Many factors contribute to a good missionary biography.
However, I’ve managed to narrow them all down to one: its personal impact on me.
Each and every missionary biography I’ve read finds expression somewhere in my life and ministry. I am grateful for these missionaries’ example. I’m also grateful for those who took the time to research and record their stories.
This list is only drawn from the missionary biographies that I’ve personally read—because obviously, I haven’t read them all.
My Top Ten Missionary Biographies
(I won’t even try to put them in order of importance.)
1) Behind the Ranges by Geraldine Taylor
James Fraser turned his back on a lucrative career in engineering. He also gave up the possibility of success as an accomplished concert pianist. Arriving in China at age 22, Fraser devoted his life “behind the ranges” to the unreached Lisu people.
His missionary methods in the early twentieth-century were not only unorthodox but also doubted by his peers. Yet his insistence on self-supporting, indigenous churches is the model that many church planters emulate today.
For all of that, Fraser’s greatest influence on me was his prayer life. He made prayer a priority above all else. The Lord honored his faithfulness by answering his bold and specific requests.
2) These Strange Ashes by Elisabeth Elliot
Documenting her first year as a single missionary in the jungles of Ecuador, Elliot recounts the unexpected trials she endured. God calls us to make sacrifices in His service. Yet often, when the offering has been consumed upon the altar, we don’t know what to do with the “strange ashes” that remain.
This book taught me to expectantly look toward the Lord’s redemptive purposes, even in the midst of brokenness and loss.
3) Lords of the Earth by Don Richardson
Stan Dale dares to enter the nearly impenetrable jungles of unexplored Papua New Guinea to live among the Yaki people. These stone-aged cannibals believe they are the “lords of the earth.” In time Dale discovers the Yaki’s ancient tribal laws, rigid decrees that perpetuate depravity and hopelessness.
The author, who personally knew Dale, gives us a riveting and detailed account of courage and determination. My take-away was realizing anew the power of the gospel to dispel even the deepest darkness.
4) Father of Faith Missions: The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves by Robert Bernard Dann
This man is unfortunately not well known in missionary circles today. Yet, his writings influenced generations of missionaries.
Groves was one of the first modern missionaries to minister among Muslims. Having moved his family from England to Baghdad, his efforts yielded little visible fruit in his lifetime.
Grove’s influence extends even to me. Many years ago my co-worker and I decided to look to the Lord alone to meet our financial needs. Our inspiration was the testimonies of George Mueller and Hudson Taylor. Their inspiration, I was later to discover, was the faith they had witnessed in Groves.
5) Mission: Venezuela: Reaching a New Tribe by Margaret Jank
The Janks ministered among the Yanaomo, a primitive jungle tribe in Venezuela. Their approach is one of the best examples I’ve read of sensitive cross-cultural ministry. The Janks allowed the Yanaomo church to develop its own cultural expressions of Christianity.
Having no expectations placed upon them as to how they should “do” church, the new believers willingly received God’s Word and effectively applied it in their midst .
This story checks me when I forget that I too read the Bible with preconceived notions. There is much to be said for letting the Word speak for itself.
There is apparently an updated version of this book, though I haven’t read it: Our WitchDoctors Are Too Weak.
6) J. Hudson Taylor: God’s Man in China by Mary Taylor
I don’t think anyone who knows the history of evangelical missions would ignore the impact of Hudson Taylor. When western missionaries were still cloistered in China’s coastal cities in the 1850’s, a young Taylor wouldn’t ignore the vast unreached areas of the interior.
In the early days, he ventured out alone. Scandalously donned in traditional Chinese dress, Taylor preached in ancient cities and in peasant hovels. He returned to England and pleaded on behalf of “China’s millions” who were living and dying without a single gospel witness. Out of these humble beginnings grew the China Inland Mission (CIM).
The story of Taylor’s unshakable faith is a must-read out of the missionary annals.
For a more personal narrative of Taylor’s spiritual development see Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.
7) John Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals by John Paton
This modern, abridged adaptation is based on Paton’s exhaustive two-volume autobiography. I would recommend tackling them if you have the time (and can find them).
Paton was a missionary par excellence. Called to the New Hebrides, he lived among cannibalistic island dwellers. In spite of the horrid tropical conditions, and in spite of burying his first wife and newborn within three months of arriving, he remained. All alone and fighting off the demons of depression, Paton was often on the run as hostile tribesmen tried to take his life.
Consistently returning good for evil, Paton won the hearts of the islanders through his godly character and consistent witness. His story always reminds me that no matter how tough things may seem, God’s grace is sufficient.
8) C.T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer by Norman P. Grubb
Here is the renegade. Studd was born into a wealthy family and attended Cambridge University. In fact, he was a member of the “Cambridge Seven.” This was a group of graduates who, to the shock of Britain and the world, forsook all to go to China as missionaries.
After seven years in China, Studd served for almost a decade in India. Then at a time in life when most of his peers were retiring, he set off for the unexplored jungles of the Congo. Beset with debilitating asthma, Studd was told he wouldn’t survive. But it was in central Africa that he undertook his most extensive missionary endeavors.
Never one to remain silent, Studd’s words and writings both rankled a lukewarm church and inspired generations to consider a call to the mission field. Studd taught me to stand on my convictions, even when I find myself standing alone.
9) D.E. Hoste: A Prince with God by Phyllis Thompson
Hoste succeeded Taylor as the director of the CIM. He served as years as a “grassroots” missionary and had a significant influence on Chinese Pastor Hsi (Another book I recommend for its viewpoint of western missions from the perspective of a national).
Hoste reluctantly entered CIM’s administration at Taylor’s request. As director, Hoste considered prayer the most important work he could do on behalf of the hundreds of missionaries he oversaw. He set aside hours every day—in the midst of administrative duties and copious correspondence—to pray.
Like with Fraser’s story, Hoste taught me that if I neglect prayer, my teaching and preaching will surely suffer loss.
10) Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot by Elisabeth Elliot
The story of Jim Ellliot and his four fellow missionaries murdered by the Auca Indians in Ecuador is well known. Less acknowledged is the fact that Elliot only spent four years on the field before he lost his life.
This account, therefore, doesn’t focus extensively on his mission work.
His widow, Elisabeth Elliot, compiled and edited her husband’s journals, filling in the gaps where necessary. I read this book not long after I went to the mission field. I remember how profoundly Elliot’s single-minded devotion to the gospel challenged me. Here is a personal and powerful narrative of how God prepared a young man for missionary service.
Honorable Mention (Okay, I want to add a few more…)
This is an accessible and succinct survey of evangelical missions. It’s an excellent primer on the most influential in Christian mission history .
Two things stand out to me in particular. The author doesn’t hesitate to point out mistakes, character flaws, and sinful behavior. She also highlights the often neglected contributions to missions made by single females and missionary wives.
Peace Child by Don Richardson
Richardson’s writes a graphic and stirring firsthand account of his time among the Sawi people of Western New Guinea. This book taught me the importance of taking the time to understand the cultural complexities and worldview of the people I work with.
The key to Richardson’s success among the Sawi was the God-given insight he received into the ceremony of the “peace child.” This was a mysterious and heart-wrenching ritual used by the Sawi to seal peace treaties with their enemies. It was only when Richardson understood the meaning behind it that he was able to effectively share the gospel with them.
The Little Woman by Gladys Aylward
Sorry, ladies. I fear I’ve read more biographies about men than women. I certainly don’t mean to minimize the significance of the ministries performed by the latter.
Aylward worked as a housemaid in England. While doing evangelism through her local church, she felt a call to China. So she proceeded to “borrow” books on the subject from her employer’s library (always returning them, of course!).
The CIM turned down her application due to her lack of academic training. They also feared she wouldn’t be able to learn Chinese. Not to be dissuaded, Aylward saved her money, bought a train ticket and proceeded to northern China alone.
The Lord opened incredible doors for her to minister to the marginalized women of China. She also adopted and cared for numerous orphans throughout her career. Aylward reminds me that the Lord will never leave or forsake those who wholly put their trust in Him.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite missionary bio? Feel free to leave a comment about it!