By Ben Karleen
Christians of all ages have drawn spiritual strength and inspiration from biographies of the heroes of the faith. Readers have wanted to know about habits of the effective Christian in prayer, study, and outreach; what their personal lives were like; how they overcame adversity through faith in God; and what adventures and miraculous deliveries they experienced. The following works were selected through informal polls and best-seller lists, and recount the stories of Christians drawn from all walks of life, including politicians, theologians, preachers, missionaries, athletes, and others.
50. Amazing Grace : William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
This New York Times bestseller highlights the astounding accomplishments of Britain’s most famous 19th-century politician. Wilberforce, born into luxury and privilege, experienced the “great change” of Christian conversion and resolved to spend his life confronting the moral and social problems of his country. Amidst bitter opposition, Wilberforce won his fight to abolish British homeland slavery in 1807, and British colonial slavery in 1833. Metaxas’ account, along with the highly-acclaimed film, brought Wilberforce’s little-known story to light.
49. Augustine of Hippo : A Biography
Brown published his meticulous authoritative work on the West’s most famous theologian of antiquity at the age of 32, tracing Augustine’s intellectual journey through five periods of his life. A masterful novel-like treatment of the North African’s interaction with the great theological controversies of his day, punctuated with vivid excerpts from his letters and sermons. The latest edition has been updated in light of new discoveries of Augustinian texts.
48. Autobiography of George Muller
Muller is known particularly as a helper of orphans in 19th century England, and as someone who never asked any person for monetary assistance. His autobiography tells of incredible ways in which, through insistent prayer, needs of the children under his care were met. What is less known about him is his pre-Christian reputation as a thief, as well as his later preaching tours which took him to forty-two countries.
47. The Story of John G. Paton
The incredible account of a missionary’s 30 years among the Pacific islanders of New Hebrides. Arriving from Scotland in 1858, he soon lost his wife and young son, but persevered in the work among the cannibals there. Later remarrying and having ten more children, Paton remained on the islands, translating the Bible and sending out local people to preach the gospel, which eventually won a great hearing.
46. No Compromise : The Life Story of Keith Green
Keith’s widow Melody takes us from Green’s conversion to Jesus out of California’s hippie music scene through his rise as a Christian pop star and his tragic death at the age of 28, along with two of his children. Throughout the biography readers gain a sense of why Green was such a polarizing figure : exceptional musical talent and radical simplicity of faith coupled with a sometimes scathingly critical spirit over what he saw as compromises to Christian holiness and the purity of the gospel.
45. God’s Smuggler
Brother Andrew with John and Elizabeth Sherrill
A classic of missions and the miraculous, Brother Andrew recounts his remarkable life of Bible smuggling behind the Iron Curtain. After being wounded in the foot as a Dutch soldier, Andrew was converted and ventured dangerously into many Communist countries at the height of the Cold War.
44. Surprised by Joy
C. S. Lewis
Lewis (1898-1963) wrote more than thirty books, including the famous Chronicles of Narnia. Surprised by Joy is perfect for the curious who want to know how someone could come to possess such exquisite story-telling abilities. In it Lewis takes us from his upbringing to Atheism to Oxford, where his intellectual and spiritual journey reaches its climax.
43. The Hiding Place
Corrie ten Boom
A Dutch family of watch-makers joins the Resistance against the Nazis, creating a false wall in Corrie’s bedroom in order to hide Jews. When the Nazis eventually raided the home, all the hidden Jews remained concealed, but the ten Booms were taken away to prison camp. The author survived and tells an unforgettable tale of forgiveness.
42. My Life Without God
William J. Murray
Murray is the son of the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose 1963 victory at the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools. The account gives an intimate picture of the dysfunction of the home, including William being unaware that Madalyn was his mother for the first several years of his life. After struggles with crime and drugs, he became a Christian at the age of 30. His mother and brother were later murdered.
41. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23
W. Phillip Keller
Keller, an outdoorsman and conservationist who grew up among the Masai in East Africa, interweaves his experience as a sheep rancher in British Columbia with the words of Psalm 23 in this beloved classic.
40. Joni : An Unforgettable Story
Joni Eareckson Tada
A diving accident put Joni in a wheelchair at the age of 17, unable to move from the shoulders down. Learning to paint with her mouth, she became an accomplished artist and founded Joni and Friends to help the disabled. This classic about the triumph of faith has sold 3,000,000 copies.
39. Jonathan Edwards : A Life
George M. Marsden
Marsden succeeds in producing a critical biography that is also readable. Edwards was 18th-century America’s most famous intellectual theologian, articulating for Christians of his generation, and down to our day, a vision of American life centered on the sovereignty of God and what Edwards called the spiritual affections.Readers will get more than just theology, however, in Marsden’s presentation of the Puritan as husband and pastor.
38. DAWS : The Story of Dawson Trotman, Founder of the Navigators
Betty Lee Skinner
Skinner recounts how Trotman (1906-1956) went from juvenile delinquent to founder of a large Christian ministry focused on reproducing disciples through systematic Bible study. Readers can’t help but be moved by accounts of Daws’ vision, courage, and discipline, and his own death as he saved a drowning girl in a New York lake.
37. Here I Stand : A Life of Martin Luther
Roland H. Bainton
Bainton’s classic chronological account of Luther’s life places the most famous Reformer’s accomplishments within the context of 16th-century Catholic faith and practice. For many years a professor of Church History at Yale, Bainton compellingly highlights Luther’s still very contemporary concerns, including the relationship between faith and good works, and the role of music in a Christian’s life. Here I Stand would be an excellent entry point for anyone desiring a first-hand understanding of the 16th-century religious landscape of Europe.
36. William Tyndale : A Biography
Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) left England, where it was illegal to possess a Bible in the vernacular, in order to produce the first English translation of the Old and New Testaments, translated directly from Hebrew and Greek. Daniell lays out not only the social obstacles that Tyndale overcame to produce his translation, but also his genius and abilities with the biblical languages in a time when they were little-known in England. As editor of Tyndale’s translation, Daniell is uniquely positioned to give us an account of the man who paid for his translation with his life.
35. A Life of John Calvin
Alister E. McGrath
Although we do not have a great amount of detail about the events of John Calvin’s life, McGrath ably describes the reformer’s relationship with the city of Geneva, his theological emphases, and the impact of his thought upon succeeding generations of theologians, and upon Western culture in general.
34. George Whitefield
Arnold A. Dallimore
George Whitefield (1714-1770), along with the Wesley brothers, is the best known figure in America’s 19th-century evangelical revival. This two-volume work, widely recognized as the authoritative source on Whitefield, took some 25 years to research and write. Dallimore transports us to a time when an evangelist would arrive in a town to proclaim the gospel in the open air, sometimes unannounced, and attract a crowd of thousands upon thousands of people.
33. Spurgeon : A New Biography
Arnold A. Dallimore
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) is known for his extraordinary ability as a preacher in 19th century England. His Metropolitan Tabernacle would seat 5,000 and hold another 1,000. The Prince of Preacher’s sermons were published immediately after he gave them and are still widely known. But Dallimore specifies in his preface that he also wanted to expose Spurgeon’s evangelistic method and theological prowess.
32. Faithful Witness : The Life and Witness of William Carey
Carey (1761-1834) is known as the father of modern missions. After work as a shoemaker and then as a pastor, he became convicted about the need of Christians to share the gospel in the world. He spent 41 years in India and translated the Bible into Sanskrit, Bengali, and other languages.
Though many have written on Carey’s life, Timothy George goes farther than others in analyzing what motivated and influenced Carey than other biographers have.
A modern missionary thriller about a 19-year old Minnesota native who ventures into one of the most feared tribal contexts in Columbia and Venezuela in order to translate the Bible and share its message. Using innovative cultural approaches, Olsen overcame incredible obstacles and with time witnessed overwhelming responses to his efforts, including friendship with four Columbian presidents.
30. Lords of the Earth
Richardson, known for his other books, Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts, plunges readers into the fear-ridden world of the cannabalistic Yali warriors of mountainous Irian Jaya and the change brought about by the martyrdom of Stan Dale and his co-worker Phil Masters. When the Yali attack and kill the two men, they are awed by their courageous faith, and the events are the beginning of a great spiritual change brought to the Yali.
29. The End of the Spear
Steve Saint’s missionary father was murdered in 1956 in Ecuador during an attempt to make contact with an isolated tribe. Saint tells an unbelievable story of reconciliation as the same people group invited him and his family to return and live among them in Ecuador. Particularly striking is the development of a close friendship with one of the men who murdered his father, as well as his recounting of the events from the cultural perspective of the tribe. The book inspired a motion picture of the same name in 2006.
28. To the Golden Shore : The Life of Adoniram Judson
Judson and his wife left the United States for Burma in 1812 and became the trailblazers of modern American missions work. Anderson’s work is an even-handed and thorough presentation of Adoniram’s strengths and weaknesses as he struggled to establish a ministry hampered by remarkable hardships. His perseverance was rewarded with the completion of the Burmese Bible translation and the establishment of 100 churches.
27. Through Gates of Splendor
In the 1950s, five young men resolved to make contact with the Auca, a group of Amazon Indians of Ecuador known for their practice of ambushing all outsiders. Elliot recounts the slayings of her husband Jim and his four friends after initially friendly encounters, and the touching subsequent story of forgiveness as she returned to live among the people who had murdered her husband.
26. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
Bunyan (1628-1688), author of the famous allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, opens a window onto his own existential crisis in coming to Christian faith. He describes how, as a young man, he lived a self-centered life of open rebellion against God, and even in times of conviction, doubted that God’s grace was sufficient to overcome his state. He eventually gave in and went on to minister as a preacher and write one of the enduring classics of the Christian faith.
25. A Chance to Die : The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael
Elliot challenges readers to imitate the passionate faith and long-term commitment of Amy Carmichael, helper of India’s underprivileged children. Carmichael spent 55 uninterrupted years in southern India, saving many children from prostitution through the establishment of the Dohnavur Fellowship, which still exists today. The title of the book comes from Carmichael’s evaluation of missionary experience as a chance to die to oneself.
24. Life of Martin-Lloyd Jones
Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) left a career in medicine to become one the most respected biblical expositors of the 20th century. Though born in Wales, he ministered for almost 30 years at Westminster Chapel in London and became a major figure in British evangelicalism. This edition of Murray’s work brings together and condenses what was originally written in two volumes.
23. Bonhoeffer : Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
As the Nazis began to overtake Europe in 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a comfortable ocean’s-length away from his homeland, invited to teach at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. But he was not at ease, and chose to return to his homeland to show fellow Christians and countrymen how the gospel leads one to fight for justice, even if by subversive means. Metaxas’ exciting account leads readers beyond the pastor’s final days in a German concentration camp just two weeks before the Allied liberation to his ongoing legacy as a theologian and activist.
22. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus
A former Muslim gives an insider’s account of Muslim life and theology and his conversion to Christianity. Qureshi prided himself on his ability to take apart the Christian worldview, until a fateful day when he met a Christian who at last was able to defend his faith. Qureshi now lectures and debates at public and private universities throughout the world, explaining his own path to faith in Christ through historical reasoning and spiritual encounter.
21. William Grimshaw of Haworth
This biography of a lesser-known figure of the 18th century Great Awakening in England is often listed as a favorite of modern church leaders. Grimshaw (1708-1763) studied at Cambridge and entered the ministry of the Church of England, but it was only after the fact that he experienced a personal conversion to Christ and began preaching this gospel with uncommon zeal.
20. Prophecy of Pale Skin
D. S. Phillips
Destined to become a modern missionary classic, Prophecy of Pale Skin tells how a young couple made their home in an Indonesian tribe in order to share the message of Christ among them. Having had no such previous contact with the outside world, the tribe later revealed to them that their people had had dreams about the coming of pale-skinned people who would tell them a very important message. Offers an interesting look at how cultures equate natural phenomena with spiritual encounters.
19. The Cross and the Switchblade
In 1958, David Wilkerson (1931-2011) felt the call to leave his rural Pennsylvania upbringing and share the hope of the gospel with gang members and drug addicts in New York City. This 1963 bestseller (50 million copies) recounts the story of Nicky Cruz, who turned from gang life to Christ and Christian ministry. Wilkerson is known as founder of Teen Challenge, an addiction recovery program.
18. Born Again
Born Again is an unflinchingly honest account of Colson’s role in the Watergate scandal and his resulting spiritual journey. Experiencing a personal rebirth during the legal proceedings, Nixon’s famous hatchet man (1931-2012) plead guilty to obstruction of justice and was the first to serve time of all those convicted. Colson became an outspoken Christian and founded the Prison Fellowship to minister to inmates.
17. The Duggars
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar
Through television exposure, the Duggars have become America’s best-known mega-family, with 10 sons and 9 daughters. Learn how the couple met, began having children and then asked God for more and more. Discover how they got started in business and now manage to feed, clothe, and educate that many offspring without taking on any debt.
16. Tortured for Christ
A Romanian born into a Jewish family in Bucharest, Wurmbrand (1909-2001) became a disciple of Jesus and a minister. He recounts his fourteen years of imprisonment for working with the underground church in communist Romania. Three of the years were spent in solitary confinement, twelve feet underground, in complete silence and darkness. He later founded Voice of the Martyrs, helping persecuted Christians around the world.
Schaeffer, wife of the 20th-century Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, tells of the establishment of the Christian community known as L’Abri (the Shelter). In 1955, the Schaeffers moved to Switzerland and opened a home where seekers could come study and debate the Christian faith and experience Christian hospitality. The author has a unique and elegant style that will transport the reader to the heart of a unique apologetic ministry of a bygone era.
14. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd
Jonathan Edwards compiled this biographical sketch and assembled the journals of David Brainerd (1718-1747). Brainerd, having been expelled from Yale, spent the rest of his brief life preaching the gospel to various American Indian peoples in New Jersey and neighboring states. Though he died of tuberculosis at the age of 29, his journals have over the centuries been an exhortation to prayer and Christian commitment for many key missionary figures.
13. A Man Called Peter : The Story of Peter Marshall
At the age of 24, a poor Scottish immigrant named Peter Marshall (1902-1949) came to the United States and rose to renown as a preacher, later becoming Chaplain of the United States Senate. His wife Catherine Marshall wrote their love story, which later became a well-known film. Marshall’s ministry as a preacher was cut short at the age of 46 when he died of a heart attack.
12. The Story of Sadhu Sundar Singh
Cyril J. Davey
Sundar Singh (1889-1929) was born into Sikhism in northern India, persecuting Christians around him, until a vision of Jesus Christ as a young suicidal teen prompted him to do an about-face. He took up the life of a wandering Christian evangelist in a Hindu’s attire throughout India, Tibet, and Afghanistan. Cyril Davey recounts many of Sundar Singh’s miraculous experiences, including power over disease and animals. The evangelist that left a singular mark on IndianChristianity was last seen in 1929 as he departed for a mission in the Tibetan foothills.
11. Quiet Strength
In 2007, Dungy became the first African-Amercian NFL coach to win the Super Bowl, and had taken his team to the playoffs eight out of ten seasons previous to that year. More impressive than his accomplishments on the field is the respect Coach Dungy has earned for being a man of integrity. In Quite Strength, Dungy reveals the central role his trust relationship with Christ has played in his character and career accomplishments.
10. Eric Liddell : Pure Gold
Lidell’s life (1902-1945) was made famous by the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire (Academy Award, Best Picture). Lidell was a Scottish athlete with exceptional speed, winning the 400 meters at the 1924 Paris Olympics. But as McCasland shows, Liddell was ultimately driven by what he saw as a greater calling, and gave up running full-time in order to serve as a missionary in China.
9. Life of Saint Macrina
Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa and his brother, Basil the Great, along with Gregory of Nazianzus, are known as the Cappadocian Fathers of the Greek Church. In the fourth century, the three of them made important contributions to the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity. What is less known is that Gregory and Basil’s sister, Macrina, played a significant part in their work. In the Life of Saint Macrina, Gregory details how his sister Macrina devoted her life to ascetic service after the young man to whom she was engaged to be married died. In converting her family’s estate into a convent and monastery, she gave the Cappadocians a place to study and write.
8. Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret
Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor
Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) spent 51 years in ministry to China as a preacher, translator, author, and visionary, and is widely considered one of the most influential Christian missionaries ever. Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret provides an intimate look at what drove Taylor to accomplish so much and influence so many – including abiding trust in God and self-denying allegiance to those whom he served.
7. Jungle Pilot
Jungle Pilot is a good companion work to Through Gates of Splendor, which both recount the murder of five missionaries in the Ecuadorian jungle in 1956. The Jungle Pilot in question is Nate Saint, and the narrative leads us from his childhood, with its strong family relationships and faith in God, to his initial and then fateful forays into the Auca tribe by plane. This edition includes some updated information about Nate’s son, Steve, and his return to the people who murdered his father.
6. Evidence Not Seen
Darlene Deibler Rose
While Darlene Deibler Rose and her husband were serving as missionaries in Papua New Guinea during World War II, they were captured by the Japanese and placed in separate prison camps. Though her husband died in his camp, Rose amazingly survived four years and was liberated. The book recounts the miraculous ways in which her life was spared. Readers are particularly marked by the amount of scripture that she had committed to memory, which she was able to bring to mind and feed upon during those agonizing years.
This #1 New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture tells the unbelievable survival story of Louis Zamperini. Hillenbrand masterfully takes us from troubled child to Olympic runner to downed bombardier lost forty-six days at sea to tortured Japanese prisoner of war to born-again Christian. Though not focusing on Zamperini’s Christian experience, readers of Unbroken can easily see how his life events culminate in his life-changing confession of faith.
4. Gifted Hands
Ben Carson, M. D.
Raised by a single mother in inner-city Detroit and plagued by a terrible temper as a child, Carson became famous as head of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins at the age of thirty-three. He is known as the first person to successfully separate twins born joined at the back of the head. In Healing Hands, Carson reveals what difference his Christian faith has made in his amazing successes.
3. And the Word Came with Power
Follow Shetler in this highly-acclaimed account as she endures the slow and arduous task of learning the Balangao language of the Philippines and translating the Bible for that people. The result was a spiritual showdown in which the people were forced to see that God’s power through his Word was stronger than the spirits who constantly demanded more sacrifices.
2. The Heavenly Man
Readers are deeply touched in seeing how Brother Yun was prepared in his early years to become a prominent leader in China’s secret house-church movement. The Heavenly Man is a window on the extreme persecution of Christians in the East that has too often gone unnoticed by those in the West.
1. Gladys Aylward
Janet and Geoff Benge
The Benges’ account of Aylward (1902-1970) is the ideal one to read with children. A British housemaid, Aylward was denied membership in a sending agency as a missionary to China. She paid her own fare to China and became a revered protector of children among the Chinese people. Her life work became the subject of a major motion picture, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
About the Author
Ben Karleen lives in eastern Canada with his wife and five children. He has enjoyed experiencing different higher education contexts, including Cairn University in Philadelphia (bachelor’s in biblical studies), Trinity Western University in Vancouver (master’s in theology and master’s in applied linguistics) and now Université Laval in Québec City (doctoral research in Ancient World). He spends time teaching Greek literature and building timber structures.