Writing Biography

Two articles: “The Strengths and Limitations of Biography” by Dr. Jonathan Bonk, DACB Founding Director Emeritus and
“The Craft of Writing Religious Biography,” by Dr. Dana Robert, DACB Editorial Committee member

Why Biography? The Strengths, Limitations and Inevitability of Biography

“We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here.
All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although biography is neither the definitive nor an entirely reliable window into the past, without biography there could be no human history. “Histories” or “herstories” are the highly selective, sometimes haphazard, frequently idiosyncratic collections of memories assembled and arranged to make sense of a person’s or a people’s place in time and space To entitle any historical narrative using the definite article the is presumptuous at best, and dangerous at worst. No history can claim to be more than a history, rather than the history, of anyone, any people, or any event.

Where does biography fit into the picture? Biography lies at the core of the Biblical narrative. Without biographies, Judaism and Christianity would have no sacred texts. One might characterize biographies as character silhouettes, shadows, outlines, or sometimes vivid word images. The story begins with God, and continues through patchy accounts of human beings claiming special affinity to their creator. These named-and-remembered fellow mortals are sometimes deeply flawed, occasionally singular, but usually utterly ordinary. Snippets of their life stories seemed to bygone chroniclers to be somehow worth remembering and recounting: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Laban, Esau, Leah, Rachel, Dinah, Joseph, Judah, Tamar, Potiphar’s wife, Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, Miriam, Jethro, Joshua, Rahab, Achan, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Delilah, Ruth, Naomi, kings, prophets, disciples, apostles, and so on it goes.

Without these biographies there could be no Jewish or Christian scriptures, no way to trace God’s active interest in the human predicament. It is through such biographies that we subsequent generations of leaders and followers have been able to graft our own ordinariness into the grander story of God’s engagement in human time, life and circumstance.

The Dictionary of African Christian Biography makes no pretense to being a definitive history of anyone. It is a growing smattering of biographical stories, recalled and recounted by men and women with their own limiting perspectives, biases, insights, and opportunities. A number of its subjects have generated multiple biographies, each reflecting an author’s unique vantage point, not unlike the accounts of Jesus’ life provided by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Christian gospels.

Without such biographies, coming generations of African church historians and their readers will be hard pressed to locate authentically African voices in the uniquely African story of Christianity across the continent. So while acknowledging that even the best biographies are mere glimpses “through a glass darkly,” without a biographical foundation, more comprehensive church histories will be largely irrelevant, unrecognizable to those about whom and for whom they are ostensibly written.

Shared memory ensures the self-conscious continuity of a family, a religion, or a people and is a staple of both formal and informal education in all societies and nation states. “A people,” poet laureate Robert Pinsky reminded readers, “is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory…. Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.”

Dr. Jonathan Bonk
Research Professor of Mission, Boston University
Founding Director Emeritus, Dictionary of African Christian Biography


1. Ralph Waldo Emmerson – Texts. “History” from Essays: First Series (1841). URL: http://www.emersoncentral.com/history.htm, updated 09/03/2009 (Accessed November 12, 2014).
2. Robert Pinsky, “Poetry and American Memory,” The Atlantic Online (October 1999), http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99oct/9910pinsky.htm (Accessed November 11, 2010).

The Craft of Writing Religious Biography

My interest in religious biography extends to my undergraduate days at Louisiana State University, when in the 1970s I wrote an honors’ thesis on Daniel Berrigan and the Catholic left. I still remember the thrill of wading through years of the New York Times and documenting each draft card burning and anti-war protest, of reading Berrigan’s prize-winning poetry from the 1950s, of hunting down his essays and articles, and ordering all his books through interlibrary loan. As I constructed my pioneer biography—that I now in hindsight realize I should have published—I came to know the late 1940s until the mid 1970s from inside the world of an Irish-American Jesuit activist. As a young public school student from southern Louisiana, I learned all about life in a Catholic seminary, about places I had never been like New York City and Block Island. I experienced the birth of revolutionary theology in Latin America, the first anti-Vietnam protests, the angst over civil disobedience and incarceration in Danbury prison. Living the 1960s through the eyes of Daniel Berrigan meant that I, too, began reading books by Thomas Merton, and holding political discussions with William Stringfellow, and pouring blood on draft files in Catonsville, Maryland.

What drew me to write about Daniel Berrigan when I was 20 years old, is the same thing that has drawn me to interview numerous church workers in Zimbabwe and missionaries, to write three dozen entries for the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, and two biographies of Arthur T. Pierson. More than any other genre, biography allows me to get inside the relationship between religious beliefs and the activities of life. Biography tests the relationship between faith and action. It bridges intellectual and social history by demonstrating how ideas grow and change in the context of a particular life, and how life circumstances shape beliefs. Before scholars began talking about “lived religion,” religious biography exemplified it.

My attraction to religious biography therefore flows from the chief question that drew me into religious history, namely, what is the relationship between beliefs in ultimate reality, and human action.

Since the idea of religious biography is composed of two elements, religion and biography, let me consider each of these in turn and then reflect on how together they are greater than the sum of their parts. First religion. To write a biography of a self-consciously religious person means accepting that religious belief is an independent variable, not reducible to class, race, gender, or social location. Although all these non-theological factors must compose an interpretive framework in a classic “life and times” biography, basic respect for the person means that we cannot reduce everything to factors of social location. After all, most human beings experience themselves as self-conscious actors—if not as subjects of their own history, then at least as persons who make choices with the hand of cards they have been dealt. Real people may experience oppression, but they do not think of their own faith as reducible to race, class, gender, or social location. The craft of religious biography therefore requires a basic respect for the subject’s integrity. Respect for his or her integrity includes taking religious belief seriously and not dismissing it as a form of false consciousness. Only if we take religious world views seriously can we enter into the worlds of women and of persons in oral cultures, not to mention the worlds of theologians and ministers and presidents of the United States.

The benefit of a respectful approach is that it allows the biographer to enter the world view of persons quite dissimilar from herself. I’ve had people ask me how I as a southern Methodist woman have been able to portray with such understanding the viewpoint of a New York Yankee Presbyterian premillennial dispensationalist male like A.T. Pierson. Because I respected him as an autonomous human being, I sought to understand and to portray Pierson’s theological formulations as logical and making sense, given his context. Being an outsider to his religious viewpoint was beneficial, since I carried no baggage about dispensationalism either for or against it. Once I understood Pierson’s religious worldview from a position of sympathy, I could understand why he made decisions against his own self-interest, such as being re-baptized, an action for which he lost his livelihood and was defrocked as a Presbyterian minister.

And this is another reason why the religion part of religious biography is so fascinating: Religious belief can explain why people act against their own obvious immediate self-interests. I think this factor is why I am so interested in the biographies of missionaries. Was it really in her own self-interest for Baptist Sarah Comstock in Burma around 1840, to send away all of her children for education in the United States, knowing she might never see them again? Was it really in Simon Kimbangu’s self interest to break the law and preach the gospel for six months, and then be imprisoned by the Belgians for thirty years without ever being permitted to see his family? Was it really in Daniel Berrigan’s self-interest to be imprisoned for opposing the war in Vietnam?

The attraction of studying individual religious motivation is that it so often leads to the heroic—of people living beyond the limitations of their human nature. And the heroic is interesting precisely because it constantly skirts on the edge of the tragic. Living according to principle can lead to death and destruction, just as easily to success and glory. For scholars, the religion part of religious biography, with its stress on exploring human decisions based on belief in ultimate truths, is what makes people interesting subjects. For believers, at a popular level, the heroic/tragic potential of Christian belief has long made the hagiographic form of religious biography a classic aid to Christian piety. Although I hope that my biographies are not hagiographies, I do wish them to respect persons of faith.

Now to the second part of the equation: biography. To my mind one of the greatest benefits of biography in the study of religion is that it avoids the pitfalls of over-systematization. We historians, with the benefits of hindsight, tend to read later trends back into the historical record and then systematize them in such a way that confirms current configurations—for example the idea that evangelicals are social conservatives, or that Darwinists and modernists are social progressives. Biography, with its respect for the human person, shows how beliefs develop gradually and in context, and in combination with other ideas that to later generations seem incompatible. The biographer must be careful not to jump ahead and to read foregone conclusions into a life in process. When we read snippets of a person’s work in a book or journal, we tend to put that person into a box that supports our scholarly conclusions. But when we read his or her work in the context of a life, we better see competing and even inconsistent trends. One example I dealt with in my biography of A.T. Pierson was the assumption that late nineteenth-century premillennial dispensationalism by definition was so concerned with the Second Coming of Jesus that evangelism crowded out concerns for the poor and for social justice. Yet in 1893, A.T. Pierson gave one speech on how the poor were being ground down by rich capitalism and another speech that connected the idea of the kingdom of God with the premillennial Second Coming of Christ. These speeches were delivered a week apart. What historical systematizers would normally keep separate cohere in the life of one person. The biographical approach to the development of late nineteenth century evangelicalism shows how premillennial eschatology did in fact co-exist with social concern for the urban lower classes. To give another example from 1893– Historians and especially theologians in retrospect assume that the Parliament of Religions was a visionary effort by far-seeing liberals who were eager to promote religious pluralism. Yet the organizer of the proceedings of the Parliament of Religions, the Rev. J. H. Barrows, pastor of 1st Presbyterian Church in Chicago, was also giving speeches to groups of Christian Endeavorers in which he referred to himself as a very conservative old-fashioned Presbyterian.

If the purpose of the historian is to keep the theologian honest, then perhaps one of the roles of the biographer is to keep the historian honest. We simply cannot systematize a person’s life because there are too many cross currents and ideas in different stages of development, being expressed during different life stages. For example, what a person thinks about spirituality at age 25 is far different from what he might be thinking at age 75. Changes in intellectual emphasis might signify a change in life stage more than a deliberate repudiation of earlier priorities. The words of Emerson apply well to the craft of writing religious biography: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Finally, my closing words about the relationship between religion and biography: the combination of these two is so interesting because it is naturally accessible. Theological ideas clothed in a real life are more easily understood than when they are naked. History itself is more enjoyable when seen as a succession of real people’s lives intersecting with events they cannot ultimately control. My teacher Edmund Morgan tried to teach us something he learned from his teacher Samuel Eliot Morrison—seeking to write in an accessible manner is one of the most important goals of the historian. Biography is a good way to make religious ideas accessible.

The hardest thing about writing a religious biography is the inevitable death of the subject. Just like our own death, we know it is coming, but we dread turning that last page.

Dr. Dana Robert
Boston University, DACB Editorial Committee
Paper presented at the American Society of Church History Conference, Jan 2006
Philadelphia, PA