Book review: 25 Surprising Marriages

25 Surprising Marriages, by William J. Petersen, Timothy Press, 1997, 2006 rpt.

This book, subtitled How Great Christians Struggled to Make Their Marriages Work, is one that my brother describes as being helpful for its cumulative effect rather than any one of the particular biographies it sketches for you.

In style, the book is very readable and is written for the general public. It is a collection of short biographies of 25 well-known Christians, focusing particularly on their marriages. At least, that is the stated objective of the book.

Some of the chapters contain very little information about the couple they are describing. I attribute this to the fact that in these cases there is likely very little known concerning the wife of the individual. For example, this is most evident in the sketch of John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, especially his first marriage. No one even knows the name of his first wife (although our author gives her one).

Several of the marriages highlighted in the book were exceedingly bad marriages. In one case, it is surprising that the couple is included at all. That would be Hannah Whitall Smith and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith. Hannah was a universalist – that means she believed that everyone would be saved. As such, it seems odd that she should be included as a “Great Christian”. She wrote a book called The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, but the book is a very bad book giving a distorted view of the Christian walk and the marriage of the Smith’s was anything but happy.

Nevertheless, it is true that there have been good and bad marriages among men and women who have been looked up to as great Christian leaders. It is instructive to us to look at them and to think of them as examples of marriages and married life.

If you have read any biographies of any of the individuals listed in the book, you will be a bit disappointed about the sketchiness of the stories. But as beginning looks, they are interesting, and as a collection with a focus on the marriages, I think they are helpful.
Occasionally the author will include a few quotations or summaries from the work of his subjects on the subject of marriage. Some of these are quite insightful. They will be noted below.

However, as I said, it is the cumulative effect that is most helpful. Let me sum up what I think you should take away from a reading of this book:

  1. Every marriage is different – both women and men come to marriages with differing gifts, interests, and abilities.
  2. Successful marriages manage to blend the strengths of the individuals into a working partnership.
  3. Successful marriages overlook the faults of the spouses because of the value of the working partnership.
  4. The most successful marriages follow God’s divinely revealed pattern in the Bible by both partners putting their energy into the husband’s calling from God. The wife enables her husband’s success while often having her own distinct style, personality, ministry, and activity for God as well.

    This does not look the same in every marriage, because every marriage is different.

Partnership is the main theme of this book. Without a full partnership, the problems of marriage are too much. The couples that succeed are the couples that fully commit themselves to one another, regardless of similarity or differences.

A marriage partnership doesn’t mean that the wife moulds the husband into her image of what he should be or vice versa. What it means is that each individual takes what the other offers and works harmoniously with what has been given, denying self, in order to achieve a greater end.


A few thoughts on marriage from the pages of this book:

From Catherine Booth, aggressive woman preacher (!), wife of William Booth:

Four Rules of Married Life, p. 79

  1. Never to have any secrets from my husband
  2. Never to have two purses
  3. Talk out differences of opinion to secure harmony and don’t pretend differences don’t exist
  4. Never to argue in front of the children

From Martin Luther, his views of marriage, pp. 163-164.

“To get a wife is easy enough, but to love her with constancy is difficult … for the mere union of the flesh is not sufficient; there must be congeniality of tastes and character. And that congeniality does not come overnight.”

“Some marriages were motivated by mere lust but mere lust is felt even by fleas and lice. Love begins when we wish to serve others.”

“Of course, the Christian should love his wife. He is supposed to love his neighbour, and since his wife is his nearest neighbour, she should be his deepest love. And she should also be his dearest friend.”

“Nothing is more sweet than harmony in marriage, and nothing more distressing than dissension.”

From George Muller:

How Love Grows: by praying and working together, p. 245

  1. Both of us, by God’s grace, had one object in life, and only one, to live for Christ
  2. We had the blessing of having an abundance of work to do … By God’s grace we gave ourselves to it; and this abundance of work greatly tended to the increase of our happiness. … Our mornings never began with the uncertainty of how to spend the day, or what to do.
  3. [As busy as we were, we] never allowed this to interfere with the care of our souls. Before we went to work, we had, as an habitual practice, our seasons for prayer and reading the Holy Scriptures.
  4. Lastly, and most of all to be noticed, is this: we had for many years, whether twenty or thirty years of more I do not know, besides our seasons for private prayer and family prayer, also habitually our seasons for praying together.

Muller’s advice on finding a spouse, p. 247

  1. Much waiting on God
  2. A hearty purpose to be willing to be guided by Him
  3. True godliness without a shadow of a doubt … should be the first and absolutely most needful qualification
  4. Suitableness. An educated man should not marry an uneducated woman or vice versa.

From William Carey, p. 319:

Qualifications for missionaries: “It is absolutely necessary for the wives of missionaries to be as hearty in the work as their husbands.”