Tag Archives: Missions

Review: The Star in the East

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815) was a minister and missionary in the Church of England. He went to India as a chaplain in 1797, and afterward became very influential in organizing native (i.e., not English) education and translation of Scriptures. He also held great influence in the Mar Thoma church (Kerala, India) and was a key supporter of the first Malayali Bible translation.

Overview:  This little book is a sermon preached in 1809 in Bristol, for the Society for Missions to Africa and Asia, when the author had just returned from India. Buchanan was an inspiration to Adoniram Judson as well as a witness to some fascinating and forgotten history, which is summarized below as an inspiration to the cause of Christian missions.

Meat:

Buchanan’s sermon recounts historical facts which he sees as providential in advancing the cause of Christian missions. Below are the points that he mentions:

  • Danish and German missionaries had arrived in Tamil Nadu (i.e. the Tranquebar colony in south India) in 1706, and their work had brought great results. (Buchanan lived in India for many years and knew firsthand the quality of the church there.)

What then was the effect of giving them the Bible? It was the same as that which followed the giving of the Bible to us. . . . God blessed his own word to the conversion of the heart, and men began to worship him in sincerity and truth. (loc. 367)

  • The spread of the British Empire was providential in the spread of Christianity.
  • The translation of Scriptures into Eastern languages was also providential. Buchanan refers to Henry Martyn and his associates pointedly; Buchanan himself also supported several translation projects.
  • Buchanan promulgated to the West the existence of the “Syrian Christians” in India—the Mar Thoma church, called Syrian because of their use of the Syriac language in liturgy:

We may contemplate the history of this people, existing so long in that dark region, as a type of the inextinguishable Light of Christ’s religion; and, in this sense, it may be truly said, “We have seen his Star in the East.” (loc. 336)

  • Buchanan refers to the strange and interesting tale of an associate of Henry Martyn, an Arab baptized as Nathaniel Sabat, who later left the faith. Robert Murray McCheyne, another important Scottish preacher, has a (not so inspirational!) pamphlet on him and the strange tale of his apostasy and death (Sabat the Arabian, the Apostate (1854)). Buchanan describes “Sabat” and his “vernacular writings” thus:

His first work is entitled Happy News for Arabia [نعمة بشارةٍ للعربي]; written in the Nabuttee [Nabataean?], or common dialect of the country. It contains an eloquent and argumentative elucidation of the truth of the Gospel, with copious authorities admitted by the Mahometans [i.e., Muslims] themselves, and particularly by the Wahabians [Wahhabis].

Note: It doesn’t appear that any of these writings are extant.

Buchanan mentions all these are more as evidences that the time has come to once again announce Christ in the East, as the wise men once did.

In his conclusion, Buchanan also mentions British opponents of missions, saying that “in the future history of our country, it will scarcely be believed that in the present age, an attempt should have been made to prevent the diffusion of the blessed principles of the Christian religion.” (loc. 448) The author then compares naysayers to the pessimistic spies of Israel, who did not believe they should enter the promised land (loc. 469).

In the mean time, while men hold different opinions on the subject here, the great work goes on in the East. . . . And on this point I judge it right to notice a remarkable mistake, which appears to have existed on both sides of the question. It seems to have been assumed on the one side, and conceded on the other, that we have it in our power to prevent the progress of Christianity in India. (loc. 492)

Review: Unoccupied Mission Fields of Asia & Africa

Rating: ★★★

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary. (Click here for more on Samuel M. Zwemer, or read his biography.)

Genre:

The genre of this book requires some explanation. Unoccupied Mission Fields, especially the first half, falls into the category of missions survey. Missions survey books sought to compile information from European explorers and pioneer missionaries to explain basic information that we would expect to read today on Wikipedia: geography, demographics, population statistics, religious statistics, as well as other information pertinent for missionaries and intercessors. Missions survey is not well represented today in publishing, but in comprehensive resources and websites such as Operation World, The Joshua Project, and some resources by Voice of the Martyrs. Missions newsletters, biographies, and some large-scale studies (like A Wind in the House of Islam) also may meet the same goals as missions survey.

Overview:

Zwemer writes in the preface:

The purpose of this book is to give a survey of the extent and condition of the wholly unoccupied mission fields in Africa and Asia . . . and to consider the questions that bear on their occupation. (Preface, loc. 18)

This twofold purpose is roughly how the book is divided. After a lengthy rundown of neglected areas (especially Muslim-majority populations), the second half of Unoccupied Fields deals with heart issues and head issues involved with missionary advancement in these pioneer fields.

The book begins with many accounts of geographical areas with no missionaries (as of 1911). These are mildly interesting, since we can clearly see which areas have experienced rapid progress in the past century (mainly sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia), and others that have seemingly changed little since Zwemer’s day.

Zwemer then discusses the obstacles to missionary advancement in each region, the social and religious poverty among the unreached, missionary strategy, and the need for pioneer efforts.

Zwemer’s sources are primarily missions reports and missions biographies, with some explorers’ accounts and travelogues.

Despite many dated quotations, the second half of the book shows what made Zwemer famous. Aside from his very thorough research, the book is dripping with a pioneer spirit for the glory of Christ among the unreached, and that is the book’s chief value. The last few chapters are especially potent, and “The Glory of the Impossible” is worth the price of the book.

Quotes:

“These fields are the enemy’s citadels, the high places of his dominion, flaunting defiance in the face of a militant church.” (ch. 1, loc. 167)

“The first Missionary came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (ch. 1, loc. 169)

“God does not deal with mankind in the mass, but as individuals, nor should we. [sic]” (ch. 1, loc. 678)

“Decentralization in the mission field itself is another pressing problem.” (ch. 2, loc. 855)

“Meanwhile, how slowly move the hosts of God
To claim the crown He hath already won!” (ch. 3, loc. 1099)

“The march of missionary progress throughout the past century of Protestant missions has, with some exceptions, been along the line of least resistance. When the whole non-Christian world was awaiting pioneer effort, the Church sometimes postponed the harder tasks. . . . ” (ch. 3, loc. 1128)

“The gradual breaking down of barriers . . . is a call to greater faith and enterprise.” (ch. 3, loc. 1594)

“Long neglect, trying climates, political barriers, national jealousies and religious intolerance in all the unoccupied fields are only a challenge to faith and intended of God to lead us to prayer. All difficulties can be surmounted by those who have faith in God.” (ch. 3, p. 107, loc. 1630)

“The eyes of the Christian world turn as instinctively toward the lands closed to the Gospel in this missionary age, as do the eyes of a conquering army toward the few remaining outposts of the enemy.” (John Muir, qtd. in ch. 6, p. 166, loc. 2546)

“The pioneer stands in a class by himself, like Paul among the Apostles. His glory and joy is the magnitude and the difficulty of the task. The unknown attracts him. Obstacles allure him, and difficulties only knit his moral fibre and strengthen his purpose.” (ch. 7, p. 198, loc. 3027)

” . . . men who do not know what discouragement means. . . .” (ch. 7, p. 200, loc. 3059)

“God does not put the Polar bear on the Congo, nor the hippopotamus in the heart of Arabia . . . Lambs are provided with wool, and it is untrue that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb. He does not need to temper the wind, because He does not shear the lamb.” (ch. 7, p. 214, loc. 3267)

“Heap the difficulties together recklessly . . . He is the God of the impossible.” (Lillias Trotter, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 225, loc. 3436).

“We are not to choose conditions, but to meet them. The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.'” (S. C. Rijnhart, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 227, loc. 3467)

Zwemer cites Bishop French’s tale, adding that MacKay had called for six young men and only French responded (ch. 8, p. 233, loc. 3572)

Livingstone challenged Cambridge men: “Do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you.” (ch. 8, p. 240, loc. 3674)

Selected quotes on Arabia and Islam:

“But in its native Arabian soil, the tree planted by the Prophet has grown up with wild freedom and brought forth fruit of its own kind. As regards morality, Arabia is on a low plane . . . ” (p. 142, loc. 2171)

“A religion that does not purify the home cannot regenerate the race.” (Fairbairn, qtd. p. 136, loc. 2085)

“The Gospel is the only hope for the social uplift of the world.” (p. 135, loc. 2061)

Zwemer cites amulet use (p. 118, loc. 1801); open slavery (p. 113, loc. 1729-1730); prostitution in Mecca veiled as ‘temporary marriage’ and the like.

“The chief barrier is that of Moslem political authority and not primarily religious fanaticism.” (p. 94, loc. 1437)

“Northern Oman together with the coast along the western side of the Persian Gulf has a large number of villages and cities. Only the coast towns thus far have been visited by missionaries and colporteurs and the people would welcome medical missions, yet there is no station in the entire area of the map.” (p. 45, loc. 675)

“Missionary work in Arabia so far has been largely preliminary.” (p. 34, loc. 518)

“The eastern tribes . . . are pagan . . . Their dialect is distinct . . . their customs are peculiar and primitive.” (p. 33)

Sources cited with recommendations:

In the Torrid Sudan
With Tibetans in Tent and Temple
Across the Sahara 
(Vischer)
Fighting the Slave-Hunters in Central Africa (Swann, 1910)
The Lower Niger & Its Tribes (Leonard, 1906)
Leaves from an Afghan Scrapbook
Six Months in Meccah
(Keane, 1881)

The Danger of an Exalted Mission

An exalted mission is an ever-present tonic to the Christian. The mission will brook no lazy or chicken-hearted missionary. He stands up straight and checks his pulse at the tug of the apostolic chain. She who once neglected her body will now bring it under submission, for she is not shadow-boxing.

The mission demands much; it demands God. It puts us in immediate need of the Holy Spirit. The seven sons of Sceva find themselves out of their depth; hearsay has no power over the usurping devils in the human heart. We must have personal knowledge of him we preach.

The mission demands much—sometimes too much. It must not demand all. Then it becomes like a proud mustard tree, inviting foul birds to infest its branches. Mission may outstrip calling. Mission may outfly faith. Then we find ourselves, like Sceva’s sons, unable to provide the very power that our mission demands.

The apostolic missionary must take care that mission always submits to calling. Calling encompasses all of Christian life; mission, only a part. Calling is an expression of our relation to our Creator; mission is how we join him in rectifying a broken Creation. Mission is work; calling is not primarily work. We are called to:

  • The fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Peace (1 Cor. 7:15)
  • The grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6)
  • Freedom (Gal. 5:13)
  • His kingdom and glory (1 Th. 2:12)
  • Holiness (1 Th. 4:7)
  • Marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9)
  • Suffering (1 Pet. 2:21)
  • Blessing (1 Pet. 3:9)
  • Glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3)

Never let the mission become more important than your calling. Don’t let being a hero become more important than being a Christian. Answer your Creator’s call with your waking breath, and let the mission be your response to that infant helplessness of prayer.

The Call of God

God’s call is not just about missions. Os Guinness explains that “calling” in Scripture begins with and includes salvation; it is as much a calling to a person as it is a calling to a work or a place. We are called first into a relationship and a new identity in Christ, and any discussion of a “missionary calling” is incomplete without mentioning this first. (1)

God’s call is both repeated and prolonged. Paul and his group experience a variety of “callings” in the book of Acts. The call of God is not a one- time event. It is a complex, life-long driving force leading us to and through salvation and service. It is the “due north” by which we set our compass and take our bearings every day. The call of God is the general direction for all our specific obedience to God.

God’s call is multifaceted. Paul had a long road between the vision on the Damascus road, and the prophetic call in Antioch. He is called first to salvation (Acts 9), then to a work (Acts 13:1-3), followed by a variety of locations and ministries. Sills writes:

God seems to call some to a particular kind of missions service, others to a people group, others to a region, others to a country, others to a city, and others to a life purpose (such as rescuing young girls from prostitution) or some combination of these. (2)

God’s call is not about location. We tend to focus on all of the visible aspects of calling: where we will go, what we will do, who we will marry, and who we will work with. God focuses on the invisible aspects: spiritual preparation, the burden of prayer, the willingness to proclaim, and the stubborn ability to plod on without stopping.


(1) See Os Guinness’ book The Call. Chapters 4 and 5.

(2) M. David Sills. The Missionary Call. Kindle edition. Location 364.

New Compilation on Women in Missions!

“And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.”
Joel 2:28-30, NIV

March is Women’s History Month! And today we are pleased to announce that we haven’t missed our chance to brag on a few women in missions history. Our newest book is Sixteen Pioneer Women in Early Modern Missions. We love to bring to light biographies that have gone out of print, including stories of women in missions and indigenous peoples participating in missions. If you only believed the popular books on the topic, you would think that Protestant missions only involved white, English or American men until around 1960. We hope in time to restore some balance to the narrative of God’s glorious and global enterprise of building his church.

Thomas Timpson (author of The Angels of God) arranged this book in 1841 based mostly on previous memoirs, letters and journals of British women who had been missionaries. Of the sixteen women in the compilation, only eight of them reached the age of 35. In an era that preceded the steam engine, the telegraph, or modern medicine, these women “forsook all” to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Timpson shows the height of their consecration and the depths of their humility through their personal letters and journal entries.

The narratives are challenging and profound. When Jesus taught in Capernaum, his disciples said, literally, “That’s a tough word.” (John 6:60, my translation) That is exactly how I felt reading these simple and frank narratives of triumph and tragedy on the mission field.

These memoirs focus on having a heart for missions. Each of these ladies is unknown today, but they had a chance to play a significant role in Protestant missions, and they took it. The time period extends from the late 1600s to 1840, and the scope of the book is global. Missionaries in this book reached out in the American colonies, Malta, Guyana, Jamaica, many parts of India, Sierra Leone, eastern Siberia, and many Pacific islands.

There is an introductory chapter—probably worth the price of the book—that surveys the conditions of gender inequality on a global scale, especially where Christianity had little or no influence. This chapter was arranged by Jemima Luke (née Thompson)—author of the hymn “I think when I read that sweet story of old”—when she was 28 years old. It conveys some sense of the influence of the gospel on gender relations in the past 200 years.

The entire book has been proofread, updated, and re-typeset into a new edition, released March 2018.

Now available in paperback: $11.99
Kindle edition: $5.99
(The Kindle download will be free with the paperback.)

Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

Meet the Moravians

Two Moravians didn’t volunteer to be slaves for the Gospel—three did. But none of them actually became slaves.

You may have heard a story passed on in many sermons about two Moravians. A former slave comes to the Moravians and tells them that his people are longing to hear the Gospel—but no one has access to them except for slaves. “Fine,” respond the undaunted Moravians. “We will sell ourselves into slavery.”

Then we fade into a shot of the two Moravians on the deck of a slave barge, headed to the West Indies, shouting at their weeping families, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” And that is the last that their flesh and blood ever heard from them.

——

This story has taken on legendary proportions in the modern evangelical church, probably because of Paris Reidhead’s erstwhile viral sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt,” and its reincarnation as the “Revival Hymn.”⁠1 But of the two scenes that pass before your mind’s eye, only one of them is true.

Fortunately for the two Moravians, the second scene is either somewhat mythical, or it is someone else’s story. The two Moravians did go to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas as missionaries, and they did preach the gospel to many slaves, but they did not become slaves themselves. Here it is worthwhile to unpack the full story of these remarkable men. I think you will agree with me that the truth of this story is just as inspiring as the legend—or more so.

Revival

The story starts with a widespread revival in the Moravian community, dated to August 13, 1727.⁠⁠2 There was a great stirring among the immigrants who had sought asylum in Count Zinzendorf’s estate, and many spoke about the claims of Christ in unknown lands.

According to Hutton’s account, many Moravians were longing to spread the Gospel abroad during the years that followed, but without any precedent, they were unsure how to move forward. On February 11, 1728, several of them made a covenant that they would go overseas once the way forward was made clear. No Protestant church was sending its own missionaries at that time, although the Danish government had supported a few in its colonies.⁠⁠3

In 1731, that changed. Antony Ulrich, a former slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas, visited Copenhagen. He told the Danish king that the residents of the island and its slaves were primed to respond to the Gospel. He especially pleaded on behalf of his family members.

On July 24, 1731, Count Zinzendorf shared Antony’s story with his Moravian brothers. The shocking Macedonian call was passed on from ear to ear among the Moravians. A few were quietly contemplating the possibility of going to St. Thomas, but no one spoke up publicly or immediately.

Volunteers

In time, Johann Leonard Dober brought the matter up with his friend, Tobias Leupold, and they wrote a letter to Zinzendorf, declaring their intent to go. Zinzendorf shared the news of the letter with the congregation, but did not disclose their names.

Antony Ulrich, the Caribbean freedman, was still in Europe, and he followed up with Zinzendorf around this time (in present-day Germany). He spoke to the Moravians in Dutch. When Zinzendorf asked Ulrich about sending two men right away, Ulrich—mistakenly—told him that they could only come as slaves.

Both Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold repeated without hesitation their willingness to go to St. Thomas, even as slaves. Dober wrote the congregation as he had earlier written their leader. It was a heroic declaration of sacrifice that shocked and stirred the Moravian settlement, and inspired many others to consider a commitment to preach abroad. In the end, though, such a sacrifice of freedom was both inadmissible and unnecessary.

Changed Plans

Eventually, the church decided that only Dober should go.⁠⁠4 Dober then chose another Moravian named David Nitschman to accompany him. Just like Tobias Leupold, whom he replaced, Nitschman fully expected to become a slave for the Gospel. Thus, at that point, three men had publicly and enthusiastically declared that they would be enslaved in exchange for the opportunity to preach to the unreachable.

Hutton describes the two men, waiting outside Zinzendorf’s house in the pre-dawn hours on August 21st, 1732. The Count spent the night in prayer, and then he drove them part of the way to Copenhagen. They received a prayer of blessing, and departed on foot to Denmark to secure their passage to the Caribbean.

They had a few belongings and very little money. Although the idea may have been naive, both of them—Dober and Nitschman—fully intended to sell themselves into slavery.

In the end, however, the Danish king deemed this impossible. Dober and Tobias met with Von Plesz,  the chamberlain of King Frederick VI. Here is the dialogue given in Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church:

Von Plesz, the king’s chamberlain, asked them how they would live.

“We shall work,” replied Nitschman, “as slaves among the slaves.”

“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”

“Very well,” replied Nitschman, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”

“But what will the potter do?”

“He will help me in my work.”

“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”⁠⁠5

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1706, King Frederick IV of Denmark had sent the first Protestant missionaries to his colonies. But Dober and Nitschman went without royal support. They were not even offered passage by the Danes.

The Rest of the Story

The ‘tall tale’ of two Moravians says that they never saw their families again.  In fact, Leonard Dober only stayed for about two years, until he was called to Herrnhut to take office as General Elder of the church there. Amazingly, Tobias Leupold—who had been turned down as his companion—broke the news to Dober in person in June 1734.⁠⁠6 This was not the end of the mission, however. The Moravians would send 18 more missionaries to those islands in the next two years.

Dober arrived in Europe February 5th, 1735 and held the office of General Elder for six years, travelling often to Holland and England during the remainder of his life. He spent the last few months of his life in Herrnhut.

David Nitschman only went to St. Thomas as an assistant to Dober in his travels, and so he left St. Thomas after just four months.⁠⁠7 Nitschman later took passage to Georgia in 1736, where he met John Wesley, and spent the later years of his life in the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Forerunners in Protestant Missions

Today, Moravians are little known in America; we tout them as a missionary powerhouse, but that’s where the story ends—at least at missions conferences. But in the 18th century, many Europeans viewed the Moravians as a cult, an uneducated church for spiritual outcasts and fanatics.

They had strange and unique customs, some gleaned from Zinzendorf’s leadership. The original settlement had a rote discipleship system which would sound today like a drug rehab program. They were passionate, committed, communal, innovative, and evangelistic.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia with twenty-six Moravian shipmates, they were greatly impressed by their no-nonsense attitudes and the way they returned blessing for insult. John Wesley feared for his life during day after day of violent Atlantic storms, but he wrote in his journal of the Moravians:

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces. … A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’

He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’

He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'”⁠8

The Moravians’ historian takes great pride in the fact that many English Moravians preceded William Carey to the mission field. When they left for St. Thomas, Dober and Nitschman preceded William Carey by sixty years. There is no doubt that they were the first Protestant church, as far as we know, to send missionaries with no worldly or political ties.

Careers

Why, then, does the modern legend transform Nitschman and Dober into slaves? It betrays a deep confusion in modern American missiology. Maybe deep down, we believe that going overseas is pointless unless the sacrifices are tangible, irreversible, and impressive.

But it was not their romantic sacrifice that gave them access to the unreached—it was their flexibility. They did not hang on to some heroic vision of missionary life, but showed that they would undergo any hardship—even pursuing a secular vocation!

“For over one hundred years no missionary in the West Indies received from the Moravian Church one penny of salary for his services. Each man, during all the period, had first to earn his own living.”⁠9

Maybe we should also think about where the legend ends: “They went overseas.” But that is where the preface ends, and we reach page one. Leonard Dober and David Nitschman, in fact, preached the gospel to numerous slaves. They worked hard, maintained careers, baptized disciples, and preached the Gospel in the Caribbean. And their impact outlasted them.

Results

An important point to this story is that these two were not just two among a centuries-long stream of missionaries out of Herrnhut. They were the first. Immediately inspired by their commitment, a trio of Moravians joined Hans Egede in his apostolic work in Greenland.⁠⁠10

Many of the workers that followed our wayfaring pair to the Caribbean died of tropical diseases. After they left, 18 Moravian missionaries began work in St. Croix, and within two years, half of them had died. In fact, Moravian missionaries had to take their own headstone across the Atlantic with them, because the Caribbean islands couldn’t supply them with stones.

By the time Leonard Dober died, there were more than 5,000 former slaves in the Moravian congregations of the West Indies.⁠11 The Moravian Brethren still have disciples in the Caribbean today, and it started with those two young men volunteering.

Takeaways

There are a few things that stick out about this story.

First, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery; they did something much less heroic—they plied their trade. No one wants to share a story of two volunteer missionaries saying: we will do anything to reach people, even manual labor.

Second, volunteering was not enough. After they declared their intent to go to the mission field, they had to find a way to support their work. They had to be sent. The church decided one of them shouldn’t go. When they got there, real life had to happen. Willingness was only one ingredient.

Third, the story didn’t end when their ship weighed anchor from Denmark; then their work had only begun. They only contributed to the work for a couple of years, but they paved the way for the Moravian missionaries that followed them—both in the West Indies, and globally.

In the end, the mythical version says more about our generation than theirs. We would not pass on the story if it did not have a ring of romance to it. The legendary retelling certainly appeals to our heartstrings. But the heroes this generation needs are not going to be those one or two who give it all, forsake their families, and cross the seas to become slaves. We need an army of workers willing to scrap their way, by any means, to the unreached and the inconvenient lost, whether or not they have to use a university degree to do so.

Share the true story and help restore our generation’s understanding of missions. As A. W. Tozer said, you don’t become a missionary by crossing the sea; you become a missionary by seeing the cross.


1 The audio of Reidhead’s famous sermon is available here.

2 You can read about this revival, for example, in John Greenfield’s book, Power from on High, or The History of the Moravians by J. E. Hutton.

3 See, for example:

Helen H. Holcomb, Men of Might in India Missions. 1901.

J. Ferd. Fenger. History of the Tranquebar Mission. 1842. Translated from the Danish in 1863.

Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. 1904.

4 Remarkably, this decision was made using a system of casting lots for Scriptures, a practice that the Moravian Brethren have since given up, for obvious reasons.

5 J. E. Hutton. History of the Moravian Church. Book II, Chapter VI. “The Foreign Missions and Their Influence.”

The story is also told by J. E. Hutton in his History of Moravian Missions. 1922.

6 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 37-38. 1922.

7 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

8 Richard Watson. The Life of John Wesley, p. 43. 1857.

9 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 38-39. 1922.

10 Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. Ch. 6.

11 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.