Books Evangelical History

Recommended Biographies By or About Women

Faith Cook is an author, biographer, and hymn writer. She grew up as a missionary child in war-torn China and has chronicled her story in an autobiography.

Her own biographical work has been on both men:

and women:

Here are her top five recommendations of biographies about Christian women in church history.

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Edith L. Blumhofer, Her Heart can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005).

In Her Heart Can See Edith L Blumhofer, professor of history at Wheaton College, Illinois, has given us an authoritative and well-researched assessment of the life and hymns of Fanny J Crosby (1820-1915), sometimes known under her married name of Fanny van Alstyne. This remarkable little woman became blind soon after birth, but despite her handicap is described in the Guinness Book of World Records as history’s most prolific hymn-writer. She dictated more than 9,000 hymns and religious verse between the years 1864 and her death in 1915, often under different pseudonyms. Her hymns included well-loved classics as “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine,” “To God Be the Glory, Great Things He Hath Done,” “Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord,” and lesser-known hymns such as “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and “Some Day the Silver Cord Will Break.”

In this fascinating biography Blumhofer blends the life of the blind poet with a remarkable and comprehensive study of the development of nineteenth-century religious life in New York.

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Diana L. Severance, Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History (Christian Focus, 2011).

Here is a unique book packed with accounts of women throughout the long history of the Christian church. Dr Diana Severance starts with 1st century women such as Mary, mother of Jesus, followed by the early martyrs, Blandina and Perpetua, and takes us through the centuries until she reaches such familiar names as Corrie ten Boon, Elisabeth Elliot, Ruth Graham, and Joni Eareckson Tada.

Diana Severance, of Rice University, Texas, divides her material into twelve historical chunks, placing her characters against their own times and social backgrounds. Throughout this volume we are introduced to extracts from the writings of many of the characters described. Dr Severance is not afraid to include some surprising heroines of the faith, forcing us to reconsider our previous conclusions.

Of necessity, no more than a few pages can be devoted to each character, but this book serves as an excellent introduction to many of history’s half-forgotten Christian women.

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Arnold A. Dallimore, Susanna: The Mother of John and Charles Wesley (Evangelical Press, 1992).

When Dr Samuel Annesley’s twenty-fifth child was born, the event may have raised a few eyebrows, but none could have suspected that this child would still be the subject of interest and biography more than 300 years later. The primary reason for this springs from her outstanding two sons, John and Charles Wesley, whose impact on the spiritual life not only of Britain, but on the church worldwide, has been immense.

But Susanna, exceptionally beautiful and married to Samuel Wesley at the age of eighteen, was a remarkable woman in her own right. With rare intelligence and strength of character she nurtured, trained, and influenced her sons in such a way that a study of her life throws a revealing light on the characters, contribution, and conflicts of both John and Charles Wesley.

In 168 highly readable pages Arnold Dallimore presents fascinating details of the Wesley family life, and yet leaves us with enough unanswered questions to prompt us to explore further. When was Susanna converted? John and Charles certainly considered it was in the last two years of her life. Certainly her reliance to some extent on ‘good works’ was a major hindrance. Did the same doctrinal error affect John Wesley at times? Did her stormy marriage to Samuel Wesley influence the saga of the unhappy marriages of most of her children? These and other questions are evoked by these pages, written by this gifted historian.

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Sharon James, Ann Judson: A Missionary Life for Burma (rev. ed., Evangelical Press, 2015).

The first American woman missionary to venture to a little-known distant land, Ann Judson sailed to Burma with her husband Adoniram in 1812. With Burma (also known as Mayanmar) now increasingly open to a relaxation of its hard-line, secretive government, this account of Ann Judson’s short heroic life, recounted by Dr Sharon James, gives us a vivid picture of old Burma. Drawing freely on Ann’s memoirs and letters, Dr Sharon James brings her endurance, faith, and sufferings vividly before our eyes. With its skilful blend of narrative and evocative quotes, this is part biography and part autobiography. In days when the willingness to sacrifice for the gospel’s sake is far less common than once it was, this book is a stark reminder of the Saviour’s challenge to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Ann Judson’s tireless support, a support which eventually cost her health, and led to her early death at the age of thirty-seven, enabled her husband to set up the first Christian church in Burma.

[Tom Nettles comments on this book: “Sharon James gives a sensitive and vigorous unfolding of one of the most intensely important lives of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism. Without Ann Judson, American evangelical foreign missions might never have gotten off the ground.”]

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Sharon James, In Trouble and in Joy: Four Women Who Lived for God (Evangelical Press, 2003).

In days of economic recession we are always delighted to discover a bargain, and this publication is a bargain indeed—in fact four for the price of one! In an attractive hardback and well-illustrated publication, Dr Sharon James presents the lives of four Christian women who lived during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. After a short biographical chapter, we are treated to selections from the writings of each woman.

Margaret Baxter, wife of Puritan Richard Baxter whose romance with the austere preacher is one of the most charming and tenderest in the Puritan era, is Sharon James’s first choice. This is followed by a moving account of Sarah Edwards, wife of Jonathan Edwards, a woman whose deep spiritual experiences challenge and rebuke us still.

Two single women follow: Anne Steele and Frances Ridley Havergal. In both cases, these two have enriched the Christian church by their hymns, many of them still loved and sung today in spite of the explosion of modern hymns and songs. Sharon James’s own research has exposed some of the myths that have clung around Anne Steele, and reveal a modest woman of fragile health who devoted time and talents to God in a unique way. Likewise Frances Havergal used her extraordinary talents to write volumes of Christian verse and devotional literature. From a typical Victorian but privileged background, Havergal maintained a wide range of correspondence and it was she who coined the phrase “Her Heart Can See,” in a poem dedicated to Fanny Crosby.

The lives of these four godly women serve as a beacon for our own day, guiding us through the confusion and pitfalls of our own generation.

Below are some more recommendations of biographies—either by or about women—that friends have recommended to me:

Michael Haykin (himself the author of Eight Women of Faith)

Michael Reeves

  • Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: Tuchman does two extraordinary things here: she maps the history of an age (fourteenth century Europe) through the story of one man, and she forms in us a real emotional attachment to this character who otherwise is so distant and foreign.
  • Faith Cook, William Grimshaw of Haworth: Atmosphere, action, great character: it’s Wuthering Heights meets Whitfield-Wesley revival.

John Fea

John Wilson

  • Simone Petrement, Simone Weil: A Life: There are drawbacks to a biography written by a friend of the subject, but this is nevertheless an indispensable account of the enigmatic, God-haunted Frenchwoman.
  • Frances Stonor Saunders, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini: This heart-breaking story of Violet Gibson (the woman of the title) and Italy under Mussolini juxtaposes the mental instability of a devout Catholic woman, cruelly abandoned by her family (though her “madness” made a kind of sense), with the megalomania of Il Duce, long indulged.

Thomas Kidd

Anthea Butler

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