Missionary biographies are, in one sense, a dime a dozen. Thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of Christians have held that title in some capacity since the days of the Moravians, and hundreds have published their own stories in English alone. In another sense, I believe that, despite their commonality, missionary stories are worth their weight in gold, and I collect and read all of them that I can; I would say the exception is when their stories are not worth reading.
But there are some missionary stories that give us a lens into a greater work of Christ in history. The apostle Paul said that he disposes the times and places of men and women for the purposes of the glory of his kingdom, but seldom are we able to see such obvious evidence of his sovereignty as when the gospel message brings transformation to an entire culture. If that is our subject of study, we can do no better than to begin with the following five stories of national and cultural transformation.
Outside influences in Africa were, from the beginning, most strongly felt along the coastlines. After David Livingstone led to an explosion of missions work in Africa, Uganda became a major beachhead. Alexander MacKay was among the most famous of the Christian workers there; James Hannington, appointed Anglican Bishop of East Equatorial Africa, was martyred on his arrival to Uganda (or Buganda), leading British Christians to respond by sending even more Christian workers there.
Fiji, like Uganda, is a story of national revival. Like Uganda, it is also the story of a place that was organized into chiefdoms, and it was not always clear who held what territory. James and Mary Calvert were at the storm-center of a national revival that overtook Fiji when the chief who ruled much of the islands chose to become a Christian.
During their lifelong stay in Fiji, Mary Calvert boldly challenged the age-old custom of wife-burning at the death of a patriarch. She and others put themselves in danger to save the lives of other women who would have been killed in the funeral celebrations of their husbands, thus playing a key role in the ending of a dark and ancient custom.
If you haven’t heard this thrilling story, Vernon’s Dawn in Fiji is a must-read. If you prefer a book with more facts and details, Rowe’s James Calvert of Fiji gives the best account that I have found.
3. The Karen peoples of Myanmar
The story of the Judsons themselves carries interest far beyond their status as the first American missionaries. Right through from their shaky beginnings—when they committed to overseas work, there was no agency to support them—they amply vindicated the title of “missionary” by doing apostolic work that has impacted Myanmar (then Burma) for two centuries.
This story, first told in Edward Judson’s masterful biography of his father, was re-popularized for twentieth-century readers by Don Richardson in his bestselling book Eternity in Their Hearts; however, there is much more to the story than Richardson’s quick survey. After meeting a liberated slave, Adoniram Judson heard that the Karen people would be receptive to Christ’s message of forgiveness. Little did he know that two centuries later, millions of Karen people would consider themselves Christians because of this one meeting.
Readers of this story will think it no coincidence that the first American missionaries stumbled into a people group so utterly primed for the gospel of Christ. The Karen people had unique myths and customs that pointed to a future message that would bring them freedom. Wylie gives the fascinating details of these pre-Christian myths in her classic book, The Gospel in Burma.
4. The Huaorani people of Ecuador
The Huaorani became the dinner conversation of the entire Western world after they speared five missionaries to death on a remote riverside in 1959. Those five men had come, fully aware of the Huaorani’s violent tendencies, hoping to make peaceful contact and eventually share the gospel with this people. After all five were martyred while venturing for the gospel, in another stunning turn of events, their surviving family members, Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot, were able to accomplish that dream of sharing the gospel with them.
The End of the Spear tells the continuing story in the 1990s, when God called Steve Saint and his family back to the jungle to serve where the people that had killed his father. Steve saw the Westernization and the dependence that had crippled the Huaorani, and he has spent the past 25 years working to give indigenous peoples independence and freedom through both the gospel and education.
Books: The End of the Spear (by Steve Saint), Through Gates of Splendor (by Elisabeth Elliot), The Journals of Jim Elliot.
5. The Motilone people
Unlike many authors who gain traction through mainstream publishing, Bruce Olson has remained utterly outside the limelight. His wonderful biography begins with his own conversion and his family’s harsh disapproval. Led specifically to reach the remote Motilone people, Bruce ended up in Colombia, disowned by his family, unknown to any sending agency, and unable to communicate even a basic greeting in Spanish. The miraculous story of how, after years of patience, he was able to find the remote Motilone people, learn their language, and bring them the gospel, is one that is better told in the book itself.
Originally titled For This Cross I’ll Kill You, Bruce’s autobiographical story of bringing the gospel to the Motilone brought him a hailstorm of criticism for his unusual tale in which he acted as a missionary apart from any denomination or agency. The same criticisms have been resurrected after the death of John Allen Chau in 2018. But God calls each of us to walk the unique path that he gives us, and wisdom will be finally justified by her children. I, for one, think that Bruce’s story is remarkable evidence of the hand of God in our day.
Books: Bruchko (Bruce Olson).