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When I was in upper elementary school and middle school, I inhaled books like there was no tomorrow. I would scour my parents’ bookshelves looking for things to read that I hadn’t read before and that weren’t boring/too-adult-for-me books, like my dad’s John Grisham and Tom Clancy collection.
Often, I couldn’t find much that was age-appropriate and that I hadn’t read before. Parents of avid readers, I feel your pain as you navigate the same thing with your littles.
That’s one reason I’m always thankful for the public library systems in the U.S.: lots of books I haven’t yet read!
Sometime in there was a period of time when I started reading missionary stories and couldn’t get enough of them. My mom noticed, so she gave me books for Christmas and my birthday along those lines.
I quickly noticed that not all biographies are created equal. Some authors have a the tendency for taking a person’s life story and and making it sound like a bunch of dry, boring facts: this happened, then this, and eventually this.
Blech. No thanks!
However, there are other authors who have a knack for taking the facts of someone’s life, as well as the heart and tears and joy, and weaving it into a life story that is inspiring, heart-rending, and thrilling to read.
That’s what this list is today: biographies of missionaries that read more like suspenseful novels, words that weave together the image of a life well-lived and a person who loved well.
Some are more geared toward adults, while others are more geared toward kids . None of these people were perfect or had perfect theology. But their lives and legacies are thought-provoking and compelling and make me want to get off my tush and truly live.
Torches of Joy by John Dekker
This one is the first book I remember reading about missionaries, and from then on I was hooked. I read when I was only in fourth or fifth grade. It’s the true story of a young couple of who went to Papua (then Irian Jaya) to a tribe who were still in the Stone Age with their technology and culture – literally.
This book is intense and is not violence/bloodshed-free – and my mama was pretty particular about what we read. We read it together, though, and it left me hungry for more, and in awe of the transformative healing that Christ brings, no matter your culture or place on this globe.
Ministering there took tremendous patience, courage, and bravery. The Dekkers were far from medical assistance, and their lives were often potentially in danger as they learned the culture of the tribe to whom they preached the Gospel. If I thought living in a developing country was culture shock, it was small potatoes compared to this!
One of the things I found most fascinating in this story was how they tried to translate ideas from first century Rome (crucifixion, for example) into the Dani tribe’s tongue. There literally weren’t words in the Dani language for some of the things and ideas in the Bible. So they had to use parallel ideas from the Dani’s own culture in order to truly communicate the depth and breadth of God’s love and salvation of them.
I hadn’t ever considered that aspect of Bible translation until reading this book. Come to think of it, maybe that’s where my fascination with linguistics started…
Update: I’m not actually sure whether I’m thinking of Torches of Joy or Peace Child, by Don Richardson – another book that I could add to this list. Either way, I recommend both!
God’s Smuggler is the story of Brother Andrew who, as you’ll find out when reading, does not offer his last name for safety purposes. John and Elizabeth Sherrill put together his life story and they are amazing at it! They did the same with Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place, which is another of my favorite biographies/memoirs.
Brother Andrew surrendered to God’s call on his life and wound up smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain after World War II. I think one of my favorite stories of his life was about how God miraculously kept his Volkswagen running long past when, by all human standards, it possibly could have.
Granny Brand: Her Story by Dorothy Clarke Wilson
This book is precious to me. A beautiful soul at my church gave this to me as a high school graduation gift. Actually, she gave me The Hiding Place first, but when she found out that I’d already read it, she told me to keep the copy (which I did) and also gave me this book. She said she thought I would connect with those stories. (I did.)
Granny Brand was a missionary in the dangerous, isolated mountains of India. She went there as a single thirty year-old and never returned to her native England. While she did marry another missionary, he died fairly young, but she lived on there, making her home with one community in the mountains, teaching and caring for them, until they knew Christ and were thriving, and then moving to another isolated spot and doing the same.
She didn’t own a mirror, thought fancy food and hotels were unnecessary luxuries, and gave of herself completely to God and the people she served. She was well-loved, but more importantly, she didn’t want any credit. She told the author to wait until she died to write her story. I want to be more like her.
Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot
Just look at that cover will ya? It makes my heart homesick for the mountains of Ecuador. It humbles me to think that because of the work of John and Elisabeth Elliot, Nate Saint, and several other missionaries, Ecuador is now a country where my parents weren’t terrified to let me go as a single missionary. (Right, Mom and Dad?)
Only a few generations ago, Ecuador wasn’t a country where the name of Christ was a normal thing to hear. James Elliot was martyred in the jungle of Ecuador for the sake of the Gospel, and there have been many lives who have been transformed because of his sacrificial death, and those with him.
There is still much progress to be made, yet, because of missionaries like the Elliots and Saints, more Ecuadorians themselves have been, and are being, equipped to spread the good news of Christ to their own neighbors and nearby communities.
When I got to go to the town of Shell, Ecuador, and have a Thanksgiving worship service with other missionaries in the Nate Saint museum, it meant so much. Knowing their faith in a God who is bigger than death itself is both bracing and challenging.
From the series Christian Heroes, Then and Now by Janet and Geoff Benge
Caveat here: I remember reading the stories of Amy Carmichael, D.L. Moody, David Livingstone, and Eric Liddell during that period of my life. I don’t truly remember if I read them all from this specific series; however, I can tell you that the other series of books my mom got for me was not as good as the ones I read here. It was called Heroes of the Faith, and had white covers with red as an accent color, pictured here:
I’m fairly confident I wasn’t as fascinated with David Livingstone’s story because the writing felt dry (which is a shame!). So while I don’t remember all of the exact biographies I read about the following people, I do remember being astounded by their stories, and I recommend Janet and Geoff Benge’s series, especially for kids.
This one made the cut when I culled my books before moving to Ecuador, and it’s sitting on my bookshelves still.
Although he did travel during his life, the fact that he was a missionary to England, a country which sent many missionaries to “foreign fields” made an impression on me. So, too, did his complete trust in God’s provision. His story even started to form in me an idea of what I might want to do with my own life.
George Müller saw the need for a home for the orphans of Bristol, England, and set about asking God for the place in which to care for them. His ministry to them grew and grew, and all the while he trusted God to provide for all their clothing, food, and other needs. One story has always stuck with me: one morning, they had no food for breakfast, yet they all sat down to the table, and he thanked God for the food He would provide. Right then, there came a knock on the door that provided them with enough food for breakfast.
While I personally don’t like flying by the seat of my pants like that financially, his resolution to never hold on to what God gave him and to give lavishly and generously has remained something I ponder often and strive to act upon. Also, the fact that God always came through, even at the “last” second, is a solemn and timely reminder that we’re not in nearly as much control as we think we are. But we are dependent on a good, good God who richly provides us with all that we need.
D.L. Moody’s story was fascinating to me, too, because he didn’t go overseas to primitive tribes with the gospel. He preached to all kinds of people in the U.S. about Christ and prayed tirelessly, sometimes all night.
He was big on revival preaching, and many hymns we sing today are from him and his musical sidekick Ira Sankey, but Moody also cared about education and founded several institutions, like Moody Bible Institute, for example. His life and work truly left a legacy and have affected countless people through the ongoing work of those places and the lasting words of those hymns.
Eric Liddell was an astounding man of God. He was an Olympic runner, but also a missionary to China. I love that he refused to run an Olympic race on a Sunday because of his conviction that Sunday was a day of rest for the Lord. Oh that we would all live by strong convictions like him, rather than acquiescing to what is normal and expected in our culture!
There are plenty of other good missionary stories that I haven’t written about here – in fact, I’m thinking of more as I type. Many of them have shaped my thinking and actions as I’ve grown up…that’s the power that a life story well-told can have upon people.
What are your favorites?
Maybe you’ll get me reading some more and I’ll have to do a follow-up post that lists more! 🙂