Candid Confessions of Failure and Frustration Show that Missionaries Are No Heroes

Image: The Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois (Collection 278) / Courtesy of Jonathan and Amy Hollingsworth
Image: The Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois (Collection 278) / Courtesy of Jonathan and Amy Hollingsworth

The book cover shows a white woman wearing a straw hat holding a brown baby, a golden light glowing behind her. The slender children’s biography still has the price tag; 25 years ago, I paid $3.95 at the Shepherd’s Shoppe in San Antonio. From the stories inside, I learned about Amy Carmichael’s mission to India during the first half of the 20th century. I was hooked on missionary stories from childhood onward. They conjured a life of Nancy Drew–style escapades done in the name of Jesus.

After graduating from college, in search of heroic adventures for Christ, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.” Needless to say, I quickly learned that a small-town English teacher’s life is not all high adventure. And when my story did turn in that direction—with conversions, arrests, persecution, and rumors of CIA involvement—there was none of the romance the stories I read growing up had promised. Instead, the whole ordeal felt heart-wrenching.

In reflecting on my missionary experience over the past decade, I have returned to those little books that first wooed me overseas. But I’ve also started following the burgeoning online writings of current missionaries. It’s increasingly clear that, because of cultural and technological developments, we are witnessing a retreat from longstanding conventions of the missionary genre. Many changes are afoot, and many of them are for the better.

A Frontier Saint

Western Christians have long been fascinated by the missionary biography, beginning with The Life of David Brainerd, published by Jonathan Edwards in 1749. Brainerd spent three years trying to evangelize Native American tribes in the 1740s. When a bout of consumption sidelined him from missions work, Brainerd lived with the Edwards family.

After his death, Edwards edited Brainerd’s diaries into a tale of a sickly, orphaned missionary who persevered against physical, spiritual, and emotional hardships. This book became one of Edwards’s most popular, remaining to this day his most frequently reprinted work. Brainerd became a folk hero: Stories circulated of a frontier saint subsisting on bear meat and Indian cornmeal, encountering poisonous snakes that refused to attack, and kneeling so long in prayer that he couldn’t stand to walk.

The Life of David Brainerd inspired the first generation of US evangelical missionaries. It also defined the genre and furnished the rhetoric for writing about their experiences. In the 1800s, a growing body of memoirs—from missionaries such as Samuel J. Mills, Levi Parsons, Pliny Fisk, Gordon Hall, Harriet Wadsworth Winslow, and Adoniram and Ann Judson—followed its pattern. Many of these memoirs mentioned The Life directly.

Even in private writings, missionaries measured their experiences alongside Brainerd’s. Fisk, for example, seriously ill in Egypt in 1823, consoled himself by writing in his journal, “What must not Brainerd have suffered, when sick among the Indians?” Some even wrote for eventual readers, as though expecting their diaries to land next to Brainerd’s on readers’ bookshelves.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Amy Peterson


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