Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Top Ten Christians

My posting on September 5 closed with a reference to Francis of Assisi, who is called “the last Christian” by Adolf Holl. No doubt most of us “Christians” today would disagree that Francis, literally, was the last Christian. But who are the “best” Christians in history? In addition to Francis, who else could be put on a list of “top ten” Christians?
I have tried to think through this question to a degree, and I am now sharing the list I came up with. But first, a couple of qualifiers: from the beginning I excluded from consideration Christians of New Testament times or the early Christian martyrs. Also, I have weighted my list toward more recent times but haven’t included anyone still living.
Also, by “best” I certainly am not thinking in terms of greatest influence. I am focusing primarily upon those who seemed to live most consistently in the spirit of Jesus, those who followed in Jesus’ footsteps most closely and were most faithful to his teachings. And it should be recognized that these are exemplary Christians in the last part of their lives; some became “good” Christians only after a life-changing experience, such as Francis had when he was about twenty-four years old.
Here is my current list of the “top ten” Christians:
*  Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226)
*  Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and the other 16th century “Swiss Brethren”
*  Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55)
*  Kagawa Toyohiko (1888–1960)
*  Dorothy Day (1897–1980)
*  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)
*  Mother Teresa (1910–97)
*  Clarence Jordan (1912–69)
*  William Stringfellow (1928–85)
*  Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68)
The people on the above list deserve to be there, IMHO, but that does not mean they were perfect people. For example, MLK, Jr., was guilty of marital infidelities that I cannot excuse. Most of the others had their own foibles. Still, by how they lived, what they said (wrote), and what they did, these are the “top ten Christians” on my list at this point. (I reserve the right to change this list at any point.)
I would be very interested in having readers of this blog respond by suggesting others that they think deserve to be on this list. But for each new name added, I would like suggestions of whom to eliminate to keep the list at ten.


  1. I imagine that the most "famous" Christians of our age are totally unknown to us...and that they are very happy that we do not know.

  2. Good point, Greg -- and certainly the best Christians don't do what they do in order to receive the acclaim of others. But if they are really living a live of love for others, won't they come to be known more widely. The people on my list are people known for their actions, not just their attitudes.

  3. By e-mail I receive the suggestion to remove Day and Stringfellow and to add John and Charles Wesley.

    Another person didn't make a deletion, but she suggested adding Corrie ten Boom.

  4. I'd be curious to know who you would put on the list if it was "Top Ten Christians since 1970."

    Some people I'd add to the list would be Gustavo Gutiérrez, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Katie Geneva Cannon.

  5. I just thought of another one (who meets the criteria for your current list): Oscar Romero.

  6. My list would be of those who have most influenced my own life and sojourn to think and act Christianly. Leading the list would be Fr. Doug Grandon, PhD, a former evangelical missionary to eastern Europe and Russia who is now a Catholic Priest, who taught me to seek out the lives and beliefs of the Apostles (esp Sts. Thomas and Matthew) and very early Church fathers. This has significantly altered my Christian sojourn. Because of this, I would not rule out foundational Christianity they laid, and which has been significantly altered, especially over the past 1200, 500 and 150 years.

    The others I would list would prove that Greg Hadley makes the defining comment - names like Steven Wanji, Damon Schroeder, and Ethel Nelson.

  7. A local TF, who wrote before reading Greg's comments above, said in an e-mail:

    "No arguments with the ten people you have chosen--I might throw Thomas Merton in there but can't say who he could replace.

    "My own view is that your list names people who for various reasons became well known enough to appear on such lists.

    "The BEST Christians--as you define the term--are probably people lost to obscurity--people who quietly and invisibly and joyfully bore their crosses beneath the radar of recognition."

  8. Karen, thanks for your suggestions. Before long I might try coming up with a list of the top ten Christians since 1970, but that would be difficult.

    Thanks for suggesting Romero. He certainly deserves serious consideration, and maybe after more reflection I might even replace Stringfellow, whom I admired greatly, with him.

  9. Just received in an e-mail from an esteemed TF in another State:

    "I would affirm those, Leroy, but I would add Thomas Merton."

  10. I am fascinated by the dates of these honored Christians. The first person on the list is over a thousand years after the time of Christ. The next was less than 500 years ago. The rest are all from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Is this because we know the more recent times better? Is this evidence that Christianity is rapidly evolving, such that only relatively recent Christians resonate with us? If we made a list of the ten greatest scientists in history, I suspect we would have a similar time span. So what are we saying about Christianity?

  11. Perhaps it would have been better to have narrowed the time span, but as I said, I weighted the list to recent times, partly because, as Craig suggested, we know the more recent times better. I certainly don't think that recent Christians have evolved so as to be superior to Christians of past eras.

  12. One of my local TFs, and one of the relatively few women on the TF list, sent the follow comments by e-mail yesterday evening.

    "Think I am as interested in the 'unsung' Christians who go about their daily lives living their faith as diligently as their more public counterparts. That makes it nearly impossible to select the Top Ten.

    Also have difficulty with those who preach one thing and practice another, e.g. MLK. That is just as distasteful as the choices of some conservatives whom we criticize today."

  13. The absence of more women is quite noticeable. In not all cases, but in most, I suspect that among these men on the "top ten list" there was a Christian mother who significantly inculcated the Christian way of life into their sons.

    Many on your list and those suggested were writers. They have left us words we can still read today that help us point to their "top ten" suitability. 100 years from now someone doing this list will likely include some television personalities because of how video images will be preserved and help people in the future point to their "top ten" suitability. I guess what I see is that many on your list have been "marketed" in some way so they are more well known.

    It is hard to truly know who the top ten are, I think. I applaud your exercise, Leroy. It has stimulated our thinking.

    Will you consider doing a list of the top ten worst Christians...those who professed faith in Christ and turned out to be scallywags?

  14. In lieu of one I would include Susanna Wesley, wife of dissenting Anglican priest Samuel, and mother of I believe 22, including Charles and John.

  15. An e-mail from a Canadian TF suggested these:

    "Thomas Merton also came to mind but I would add Jean Vanier, an exemplary man and Christian who has brought dignity to the mentally challenged among us."

  16. David, I also noticed the absence of women. I can name far beyond 10 who are heroes to me now, but can't really come up with the church history types...

  17. Stringfellow definitely stays, as do Kierkegaard and Mother Teresa.

    I'd add Howard Thurman (and remove King).

    Everyone on the list is deceased, but if the living are allowed, I'd replace Clarence Jordan with either Daniel Berrigan or John Dear (I can't decide which).

    Wow, the issue of women is tough. I'd agree with others who recommend Corrie ten Boom; but, Edith Stein (Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross) comes to mind from that period as well.