In the middle decades of the 20th century, a handful of popular books became something of an informal canon that helped shape postwar evangelical identity and piety. Think, for instance, of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Billy Graham’s Peace with God, David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, John Stott’s Basic Christianity, Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor and The Shadow of the Almighty, Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler, or Charles Colson’s Born Again.
Among these near-canonical writings, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, published in 1970, became a bona fide international phenomenon. The book sold millions of copies and was translated into numerous languages. Then, in 1975, it was adapted into a film, which helped to further the reach of ten Boom’s story. As a result, ten Boom herself—by then in her 80s and still active in ministry—became a household name among evangelicals, remaining so until her death in 1983. Her book is still widely read today.
Stan Guthrie tells the story of this landmark evangelical book and the remarkable woman who wrote it in Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place. Guthrie is a journalist, author, and former Christianity Today editor who has spent his career writing about evangelical faith and practice. In recounting the story of ten Boom and her famous book, Victorious is itself a fine example of another popular evangelical genre: the edifying biography that is meant to both inform readers and inspire them in their own spiritual walks.
‘Jesus Is Victor’
Victorious is both a biography of an evangelical icon and the story of the bestseller that made her such. Guthrie begins by setting the context into which The Hiding Place was introduced. Postwar evangelicalism had emerged independent of fundamentalism through the influence of Billy Graham and others. The movement was committed to a high view of Scripture, the saving work of Christ in his death and resurrection, the importance of individual conversion, and faith-motivated action (especially through evangelism and missions).
Global communism and the youth counterculture of the 1960s presented ongoing threats to evangelical advance. Nevertheless, evangelicals longed for global revival and the second coming of Christ—many believed the latter would follow a mass conversion of unbelieving Jews who would accept Christ as their Messiah. Guthrie argues that the time was ripe for a book about a godly family that opposed the Nazis in part due to a firm commitment to the well-being of the Jews as God’s chosen people.
Guthrie then recounts ten Boom’s life up to the publication of The Hiding Place. She was born into a Dutch Reformed family in 1892. Beginning with her grandfather, Willem, in the 1840s, the ten Booms had been watchmakers by trade. Corrie, who never married, would also become a watchmaker for much of her adult life. (She was the first licensed female watchmaker in the Netherlands.) By the time of World War II, Corrie and her sister Betsie, who was also unmarried, lived with their father, Casper, and were involved in the family business.
Also beginning with Corrie’s grandfather, the ten Booms had been committed Christian Zionists who believed that God would restore the Jews to their biblical homeland in fulfillment of his promises made in the Old Testament. In addition to his watchmaking, Willem was a pastor who was part of several Christian Zionist organizations during his lifetime. The younger ten Booms inherited a Christ-centered commitment to the Jewish people that informed their actions during Nazi occupation.
The family’s motto was “Jesus is Victor,” which Guthrie suggests became an animating theme in Corrie’s life. Like the noted Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén, Corrie and her family believed that the cross and resurrection demonstrate that Jesus has conquered the powers of evil and that Christians should live in light of that victory. This theological conviction, combined with traditional Calvinist piety and Christian Zionism, formed the religious scaffolding that inspired the actions so famously recounted in The Hiding Place.
When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, they brought their anti-Jewish policies with them. The ten Boom family became part of a movement to hide Jews and funnel them to safety. A small hidden room was constructed behind a false wall—this was the hiding place that gave the later book its name. The ten Booms themselves were eventually arrested and shipped to labor camps, where many of them died. But not Corrie, whose own faith was buttressed by that of her sister Betsie, who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. Upon her release, Corrie began a popular speaking ministry that involved sharing her story, spreading the gospel, and advocating for the Jewish people. All of this became the substance of The Hiding Place.
Besides ten Boom herself, the key figures in Guthrie’s book are John and Elizabeth Sherrill. The Sherrills, writers for the popular periodical Guideposts, had already helped co-author bestsellers with David Wilkerson and Brother Andrew, one of Corrie’s closest friends and a periodic ministry partner. In ten Boom, the Sherrills believed they had found a story as compelling as Anne Frank’s, but one that was redemptive and inspiring. The Sherrills helped take ten Boom’s experiences and turn them into a book that quickly became an international bestseller. They also aided in putting ten Boom on the radar of Billy Graham, whose World Wide Pictures produced the film version of The Hiding Place. Into her 70s, ten Boom continued speaking widely and writing books until a series of strokes reduced her to an invalid during the final years of her life.
A Genuine Inspiration
Guthrie closes his book with five chapters addressing aspects of ten Boom’s life and ministry that he suggests the Lord might be calling evangelical readers to emulate. Ten Boom’s primary vocation was that of evangelist, and proclaiming the Good News should remain a calling for all evangelicals. She was a tireless defender of human dignity, especially the dignity of an oft-despised people who have not always enjoyed goodwill from Christians. She cared for Jewish refugees, and while the circumstances have changed, our own world faces a refugee crisis that many evangelicals are attempting to engage faithfully. She cared for her elderly family members and was herself cared for during her declining years, embodying the biblical commands to care for widows. Like many evangelicals, she was committed to sharing the gospel with Jews in particular, though there were some tensions when her ministry downplayed targeted outreach to Jews in an effort to avoid controversy and leave the door open for evangelizing all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
Ten Boom is a genuinely inspirational figure who is worthy of recovering for such a time as this. She was a woman of stellar character. We live in a time when evangelical leaders bring public scandal upon themselves and their movement at an alarmingly regular rate. She was a woman who used her gifts to promote the gospel in a very public way. We live in a time when many women, even in conservative complementarian circles, are asking fresh questions about how they might use their gifts for kingdom purposes. She was a woman of courage and conviction. We live in a time when a myriad of threats and temptations—both internal and external to evangelicalism—threaten the vitality of our movement. She was a woman of evangelistic fervor. We live in a time that, in many ways, is post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian—which is to say, a time that is ripe for the harvest.
In Victorious, Guthrie has reminded us of an evangelical icon who, though flawed (as all sinners are), was nevertheless genuinely virtuous. Evangelicals need more well-researched edifying biographies written for a general audience. Books like this help us to be faithful in our generation, just as those who came before us were found faithful in their own day.
Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University. He is the co-editor, with Aaron Lumpkin, of The Sum and Substance of the Gospel: The Christ-Centered Piety of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Reformation Heritage Books).