For many Christians his name is synonymous with the publication of well-researched, compellingly written books on Christian history and biography. Through works which span centuries, whose subject matter can either be individual believers or entire sections of church history, Murray admirably manages to convey not merely the facts of what has happened, but the significance of those facts for contemporary Christianity, and the abiding lessons that they contain. His most recent volume is a biography of John F. MacArthur Jr. and is available for purchase from the Banner of Truth Trust and other Christian bookshops.
In the following short interview Iain Murray answers some questions relating specifically to the ministry of writing, sharing some of the lessons he has learned from many years of making the lives of other believers known.
1. Iain Murray, welcome to this interview. Could you begin by telling us something about how you yourself have been influenced by Christian biography (written by others) in your early life and ministry?
Beginning with Andrew Bonar’s Life of Robert M’Cheyne when I was a teen-ager in the British Army, biographies played a major part in forming my thinking and direction. The English language has a vast store of inspiring biographies, from all parts of the British Isles and the United States. Not that I would confine reading to evangelical biographies. When I went to University the life of Herbert E. Ryle by Maurice Fitzgerald had a profound effect on me – it showed me the spiritual barreness produced by liberal unbelief,a tragic contrast to the life of his father, J.C.Ryle. Among biographies that moved me as a young Christian I would put Edward Morgan’s Life of John Elias, Archibald Alexander’s Life by A.A. Alexander, Tyerman’s lives of Wesley and Whitefield, and Spurgeon’s Autobiography.
2. How did you come to realise that Christian writing generally was a ministry that you wanted to undertake?
I do not recall ever thinking about this. I had no ambition to be a writer, what happened was that at times I came to feel strongly about a subject that was important yet little known and that led to articles, which sometimes developed into books. I would not recommend that anyone starts their writing with books; start with articles for magazines and such like. Writing I suppose is an art that develops slowly.
3. Your biographical writing covers a wide spectrum of subjects, some from many centuries ago and, with the publication of your latest book about John F. MacArthur Jr., a living subject. How does the process of researching and writing a book about a contemporary figure differ from writing about those long gone home to heaven?
The MacArthur book is the only one I have written about a contemporary. The main problem in writing a biography is to be sure you have enough material. You need more than you will actually use, enough so that to a degree you can ‘live’ with your subject. Information is obviously more available when the subject is alive and there are many eye-witnesses etc. A danger with a contemporary subject is that there may be less objectivity. Although Dr Lloyd-Jones was dead before I wrote most of his biography, it was so recent, and I was so largely influenced by him, that those who thought there was not enough objectivity no doubt had some justification. A man’s place in history needs time to be assessed. Not that I now think I over assessed Lloyd-Jones’ place, but I can ‘stand back’ a little more now.
4. Arguably your best known biographical work is your two volume treatment of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, influencing a generation of preachers (including myself). What, for you, has been the greatest encouragement from how these volumes have been received?
Dr Lloyd-Jones only condition on my writing his life was that the aim should be to help younger men and future ministers of the gospel. My greatest encouragement has been the degree to which that hope is being fulfilled.
5. Do you have any particular routines or habits when it comes to the actual act of writing (i.e. a favourite place/writing materials etc)?
No special advice here. I would warn those in pastoral charges not to think they can do much writing. Pastors are in the front line. For them the spoken word has to be the supreme thing. Dr Lloyd-Jones never wrote a book. Nor did he ever set out to write sermons for publication. Little in the way of publication s came from him before he was sixty.
Writing needs uninterrupted time. Arnold Dallimore had to sacrifice his pastoral charge to do the work on Whitefield.
6. How long does it typically take to research and write a biography from start to finish?
Impossible to say. It varies so much, and depends on the intensity of the concentration. I have never written with time deadline before me and would hate to do so. A good book would have to take up a good part of two years. Often it has taken me much longer – not continuous writing, of course, but interruptions have come in which in the end were to prove most beneficial. A subject needs to mature slowly.
7. How has technology changed the process of research for writing biography and Christian history? In your opinion has the advent of the Internet been chiefly a positive or negative development in this regard?
I am sure the internet is a great help for information, and I use it occasionally for that purpose, but I usually have the advantage of having to hand the books that I need, or else access to a good library.
8. How important do you feel it is for Pastors (and all Christians) to read biography and history?
Important for personal benefit, important for giving a viewpoint on history which is unrelated to contemporary fashions and pressures, important for sermon illustration etc.
I cannot understand a pastor who does not read biographies. Canon Christopher of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, used to take Ryle’s Eighteenth Century Leaders with him on holiday every year.
9. Are there any figures in church history about whom you feel a fresh contemporary biography is needed, but which haven’t been written yet?
I am sure there are, probably multitudes of them. I have just finished writing a lengthy biography of Archibald Brown. Three years ago I had scarcely heard of him and have been astonished at what has come to light when I began to give time to it. I am convinced the record of his life is truly valuable and uplifting and yet how few even know his name. I do not doubt there are many records of the past worthy of recovery.
10. What recent biographical works have you particularly enjoyed as a reader?
You have really caught me out on this question! Despite my ‘preaching’ to others I have not read much biography lately – books such as the wonderful four volumes of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics have had some of my time. I am certainly not of the opinion that biographies should make up the majority of our reading. ‘Balance your reading,’ Lloyd-jones used to say. One book I would like to read soon is the new and smaller biography of John Stott. I have valued the 2-volume work on him by Timothy Dudley-Smith.