Borrowing Brains: Favorite Missionary Biographies

I’m taking my own medicine. I recently urged the members of TCBC to expose themselves to missions in a variety of creative ways, one of which was reading missionary biographies. I confess that biographical reading is a weak point of mine, and I’d like to rectify that. I’m also preparing to present a missionary biography message to TCBC in a few months, and I need to choose one model missionary to get to know particularly well. (I did a biographical message on John Wycliffe last year and loved it!) So…

Which missionary and which biography/biographies would you recommend that I read first? Why? What makes the missionary and/or the book noteworthy? How has the Lord used it in your life?

Looking forward to some great answers! Thanks in advance!


29 Responses

  1. Chris
    My personal favorite is To the Golden Shore, by Courtney Anderson. It is the biography of Adoniram Judson. Judson is a great example because he was a Bible translator, church planter, scholar, and he had pretty solid theology. As a pastor I often read the biographies and think, would I have supported this man? With Judson I believe I could answer that “yes,” whereas with many other famous missionaries, that would not be the case.
    If you want a couple of second choices I highly recommend:
    Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliot (Jim Elliot’s bio)
    The Two Volume Biography of Hudson Taylor written by his daughter Mr. I. Howard Taylor.
    And, Mountain Rain (you may find various titles) by Eileen Fraser Crossman, the bio of James Fraser, missionary to the Lisu people of South China.

  2. Sorry, but Taylor’s biography was written by Mr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor. My fingers got away from me.

  3. “Bruchko” by Bruce Olson. Amazing story of how God used an untrained youth to bring an entire tribe of murderous, stone-age Indians into the kingdom. Bruce’s story has revolutionized the world of missions. It is definitely one of our favorites!

  4. I have two books about Isobel Kuhn, missionary to the Lisu people of China (like J.O. Fraser). Nothing Daunted by Gloria Repp and Isobel Kuhn by Lois Hoadley Dick. Isobel Kuhn was totally sold out for the Lord and gave all for Him. She was influencial for me by strengthening my desire to set aside time for Him every day.

  5. ~I also loved To the Golden Shore, by Anderson. (The biography of Judson) I need not say more about it since Pastor Klapperich already did above and it’s more than a little intimidating posting after him! :)

    ~I also love “How I Know God Answers Prayer” by Rosalind Goforth. It is her personal testimony and it is so encouraging to read of God’s faithfulness in seemingly impossible times while she was either on furlough or on the field. The stories she shares of the Lords provisions are incredible. I am not one for words so I cannot do it justice, but it is definitely a book worth reading. :)

  6. Not really a “biography,” but “The Journals of Jim Elliot” (compiled by Elizabeth Elliot) is an amazing challenge to your walk with the Lord. They start during his college days and ends two days before he died. The depth of his devotion to our Lord as well as his insight into scripture – WOW!!! A must read…

  7. I have not seen anyone mention the Borden of Yale yet. This was required reading for my mission’s class. I think it worth being in the list.

  8. *Praying Hyde: Apostle of Prayer (John Hyde–India) inspirational from the standpoint of missions as well as prayer
    *A Chance to Die (Amy Carmichael–India…eventually!)
    *Evidence Not Seen (Darlene Deibler Rose–East Indies during WW2)–finds herself in a Japanese prison camp…amazing story
    *Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman (Gladys Aylward–China)–remarkable…this one was actually made into a Hollywood movie with Ingrid Bergman (of course with some liberties taken)
    *David Brainerd (missionary to native Americans) too–I’ve studied him, but not read a formal biographical book about him

  9. I second the recommendation of the 2-volume biography of Hudson Taylor by his son and daughter-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor. Excellent and challenging!

  10. I love Through Gates of Splendor! It is such an amazing story of the faith of Jim Elliot and his friends – Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian. It was also the first biography I read as a child and holds a special place in my life as the book that encouraged me to begin to read more Christian biographies… =)
    Like Judy said, “The Journals of Jim Elliot” is also a must read favourite!! =)

  11. Oops, I just realized you also asked for a “why” explanation. This two-volume biography gives a good (and often eyewitness) overview of Taylor’s life and ministry. (There is also an excellent multi-volume work by A.J. Broomhall if you can find it. I believe it is out-of-print, but it is still available from some used-book sellers.)

    I have been very challenged by Hudson Taylor’s extraordinary testimony of faith in God and his example of a prayer-filled life and ministry. He exemplified loving obedience to God and loving sacrifice to take the Gospel to the Chinese people. Noteworthy, too, is the influence and encouragement of George Mueller on Hudson Taylor, as recorded throughout the biography.

  12. My three favorites in that order:

    To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson: this book challanged me by asking me what I was willing to sacrifice for His name sake. This is a very pointed book in that it doesn’t sugar coat Judson and make him out to be this perfect spiritual giant. He was a spiritual giant in my opinion, but he was also a man who had real struggles.

    Behind the Ranges: The Story of J.O. Frazer by Mrs. Howard Taylor – excellent biography of J.O. Frazer. Really influenced me concerning the power of prayer. We waste so much time trying to influence people and situations for the better when all we really can do is pray and ask God to do it since in reality only He can. Hours a day on our knees sounds like an eternity for most Christians today, but to Frazer it was an absolute necessity. Hoping to name a son after him, if the Lord allows us to have a son.

    Hudson Taylor (2 volume). Excellent set of books – once again, they don’t make him out to be more than he was – just a sinful man who trusted God, not just for salvation, but for his daily needs. If we had our own modern day Hall of Faith, I think he would be in it, as well as Frazer.

  13. I can cast my vote for many of the above. Taylors 2-volume bio is good, but it will take you a while to get through (don’t know how much time you have to read something). Bordon of Yale is a classic and a quicker read. Life and Diary of David Brainerd is one that I have given out to many people, particularly young men. Journals of Jim Elliot first gripped me in college. For some reason, the story of this man and his friends has been especially compelling for people in our generation, perhaps because it was not that long ago. To add to the list, George Muller of Bristol by A.T. Pierson was a great read, challenging the reader about prayer and faith. I did a SS series on Great Men of the Faith, using Hebrews 11 as a springboard into a discussion of these and other men, both missionaries and pastors. Our folks found them encouraging and challenging. I trust your folks will as well.

  14. John Paton, Hands down, John Paton
    Here is a message by Piper

    Cannibals, Cool Geography, and He’s Scottish.
    I specifically enjoyed one story about the “sinking of the well” on an island that had no fresh water source. The natives thought Paton was crazy. However, God miraculously provided fresh water for the mission station and the whole island. It sparked the beginning of real revival

    Here is a link to his autobiography

    There is even an illustrated version

    There is also a collection of letters written by his wife.

    Sorry I couldn’t get the links right

    One more plug. The stories of John Paton helped to make missions real and exciting to me. I was literally on the edge of my seat at times. He writes in a victorian style for sure, but he helped to make missions alive in my heart.

  15. Okay, I am guilty of not “paying attention in class”–sorry.

    Assuming you’d probably prefer to read about a man, I can add a vote for the “Journals of Jim Elliot” as well. What makes it unique is that it affords the opportunity to get inside his head (sometimes very candidly so). Elizabeth says in the preface:

    “When, twenty years after his death, a publisher first asked for the rest of the journals, I was hesitant. I had edited them carefully for the biography, trying to include enough to show the true man, trying not to include what seemed too private. There were those who felt despair on reading the biography, for Jim seemed larger than life, too holy, too single eyed to be believed. I felt that such readers had not read very carefully, for the flaws, the flesh, the failures were there. There was no denying, however, the impact of his dedication to God. If that was what the reader remembered, that was as it should be. Here then is the rest. More flaws, flesh, and failures are revealed here. More also is revealed of that consuming thirst to do the will of God.”

    It resonates not only because it is contemporary, but because you see the very real struggles in the making of a godly man and missionary who wishes wholeheartedly to “spend and be spent.” You see what his devotional life looked like, how he endured hardness for the sake of service, and how his walk with God affected his personal relationships as well. I found it interesting to read this in tandem with Elizabeth’s (she also wrote “A Chance to Die” that is in my list above–Amy Carmichael was an inspiration to them both) “Passion and Purity.” Very instructive on a lot of levels.

  16. Eric Liddell.
    His story, I think, can appeal more to the non-missionary because his most remarkable and memorable activities were not so much “missionary-related” as they are related to Christian principle which involves us all. Devotion to God can be seen in every corner and quarter of his life. That his famed stance in the Paris Olympics is not necessarily a conviction we all hold, has little to do with the incredible devotion to God that characterized him. His further activity in China shows that Paris was not just a grandstanding display.
    Biography – Running the Race by John Keddie
    Lotsa info at
    Actually, you could just show Chariots of Fire to your congregation and save yourself all the prep time.

  17. A video sounds like a good idea, Dan. As does the Piper lecture, Anthony. :)

    Seriously, I’m prone to do one he hasn’t. We’ll see.

    Lots of reading to do here. Thanks, all!

    “To the Golden Shore” has a private vote from a missionary friend, as well. So it’s certainly “winning.”

  18. Looking for To the Golden Shore in hardcover. Anybody know if one is available?

    Also, is there another book on Judson that would supplement this, or is really not necessary? Thanks!

  19. I vote for J O Fraser, Mountain Rain. Great book on prayer.

    I also vote for John Paton. I have read most of it and heard Piper’s biography on it today. I have quoted the part in messages several times about his father. Incredible man. Do John Paton Chris. Makes me want to read that one again.

    For sheer drama, A Thousand Miles of Miracle, about the escape of one English missionary family during the Boxer Rebellion in China is an unbelievable read. Author is A E Glover. I started it one afternoon about 4 PM and couldn’t put it down til I finished it that night about 2:30 AM.

  20. Chris,

    More books on Judson are My Heart In His Hands by Sharon James. It is focused on his first wife Anne.

    There is also a book called: The Three Mrs. Judsons or maybe it was The Three Wives of Judson. I don’t know who the author is but it has a ton of info in it.

  21. For me, the compact 207-page Borden of Yale by Mrs. Howard Taylor, hands down. Profoundly influenced my thinking while in college and still to this day. A must-read for every young man, IMO. Borden spent the vigor of his youth and the wealth of his inheritance for the gospel.

    Though I couldn’t identify with his wealth, his view of money and his stewardship of material things for the sake of the gospel was a sharp rebuke to me. Borden also became a picture for me of a what it is to have a missionary mindset, even though stateside and in academia.

    He was described as “a man with the frame of an athlete, the mind of a scholar, the grasp of a theologian as regards God’s truth, and the heart of a little child, full of faith and love.” What a God-given chemistry of character!

    Makes me want to sit down and read it again. :-)

  22. Chris,

    I definitely have to add my vote for “To the Golden Shore.”

    The best supplement to it is Francis Wayland’s two volume commentary on the life of Judson. It has recently been reprinted by Audubon Press with the title “Pulling the EyeTooth from a Live Tiger.” Most of what Courtney Anderson uses in his book comes from Wayland.

    I know I don’t chime in much, but I really appreciate your blog, Chris.

  23. Switch “commentary” to “memoir.” :-)

  24. Chris
    While agreeing with the suggestions above, can I add a couple of others?
    What about “the father of modern missions” – William Carey? The biography written by his great-grandson (published by Wakeman Trust) is excellent.
    You could also try “Life & letters of Henry Martyn” written by John Sargent,
    Both are humbling and challenging, although about two very different men from very different backgrounds

  25. A number of biographies have shipped from Amazon, including works on Paton and Judson.

    In the meantime, I picked up an old, cheap paperback from my bookshelf (which I acquired I know not when nor where) entitled Hudson Taylor and Maria by John Pollock, who I come to find out is a famous biographer. It’s a very small book (not 200 pages), but I can’t put it down. Very engaging! FWIW.

  26. […] I mentioned in a recent post that my reading of missionary biographies has been lacking. I’m trying to correct that, and a number of the books recommended in the previous thread should arrive any day now […]

  27. I loved the book on Carey by his great grandson, S. Pierce Carey.

  28. All of these are excellent choices–and almost all of them have been collected and read by me and donated to our church Library (to save these treasures and make them available for the next generation before they are lost forever…) I must say thought that the 2 volume biography of J Hudson Taylor is truely unmatched and needs to be made into a major motion picture. EVERY Christian should read these volumes as discipleship training for the Christian life—what an example and blessing he is to the church! (My church is Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ledyard CT) Start collecting such editions for your own church libraries and bless the generations to come…

  29. PS the Taylor 2 vol is now on sale for $29.99 (for both!!) at

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