I recently finished reading Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just as I am. He has a fascinating story, and it’s incredible to think of all of the ways he has influenced 20th century evangelical Christianity. From publications like Christianity Today, to outreach and discipleship movements like Campus Crusade and The Navigators, Graham had a major hand in so many of the institutions and movements that have come to characterize mainstream evangelicalism in the last 65 years.
As I read the biography, I felt a genuine appreciation for all that Graham has accomplished. At the same time, I was also surprised by how often I found myself disagreeing with decisions that he made, particularly when it came to spending time away from family.
Graham’s heyday was before my own, but his story and ministry remind me in many ways of Rick Warren and his ministry. They share a similar focus on evangelism, a similar pragmatic approach to outreach, a similar reticence to voice criticisms or make what they perceive to be unnecessary theological distinctions among believers.
It was interesting reading the Graham biography in between biographies about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Edwards. Of the three figures, I definitely identify on a personal level with Bonhoeffer the most and Graham the least. Graham’s energy, charisma, and salesmanship are both an inspiration and something totally foreign to me, and his story makes me grateful for how God uses people with all kinds of gifts in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
The latest biography I read was a big one: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by TJ Stiles. Over the course of almost 600 pages, you get to know a man who uniquely shaped the emerging national economy of the United States in its infancy. A few things I took away from the book:
- I was struck by how the character of American cultural and economic life has been in a constant state of change since its very beginning. Vanderbilt was born in 1794 and lived until 1877. When he was young, it cost the same thing to move a ton of goods over 30 miles of land as it did to ship the same cargo from the states to Europe. It took 7 days for the news of George Washington’s death in Virginia to make it up to New York City. Steamboats revolutionized transportation in America in the early-mid 1800’s, which in turn transformed the very make up of the country. The same thing happened with rail roads to an even greater extent. From his birth to his death, Vanderbilt’s life story is told against the backdrop of a country that’s constantly changing. Maybe the recent technological revolution isn’t as unique as it sometimes seems, even if the rate of change has been kicked into overdrive.
- I really like the name Cornelius.
- Vanderbilt himself was the prototype of the self-made man. From modest beginnings, he became the richest man in the country through hard work, determination, and remarkable focus. I get the impression that he really loved his work, not so much for the money he made, but simply because he enjoyed entrepreneurship and the challenges of innovation.
- Vanderbilt’s success in the transportation industry is pretty simple. Ultimately, he ran more efficient operations than his competitors. He offered a superior service at a superior price. While other executives were using their positions of power to enrich themselves at the expense of their shareholders, Vanderbilt typically made his personal wealth by seeking the best interest of every shareholder.
- Most of his life, Vanderbilt seemed to have little interest in religious concerns. As he got older, he increasingly took an interest in spiritualism, seeking out mediums and participating in seances, which apparently became quite popular during and after the Civil War. In the last few months of his life, he suffered quite a bit of physical pain as he suffered from a chronic illness. He took a new interest in the Christian gospel and apparently placed his trust in Christ in the last couple months of his life. He had consistently expressed disinterest in God throughout his entire life, only to seek him out in his final days.
As part of a new habit of reading biographies and memoirs, I recently read biographies on Martin Luther and John Calvin. I had read theological works by both of these leaders of the Reformation, but I didn’t really no much at all about their personal histories.
Reading a biography of each, back to back, was pretty interesting. In some ways, they were so similar. They both had a keen awareness of the currents of thought in their day. They saw issues very clearly and seemed to be able to recognize the ultimate outworkings of big ideas. They were both quite resolute in their theological convictions.
Both Luther and Calvin went about their work with a seriousness that reflects the sense of calling that both men possessed – very ambitious, very devoted to their work. They both dealt with chronic illnesses, though I guess that could be as much a reflection of the time in which they lived as anything else. Both men became more cantankerous in their old age, perhaps an unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent on debates and disagreements. Neither seems to have finished strong.
In other ways, Luther and Calvin couldn’t have been more different. Luther was a rural pastor in Germany, Calvin a cosmopolitan theologian from France. Luther had a larger than life personality. Calvin was more reserved. Each faced very different challenges as reformers.
The differences between the two men are a great reminder that God accomplishes amazing things through all kinds of people, and their similarities drive home some practical lessons about both the price and the value of courage and conviction, the importance of clear thought, and the danger of becoming jaded under the weight of personal attacks. Neither man was perfect, but Western Culture owes a great deal to the legacy of Calvin and Luther.
Next up on the biography list – Cornelius Vanderbilt!