31 Days of Missionary Stories: Pedestals?

We’ve come to the 31st post of this 31 day series (I started a day late, thus ending Nov. 1), and I am feeling a little like the writer of Hebrews in chapter 11, verse 32:  “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of” David Brainerd, David Livingstone, Ida Scudder, William Borden. Henry Martyn, Ann Judson, Margaret Paton, and many more. Maybe from time to time I’ll post some of their stories, although I am sure you could find some information about them online.

I’ve tried to bring a variety in this series of “classic” missionary stories and newer ones, some from the jungle, some from the city, etc. I suppose if I had thought and planned for this enough ahead of time, I could have done them in chronological order. As it was I just went from day to day with whichever one was on my heart.

mission_biosI wanted to leave you with a list of missionary biographies I have enjoyed. Some are older and out of print, but I have had great success buying used books for just a few dollars via Amazon.com (this isn’t a commercial for them – I am not in their affiliate program, though I should probably check into it, as much as I link to them!) Any links in this list are to previous posts here on this blog.

Before I get to that list, I wanted to leave you with a quote of Elisabeth Elliot in A Lamp for My Feet:


A student asked me whether I thought it was a problem that we tend to place missionaries on pedestals. My answer was that indeed we do, but servants of the Lord ought to be models of the truth they proclaim. Paul was bold enough to say, “Be followers of me” (l Cor 4:16).

At the same time let us always remember that the “excellency of the power” (2 Cor 4:7 AV) is never ours but God’s. It is foolish to imagine that the missionary, or whoever the hero is, is sinless. God uses sinners–there is no one else to use.

Pedestals are for statues. Usually statues commemorate people who have done something admirable. Is the deed worth imitating? Does it draw me out of myself, set my sights higher? Let me remember the Source of all strength (“The Lord is the strength of my life,” says Ps 27:1 AV) and, cheered by the image of a human being in whom that strength was shown, follow his example.

Admittedly some of the older missionary books make missionaries look a little more saintly and unflawed. I think perhaps the authors didn’t want to gossip, or perhaps they assumed everyone knew everyone else had flaws without having to lay them out for everyone to see. Perhaps because “love covers over a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8), they didn’t feel at liberty to divulge those of their subject (I’ve found many an autobiography to be much more frank about the author’s failings.) But I do understand it does help us to relate better to someone when they seem more real to us, as flawed as we are, and even the Bible tells us how people failed as well as how they followed the Lord. I’ve known some people who didn’t like to read missionary biographies because they thought they were too perfect: just understand that they’re not, they would never claim to be, and be inspired by the rest of their story.

Another thing to keep in mind when you read biographies is that you might come across things you disagree with: for instance, there was a time when most missionaries, especially in more remote fields, would send their children to boarding school at a certain age because there were no other schools available. With the advent of an abundance of home schooling materials and a change in mindset over the years, most would find that unthinkable now. I wouldn’t try to justify, condemn, or defend the practice: just understand that that was the way it was then. Probably some of the very problems and sorrows inherent in that practice led to the changes we have today. Similarly, a lot of older missionaries, especially in primitive areas, would hire servants. This wasn’t so they could live a class above the people they were ministering to: it was just simply to help the missionaries with the everyday tasks that in that time and culture could literally take up all of their time, especially as, being new to the field, they might not know how to do some of the things. Hiring some helpers freed them to minister more. Also, in that way they could help a new convert whose family might have turned against them. In addition, you might find some language we would not regard as “politically correct” these days, but we can’t expect them to have the sensibilities and sensitivities that have developed over hundred of years.

Some years ago when I read 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe, I was struck by the fact that the 50 he mentioned, though they agreed on the core, fundamental doctrines, like the inspiration of the Bible, the Deity of Christ, the way of salvation being by grace through faith in Him, etc., they were on either side of a multitude of fences on other issues, yet God used each of them. That doesn’t mean those issues aren’t important: each of us is responsible to study them out before the Lord. But people can differ on some side issues and still be friends and love God and be greatly used by Him.

On the other hand, we can get too enthralled and feel we need to do everything just like they did. When I started reading biographies as a young Christian, I would read how one person had their devotions, think that was a great idea, and then do the same — until I read the next book and saw how someone else did it differently. 🙂 Some of them might have employed some practices that would be good to try, if we feel led, but we don’t need to feel compelled to copy everything they did.

On to the list. I have read all of these (some multiple times) in the last 35 years:

I compiled a list of missionary books for children here.

I know I have also read biographies of William Borden, David Livingston, David Brainerd, and Ida Scudder, but that was before the days that I wrote these things down and I can’t remember which books I read about them. And there are probably some I am forgetting. But there are some wonderful, inspiring, challenging stories there, and I hope you can find and read some of them.

I’ve enjoyed much this 31 day series, but if I do it again I think I’ll do 31 one-liners or quotes or something a little shorter. 🙂 Thankfully some of these were written years earlier for a ladies’ church newsletter and only needed a little tweaking, and some had appeared on the blog before, but some were new or were woven together from a couple of other posts. It has been so good, though, to go back over these stories of how people walked with God and how He met with them and ministered through them. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series as well.

(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

14 thoughts on “31 Days of Missionary Stories: Pedestals?

  1. Thank you for taking the initiative and time to talk about these wonderful books. Reading biographies has been such an encouragement to my Christian walk, I love to hear of others who’ve had the same connection. Your posts were well-written and enjoyable to read, and I was excited to get some new titles to look up.


  2. Elizabeth Elliot was a very wise woman! Thank you for sharing all this knowledge of God’s workers in the field! If they can go to foreign fields why can’t we reach out right here in our backyards? Have a blessed day Barbara!

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  4. Barbara, Thank you so much for this series. I’ve enjoyed it, and I plan to come back to it, both for my own personal reading and for the library that I’m starting in my home for other homeschool families. Many of these books would excellent additions to that library. Thanks for taking the time and energy to do this.

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