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Using Biographies to Teach Principles

"There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world," Jonathan Edwards wrote in his preface to David Brainerd’s Memoirs; "the one, by doctrine and precept; the other, instance and example." Edwards elaborated on this second one, saying that "we have many excellent examples of religion, in its power and practice, set before us in the histories both of the Old and New Testament."

Most teaching parents recognize the value of biographies as a teaching tool in a subject like Heritage Studies. Biographies tend to hold the reader’s interest more readily than other forms of historical writing. Parents also realize the value of supplementing other disciplines with the reading of pertinent biographies; a chemistry student, for example, might read about Madame Curie. However, biography may also be used, as Edwards suggests, to teach principle.

The use of biography to illustrate Christian truth is a time-honored method of teaching biblical principles. Of the events that happened to the children of Israel in the wilderness, the apostle Paul said that "all these things happened unto them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition" (1 Cor. 10:11).

Home educators can use biographies to supplement their teaching of Bible on almost any grade level. Parents can select biographies that illustrate a principle or subject under discussion in the Bible lessons. For example, if the child is reading in Acts about the missionary journeys of Paul, he can add to his knowledge—and his enjoyment—by reading about the lives of famous modern missionaries, such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, or John and Betty Stam.

In choosing biographies for their child to read, homeschool parents are most likely to choose the popular biography, which, as its name implies, is aimed at a broad audience. Often the work is based on secondary sources and usually contains very little information that is critical of its subject. The strength of a popular biography is that it concentrates on holding the reader’s interest. Therefore, it will use vivid language and dramatic situation to tell its story. In fact, the biography may follow the structure of a story, emphasizing plot and building to a climax. Often the writer also illustrates a principle derived from the subject’s life; this characteristic makes the book ideal for teaching. An example of such a work is With Daring Faith by Rebecca Davis. Published by BJU Press, this popular biography of Amy Carmichael, missionary to India, is written for young people (grades 5 through 8).

Similar to popular biographies are fictionalized biographies, which center on genuine historical figures but include fictional characters and dialogue. The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day by Scott O’Dell on the life of William Tyndale is a works of historical fiction from BJU Press.

The other kind of biography is the critical biography. The word critical does not necessarily mean that the book criticizes its subject, although that is sometimes the case. Instead the term indicates that the work is based on original sources (letters, papers, interviews) and contains the scholarly citations associated with such works (footnotes, extensive bibliography). A critical biography ideally concentrates on presenting all aspects of its subject, good and bad. Parents and mature students might profit from reading selected critical biographies together. Roland Bainton’s critical biography Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, published in 1950 and still in print, would be a good choice. Its readability and scholarly approach to its subject have made it one of the most popular Luther biographies in the English language.

Stock your family library with some good Christian biographies—popular, fictionalized, and critical. Those stories of faith in action will provide your students with something that mere precept-teaching cannot: real-life illustration of Scriptural truth.

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