I grew up on a steady diet of missionary stories.
During the long Alaskan winters of my childhood, we had hours of read-aloud time. Curled up around our trusty wood stove, we soaked in the words and the life experiences of some of the greatest heroes of faith: missionaries. David Livingston, J. Hudson Taylor, “Ai-weh-deh“, Mary Slessor, and many other lesser-known missionaries were familiar names in our home, almost like family friends.
But it wasn’t just foreign missionaries and stories from generations ago that filled my childhood. My parents regularly practiced the art of hospitality, and we were honored to house and get to know modern-day missionaries as well. Seeing them live today on the foundations built by the great missionaries of the past was a gift that has encouraged and inspired me in my own daily walk in all the years since.
As an adult, I look back fondly on those evenings around the fireplace, remembering the words of the missionaries, both past, and present, that graced our home. Thanks to that heritage, I am determined to raise my daughter knowing and loving these heroes of the faith, as well.
For generations, missionary stories have inspired the next generation to go and serve, as well. Two of my siblings have also served extensively overseas, and my brother and his family are preparing to launch to Africa early next year.
Missionaries aren’t always born with exceptional gifts or outstanding talents. It’s the every day, simple people like you and me who let God completely guide their steps who He uses to do great things–here, or far away.
If you are feeling low on faith or have never read much about the missionaries of the past generations, I hope the stories of these fourteen missionary heroes and their companions will inspire you like they have inspired me every day.
15 Missionaries You Should Read About
Adoniram (1788-1850) and Ann (1789-1826) Judson
At the age of 25, Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary to Burma. He and Ann married two weeks before they boarded a ship bound for India, from which they eventually were able to make their way to Burma. Judson would spend the next nearly forty years of his life living among and witnessing to the Burmese people. Until her death, Ann was the friend of many and even more fluent in the Burmese language than her academically inclined husband. Judson’s efforts were slow-going. He was imprisoned and tortured, but he never gave up on his God-given calling to reach Burma for Christ. Before his death, Adoniram Judson had not only established several churches in Burma, but he had also given Burma one of the greatest gifts: the Bible in their own language.
You can read more about Adoniram and Ann Judson in these books:
- My Heart in His Hands: Ann Judson of Burma by Sharon James
- To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson
- Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary by Jason G. Duesing
- The Life of Adoniram Judson by Edward Judson
Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873)
As a child, he worked in the cotton mills to help support his poverty-stricken family. David Livingstone learned perseverance and went on to put himself through medical school and become a doctor before following in the footsteps of Robert Moffat and going to Africa as a doctor and a missionary. Missionary, explorer, and champion of the anti-slavery movement, Dr. Livingstone used his influence and experience to fight great wrongs in the society of his day and to blaze a path for other missionaries to follow in the villages he went to. He believed that he was not called to preaching as much as he was called to finding routes and resources for trade that would displace the profit in slave trading and worked tirelessly towards this end. He was loved by many and respected by the tribes with whom he had contact.
You can read about Dr. Livingstone’s life and discoveries in these books:
- Livingstone: Trail Blazer for God by Leslie and Madge Morrill
- David Livingstone: Explorer and Missionary by Sam Wellman
- The Life and African Exploration of David Livingstone by Dr. David Livingstone
Mary Slessor (1848-1915)
Growing up in the slums of Aberdeen, Scotland, with an alcoholic father and little hope of changing your circumstances doesn’t seem like a promising start for anyone. But for Mary Slessor, her childhood taught her a tenacity and a strength that would serve her well in her years spent living in Nigeria. Mary grew up hearing her devout mother read the mission paper every month. In her heart grew a desire to share Jesus with others. She was 27 when David Livingston passed away, and she decided that she would go and continue his work to reach all of Africa. Mary’s work began in Calabar, and she lived and worked in places where no European had ever been. She faced life-threatening illness and hardship, but “Mighty Mary” did not once consider giving up. She lived with Okoyong and Efik people for 15 years, learning their languages and helping them settle disputes; working tirelessly to educate and overcome superstitions, such as twin-killing and women’s rights. She earned their love and respect and as a result was able to spread the gospel to areas no other missionary could.
You can read Mary’s story in these books:
- Mary Slessor: Missionary Mother by Terri B. Kelly
- Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary by W.P. Livingstone (free Kindle book!)
J. Hudson Taylor (1932-1905)
For 51 years, J. Hudson Taylor poured his life into bringing Christ behind the closed doors of China. He founded China Inland Mission, and as a result, more than 800 missionaries were brought into the country. Hudson Taylor was a prayer warrior and a faith giant. He was able to speak several Chinese dialects and helped to translate the new testament into the dialect used in Shanghai, where he spent many years of his life. Unlike many European missionaries, Taylor was careful of Chinese culture, respecting their way of life and even adopting their clothing. He faced sickness and loss with a spirit of unshaken trust, leaving behind a legacy that has inspired thousands of missionaries in all corners of the world. In his own words, “All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.”
You can read more about Taylor in these books:
Amy Carmichael (1867-1951)
Perhaps not many people thought that Amy Carmichael had much of a chance at being a missionary. Suffering from neuralgia, Amy was often weak and in pain so great that she was confined to her bed for weeks at a time. But Amy knew that God had called her to mission work. And with the encouragement of a few, she did go. In India, she found her life calling, and spent her remaining 55 years there without ever going home. Her life was dedicated to ending child prostitution and giving a home and a future to India’s many orphans. Amy was also a prolific author, and her many books have encouraged and inspired many throughout the years.
You can read about Amy’s life in these books:
- Amy Carmichael: Selfless Servant of India by Sam Wellman
- With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael by Rebecca Davis
- A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot
Dr. Nelson Bell (1894-1973)
Dr. Nelson and Virginia Bell worked in China for 25 years, serving the people’s spiritual and physical needs. Dr. Nelson kept a busy schedule as a doctor and surgeon in the clinic in which they served, and used every opportunity to let Jesus shine through his love and care for his patients. Ruth Bell Graham was their second child, and her parents’ example of faithful ministry and loving obedience to Christ obviously shaped her life and ministry.
You can read the Bell’s story in A Foreign Devil in China by John C. Pollock.
Eric Liddell (1902-1945)
Eric Liddell was a successful athlete, but fame and honor didn’t sway him from what he knew was his life calling–to preach the gospel in China. Eric was born in China, to missionary parents. He attended school in London, where he trained and became known for his athletic abilities. He went on to compete in the Olympics but remained true to his convictions. In 1925, Eric returned to China and used his skills to minister and influence many young Chinese for Christ. He was captured by the Japanese during World War II and passed away of an inoperable brain tumor during his imprisonment. His death left a great empty place in the lives and hearts of the many people who he had spent his life serving. His final written words? “It’s complete surrender.”
You can read about Eric Liddell’s life in these books:
- For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton
- Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift
- Complete Surrender: A Biography of Eric Liddell by Julian Wilson
- Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas
Russell Deibler (1905-1943) and Darlene Deibler Rose (1917-2004)
As a young wife, Darlene and her husband went to what is now the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. She was the first American woman to travel into the Bailem Valley where she and her husband worked before WWII broke out. With the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, Darlene and Russell were captured and sent to separate concentration camps. Russell did not survive, but against the odds, Darlene did survive and went on to spend many more years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary.
You can read about her life and how her faith sustained her in the prison camps in her book Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II.
John (1907-1934) and Betty (1906-1934) Stam
The Stams were a young missionary to China. They were captured by a communist mob of rebels and taken captive, along with their three-month-old baby, Priscilla. John and Betty were both brutally murdered by the mob, but Priscilla survived and was miraculously rescued by a lay pastor and returned to her family in the states. Their sacrifice steeled in many at home the desire to share Jesus with the unreached people in many countries.
You can read about the Stam’s lives and sacrifice in:
Jim (1927-1956) and Elisabeth (1926-2015) Elliot
Jim and Elisabeth met in college, but they didn’t get married until they separately went to Ecuador to minister to the Quichua. They married in Quito and moved to a more remote area to try to make contact with the Huaorani tribe (called the Aucas by the Quichua). Jim and four other missionaries were later killed by the tribe they were trying to reach. After her husband’s death, Elisabeth returned and spent two years ministering to the tribe that killed him. Elisabeth Elliot is one of the most known and loved women missionaries in the last few generations. Through her extensive speaking and many beautiful books, her legacy and inspiration will live on in the hearts of all who read them.
You can read the Elliots’ stories in the following books:
- The Journals of Jim Elliot edited by Elisabeth Elliot
- Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot
- The Savage My Kinsman by Elisabeth Elliot
- End of the Spear by Steve Saint
Gladys Aylward (1902-1970)
She always knew that she would be a missionary, but when Gladys applied to the China Inland Mission she was denied. They didn’t think someone so young could learn the language, and she had little education to back her up. Gladys wasn’t one to give up, and after working as a housemaid, she spent her life savings on a train ticket to China. Her trip was full of setbacks, but in 1932, Gladys arrived in Yangcheng and began to work with an older missionary, Jennie in setting up the Inn of the Eighth Happiness. Gladys worked for the Chinese government as a “foot inspector”, enforcing the new laws against female foot binding. She became a beloved Chinese citizen, affectionately called “Ai-Weh-Deh”. She took in many orphans and unwanted girls. When the region was invaded by the Japanese during WWII, Gladys took around 100 orphans over the mountains to safety. Unable to return to China after the communist regime was in place after the war, Alyward settled in Taiwan where she spent her remaining days running her orphanage and sharing Jesus with her many friends and the children for whom she cared.
You can read more about Gladys Aylward and her amazing life of faith in Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman (Gladys’ story in her own words, as told to Christine Hunter).
Jack (1928-2011) and Allegra McBirney
Jack and Allegra McBirney became missionaries to Newfoundland in the early 1960s, together with their six children. The McBirney family spent about seven years on the mission field, teaching God’s Word through Bible clubs and home Bible studies. When they had established a Bible-teaching church, they returned to the United States. Jack was instrumental in founding two Christian schools in the San Francisco area. Meanwhile, Allegra poured her heart into her radio ministry, writing, and speaking, traveling the world in her ministry to military families. Jack also made many trips to Russia (in between treatments for cancer), burdened to lead communist teachers to Christ and introduce a Christian curriculum into former communist schools. When Jack’s health began to decline due to Alzheimer’s, Allegra stopped traveling to care for him. They had been married 61 years when Jack went home to Heaven. Despite severe cataracts and constant health struggles, 90-year-old Allegra continues her ministry and correspondence from her home–often even from the confines of her bed. Allegra calls it her “one-person publishing company” as she continues to oversee the translation and distribution of her books around the world, for the outreach of the Gospel.
You can read more stories from the life of modern-day missionaries Jack and Allegra McBirney in some of Allegra’s books for children:
- A Treasury of Very Special Stories for All the Family, Volumes I and II
- Little Stories from Mike’s House
Brother Andrew (1928)
Andy van der Bijl was born in a small Dutch village in the late 1920s. He was always looking for thrill and adventure, so when he was 18 he joined the Dutch Army. He lived recklessly during his time in the military, with little thought to God or the future. But when he was shot in the ankle at age 20, which sent him to the hospital for awhile and ended his military career, the love and joy of the Sisters who cared for the injured–as well as his sense of guilt over the things he did while in the military–led him to pick up the Bible. He came home an empty, broken young man, but with a thirst to know God. One night he finally prayed, “Lord, if You will show me the way, I will follow You. Amen.” From that day, God led him on a new kind of adventure, bringing Bibles and much-needed spiritual encouragement behind the Iron Curtain, and later to countries in the Middle East.
You can read about Brother Andrew’s conversion and his journeys in his book God’s Smuggler.
Bruce Olsen (1941)
From the time he became a Christian at age 16, Bruce felt a pull in his heart to go to the unreached corners of the world and tell others about Jesus. At 19, Bruce Olsen bought a plane ticket to Venezuela. Shortly after his arrival, he learned of the Bari tribe, a group of people with little to no positive contact with the rest of the world. They were violent and considered “Stone Age”. He had a burden to reach the Bari with the news of Jesus and his life work centered on connecting with and sharing the Gospel with them in a way that they could understand. His life was full of challenges as he attempted to reach and be accepted by the Bari, but the ways God used him to lead them to Christ were truly beautiful.
You can read the story of his mission work in his book Bruchko.
Martin (1959-2002) and Gracia Burnham
Martin & Gracia Burnham had been missionaries with New Tribes Missions for 17 years when their lives suddenly changed. While celebrating their wedding anniversary, they were kidnapped by a local militant group and held hostage for over a year. Sadly, Martin was killed during their rescue on June 7, 2002.
Gracia tells the gripping story of their captivity and spiritual growth in the book, In the Presence of My Enemies.
Gracia also authored To Fly Again, highlighting specific lessons God taught her husband and her while they were held captive. Her transparency as she shares lessons we all need to learn encourages the reader in contemplating a wide range of topics including as revenge, worry, praise, joy, and impatience.
If you aren’t aware or a part of the modern missionary efforts that are going on around the world, I urge you to take a moment to get involved. A prayer, a letter, or a word of encouragement go so far in keeping the spirits of our brothers and sisters across the seas strong.
Now I want to hear from you!
Tell me about your favorite missionary stories or how you support the missionaries in your circles.
Looking for more stories to inspire you?
Photography: JenniMarie Photography
Thank you to Jennifer Church (previous guest here at Kindred Grace) for contributing the informational bios of Dr. Nelson Bell and Martin and Gracia Burnham. Jennifer has taught missionary kids with Africa Inland Mission in Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, and Chad. In June 2015, she married her best friend, Tyler, and they are loving living life together as missionaries with Trans World Radio. They are excited to be a part of this ministry that has touched thousands of lives around the globe.