justin says:

    I can’t believe the 2 vol. Hudson Taylor biography: The Growth of a soul and the Growth of a Work of God wasn’t on the list.

  15. S C says:

    And you can get BOTH Hudson Taylor “The Growth” books plus five other books for a total of just $2.99 on your Kindle: The HUDSON TAYLOR Collection, 7-in-1 [Illustrated] A Retrospect, Union and Communion, Separation and Service, Ribband of Blue, Taylor in Early Years, Growth of a Work of God, Choice Sayings.

  16. Chris says:

    Justin, this is a good opportunity for me to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. Thanks especially for this excellent series of interviews/posts on the top 5 biographies from a number of different pastors & scholars…I will definitely be diving in to Marsden on Edwards and Brown on Augustine.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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