15 Missionary Heroes and Their Inspiring Stories
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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.
Thank you to Gretchen Louise (editor in chief here at Kindred Grace) for contributing the informational bios of Jack and Allegra McBirney.
Yes! Remember reading about many of these! Paul Brand “The Gift of Pain”- about his time serving the lepers. I remember reading a series of comic book types in the late 70s…there was one missionary story I wish I could find now- I think she, too, was serving the lepers…and a Pearl necklace was a special note at an important part of her story- I just can’t remember her name!
We have directed a Bible camp for over 40 years and each of our cabins are named after missionaries. Each summer we pick one of those missionaries and tell their story during our missions class each day with our campers. For some, it’s their favorite part of camp. Each cabin has the missionary story and their picture hangong on the wall of their cabin. Many of the missionaries mentioned are ones we have used for naming our cabins.
Having been raised in a drunkards home, I was gloriously saved while in the Air Force at the age of 23. I gave my whole life to the Lord that night.
Little did I know that that decision would take me around the world many times preaching the gospel and training young preachers.
My cildren were raised listening to those very same missionary stories. (Some while on the mission field in PNG. (Darlene Rose is still a family favorite)
Though we now have many stories of our own, those missionary stories of old still encorage us to pick up our sad sacks, and march on for Jesus!
Our oldest is to this day a missionary in PNG, living stories of her own now, with a daughter and her husband now reaping from the seed we sowed those many years ago.
The sold out Christian life is the only way to go!
Thank you for the humble reminder of the goodness of God in a persons life!
My wife and I are missionaries in Japan and the spiritual darkness around us is often very discouraging. I often read biographies of missionaries and it is encouraging and reminds me why we are on the field and that we must continue to be faithful in our calling to spread the Gospel.
I was so blessed to read this article that you wrote. YWAM Heroes of the Faith books were ones I read to my two daughters as they were in elementary school. I am now home schooling my son 11, who is still learning to discover a love for reading. Therefore reading aloud to him is one way I’ve found to reach him as well as the YWAM audio books. I was wondering of what you have recommended here, are there any in particular you feel would be able to be read aloud to an elementary age child?
Also, I have teen daughters one coming home from a YWAM trip away, and will most likely be willing and even inspired by a favorite biography of a woman missionary. My daughter has had a particular interest in women’s concerns: birthing, advocacy for women via the pro-life movement.
The other daughter seems to only be willing to read books that are super fast action packed books. Any recommendations you would like to give, would be so very, very welcome and appreciated. More than anything, I believe the books about people being obedient to God, encourage children to grow in their walk with the Lord. It is in my heart that this be furthered for my children.
I am printing out your article, but age recommendations is the part I am trying to extrapolate from your recommendations. God bless you, and thank you for sharing !!!!
Have you studied the life of hymn writer and pastor George Matheson?
1842-1906 he was blind from his youth, but pastored 31 years in Scotland. Wrote the hymn O love that will not let me go. He was engaged as young man but the lady broke it off because of his blindness. He never married. The hymn express how Gods grace can overcome great sorrows and give joy in life. Similar to Fanny Crosby.
I’m so glad to see this post. My childhood was very similar to yours in the fact that we grew up reading missionary lives. Books like Bruchko, Brother Andrew, Gladys Aylward, Adoniram Judson and many others were among those books we read and re-read many times. I remember how inspired I used to be when I read those lives. I praise God for the lives of his servants and hope that he would use us too in his work.
The Grace of Almighty on these lovely missionaries who perished and given life for God’s Gospel will make our soul fresh and make our hearts multiply in Faith.
Loved reading about these men and women who had a call to go into the world, to tell the good news of our Saviour and Lord and how God made away back to Him through His Son Jesus Christ. I wanted to be a Missioary, but some health problems that are life threatening kept me from it. So I asked God to allow me to become a pastor. As of now I been a Pastor for 27 years. God has also allowed me to do some short time mission work. The one name I would have liked to see on this list is Ms. Logged Moon, she was called to be a Missionary to China. God blessed the work she was called to, and saw many, many people come to Jesus and she also helped to set up a hospital and lives where savied that way as well as Savied through the Blood of Jesus Christ. She gave all she had even what little she had. She became sick and had to return home back the USA. She died before reaching home. She died at Sea. I hope others feel as I do and that her name belongs on this earthly list. Her name I believe is in a great Book, The Book of Life put there by Jesus. May God Bless all Missionaries and the Workers in the Fields where Christ has each of us working. May His Harvest be great!!!
Excellent. I would have also added William Carey – Father of modern missions.
Hi, I also admire Jackie Pullinger – missionary in Hong kong since 1966 at 22 years of age. She lead many drug addicts in Kowloon wall city, which is now a park. Thank you for writing about the missionaries. Their lives are refreshing and inspiring to me. They are the hands and feet of Christ.
I would recommend a Missionary Adventure, a story of a man that is born a Jew and the son of a Jewish Rabbi in Poland. After his conversion being excommunicated and eventually going to Brazil. Its one of my favorites. Missionary Solomon Ginsburg.
Ah! What a beautiful collection of missionary stories. I will happily read every single book that you put on this list.
I recently found out that Gracia Burnham’s sister is married to the brother of my Pastor’s wife.
Have you read any biographies about John and Betty Stam? My grandmother originally told me about the. She was always encouraging me to read missionary stories.
Chantel, I read every word of this. So fascinating and rich. I recognize some of these from biographies I’ve read, homeschool curriculum books (A Chance to Die! God’s Smuggler!), etc. But thank you for introducing me to new names.
My Church is full of former Missionaries. We also support quite a few Missionaries at our Church as well. I guess because of the former Missionaries in our congregation is the reason why our Church body is so missionary minded. Quite a few of the Missionaries whom we support, come to speak at Church and give us updates on what’s going on and how we can pray. When I give my tithe for Church, I mark the envelope for the money I’m giving to go to the Missionaries whom we support. My folks and I receive newsletters from a couple Missionaries whom we have become friends with. Several people from my Church are involved in the ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship, and the past couple years, I’ve been teaching the Missionary Stories. My favorite one was the first story I taught. It was about a Missionary couple who went to minister in Korea in the exact area where I was born! Their names are John and Lois Cook, and the Director for Child Evangelism Fellowship put me in contact with the Cooks! I was so thrilled, and we’ve been in contact ever since. The Cooks’ story starts out when the husband, John is little and it goes through his growing up years. It also goes through his young adult years when he comes to the Lord and meets his wife, Lois, and they get married. Then they feel the Lord calling them to go to Korea right after the Korean war. Then it ends up with their time in Korea, what they do there and everything that happens to them. Both John and Lois are still alive, and I got to talk to Lois on the phone, and I’ve received several letters and notes from them in the mail. I also love all the stand by Missionary stories too! I especially love Amy Carmichael’s story. My favorite story in Amy’s growing up years is when she really wants blue eyes because her parents have blue eyes. Amy’s eyes are brown, and she doesn’t like the fact that they’re brown. Amy prays one night before bed that God would give her (Amy) blue eyes when she wakes up in the morning. Morning comes and Amy gets out of bed, pulls a chair over to her dresser (chest of drawers) and climbs up and looks in the mirror, hoping to see blue eyes. What color eyes does she see staring back at her?……Not blue. Brown eyes. Amy is upset and tells her Mom that God did not answer Amy’s prayers. Amy’s Mom says, “Yes, he did, and his answer was no”. Then later when Amy goes to India, the people have brown eyes, and someone tells her, “You’re lucky that your eyes are brown and not blue”. Amy sees that God gave her brown eyes for a purpose.
Another missionary story that I got to teach in Good News Club, which is with Child Evangelism Fellowship, is about a Missionary by the name of, Richard Row. He was a Missionary to the Isnag people (forgive me, but I do not remember the area where they lived). Richard Row got to know and became friends with a little boy named, Leonard Pugyao. They would sit together everyday and learn each other’s languages. Leonard went by Nard for short, and Nard was to the age where he was supposed to be going to school. He started school, but it was hard for him to understand and such, so he would go to spend time with Richard. Nard’s Dad found out that Nard wasn’t going to school, so the Dad kept Nard home to work their little farm. Richard had learned the Isnag language and was translating the book of John into the Isnag language, and gave Nard his very own copy of the Bible to read. Nard was 14 when he got the gospel of John in his language. He accepted the Lord at that time too. Richard was thrilled and then he invited Nard to go to go via air plane and go to high school. Nard worked with Richard to translate the new testament into the Isnag language, and he got to work on the planes that were nearby. One of the Pilots suggested that Nard could learn to actually fly the planes. Nard was kind of unsure, but he got the necessary training for it. Nard also told the Lord that he would do whatever God wanted him to do, and that’s when he decided that he would become a Pilot. After the training, Nard loaded up the new testament Bibles and took them back to his village. Nard’s sister was there when he landed and Nard asked her if she knew what was in the box. She said no, and he told her that it was the new testament in their native language! Nard also was marveling over God’s goodness in sending Richard Row to witness to the Isnag people. Nard is also still alive. He keeps in contact with our Director of Good News Club. Richard Row has since passed away though, but Richard is home with the Lord.
Anyway, these are my two favorite stories about Missionaries. Thanks for sharing your favorites with all of us!
I too have grown up on Missionary stories. I still read them from time to time, and I’m introduced to other ones that are new to me when I teach them at Good News Club during the school year.
What an amazing list! I, too, grew up on missionary stories. I devoured several of the heroes of the faith series they have for younger readers. But one of my all-time favorites was With Daring Faith.
And I see a few in this list that I’m not familiar with. I’ll have to add them to my reading list.
Thanks so much for sharing!