My Top Ten Missionary Biographies

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.

JO-Fraser

 

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.

AN Groves1

 

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.

john paton

 

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…)

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions by Ruth A. Tucker

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.

Gladys Aylward

I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite missionary bio? Feel free to leave a comment about it!

 

Author: Jeff Shelnutt

I’m a Christian missionary and pastor, having been engaged in full-time mission work since 1999. Serving in Central America for seven years and West Africa for nine, I’ve lived and ministered among several different people groups in remote locations. I currently reside in rural Mississippi.

11 thoughts on “My Top Ten Missionary Biographies”

  1. Check out The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun. God’s smuggler on Brother Andrew by John and Elizabeth Sherrill is intriguing and he has a sequel out on his work in the Middle East.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! I have read THE HEAVENLY MAN, though it’s been years now. I appreciated the insight it offered into the underground church movement in China. As for Brother Andrew, I’m familiar with his story, but don’t recall having read the book. I’ll have to check it out.

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  2. Hi, Jeff!
    Enjoyed reading this list! Thanks so much for sharing.
    I really like your first book. It would be on my missionary booklist as well, along with Hudson Taylor books, Gladys Aylward, and most definitely “Peace Child.”

    I believe this is the same man mentioned in Isobel Kuhns books. Since you haven’t read many about women missionaries I would recommend hers, although it isn’t about her alone as she includes some about her husband.

    “By Searching” is basically a story of how she came to Christ and answered the call of God on her life. I like her other books but “In the Arena” stands out to me as a practical application of dying to self and growing in grace. Another favorite of hers is “Second Mile People.” If I remember correctly James Fraser is one of the people she refers to as at least one of those “second mile” people. Her books are available on the kindle:
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_ebooks_1?ie=UTF8&text=Isobel+Kuhn&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=Isobel+Kuhn&sort=relevancerank

    Personally I think every missionary ought to read “Have We No Rights?” by Mabel Williamson before they go out as a missionary. A free kindle link for it here (and I think Gutenberg has one as well):
    http://www.amazon.com/Rights-frank-discussion-rights-missionaries-ebook/dp/B004TP68EY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459440632&sr=8-1&keywords=We+have+no+rights

    Although the language might be considered archaic and definitely the situations today might be quite different the principles are very relevant. Hmm…I think I need to go read it again. If you recommend an up-to-date book along this line, I’d sure enjoy checking it out.

    Another author I’d enjoy checking out would be Helen Roseveare. I’ve been interested in her books ever since I read the little story about one of the children where she was ministering prayed for a hot water bottle, “and please send it today!” The climate was so hot, it really would be the last thing a person would naturally think to send, yet God sent it. I also have enjoyed listening to some of her testimonies online. I think I listened to the links at the bottom of this article here:
    https://urbana.org/blog/helen-roseveare

    Some good quotes from her books are here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/298322.Helen_Roseveare

    Again, thanks for the list. You’ve made me want to read about Mr. Groves.

    God Bless!

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    1. Thanks, Joanna, for you great comments. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      I’ve read several biographical sketches on Isobel Kuhn, and I am aware that her and her husband took over Fraser’s work with the Lisu when Fraser died unexpectedly at age 42. BY SEARCHING is on my shelf and I do need to read it.

      Also, I just noticed a few Helen Roseveare books on my shelf this morning. Patrick’s read a couple of those, so I got the verbal “cliff notes”!

      Yes, I remember having read “Have We No Rights?” at your suggestion years ago. Thanks for including the link for other folks to check out.

      You’re able to suggest the biographies of women missionaries that I’ve missed!

      Do check the Groves book out it you get the chance. It is near the very top of my favorites.

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      1. Thanks, Jeff.

        I’m thinking the book about Mr. Groves might be a good gift for dad (after I read it, of course. LOL).

        I don’t know if you are aware but it looks like there are two free kindle books by Mr. Grove himself. If you’ve read any of them please do comment when you have the time.
        http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_ebooks_1?ie=UTF8&text=Anthony+Norris+Groves&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=Anthony+Norris+Groves&sort=relevancerank

        All so just curious which Helen Roseveare book Patrick would recommend reading first? I’m thinking if they are on you all’s shelf they must be good. 🙂

        Just a suggestion, but I hope you do another list on books that have helped you in your prayer life.

        Another helpful list would be a books to recommend to those who are not familiar with the Bible but want (in the words of a relative who inquired of me not too long ago): “a Bible study guide.”

        My first recommendation was to read the Bible all the way through following a chronological schedule and asking God for understanding. But after that…I’m ashamed to admit I couldn’t think of many books I felt would be suitable although I felt the Lord did help me in a recommendation.

        God bless!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll check out the Grove’s link. I appreciate you leaving it for others to see. I’ll also check with Patrick concerning your Helen Roseveare question.

        I like your ideas for a list of prayer books and a list of good Bible study guides. I’ll see about tackling that in some future posts!

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  3. I was also impacted by Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes, but that is the only one on your list that I’ve read. Thanks for giving me such a helpful list of other biographies to tackle!

    To add to the discussion of women missionaries, I really appreciated Noel Piper’s “Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God.” I also love that she wanted to entitle it “Ordinary Women and Their Extraordinary God.” It has short biographies of Sarah Edwards, Lilias Trotter, Gladys Aylward, Esther Ahn Kim, and Helen Roseveare, along with some personal notes of how each woman’s story impacted the author. I like it because it is accessible–I can hang with 30-ish pages on each woman!

    You may already know this, but Ricky’s first gift to me when he was “wooing” me was Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. That, and some peach rings. All the most important things in life :).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey April, great to hear from you! Yes, I remember you are quite the Elizabeth Elliot fan.

      Noel Piper’s book sounds like a good one for the collection.

      I didn’t know that about Ricky’s “wooing” gift! I do recall, however, that Taylor had a significant influence on his spiritual development. It seems you guys might have even named a son after him?

      Like

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