My father-in-law recently mailed us a book called From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. As I have been reading this book, I have at times been inspired, encouraged and renewed in my missionary zeal. But, honestly, more often than not, I have been a little scandalized by the failures of those who have gone before me in missions. In a sense, I feel like this book is throwing mud on my heroes. Here are a couple of examples:
William Carey, a famous missionary to India in the 1800s labored for 7 years before seeing anyone convert to Christ. Finally, a man named Krishna Pal believed and was being baptized by Carey in the Ganges river. But then the author interrupts this beautiful scene with the following….
…This sublime scene is only part of the picture. Carey’s wife, who had gone to India against her will, was now deemed ‘wholly deranged,’ and John Thomas, Carey’s partner who had delayed the mission due to his credit problems, had also gone mad. A missionary observer to this momentous occasion filled in the details that we would rather not include in our stories of missionary heroes: ‘When Carey led Krishna and his own son Felix down into the water of baptism, the ravings of Thomas in the schoolhouse on the one side, and of Mrs. Carey on the other, mingled with the strains of the Bengali hymn of praise.’ (122)
Yes, someone had come to Christ but it was at the expense of Carey’s wife and missionary partner going mad. In fact, his wife actually worked against him and his ministry as writes James Beck:
[Carey] attempted to argue for the moral superiority of Christianity and how Christ could liberate Hindus and Moslems from the tragedies of paganism…But how could he evangelize if his wife following him through the streets accusing him in the vilest language of adultery? (125)
And yet, despite his wife’s loud accusations, the Lord used William Carey greatly in his work in India in the areas of evangelism, the translation of the Bible, education, and fighting against widow burning and infanticide. How can these two realities be reconciled?
Later in the same century, in 1890, William Shepard, a black American, volunteered to go to the Congo as a missionary through the Southern Presbyterians. He was loved by the Africans and even won the hearing of African kings. When colonial rubber plunderers moved into his region, he witnessed how cruelly the Africans were being treated as “the dead and the dying were everywhere” (166). In response to these atrocities, he wrote up reports of his findings that “shattered the complacency of Americans and Europeans” (166). He got the world’s attention as the headlines read:
AMERICAN NEGRO HERO OF CONGO AND FIRST TO INFORM WORLD OF CONGO ABUSES, the Boston Herald wrote, ‘Dr Sheppard has not only stood before kings, but he has also stood against them. In pursuit of his mission of serving his race in its native land, this son of a slave…has dared to withstand all the power of Leopold.’ (167)
This man is clearly a hero. He was an American that was a friend of Africans who exposed a great evil against them. But then I read a quiet closing paragraph about his life:
For all his fame and celebrity, Sheppard’s life was not without controversy and scandal…He was forced to step down as a missionary and return to American because of adulterous affairs with African women, one resulting in the birth of a son. (167)
Sheppard was a married man who was unfaithful to his wife while on the mission field. He may have had some great successes but woven within these successes was great, great failure.
Another missionary to Africa was George Grenfell who was a British citizen that had been inspired by the writings of a missionary to Africa, David Livingstone. He went overseas and then was later visited by a young Presbyterian missionary, Sam Lapsley who wrote of Grenfell:
Grenfell hated the natives, and they hated him. They have even threatened him with murder…Was this what it meant to be a missionary? Hiding in your fancy house, terrified that the people you’d pledged to help might shoot you in the head? (164)
He hated the nationals?! He went all the way overseas…to hate them? I am sure that Grenfell did not go to Africa with the intention of hating the nationals, but he was just in over his head. And yet, despite major tension between he and the nationals,
Grenfell continued on in his missionary work, supervising the Baptist missions in the Congo for twenty years – with surprising success in later years. In 1902 he wrote: ‘You will be glad to know that here at Bolobo, shorthanded as we are, we are not without evidence of progress and blessing. People are more willing to hear, and give heed to the message they have so long slighted. In fact, many are professing to have given their hearts to the Lord Jesus, and there are sings of good times coming.’ Growth did continue, and soon there was a need for a larger chapel. He told of how twenty years before he had been driven off by spears, but now he was greeted with the singing of ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.’ (164-165)
The Lord used a man who was said to have a loveless ministry, at least at a point in time, to bring his Kingdom into this people group so that these people will be singing praises to Jesus forever.
How should we respond?
There is no question that the history of the church at home, and abroad, is a tangled web of perseverance, moral failure, sacrifice, love, and even hate. No local church will intentionally send out someone who is racist or sexually immoral or characterized by hatred. Yet with the stress and pressures of overseas living, sometimes these things creep into the lives of missionaries. I think in light of this, we should respond in three ways:
We should respond in awe because it is Jesus who builds his church and the failures of missionaries, the injustices of colonialism and even the very gates of Hell will not be able to keep her down. Jesus is the one who is growing the church through the seeds of the Gospel that are sown through the mouths of stumbling missionaries. And, in God’s mysterious wisdom, he has chosen to weave into his plan for the redemption of humanity much sin and much failure, knowing that it is not just for the “national” that Christ died but also for the missionary. Much praise belongs to Jesus for growing his church against such odds.
I think we can be quick to throw stones at the failures of other missionaries, but what I think we should really be doing is praying to the Lord for his mercy to keep us from falling into the same sins. We should be praying that the Lord would be showing us our blind spots and filling us with wisdom every day. In the words of David,
“Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel.” Psalm 69:6
Fail while daring greatly
William Carey said, “I’m not afraid of failure; I am afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” Even in light of missionary careers that have been filled with serious blemishes, what they have left behind in dark nations is light. People are in Heaven worshipping Jesus, churches were planted, and injustices fought because they kept charging ahead with the Gospel, failures in all. Had they remained in their home countries worried about their potential failures, Bibles would never have been translated and widows would still be throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The correct response to missionary failure should not be inactivity, but instead should be a resolve to jump in the arena and fight with them. In the apt words of Teddy Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
*photo from shutterstock.com