From Calvin to Henson
Four classic reads
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Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin: John Calvin first published The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Latin in 1536. Within these five chapters translated by Henry J. Van Andel, Calvin says the goal of the Christian life is to achieve “a harmony between God’s righteousness and our obedience.” Intended to fortify Christians against life’s trials, Calvin skips flowery language and long paragraphs in favor of bullet points. He includes chapter headings like “Self-denial” and “Patience in Cross-bearing.” He also encourages readers to go beyond lip service and live out the gospel. “Doctrine,” he writes, “is not an affair of the tongue but of the life.” While Calvin wrote much of his Institutes for seminary students and pastors, this booklet informs everyday readers how to run the race of life well.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: When 76-year-old John Ames learns he is dying of heart disease, he begins a memoir for his young son to read in years to come. Vignettes of his boyhood center on the conflict between his pacifist father and gun-toting grandfather, an abolitionist friend of John Brown. Ames reflects on his later life as a husband, father, and minister using rich Biblical imagery and quotes from theological heavyweights like Calvin and Augustine. Through Ames’ poetic voice, the book offers a rare, riveting—although fictional—glimpse at the life of an early 20th-century pastor. Themes of racial compassion related to Ames’ godson add to the book’s positive moral center. Robinson’s own religious universalism does play a role, but the human insights of this 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner outweigh that negative for discerning readers.
A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie: First published in 1936, A Diary of Private Prayer became Scottish minister and theologian John Baillie’s most popular book, selling more than 1 million copies. The book offers a month’s worth of morning and evening prayers to help readers confess sin, remember God’s character, and call on Him for provision. Baillie’s poetic lists, occasionally including short Scripture verses, draw readers more deeply into daily prayer topics. In this 2014 revision, editor Susanna Wright recasts many of Baillie’s ideas in more modern language, dropping archaic words like thee and thou. For the most part, she adds readability without sacrificing the book’s rhythm and theological richness. Readers who enjoy classic writers like Spurgeon or Bunyan may still prefer the original language (available used or in digital book form).
The Life of Josiah Henson by Josiah Henson: The Life of Josiah Henson relates the true story of a Kentucky slave who escaped to Canada. Sold away from his Christian mother as a boy, Henson eventually saved enough money to buy his freedom. Sadly, corrupt masters accepted his payment without setting him free. Readers familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, will recognize a number of elements here. For instance, both share a character who braves a perilous journey to lead his family out of slavery. Henson’s tale ends happily, with a new community for himself, his family, and (later) hundreds of slaves he helped find freedom. While Henson never learned to write well, his oratory skills as a lay preacher can be seen in his dictation of this manuscript. A concise, eye-opening tale of redemption.
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