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Life lessons: The value of Christian biography (II)

This section aims to suggest areas in which we may ask questions about the life of a biographical subject, and some mistakes to avoid in the study of lives. By Jacob Dunn.

Photo: [link]Jessica Ruscello[/link] Unsplash CC0.

This is part two of two of the paper  "Life lessons: The value of Christian biography". It was first published by the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission. You can read part one here.


How to study lives

The question might well be asked; what next? Having explained the biblical basis for the study of lives and some key concepts for thinking about individual lives and how they relate to their social surroundings, this last section will aim to suggest key areas in which we might ask questions about the life of a biographical subject, as well as some mistakes to be avoided in the study of lives.

In asking questions about the life of an individual, we might begin with what Clinton calls their “sovereign foundations”.36 This refers to the earliest part of a life, over which an individual has no control. “God providentially works through family, environment and historical events. This begins at birth.”37 

Even at the earliest stages of life, God is at work to lay the foundations for what comes later. This is true whether or not one comes from a Christian family or community. As well as family and community environments, sovereign foundations might also include early experiences which God uses to shape an individual into the person he desires them to be.

These experiences may be positive or negative, but all work to develop them into someone who can step into the role God has for them.

This is particularly relevant to the lives of social reformers, many of whom would have been profoundly shaped by experiences of poverty, persecution, or a troubled family environment. In many cases, these experiences have brought home to them the reality that social conditions need to change and have driven their later efforts toward social reform.

Martin Luther King Jr. describes an incident when, at the age of six, the father of a white friend forbade them from playing together anymore. King describes this as the first time he became aware of a race problem in America, and this led him to ask the question “how could I love a race of people who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends?” 38

This is a clear example of an early experience which was deeply formative in shaping the young King. It is also clear that the circumstances of his experience centred on things outside his control, including his family, his culture, and the colour of his skin.

To understand such experiences and the role they played in shaping social reformers may help us to gain a clearer understanding of the recurring themes of their lives and what motivated them to campaign for change.

The topic of motivation is a second important area which is important to understanding the lives of social reformers. It is possible to look at the life of any social reformer and ask, ‘What drove them? Why did they do what they did?’

In the lives of some social reformers, it may be easy to see a single overriding concern, or a single driving emotion such as anger at injustice. With many others it may be harder to determine, as they may not have spoken much, if at all, about what motivated them.

In such cases, more may be learned from the accounts of those who knew them, and from secondary sources. In these cases, it is particularly important to note that such impressions may be subjective.

Only the individuals themselves can truly know their motivations, and where a record of this is lacking, we are only able to speculate. Nonetheless, seeking to understand the driving forces in an individual’s life is very helpful in understanding their character and how they may have thought about the decisions they made in the course of their career.

This discussion of thought processes and motivation raises two mistakes which must be avoided in studying the lives of past social reformers. The first of these is known as the historian’s fallacy.

This may be defined as the assumption that people in the past viewed the events of their day from the same perspective that we do. 39

While in hindsight we may be able to assign a sense of causality to past events, at the time those involved would not have had the same wide-ranging perspective that we have. In retrospect, we can see the course individuals’ lives took, while they themselves could not.

This is quite relevant in thinking about the purpose God has for the lives of social reformers. While it is possible for us to look back and see the hand of God on the life of a person, and to clearly see the purpose he had for them, at the time they may not have been aware of this, and would have experienced moments of doubt and fear and questioning, just like anyone else.

A related fallacy is that of presentism. This is the tendency to judge past actions by the standards of today. 40

“Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior…Our forebears consistently fail to measure up to our present-day standards. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. It is to say that we must question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline.” 41

While we must not make excuses for the past, neither should we dismiss historical figures simply because they do not align with modern values. Rather we should acknowledge that historical figures belong primarily to their own times, not to ours.

This disconnection between their values and our own becomes more apparent the further back in time we look. We must acknowledge that while they lived in a different time and by different values, social reformers of the past can still teach lessons for today.

A further area we might seek to understand in the lives of those we study is their key relationships. No one exists alone, every person builds a diverse network of relationships around them over the course of their life.

Understanding the key relationships in the lives of social reformers, therefore, is useful in developing an understanding of who they were.

These might be family relationships, romantic relationships, working ones or friendships. Such relationships can be profoundly important in shaping the lives of individuals. They can provide comfort in times of difficulty and function as constants in the often-turbulent lives that social reformers may have led.

For some social reformers, a primary influence has been their families. Martin Luther King writes of the influence of his family in shaping his faith,

“It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and lovely relationships were ever present…Religion has just been something that I grew up in. Conversion for me has been the gradual intaking of the noble ideals set forth in my family and my environment, and I must admit that this intaking has been largely unconscious.” 42

King’s point that the influence his family and environment exerted was largely an unconscious one is important. Often our relationships shape us in ways we are unaware of, which become apparent only in retrospect, if at all.

It is important to remember that, while we may be able to see the influence of a particular relationship in shaping an individual, they themselves may not have been as aware of it. By bearing this in mind, we will avoid falling into the historian’s fallacy described above.

While King’s example relates to his family and early life, friendships and relationships have also been instrumental in forging social reformers’ convictions in adulthood. Sometimes they have been mentored by someone who holds much the same opinions as they do.

Dorothy Day spoke and wrote often of her friend and teacher Peter Maurin. Her relationship with him formed her convictions to such an extent that Day wrote “When people ask me how the Catholic Worker movement started and what it represents, I tell them about Peter, and the way he lives, and the ideas he expresses.” 42

Day would not have been who she was, nor achieved the change that she did, without her friendship with Maurin. His philosophy profoundly influenced her and animated the movement she founded, the Catholic Worker.

Many other social reformers have had such a mentor or confidante who has shaped their beliefs. In some other instances social reformers’ convictions have been sharpened through a relationship with someone who holds very different opinions.

Eglinton has pointed out the value of such “critical friendships”; “A truly sharp thinker…needs a close friend whom he can trust, but who does not share his most basic assumptions.” 44

Relationships like this can be instrumental in teaching us to listen to the perspectives of those outside our own traditions and communities, and to value their insights. Whether it is their families, their friends, or their spouses, the relationships in a social reformers’ life are often key to their development.

By understanding these relationships and the influence they had, we will be better able to understand the individuals themselves.



Before social reform can be achieved, there must be social reformers. Studying the lives of past social reformers is one important way in which can learn how to navigate the complex process of social reform.

This essay has presented an argument for why, as Christians interested in social reform, we should study the lives of past social reformers and learn from them.

First, I have outlined some biblical and theological arguments for studying lives. There is significant biblical basis for the study of biographies, particularly in the letter to the Hebrews, and it may be argued that biography is a genre that biblical authors actually employed in the Gospels and in Acts.

Secondly, I have described some concepts and ideas which can help us to think about lives. In particular, I have discussed Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas around seeing each life as a unified narrative in order to interpret and give meaning to actions.

Miroslav Volf’s discussion of the relationship of social agents to social arrangements has pointed out how deeply individuals are shaped by their context and how political the study of their lives can become.

I have also addressed the concept of integrity and the flaws that can be seen in the lives of many social reformers. I have argued that we should not dismiss the lives of flawed people, but rather that their flaws can teach lessons for us today.

Lastly, I have attempted to suggest some areas in which we might ask questions in order to understand the lives of those we study. I have suggested that we might ask what the sovereign foundations were in their lives.

We might also seek to understand what motivated them to produce the change they sought, although often we can only speculate on this. We can also ask what the key relationships were in their lives, and how they were shaped by them.

I have also cautioned against two fallacies to which we may be susceptible in the study of lives. The first is the danger of assuming that people in the past viewed events from the same perspective as we do in the present.

The second is the danger of judging people in the past by the standards of today. Both of these errors distort our understanding of the past, and thus should be avoided.

We can see that the lives of past social reformers can provide a rich and fruitful area of study. In closing, there are three key areas in which we can learn from their lives.

First, the lives of past social reformers can inspire us to become involved in social reform, as we seek to follow their examples of fighting for change: in some cases where there is still work be done, the causes they fought can become our causes, too.

Second, the lives of social reformers can provide encouragement in difficult times. Those who seek to reform society are likely to encounter struggle and to face opposition in their pursuit of change. In such times, they can look to the lives of those who have gone before them and see that they too experienced periods of struggle and doubt.

This knowledge of sharing their experience provides the encouragement not to give up. Finally, the study of lives can show us that success in social reform may not be achieved in our own lifetimes.

While some social reformers have achieved real success in changing laws or structures in their own lifetimes, for many the greatest popularity of and success for their ideas came only after their own deaths.

Far from being discouraging, this knowledge should instead encourage us to take a long-term view of social reform and to see that sometimes success for a social reformer will mean building a movement that will last beyond them.

The pursuit of social reform is often a lonely path, with a high chance of struggle and no guarantee of success. The lives of those who have walked this path before can provide inspiration, encouragement and teach us lessons about how to engage in social reform in our own contexts.

Above all, I believe that studying the lives of social reformers will encourage us to reflect again on the life of Christ and to seek to follow him better in our own lives.

Jacob Dunn is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. He has a degree in Theology from the University of Glasgow.



36. Clinton, The Making of a Leader, 44.

37.  Ibid.

38.  Martin Luther King Jr., “An Autobiography of Religious Development”, 1950,

39. Nagesh Belludi, “The Historian’s Fallacy: People of the Past Had No Knowledge of the Future”, 2018,

40.  Chip Hughes, “Presentism: Don’t Judge our Ancestors Actions by Today’s Standards”, 2018,

41.  Lynn Hunt, “Against Presentism”, Perspectives on History vol. 45 no. 5, (May 2002),

42.  King, “Autobiography of Religious Development”.

43.  Dorothy Day, “Day After Day”, The Catholic Worker, February 1943, 4.

44.  James Eglinton, “Why Befriend Your Opponents? Bavinck on “Critical” Friendship, May 25, 2021,

45. George R. Hunsberger, “Biography as Missiology: The Case of Lesslie Newbigin”, Missiology: An International Review 27, no. 4 (October 1999): 526.



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