I am beginning a new series today, looking at worthwhile and favorite biographies recommended by leading experts. You’ll be able to access the whole series here.
First up is Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame, one of our foremost scholars of religious and cultural history.
I asked for the top five biographies that best represent the genre at its best, with a little explanation for each.
1. Malcolm Muggeridge, The Chronicles of Wasted Time, 2 vols. (vol. 1, The Green Stick; vol. 2, The Infernal Grove)
This is a great book, although what kind of great book is hard to say. Muggeridge presented this two-volume work as an autobiography, but the books are selective to the point of fiction and strongly back-loaded to reflect Muggeridge’s opinions as they had come to develop by the 1970s. Doubts as to genre notwithstanding, the volumes are as crisp an evisceration of the modern Zeitgeist as one could possibly hope to read. Muggeridge knew almost everyone of note in Britain and also in many other places of the world. As told here, his life was a perpetual series of disillusionments with the gods of the age (Fabianism, Marxist socialism, western affluence) and a progressive self-understanding of what it meant as a journalist extraordinaire, even in the most secular of centuries, to be haunted by God.
2. David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning. London: John Murray, 1966 (reprinted with this title by Eerdmans in 1993; the first American printing was by Harvard University Press in 1966 under the title The Wilberforces and Henry Manning).
Newsome’s multiple biography is an old-fashioned kind of history about old-fashioned kind of people. His subjects lived in the luminous circle created by the household of William Wilberforce in the first half of the nineteenth century. This circle was made up of several of Wilberforce’s children, their friends and colleagues, and their sisters and sisters’ friends, themselves a remarkable group of Victorian women. The plot line is the story of the drift from the sturdy evangelicalism of the older Wilberforce to high church Anglicanism and then, for some under the guidance of John Henry Newman, to the Roman Catholic church. The poignancy of the story is the combination of intense fraternal devotion and painful ecclesiastical separation. When some in this circle remained Anglican, the result was broken relationships in homes, colleges (most were connected to Oxford), and the church. Newsome’s gift is to shape the treasure trove of letters left by the participants (they were scribbling away all the time) into a compelling narrative that, while it solves no problems of theology or church loyalty, nonetheless demonstrates the profound humanity of those who engaged those issues in that corner of Victorian England a century and a half ago.
3. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003).
Marsden succeeds in bringing biography to theology and theology to biography with unusual clarity about both the person and the times.
4. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
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.
5. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
This biography offers scintillating history of science-with-culture for one of the most important thinkers of the modern period.
RUNNERS UP (some very close):
- Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition: Between the Conversions of Wesley and Wilberforce
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
- Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power
- Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and Devil
- H.G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography
- E. Gordon Rupp, Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms
- Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo
- G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas—”The Dumb Ox”
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles
- John Pollock, Wilberforce