Biographies are good for the soul. A good biography not only teaches you history, but it also draws you into the life and mind of a real person from the past. A biography can inspire, as well as provide comfort and encouragement.
Many great biographies have been written, with multiple biographies often being written on the greatest men. Here I want to recommend five biographies of what I consider to be the five greatest Christian men in history. No doubt this list is debatable, though there is likely consensus on the first three mentioned (Augustine, Luther, Calvin), at least among Protestants.
The men listed here are historical giants and worthy of study by everyone. All five men were theologians and pastors, but they all had significant influence on a wide array of fields—including politics and education. They are in chronological order, which is fitting because each man stands on the shoulders of those who came before him.
Though there are longer works available on most of these men, I tried to recommend shorter books that people will actually read. (I was unable to do so for #4.) Since five is not very many, I will also make some honorable mentions.
Biographies on the Five Greatest Christian Men
1. Augustine of Hippo: A Life by Henry Chadwick. Augustine (354–430 A.D.) was the greatest theologian of the first millennium of the church. His theology is insightful and his knowledge of the classics astounding. He is said to be the last great Roman author, as he died shortly before Rome’s fall. He is claimed by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, making his influence all the greater. Chadwick’s work is an excellent introduction.
2. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton. Martin Luther (1483–1546 A.D.) was one of the most interesting—and entertaining—men of all time, and God used him greatly in the Protestant Reformation. There is an entire branch of the church that bears his name, and his writings are still cited to this day. There are other good biographies on Luther, but Bainton’s work is a classic.
3. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by Robert Godfrey. John Calvin (1509–1564 A.D.) was a second generation reformer, but his writings had a lasting impact on the church. Godfrey has done the church a service by writing this accessible work on Calvin and his thought. There are lots of excerpts from Calvin, which helps the reader to understand Calvin (but can also distract from the flow of the biography).
4. The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney by Thomas Carey Johnson. Less famous than the previous names, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898 A.D.) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor and theologian who served as a chaplain for the Confederacy. Dabney is largely ignored today because he defended American slavery, but he should not be ignored—for Dabney was one of America’s greatest theologians. He wrote a full systematic theology, a biography on Stonewall Jackson, and essays on a wide variety of subjects. His cultural and political writings often read like prophecy. Unfortunately, the most modern biography is largely a critical work. I therefore include this longer work from 1903.
5. J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought by Stephen Nichols. J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937 A.D.) was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, yet many today are not familiar with him. Machen was a stalwart defender of orthodox Christianity against the growing theological liberalism of his day. He was booted from Princeton Seminary and his Presbyterian denomination (the PCUSA), which led him to found both Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen was also a champion of political liberty and Christian education. Nichols has given us an excellent account of the life and thought of this great man.
Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox by G.K. Chesterton. Aquinas is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church as its greatest influence and is therefore ignored by many Protestants. But he should not be.
George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century by Arnold Dallimore. Whitefield’s preaching ministry was impressive. He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.
A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden. Edwards is hailed by many as America’s greatest theologian. While I do not think he is worthy of that label, he is still worth studying.
The Life of John Murray by Iain Murray. John Murray is not well known outside of Presbyterian circles. But he was a good man and a great scholar. This is an enjoyable read.
Also consider the series A Long Line of Godly Men, with books on Calvin, Luther, Whitefield, Edwards, William Tyndale, John Knox, John Owen, Issaac Watts, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. These are short and well written books.
Of course, there have been many other great Christians throughout history with great biographies written on them. If you know of one not on this list, feel free to mention it in the comments!
Update: Here is a follow-up post recommending the best work of each of the five men in the list above.