Monday, 2 September 2019

Exploring Genre: Christian Biography & History

by David Bennett

History is not boring

Many people think that history is boring. It is usually only boring if it is told badly.

Hudson Taylor went to China at the of 21 to take the gospel to the Chinese. He arrived in the middle of a war and his life there was in constant danger. I have written a book called Hudson Taylor and China (Rhiza Press). Is it boring? How could it be?  It is dramatic and at times exciting.

History is full of fascinating people, exciting events, disturbing incidents and great drama. I write church history and biography with a major focus on nineteenth century Britain and the missionaries sent from there.

Christian Biography and History

With some genres one can point to major authors who write in a particular field, but while this is possible with church history, it is harder with biography. With biographies one tends to look for a book about a particular person rather than who wrote it.

Two Australian examples of biographies where the subject is more famous than the author are Mr Eternity by Roy Williams and Elizabeth Meyers (Shortlisted for the 2018 Australian Christian Book of the Year Award), and The Man the Anzacs Revered by Daniel Reynaud. 

The first is about Arthur Stace, a Christian man, who became a legend by writing the word “Eternity” on Sydney’s footpaths over a period of many years. Stace was an ordinary man, but he did something that was extraordinary. 

The other book is about William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie, who was a Salvation Army chaplain in the First World War. He was a remarkable man who was famous between the two world wars, but is sadly les known today. If you want to read a good biography about a great Australian, read The Man the Anzacs Revered, for the Anzacs did not revere many outside their own. “Fighting Mac” was special.

Two of the best writers of modern church history are Mark Noll (America) and David Bebbington (Britain). Both are clearly excellent at research and write well. (I understand that Bebbington’s son was once asked what his father did, and the son said, “He writes about dead evangelicals.” I do the same as Bebbington senior.)

Research and Sources

Research is a vital aspect of writing history or biography. Research has never been easier and never harder than today. It is easier because there are lots of good modern books and articles available on most historical figures and events of interest, and the internet has opened up access to the text of many out of print books and given us access to many worthwhile articles. 

But this presents two areas of difficulty: firstly, there is a lot to wade through; secondly, as always with the internet, you have to be careful, for there is a lot of ill-informed rubbish out there. Check and recheck your sources.

David's Projects

One of my major projects has been the history of The Salvation Army and its founders, William and Catherine Booth. William Booth was originally a Methodist evangelist, who won thousands to faith in Christ Jesus. His preaching was dynamic and the results often dramatic. Catherine also became a Methodist preacher and was (no surprise) one of the early Christian feminists. They were very different from each other, but in their own ways colourful. As The Salvation Army came into being, they attracted around them a ragtag collection of odd people, male and female, who excite, intrigue, and, at times, make you laugh or cry.

Catherine was a difficult person to argue with. She was smart and always seemed to have her arguments ready. On one occasion she had just preached at the opening of a new Salvation Army mission hall. Afterwards a man cornered her and said, “Did you know, Mrs Booth, that the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that women should not speak in the church?” She responded, “Yes, but I am not a Corinthian and this is not a church.” Wow! I wouldn’t want to argue with her.

I have written two biographies of William Booth, a smallish one called William Booth and his Salvation Army (Even Before Publishing) and a two-volume book, The General: William Booth (Xulon Press). I have also edited, transcribed and published their letters to each other, Catherine’s diary, her reminiscences and her letters to her parents, which are all full of their love of Christ and their great desire to make Him known. 

I am now writing a two-volume biography of Catherine. The first volume, Catherine Booth: From Timidity to Boldness, has been accepted by Morning Star Publishing.

Making it Readable

I write two different kinds of biography. One I describe as dramatic. That is, whilst sticking to the main incidents of the subject’s life, I, in some cases, invent dialogue and assume people’s emotions, to make it read (hopefully) like fiction. The other type I write are more authentic, detailed and analytical, but still (I am told) very readable.

I think one of the tricks with non-fiction writing is to make it readable, which is easier than most people think. There are always plenty of exciting and dramatic events going on now and in the past. Write about them. What interests and excites you will almost certainly interest and excite others. And don’t use lots of long and complicated sentences. While some sentences should be long, keep most fairly short and some very short. Variety in sentence length is important in all forms of writing. 

Two people have told me that my PhD dissertation (The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology) was very readable. I confess that when I heard that, I thought, “It’s a PhD dissertation for goodness sake. It’s not meant to be readable.” You see, even some complicated subjects can be made readable.

David Malcolm Bennett has written over 20 Christian books, mainly biographies and church history. His book “From Ashes to Glory” was a joint winner in the CALEB AWARDS, biography section, and his “William Booth and his Salvation Army” was a finalist in CALEB. That book about William Booth has sold over 25,000 copies in its three editions, English, American and Australian. His latest book “Hudson Taylor and China” is a finalist in this year’s CALEB.


  1. Certainly nothing dull about the adventures of those brave and daring evangelists. I remember reading about Hudson Taylor some decades ago, and also 'The Small Woman', Gladys Aylward, missionary to China in an exciting book from the family bookshelf when I was still a teenager - nothing dull about her story either! I shall have to add your books to my reading list.

  2. History was only boring in school, although I must confess I still don't have the enthusiasm for research-based reading that my father (the venerable gentleman who wrote this blog) has.

  3. Thanks for a great post, David. I've enjoyed some of your previous biographies and am excited about this one about Catherine Booth, especially given how well you know the primary sources. She was a remarkable woman.