Christian missionary stories have made a huge impact on our culture’s generation today.
Through prayer and introducing Biblical principles, Christian missionaries have influenced education systems, belief practices, lifestyle behaviors, and economic structures. Their faithfulness to God and His Word is a testimony of cultural history, as well as traditional rituals, having been challenged and developed because of their devotedness to the One who is worthy to receive all the glory.
These people were by no means perfect, fully prepared, or fully equipped for the life they would live. Their faith was tested and tried countless times through endurance and suffering, and many were on the verge of giving up. Yet because of their obedience to God, their stories continue to motivate us today.
While we believe that the foundation for missions is based upon scripture, we also recognize that pioneer Christian missionaries have been the first to carry out the Great Commission. Through the impact of their stories, God is raising up another generation who has a burning desire in their hearts for His love to be known by every person on earth.
In this blog, we are introducing 10 pioneer Christian missionary stories that have inspired thousands of people for centuries. Over the course of the next few blogs, we will look at the life of each missionary and the legacy that is still being carried out to this day.
1. David Brainerd: Pioneering a Legacy in Missions
Born in 1718, David Brainerd was one of the first missionaries to translate and carry the good news of Jesus to the Native Americans of New Jersey in their own language until the day of his death in 1747. His faith and passionate pursuit of God’s holiness has inspired countless missionaries such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Jim Elliot. His story is still being told today to rekindle the beating heart of missions that every Christian should have: That the love of God would be made known to every lost soul on earth. Read the full story about David Brainerd.
2. William Carey: Pioneer to India and Father of Modern Missions
William Carey was born in 1761 and is often called the father of the modern missions movement because of his forty-one years of service on the mission field until he passed away in 1834. He was the first missionary to India and the first Baptist preacher to believe that the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 was a binding command on every generation of Christians. He is known for translating the entire Bible into Bengali and transforming culture through business and education. Read the full story about William Carey.
3. Adoniram and Ann Judson: Pioneers of Overseas Missions
Adoniram and Ann Judson were the first American missionaries who were sent overseas to serve on the mission field in both India and Burma—now known as Myanmar. Both Adoniram and Ann worked on translating the Bible into Burmese until Adoniram was thrown into prison when accused of being a spy during the first Anglo-Burmese War. Ann, known as the mother of modern missions, fought to get her husband out of prison by going to every government court of law, raising awareness, and writing books on being a missionary in a foreign country. Their stories reflect that it is God who plants the seed and makes it grow. Read the full story about Adoniram and Ann Judson.
4. David Livingstone: Missionary, Abolitionist, and Explorer to Africa
David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary, slave abolitionist, and physician during the mid-19th century. He is best known for his explorations of the continent of Africa, his revulsion for the African slave trade, his belief in the dignity of Africans, and position towards commercial enterprises with Biblical foundations. Read the full story about David Livingstone.
5. John G. Paton: Working Among the Cannibals
Born in Scotland in 1824, John G. Paton was a Christian missionary to the cannibals on the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific until he died in 1907. His life was filled with trials, as his first wife and their child soon died after his arrival on the island, and many times he had to flee for his life from the natives. However, Paton’s faith withstood testing and he continued to work and preach for several years while also raising support for missionary work. Today, the impact of his life can be seen in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Read the full story about John G. Paton.
6. Hudson Taylor: Founder of the China Inland Mission
James Hudson Taylor was the first Christian missionary to China and spent fifty-one years working to bring the gospel to those who had never heard the name of Jesus in their own language. In 1865, Hudson founded the China Inland Mission (CIM) because he knew that there were millions of people who needed to hear the message of Jesus Christ. His legacy has inspired countless Christian missionaries to go to the hardest and darkest places on earth. Read the full story about Hudson Taylor.
7. Mary Slessor: Pioneer Missionary to Nigeria
Mary Slessor was born in 1848 and was a Scottish missionary to the Efik people of Nigeria. After learning the language and gaining the trust and acceptance of the people, she began to teach the locals the Bible and was able to promote women’s right and protect native children. She is most famously known for stopping the common practice of infanticide of twins among the Ibibio people. Read the full story about Mary Slessor.
8. Amy Carmichael: Mother to India
Born in 1867, Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary to India. She is known for opening an orphanage after rescuing children from being trafficked in the Hindu temples. She served in India for fifty-five years without a furlough, and in the last twenty years of her life she remained bedridden and wrote several books about the missionary work to be done there. Her dedication to serving God has inspired many Christians to become missionaries and to remain steadfast in their faith. Read the full story about Amy Carmichael
9. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot: Undivided Devotion to God and the Unreached
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot met as students at Wheaton College in Illinois. Jim was a young man whose heart was on fire for God to be known among the unreached, who was inspired by several missionaries such as David Brainerd, William Carey, and Amy Carmichael. He convinced his four friends to join him as missionaries in reaching the Auca Indians along the Curray River in Ecuador. In 1956, all five missionaries were martyred by the tribe. Later, Elisabeth Elliot went to go live among the tribe that killed her husband and share the gospel with them. Their lives continue to impact countless Christians all over the globe to this day. Read the full story about Jim and Elisabeth Elliot
10. Brother Andrew: God’s Smuggler
Brother Andrew is a Christian missionary known for smuggling Bibles into communist countries during the height of the Cold War, which earned him the nickname “God’s smuggler.” He is known for praying “Lord, make seeing eyes blind.” He continues to speak to Christians all over the world and has stirred up dissatisfaction in the hearts of those who have never considered preaching the good news, to go to the unreached and bring the gospel to where it is not. Read the full story about Brother Andrew.
These missionaries knew that the cost of traveling overseas could take away everything they held dear on this earth. Parents, loved ones, children, safety, and health. While they found peace and security in God, they knew that there would be little comfort out in the wild Amazon jungle, traveling by crowded train in India, or preaching the gospel in a rural village in Burma.
Still, these pioneer missionaries endured through their trials and sufferings because of their love for God and their desire for Him to be known among the nations. They willingly gave their lives to Christ and dedicated all their days to living for Him. If need be, they were willing to die for Him. Their lives are seeds that went into the ground, multiplying and bearing much fruit. Their commitment to loving Him above all else encourages us to do the same and to follow in their footsteps.
“The job of carrying the gospel to remote tribes hidden in strange and dangerous places often requires a courage and daring equal to that displayed by the explorer in search of a new river or the soldier in the performance of his duties.”
– A.W. Tozer
What Does it Mean to Be a Pioneer Missionary?
Have you ever stopped to think about why we are able to go and do missions overseas? It is because someone went before us and followed God’s call on their lives to prepare a way into the hardest and darkest places on earth through prayer and obedience to the Holy Spirit. They were just ordinary humans serving an extraordinary God. But because they were the first willing people to go, God has used their stories of faithful dedication to be a legacy in inspiring others to go and continue pioneering the land and make disciples.
A simple definition of a pioneer missionary is:
“They boldly went where no Christian had gone before.”
– Christianity Today
However, in Biblical Hebrew, the word for pioneer is חָלוּץ (chalats). This word means one equipped for war. In Modern Hebrew, the word means pioneer, the one who goes first in a great venture. The root of this word also means strength and vigor–the exact attributes needed for a pioneer missionary on the field.
We are able to go to overseas today because God put it in the heart of someone before us to be the first person to bring the good news of Christ to those people. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, so also do pioneering missionaries go into the wilderness, preparing the way and making an opening for others to follow.
Jesus, the Ultimate Pioneer of our Faith
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
– Hebrews 12:1-3
No wonder pioneer missionaries are so passionate about making headway among the nations for the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Greek, “Prokopto” means to cut forward a way, advance, or make progress. “Archegos” also means originator, author, founder, leader, and the first to lead.
In the proper context, this is referring to the first in a long procession, the file-leader who pioneers the way for many others to follow. In this scripture reference, it is obvious that Jesus is the Ultimate Pioneer who made a way for us. He is to be our perfect example of what it means to be the first to go so that others may enter into the joyful abundance of God’s presence.
With Jesus as our leading example, we have the opportunity to go where no man has ever gone before to bring the gospel to people who have never before heard the name of Jesus in their own language.
What Impact Do Pioneer Missionaries Have on Culture?
Pioneer missionaries have been some of the first Westerners to enter into unengaged cultures and share the gospel with the indigenous inhabitants.
For years, there has been a big debate over whether or not Westerners ruin other cultures. In this section, we will look at the wrong and right ways pioneer missionaries have approached culture, and how that has made an impact overseas.
The Wrong Approach: Westernizing Culture
In the past, there have been some pioneer missionaries who entered into a new culture with the mindset that the locals were pagans and needed to be converted to Christianity. Rather than try to study the underlying beliefs that affected the native’s behavior, they shunned the very people that they had come to share the gospel with.
These missionaries also introduced medicine, food, clothes, politics, machines, and legal traditions from the West into the native culture. However, rather than teaching the local people how to sustain themselves, the missionaries poured all their resources into their own ministries and businesses. While Western practices and values are not bad, the local people began to depend on the Western missionaries for bringing in goods to support their economy.
When the missionaries left, the economy and culture would decline into a worse state than when they found it. In the years that those missionaries had been among the people, there was little lasting spiritual impact and no disciples were made. The missionaries had focused only on physical needs instead of addressing the spiritual needs of the people also. Thus, there was no permanent transformation. You need both to make an impact.
The Right Approach: Studying Culture
On the other hand, there have been pioneer missionaries whose faith in God has driven them to find people who have never heard the name of Jesus. They were burdened with the desire to share the gospel and make disciples who make more disciples.
Rather than try to ‘fix’ a culture, these pioneer missionaries immersed themselves among the local people. They dressed as they did, learned the language, and became learners of the culture by studying the social behavior of the natives. In doing so, they discovered the needs of the people and recognized what was valued in that culture. Often the natives did not have a Bible written in their own language, and pioneer missionaries were able to translate the Bible into the indigenous language of the people they were with.
It takes years to share the full gospel with someone, and see any fruit from their work. Yet these pioneer missionaries knew how to contextualize the gospel and reach people with the love of Christ and endured through faith in building long-lasting relationships.
They also recognized that the people needed to be equipped with skills and trained how to help their own people. Medicine, education, business, and disciple-making became their primary focus of teaching. They also introduced Biblical values that shaped the culture’s social interactions and lifestyle. This produced a long-term impact and has brought greater transformation to these cultures today.
“Today’s missionaries are concentrated less in the far distant, less “civilized” parts of the world due to the unreached masses of people groups in the world’s large cities. But pioneer missionaries have left a legacy of strong commitment to reach the unreached under extreme difficulties.”
– A.W. Tozer
Are Pioneer Christian Missionaries Still Needed Today?
There are still 6,500 unreached people groups in the world. That means that roughly 2.2 billion have never heard the gospel in their own language and there are less than 2% believing Christians in their community.
Today, you can be a pioneer missionary and go where no missionary has ever gone before.
Pioneer missionaries have the potential to raise up the next generation of leaders to seek after the heart of God and reach all peoples, together. They can inspire the younger generation to rise up in spiritual maturity and carry the torch where the previous generation was unable to go. With God’s strength and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can have the stamina and strength to do the hard things and partner with God in the work He is doing all over the world.
“The supreme and crying need of this lost world is the Gospel. Shall we not rise at Christ’s command to carry the blessed saving news to every perishing one?”
– Robert Jaffray
Jesus is worthy to be praised, and yet, there are people whose languages have not yet reached His ears. There are tribes and tongues whom He has never heard the sound of, saying: “Jesus, we love You! Jesus, we need You! Jesus, thank You for dying on the cross for my sins and rising again and rescuing me!”
It is clear that there is a desperate need for people all over the world to be told of God’s great love. People’s eternity is at stake. How can we say that we have no part in the Great Commission?
Be on a lookout for full stories of each Christian missionary. God is still using their stories to change the trajectory of people’s lives, and He may use it to change your heart.
May we be a people who are wholly consecrated to Christ and utterly devoted to the glory of God so that He may be known among all the nations.