I’ve written recently of how Christian history is littered with stories of missionaries who have not treated their wives well — Carey, Zinzendorf, and Wesley to name a few. I know there are more positive stories out there, so I went looking and found Love Stories of Great Missionaires by Belle M Brain. Written in 1913, this little book looks at Adoniram and Ann Judson, Robert and Mary Moffat, David and Mary Livingstone, James and Emily Gilmour, Francois and Christina Coillard, and Henry Martyn who never married because his love, Lydia Grenfell, would not join him on the mission field. They span the continents: from various places in Africa to India to Burma to China.
This is a fascinating book because of why it was written. In the foreword, Belle writes of being at a missions conference and having two pastors tell her that they had wanted to go to ‘the field’ but hadn’t because their wives hadn’t wanted to. She writes to encourage women not to hold back their husbands’ ministries but to be courageous and join them in it.
The wives in this story are in pretty traditional nineteenth century roles. Most of them are refined ladies and their husbands extol the comforts that life with a wife brings — clean sheets, for example, and a beautiful home. However, the single most important factor for the men in this story is the companionship that having a wife brings. This comes out in a number of ways:
- First, having a companion combats loneliness. Many of the missionaries were on their own in a foreign land and felt the isolation keenly. Having a wife salved this hardship.
- Second, this didn’t just mean company, but comfort, someone with whom to share struggles, pray and discuss solutions.
- Third, an absolute prerequisite for each man was that their wife had the same burden for the ‘heathen’ that he did. Their companionship came in the service of a common cause.
- Finally, for many of the couples this meant that the wife actually worked alongside her husband, not only caring for him but also as his colleague in the work of evangelisation.
These marriages had rather different models. Some married before they went overseas; in other marriages, the wife came on board already knowing that her husband was a missionary. Some couples had children, some didn’t. The Judsons come across as rather serious Puritans, while the Livingstones are described as quite playful. Some spent significant periods of time apart, others remained together almost constantly. What was common to each, though, was the utter commitment to a common cause. None of these wives would have described their husband as being the one in ministry: rather, they partnered together in ministry.
There’s plenty of inspiration in here in terms of what these women sacrificed. Particularly touching is the story of Christina Colliard who, homesick, ill and missing family continued working but in the evenings cried out her feelings over her journals until one day she is struck by these words from the Bible: “Forget thine own people and thy father’s house!” At that point, she burns all her journals and memoirs as a sign that she is single-minded in her commitment.
The final story tells of Henry Martyn who fell in love with a girl who loved him back and who loved God but did not want to go overseas. He continued his work despite her refusal to come, and died, burnt out, at 31. The author ends with these words: “Humanly speaking, had Lydia been there, he need not have died. With a wife to care for and comfort and cheer him his life might have been lengthened and his service for India greatly prolonged… Lydia Grenfell saved herself; but she cut short and marred Martyn’s career and lost the high honor of being his wife.” Hypothetical history like this is generally unfair but the call is there for women to step up.
This call can work both ways. I have met so many women who continue faithfully serving in Australia though their hearts are overseas, because their husbands will not go. I’m a strong proponent of BOTH people in a marriage wanting to go overseas for it to work, and I do think that caring for your spouse must come before a personal call to ministry. However, it is a great grief, to think with Belle Brain, of harvest workers of either gender held back by a spouse.
This brings up the question of whether one should marry and many of the missionaries wrestle with this. However I wonder whether today the reasons to do so are quite different. Many (though not all) of the reasons given by the men may be fulfilled by working in teams as many cross-cultural workers do now. It might be more feasible to stay single today than it was for these guys. However, for those of us who are married, what this book did for me was to illustrate the great joy of both people in a marriage owning a cause, being committed to it together and working for it in partnership.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.