The Two-Way Hardships and Dangers of Missionary Service

The hope displayed by early missionaries carrying the gospel to distant shores can motivate modern missionaries facing risk.

In his own brilliant way, missions historian Andrew F. Walls wrote that the fundamental qualification for missionary service is a readiness to live “on terms set by someone else.”

The first “someone” setting these terms is, of course, the Lord, while a second “someone” would be the people of the culture in which the missionary serves.

Since missions requires the presence of missionaries in the lands of the people to whom they would introduce Christ, there was in the past potential danger both for the people the missionaries served and danger for the missionary. The following letters from John Newton (a pastor and former slave trader) to William Wilberforce (a British politician who dedicated himself to fighting slavery in Britain), illustrate both.

The first comments on the desire to avoid dangers to the national population while introducing missions into an island kingdom newly visited by Western explorers:

“As to the Pelew Islands, if we could send them a missionary by a balloon, it might be well. But I hardly know how to wish that government should attempt to form a settlement among so simple, untainted, and kind a people. I could almost wish they might never see another ship, unless one in distress and wrecked like the Antelope should give them a fresh occasion of exercising their generous hospitality. Alas! what a ruined people will they be, if we make a settlement upon their shores, to communicate to them wants and vices and diseases, to which they are at present happily strangers.” (Newton to Wilberforce, September 12th, 1788)

The second letter was about some missionaries in distress:

“I suppose it will not be news to say that poor Mr. Unwin is laid up with a putrid fever at Winchester. So far Mr. H. Thornton and he were on their way homeward when this embargo stopped their progress. It has brought him very low, and it will be several days yet before the fever will turn, but I am very glad to hear he is not judged to be in immediate danger. Lord! what is man? and what is life? How soon may our prospects be clouded, and our plans disconcerted! But what a comfort to be assured that in this state of uncertainty our afflictions do not happen to us at random, but are all under the direction of infinite wisdom and love, and all engaged to work together for good to them that love the Lord.” (Newton to Wilberforce, November 1786)

Knowing the terrible results of early explorers introducing plagues upon the people they met in what they called the “New World,” missionaries became more careful to avoid bringing disease while trying to introduce Christ! But the missionaries could not prevent the possibility of their own illness and death. Yet, they were ready to live, or die, on terms set by someone else.

Continuing the second letter quoted above, Newton expressed so beautifully the hope of those who went to other shores with the gospel message:

“To you, as the instrument, we owe the pleasing prospect of an opening for the propagation of the Gospel in the Southern Hemisphere. Who can tell what important consequences may depend upon Mr. Johnson’s going to New Holland? It may seem but a small event at present: so a foundation-stone, when laid, is small compared with the building to be erected upon it; but it is the beginning, and the earnest of the whole. This small beginning may be like the dawn which advances to a brighter day, and lead on to the happy time when many nations, which now sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death, shall rejoice in the light of the Sun of Righteousness.”

As we face dangers in missionary service today, would we too remain faithful in our task, motivated by the desire to see the nations rejoice in the light of Christ?

Jim Ruff

Jim Ruff, D.Min., is a retired missionary to Japan (20 years) and a trainer and associate director of training for ABWE for over 14 years.  With his wife, he served for a term in church planting in the Chicago area. He is the author of one of the ABWE Bible courses and serves as a proctor for missionaries taking the Methods of Bible Study course. He has been an adjunct professor at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit University, for 7 years.  He and his wife, Jan, have 3 married children and 12 grandchildren. Hear more from Jim on his website.