Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion. Among other works, he is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and a major biography due out next year from Yale University Press on George Whitefield (marking his 300th birthday).
He writes, “I am focusing on biographies from the colonial and Revolutionary eras of American history. I heartily agree with Mark Noll’s recommendation of my doctoral adviser George Marsden and his Jonathan Edwards biography, which would otherwise be at the top of my list. Since he’s already mentioned it, here’s the next five.”
1. David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1994).
Fischer not only offers an evocative treatment of Revere and his world—which was more interesting than what Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” told us—but one of the best books on the American Revolution, period.
2. Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (Harper and Row, 1984).
A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of one of the most intense (some might say neurotic), prolific, and tragic of all the American Puritans. Reading this will help you understand why one of his opponents once firebombed Mather’s house!
3. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Knopf, 1990).
Another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Ulrich’s remarkable recreation of Ballard’s compelling life is perhaps the best American social history biography ever written.
4. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (Knopf, 1994).
This is a biography of the Williams family, especially of Eunice Williams, who fell victim to a 1704 Native American raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Demos tells the poignant story of how the seven year old Eunice grew up among the Mohawks, married an Indian man, accepted Catholicism, and never returned to the Puritan fold in spite of fervent appeals by generations of her family.
5. Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013).
As I wrote in my review for The Gospel Coalition, Brekus’s extraordinary portrait of Osborn may be the best biography we have of an American evangelical woman.
John Fea is associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and the author most recently of Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013).
1. Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.
A vivid portrayal of 19th-century culture through the life of a member of one of the century’s most famous families.
2. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
Bushman brings the founder of Mormonism to life with elegant prose and scholarly insight.
3. Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
Caro is known today for his biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson, but this earlier biography of the urban planner and landscape architect who “built” 20th century New York City reads like a novel.
4. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
The best biography of Edwards ever written and a model for religious biography.
5. Eric Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.
Miller’s bio of late-twentieth century cultural critic and historian Christopher Lasch is one of the best intellectual biographies I have read.
Douglas Sweeney is professor and chairman of church history and history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, as well as director of their Jonathan Edwards Center. Among his books is the very helpful Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought.
1. Roland Baiton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.
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.
2. Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart: John Wesley: Evangelist.
Readers can feel Wesley’s heart burning on almost every page.
3. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.
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.
4. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
This is the definitive biography of our most important evangelical intellectual.
5. Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.
This brand-new book makes great use of the recently released correspondence of Lewis, making this late-modern evangelical hero come to life (warts and all) for his fans.