The Value of Biography
The best way to learn about leadership is by reading good biography
Review by Gary Steward
Few kinds of writing have the potential to inspire and instruct as historical accounts of wise and godly leaders of the church. For such biographies to be spiritually helpful, a wise and discerning biographer is needed to selectively weave biographical material into an engaging narrative that instructs even as it engages and inspires. As Charles Spurgeon wrote in 1870, “The value of a biography depends far less upon its subject than upon its author.”
Iain Murray is one of the wisest and most discerning biographers of evangelical leaders today. Murray has written full-length biographies of Archibald Brown, Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Macarthur, A. W. Pink, J. C. Ryle, and John Wesley. In Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors (Banner of Truth, 2017), his most recent volume, Murray presents shorter biographical reflections on the following Christian pastors and preachers: John Elias, Andrew Bonar, Archibald Brown, Kenneth MacRae, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier, and John MacArthur. Much like his previous volume entitled Heroes, this book combines a variety of biographical sketches from different centuries and settings.
What unites these biographical sketches is Murray’s underlying concern for today’s church. Murray originally delivered many of these addresses to theological students who were preparing for pastoral ministry, and he did so with a desire to point out modern defections from views and practices that were characteristic during times of greater biblical faithfulness and spiritual vitality. Murray believes that church leaders today should listen and take counsel from godly voices that are out of step with much that goes on in the evangelical world today.
The first chapter of Murray’s Seven Leaders is on John Elias, a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist leader of the early nineteenth century. In this instructive chapter, Murray not only gives a biographical sketch of Elias’s life but also uses observations from his life to discuss the experience of revival and to pastorally give a number of timely warnings that are relevant for the church today. These include the warnings against “the peril of making the learning of which the world approves a necessity for heralds of the gospel,” the deprecation of theological confessions, the lowering of moral standards for church members, the “near idolizing of good men,” and the “lack of discernment in those who could not distinguish between emotionalism and the work of the Spirit. Murray highlights in this chapter the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work for an effective ministry. He also gives an extended discussion of the nineteenth-century debate over the extent of the atonement in Wales. Murray also argues that the Reformed doctrine of particular redemption does not hinder evangelism, and accommodations made to this doctrine in the nineteenth century contributed to the overall theological downgrade in Wales and Britain more generally.
Rich theological discussions and helpful observations like those found in the first chapter fill the rest of the book. From Andrew Bonar’s insights and experience on spiritual communion with God to Kenneth MacRae’s understanding of preaching and sermon preparation, Murray selectively culls material from the lives of these seven church leaders to not only give us biographical narratives but wise spiritual counsel as well.
It is a Christians duty to “remember your leaders” (Heb. 13:7) and to “walk with the wise” (Prov. 13:20). Iain Murray helps his readers do both in his books. Seven Leaders is a wonderful addition to his many valuable and insightful books. Church leaders will especially profit from it, but all Christians will be benefited by the spiritual and theological instructions contained in this volume. I enthusiastically recommend this book, as well as Murray’s other writings!
Gary Steward is Assistant Professor of History at Colorado Christian University and the author of Princeton Seminary (1812-1929): Its Leaders’ Lives and Works.