November 14, 2013

The Contagious Chain of Missionary Zeal

by Nathan Busenitz

The missionary spirit is utterly contagious.

Even just one life burning brightly for the gospel can ignite the hearts of hundreds of others for generations to come.

What a powerful thing it is to contemplate that reality in the history of missionary work! Consider, for example, the following chain of gospel influence:

1. John Elliott (1604–1690) was a Puritan settler in New England who began evangelizing the native Americans. Known as the “apostle to the Indians,” he translated the Bible into their native language, helped to establish churches, and sparked a missionary zeal among Christian settlers in the New World.

2. That missionary spirit inspired men like David Brainerd (1718–1747) to similarly devote his life to reaching native American Indians with the good news of the gospel.

3. Though Brainerd died at only 29 years of age, his friend Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was so impressed by the young missionary’s passion that he edited Brainerd’s diary and published it. Edwards himself would later work as a missionary to the native American Indians of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

4. In 1785, an English shoe cobbler named William Carey (1761–1834) read a copy of An Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards. The book had a profound impact on Carey’s thinking, igniting a passion in his heart to take the gospel to India. William Carey left for India in 1793 and the modern missions movement was born.

5. In 1802, a British preacher named Charles Simeon (1759–1836) was speaking about the good that William Carey was doing in India. Upon hearing that message, a young man in the congregation named Henry Martyn (1781–1812) determined that he too would go to India, rather than going to law school.

6. Martyn died young. Yet his memoirs influenced many in England. In particular, his biography had a significant impact on Anthony Norris Groves (1795–1853), who is considered by some to be the “father of faith missions.” (Groves was a missionary to modern-day Iraq and later to India). In his own memoirs, Groves writes:

I have today finished reading, for the second time, [Henry] Martyn’s Memoir. How my soul admires and loves his zeal, self-denial and devotion; how brilliant, how transient his career; what spiritual and mental power amidst bodily weakness and disease! O, may I be encouraged by his example to press on to a higher mark.

7. In 1825, Groves published a short booklet entitled Christian Devotedness, in which he encouraged Christians to live frugally, trust God for their needs, and devote the bulk of their income to evangelism efforts around the world. That book had a major impact on the thinking of men like George Müller (1805–1898), and James Hudson Taylor (1832–1905)—significantly shaping the way they thought about missions.

8. Hudson Taylor was the first modern missionary to penetrate the interior of China. He established the China Inland Mission and recruited hundreds of missionaries to join in evangelistic efforts there. At one point, Taylor returned to England where he urged Christian young people to join him in China. A famous Cambridge cricket player named C. T. Studd (1860–1931) was among those profoundly affected by Taylor’s preaching. Studd left behind a life of leisure to serve Christ overseas. Six other students joined Studd and together they became known as “The Cambridge Seven.”

9. The publicity garnered by C. T. Studd and “The Cambridge Seven” in England—especially their influence in British universities—influenced the beginnings of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (started in 1886) in North America. Under the leadership of men like D. L. Moody (1837–1899) and Arthur T. Pierson (1837–1911) (the author of George Müller’s biography), hundreds of American students would join the volunteer movement and commit themselves to foreign missionary work.

10. The testimony of Hudson Taylor was also particularly influential in the lives of later missionaries like Amy Carmichael (1867–1951), Eric Liddell (1902–1945), and Jim Elliot (1927–1956). Speaking of that impact, Elizabeth Elliot explained:

When I was a college student my father lent me the two-volume life of Hudson Taylor. Another college student, Jim Elliot, read it too and this was one of the great things he and I had in common—a huge hunger for that sort of godliness, for a true missionary heart.

* * * * *

As this brief history demonstrates, missions is contagious.

From John Elliott to Jim Elliot, a perceptible chain of influence and gospel faithfulness can be traced from one fervent missionary to the next. From David Brainerd to Jonathan Edwards to William Carey to Henry Martyn to Anthony N. Groves to Hudson Taylor to C. T. Studd, Jim Elliot, and others.

Interestingly, this particular chain brings us full circle—from the Americas around the globe and back again. John Elliott took the gospel to the native American Indians of New England. Three centuries later, Jim Elliot took the gospel to the native American Indians of Ecuador.

Some of the missionaries listed above only live a short time. David Brainerd was 29 years old when he died. Henry Martyn was only 31. Jim Elliot was 28. Yet, the impact of their lives extends far beyond their short tenure on this earth. Their self-sacrifice inspired thousands of others to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. It is pretty amazing to consider.

Of course, this is only one small thread in the great tapestry that God has woven throughout the centuries. (There are many other connections, links, and influences that could have been traced.) Yet, it illustrates a profound lesson in a vivid way. Never underestimate the power for influence of a life fully invested in serving the Lord Jesus. Sacrificial faithfulness to Christ in one generation reverberates for many generations to follow.

* This article was originally published in April 2012.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Jim Dowdy

    Thank you Nathan for these reminders. Until Christ returns, there will never be an era when missionaries are not needed. It seems in these days that most Christian young people don’t even consider the possibility of giving their lives to the cause of missions around the globe. In many respects, I would argue, a new kind of missionary is needed. The missionary that is often the most needed in Latin America, Africa and Asia are those that return to areas that are often considered to be “reached” with the Gospel but where the original missionaries failed to make disciples rather than just converts.

    Missionaries today need to invest their lives in the training of national pastors and church leaders in sound doctrine. The so-called “reached” countries in the southern world (Latin America, Africa and Asia) are witnessing alarming amounts of decay, erosion and false teaching because the church has abandoned the task of equipping national men in sound theology. Many national “churches” don’t even study the Bible anymore or preach a biblical Gospel and cannot be considered to be Christian churches any longer though they once started out that way.

    This task alone will require a life time and we need to ask the Lord to send young men with the passion and zeal of the people you mention in today’s Cripplegate but also with the vision to go as missionaries to the existing “church” in many areas of the world to establish biblically sound training centers that will help slow down the assault of false teachers and their corrupt teachings and practices that have invaded so many parts of the world. Perhaps this do not sound as “glamorous” as going to the so-called “unreached” world but it is the crying need of the hour. We need to remember again that Matthew 28.19-20 is a discipleship mandate and not just an evangelistic mandate.

    I praise God for the work of The Master’s Academy International that now has at least 16 doctrinally-sound training centers around the world. These training centers are being greatly used of God to arrest the theological decline and decay in many parts of the world. In the TMAI school here in Mexico City (a city of 23 million people) God is using the Word of Grace Seminary to provide excellent theological training to the leaders of the Mexican national church. This is resulting in both decaying churches being restored and new truly Christian churches being started. But the need is great and we feel we are only touching the tip of the iceberg. I am very grateful for the men from the Master’s College and the Master’s Seminary who are giving their lives in this endeavor.

    Perhaps in our prayer meetings we have ceased to pray fervently for God to send laborers into the fields of the world. I grew up in a small Baptist church in the Panhandle of Texas. We had approximately 12-15 people in our youth group. Yet out of those God called 8 of us young men into ministry in a 3-4 year period of time, 7 of which are still faithfully serving the Lord some 40 years later. One of the characteristics of the Wednesday night prayer meetings in that little Baptist church were the fervent prayers of the saints for God to move and call their sons and daughters to the mission fields of the world. Today many good Christian parents are afraid to pray that God would send their sons and daughters to the mission field because they want their children and children to grow up and live close to mom and dad. As wonderful as that may be we need to be reminded again of eternity and God’s purposes in calling out of people unto His name … and this requires missionaries.

    Please keep writing articles about missions and missionaries and let’s pray that God will raise up a new generation of missionaries that are driven by the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5.15, “And He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

    Jim Dowdy, Missionary-Professor
    Word of Grace Seminary
    Mexico City

    • Ray Adams

      Thank you for sharing your heart for missions. I have prayed for you knowing only your name and smiling face in the missions card. But you have forged a link of love for the same Lord of missions and the common desire to make Him known. May God be pleased to strengthen His work through you in Mexico City.

      • Jim Dowdy

        Thank you Ray for your prayers!

  • These accounts are all very inspiring.

  • Scott C

    What books do you recommend (i.e. histories, biographies, etc.) that chronicle these men’s lives?

    • Davis Prickett


      Anthony Norris Groves – Father of Faith Missions : The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves

      Henry Martyn – For the Love of India

      William Carey – William Carey by S Pearce Carey

      Hudson Taylor – Hudson’s Taylor’s Spiritual Secret

      Other missionaries biographies well worth reading are:

      Lords of the Earth (Don Richardson)

      Adoniram Judson – To the Golden Shore

      John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides

      Piper’s Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ also covers Tyndale, Paton, and Judson

      Peace Child


      Very few books have done as much to stir my affections for Christ and for missions as these

  • Ray Adams

    Great reminder of God’s sovereign providence in accomplishing His work with our devoted obedience. Just listened to Edwards edit of Brainard’s Journal. Convicting commitment that today would be labeled limited, but was useful to our God because given wholly to Christ’s cause.

  • Heather

    Thank you so much for this, Nathan. It was such an encouragement. The Lord spoke to me through it tonight, and I’m so thankful for that, as only He knows how much I needed it.

    George Muller and Anthony Norris Groves have been some of the most influential people in my life. I thank the Lord for these faithful men of God, and I continually pray for the Lord to raise up more men to follow in their footsteps of faith.

    “Where faith begins, anxiety ends; where anxiety begins, faith ends. Ponder these words of the Lord Jesus, ‘Only Believe.'” -George Muller

    “Truly, whatever makes Jesus precious and eternity a reality is most blessed, though it cuts up all earthly things by the roots.” -Anthony Norris Groves

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  • It’s beautiful to see how God has worked through the years through these great missionaries. It encourages me to be faithful in the zeal that the Lord has given me to serve him.

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