The Joys and Frustrations of a Christian Biographer

Editors’ note: 

This article has been adapted from a paper MacLeod read at commencement exercises for Westminster Theological Seminary on May 26, 2011, in response to receiving an honorary doctorate.

In the UK, when I am introduced, there is an emphasis on my first initial: “Our speaker today is A. Donald MacLeod, not the Donald MacLeod.” The reference is to the eminent principal of the Free Church College, Edinburgh, and a previous recipient of a Westminster DD. On the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides, my grandfather’s home, there are numerous Donald MacLeods. So many, in fact, that each is designated by a locality or a distinguishing family feature: in our case it is Donald MacLeod Habost Lochs. Then there is the need for further explanation, for I am not to be confused with my great-uncle, the Rev. Donald MacLeod Crossbost. The fact that he served there a hundred years ago is incidental: Islanders, like the Hebrews of the Old Testament, have a long memory. And each person has her or his story, a biography that is repeated through the generations. Their past provides an identity that is uniquely their own.

Perhaps that is how I became a biographer. As the only son of an only son who was the son of a man whose brothers had no sons I early learned that I carried the whole freight of a family tradition, a collective memory that was handed on to me to guard and to ensure its perpetuity. Letters, photographs, and stories were to be protected and passed on to the next generation with the anxious concern that they never be lost. And, of course, the greatest fear of all was that a family’s faith would be abandoned in a succeeding generation, the covenant mercies of their God not transmitted to those who came after. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must also be the God of each succeeding generation if the family history had validity and coherence. On occasion my pastor son feels the weight of being the fourth generation of Presbyterian ministers. Fortunately he too is an historian, and knows and loves our story well.

Note my title: I write as a Christian biographer. And that distinction, that qualifier, is bound to be regarded by many as prejudice, as demonstrating a lack of professionalism, a limitation on objectivity, an inhibition of open-minded examination of the facts. The presumption is that Christian biographers have an agenda: through the recounting of a person’s life to instruct, to defend, and perhaps even to warn, the reader. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

As a child, I was brought up on biographies: every Sunday afternoon my father would bring out, or read to me, the story of yet another missionary hero. David Livingstone was a particular favorite, but there were many other biographies particularly tailored to the under-12s (the type of biography that Linda Finlayson writes and that makes such an impact), thrilling stories of endurance and faith that fostered fresh recruits and, in my case, made the work in which my parents were engaged heroic and self-sacrificing, as indeed it was.

My family’s long connection with the China Inland Mission meant that as I grew older I had passed on to me classics that built the mission: Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Borden of Yale ‘09, Pastor Hsi: One of China’s Christians, The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. Geraldine Guinness Taylor, Christian biographer laureate, became an iconic figure, her books selling in the hundreds of thousands and shaping a generation of evangelicals. Later it would be Elisabeth Elliot whose Through Gates of Splendor, the story of the six 1956 Auca missionary martyrs, followed by the biography of her first husband, Jim, Shadow of the Almighty, sent thousands of my generation overseas. The whole modern Protestant missionary movement was built on biographies.

Of course, all that is passé today. I remember the shock I received when researching in the United Church of Canada archives a biographical piece about Jonathan Goforth, whose wife’s hagiographic Goforth of China also became a missionary classic. In reading the correspondence from 1889, setting up the Canadian Presbyterian north Honan field, I met a very different Hudson Taylor than that portrayed in his daughter-in-law’s two-volume biography: irascible, dictatorial, and arbitrary when fighting over territorial comity agreements. You do not have to go as far as Fighting Angel, Pearl Buck’s 1936 cruel parody of her southern Presbyterian missionary father, Absalom Seidenstricker, to discover more realistic accounts of missionary life. Frank Houghton’s beautifully written Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur is cautious but truthful, though you have to read between the lines.

Writing About the Triumphs and Shortcomings of Our Heroes

It was Lytton Strachey who broke the mold of Victorian saccharine biographies. His Eminent Victorians appeared significantly in the year 1917 as the foundations of 19th-century civility and Victorian respectability were being destroyed in the trenches of France. “Discretion is not the better part of biography,” he stated and went about slashing every 19th-century English icon in sight. Curiously, it was Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey that appeared 60 years later that broke the last taboo in biography, exposing his subject’s homosexuality. Even more significantly, he revealed that one of his partners was none other than John Maynard Keynes, something that had been explicitly denied in the official 1951 biography by his colleague and close friend, fellow economist Roy Harrod. Holroyd’s brilliant biography was denounced by one critic as a danger to the Western world.

Indeed, biographies can be subversive. When one sets out to research someone you never know where it will lead. I was reminded forcibly of that when I set out to write the biography of C. Stacey Woods, the founder of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the United States and the first general secretary of its international counterpart, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. It was in Sydney, Australia, that I first discovered the reason why Stacey emigrated to North America: his great mentor and inspiration in campus ministry to young men, it turned out, had to return to England suddenly on charges that are today all too familiar.

My next shock came when I learned, while in Lausanne (Stacey’s home for the last 20 years of his life) that his death at the age of 73 was due to his alcoholism. These facts posed me a serious problem, and sponsors and publishers even a threat. We eventually, at their insistence, managed to express the truth in carefully chosen language that preserved my integrity as a professional. Truth-telling can be costly, but I shall forever be grateful to Stacey’s family for their courtesy and willingness to go along with Stacey’s professed desire to have his story told “warts and all.” And it is a wonderful story, one that needed to be told as InterVarsity strives to find its identity in the 21st century. Stacey shines out of it as a man who struggled and prevailed.

One of the happy discoveries I made in researching the life of Stacey Woods was the extent of the influence of Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the fledgling InterVarsity movement worldwide. “The Doctor,” as Lloyd-Jones is affectionately known, was the subject of a major two-volume biography by Iain Murray, published by Banner of Truth. The first appeared in 1982, a year after the Doctor’s death, the second in 1990. They represent a trade-off: negatively, a strong emotional attachment on the part of the biographer, which might cloud objectivity, but on the other hand an intimate knowledge only a close friend and colleague could have.

Supposedly Predictable

Writing about pastors and academics presents a challenge to the biographer. Our lives are so predictable, it is claimed. There is little of the action and excitement that can be found in the story of an explorer, an inventor, a politician, or even a man or woman of letters. Clergy biographies in the 19th century were de rigueur, and no self-respecting Victorian cleric could escape the dubious distinction of having his life and letters published posthumously, usually in multi-volumes. There are exceptions, of course: I think of the Memoirs of Dr. Chalmers by his son-in-law William Hanna. McCrie’s 1810 biography of John Knox provided momentum for the evangelical resurgence over the then moderate hegemony within the Church of Scotland. Andrew Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne did that a generation later. A more recent and superb clergy biography is Donald Miller’s The Scent of Eternity: A Life of Harris Elliott Kirk of Baltimore. Kirk pastored the Machen family’s Franklin St. Church, Baltimore, for 31 years. And Don Carson has written a most unusual remembrance of his father, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, which deals honestly and lovingly with the failures and frustrations of ministry in challenging circumstances.

As with Lloyd-Jones and InterVarsity, several of my biographies have been written to remind institutions or organizations of their roots. It was on the steps of Machen Hall, one day in the spring of 1987, that George Fuller told me of a church in Boston that he had pastored, then without a minister, who wanted someone simply to preach the Word. My ears pricked up. I applied and was called, only to discover that the present reality was not that straightforward. When it came to their sesquicentennial I wrote a biography of a previous pastor, George Murray, who served for almost two decades to 1956. Murray, from the Isle of Lewis, was a staunch conservative, a biblical expositor, and a devoted pastor. Again, an unwelcome discovery in my research was that his “doctorate” came from a degree mill. Five hundred copies of the finished biography arrived at my home the afternoon of a session meeting, but by that time the elders were so divided that I did not hand them out that evening, and many of the copies remain in my possession.

That book had been financed by the widow of a deceased elder. His was also a story that needed to be told: Stewart Gray, an immigrant from Nova Scotia, a self-made multimillionaire, a pioneer in the laundromat business, who made and gave away millions. My friend Barry Corey, then dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, now president of Biola University, set about writing his life in The Treasurer, a story of a 90 percent tither. Childless, Gray had no immediate heirs, though one nephew of promise would, he hoped, fulfill all his aspirations. Stewart paid for the young man to attend Gordon College and then go on to Westminster. The biography, as Barry has written it, chronicles how he lost his faith at seminary during his first year of study and the effect that terrible defection made on Gray and his wife. As Corey’s consultant and editor, I asked myself, Should the story be told or not? As a friend of Westminster, who owes much personally to Cornelius Van Til, I have allowed it to go ahead as a story that is not gratuitous and raises important issues, not least for me who befriended and failed him while he was here.

What to Include and What to Leave Out

Westminster Seminary figures hugely in my Stanford Reid biography. My impetus for writing it came from reading an obituary in one of the seminary’s bulletins. I felt that the comments did not do justice to the tremendous contribution Reid had made to the school as an alumnus and 37-year trustee and set about to set the record straight. It was a challenging assignment: I owed a tremendous debt to Reid and was personally involved in many of the causes for which he fought, particularly in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Could I be objective? Did I know too much?

I discovered, as I researched his life, that he had left papers at no less than three institutions: denominational archives in Toronto and at the University of Guelph, where he taught, as well as at Westminster. The latter gave an interesting clue as to what he regarded as one of the most difficult and emotionally draining issues of his life: the entire file of the seven-year controversy over the views of professor Norman Shepherd. Again, should it be included and how? And what interest would it have for a non-Westminster readership? It is the old conundrum for a biographer, what to include and what to leave out.

The book was widely reviewed, and several reviewers focused on the Shepherd chapter. Many communicated that it had clarified a difficult issue that was hard to untangle and with some objectivity, for which I was very grateful (and relieved). Others were less impressed, saying perhaps more about themselves than the issue. One reviewer wrote that it “sidetracks readers with somewhat tedious detail and does not deserve the space allotted.”

The most curious response to the biography was given by an adjudicator for the Ontario Historical Society, who turned out to be a graduate student of Reid’s, an alumnus of Gordon College, who had long since abandoned his Christian faith but obviously retained some wistfulness about what he had lost. He awarded the biography the prestigious Donald Grant Creighton award for the best historical biography in the previous three years. I did not take that recognition personally but accepted it as a tribute to Reid’s lasting influence.

The original faculty at the seminary have not all received their due biographically. The earliest biography of a Westminster professor was Ned Stonehouse’s comprehensive study of Machen, which appeared in 1954. My copy, I see, is signed by my father as being bought in November that year as he was about to leave for Taiwan. He spent the entire voyage savoring the memory of his beloved professor and wrote Ned a warm letter of appreciation on arrival home. He had waited for years for his classmate at Princeton to produce the definitive “biographical memoir.” As with many of Machen’s students, my dad was affected by “Das” in a way that is hard to explain rationally. From the very first line you know that this is not objective biography, but who could be objective about the man, particularly if you knew him? Subsequent treatments of Machen have appeared, but somehow there is something elusive about him, at least judging by all the anecdotes I grew up with, collected from the four formative years my father spent in Alexander Hall at Princeton.

Five years ago, on a trip to China, I was privileged to visit the station in Zhejiang, where my grandfather served as a missionary and church planter for 24 years until he succumbed to cholera in 1921. The home he had built for his bride, a Hoosier he had met in language school, had just been returned to the congregation by the government. The church he built in 1905 had been extended twice to accommodate the crowds that attend the three or four services a Sunday. I spoke to the pastor in my broken and long-forgotten Chinese and told him about Kenneth MacLeod. He knew nothing about the origins of the church and begged me to write a short biography of my grandfather so that the church would at least know who had started the witness there. “We have no records,” he added, “everything was destroyed,” an oblique reference to the Cultural Revolution, which is still not to be mentioned. Then he asked if I would write things down for them. “It’s so important to know who we are and where we came from,” he added. So I am setting out to do a brief 150-page memoir, to be translated into Chinese for their edification and as an encouragement for them in their witness.

Biographies as a Witness to Faithfulness

“What do these stones mean?” Joshua anticipated the time when the sons of Israel would ask their fathers the significance of the 12 rocks at Gilgal. The visuals provided a reminder of the two decisive dates in their collective memory that must never be forgotten: the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan. But those events were not only their history but a powerful witness: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”

That witness to the next generation provides the rationale for my latest biographical project. It’s a biography of a Scottish industrialist of the 19th century who was a founder of the Free Church of Scotland. Like Reid, Charles Cowan’s life ran on several tracks: he was a successful businessman, an entrepreneur, a scientist, a Member of Parliament, and a generous philanthropist involved in many Edinburgh charities. Thomas Chalmers, his father’s first cousin, was his lode-star, as was the Free Church scientist Sir David Brewster (who needs a biography to dispel some of the illusions about “narrow” Calvinists). What happened on May 18, 1843, when 123 ministers, accompanied by 70 elders, walked out of St. Andrew’s Church, Edinburgh, to form the Free Church of Scotland has generally been told from the perspective of the so-called “worthies” of the Disruption, the latest contribution being Sandy Finlayson’s acclaimed Unity and Diversity.

But the defining moment of 19th-century Scottish history would never have happened without a group of committed and generous laypeople. Charles Cowan, who attended 40 General Assemblies, epitomized the strengths and weakness of the Free Church: a personal piety, a canny eye for a truly biblical sermon, a compulsive reader, and an intellectual enthusiast. But like the Free Church, he ventured out into experimentation with worship and higher criticism, becoming an apologist for both Dwight L. Moody and William Robertson Smith. Writing the biography made me recall animated conversations with Allan Harman in the Willow Grove gatehouse 50 years ago as to the decline and fall of the Free Church of Scotland before 1900. Writing the book has reconnected me with two of the great Victorian biographies: John Morley’s three volumes on Gladstone, with whom the Cowan family was closely connected, and George Trevelyan’s Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, his uncle.

In 1957, when my wife’s grandfather, Charles Cowan Newnham, grandson of Charles Cowan, died, she was left a large collection of Charles Cowan historical hand-me-downs—-letters dating back to 1819, diaries chronicling his day-by-day life, and many family memoirs. Recently I completed his biography, based on additional research in the National Archives of Scotland, the Chalmers correspondence at New College Edinburgh, and 810 citations in The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper. It’s titled The Man Who Beat Macaulay: Charles Cowan and the Business of the Disruption. The title reflects the recent biography Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power by Father Robert Sullivan of Notre Dame. Cowan upended Macaulay in an 1847 election that demonstrated the anger of his Free Church constituents against unprincipled and insensitive politicians. With the exception of my wife’s sister, none of Charles Cowan’s descendants (he had 14 children, six of whom had issue) share his faith. It is our prayer that the book, when it is published, will remind them of their heritage, serving as the 12 stones of Gilgal for her family in this generation.

For the Christian biographer writing about a fellow believer there is an inescapable responsibility that transcends all professional and intellectual commitments. There is a quote that has often been cited from the Reid biography:

Throughout his life [Stanford Reid] was frequently ignored, minimized, ostracized, even rejected. Remarkably none of these experiences left him bitter or angry. His Reformed faith provided a ready antidote to this buffeting. He was continually going back to the themes of providence and the perseverance of the saints. His Calvinism was of a very practical and personal nature, gainsaying those who decry that theology as merely cerebral and intellectual. While he eschewed “piety,” at the deepest level he was a very pious individual.

It was Cicero who stated: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In theological curricula today church history has too often been sidelined or ignored. Perhaps that is why the church can appear immature and ill-informed, repeating past mistakes and failures: so soon we forget. Biographies are a way of incarnating the historical, bringing it alive, making it intensely personal and authentic. Well-crafted biographies, written with integrity and honesty, can serve the people of God well. In spite of the occasional frustration, and recognizing the awesome responsibility involved, my work as a Christian biographer has given me joy and fulfillment. Soli Deo gloria.