The History of Missions, and That Yet To Be Lived, Is Still Told One Life at a Time

The large numbers inherent in grasping the urgency and scope today of Jesus’ call to “go make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:20) can be a bit mind boggling. Consider this:

  • The current world population is nearly 7.8 billion, and will pass the 8 billion mark in 2023. (*1)
  • Nearly 3.3 billion people (41.8%) have little or no access to the Gospel. (*1)
  • There are 7360 different languages spoken in the world. Less than 10%, only 704 of them, have the entire Bible available. (*2)
  • Another 1551 languages have the whole New Testament available. (*2)
  • Here is some good news: There are 1000 churches for every one unreached people group! (*3)               [I develop this theme in the Oct 2021 “From the editor”].

The large numbers remind us there is much to be done, yet the history of global mission is really about the eternal impact from the lives of individual people who were willing to answer the call to go. Some names are perhaps familiar to us, while other stories are known to just a few.

photo of William Carey

Rev. William Carey

Rev. William Carey is often called ‘the father of modern missions’. Why? Young Rev. Carey had a studied passion for the Word, the current statistics in his day and the great need for world evangelization. He raised the topic at a local pastors meeting in 1789. An older pastor responded with a withering rebuke. “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine. (*4)

Undaunted, Carey turned to writing. In 1792, he published a little tract entitled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. Carey’s pamphlet was revolutionary. It was the first theology of missions ever known to be published. The statistics he produced were overwhelming. (*5)

This little tract ignited the formation of dozens of small mission societies in Europe and the U.S. within a few decades after it was published. Carey then practiced what he preached; he spent 41 years at Serampore near Calcutta, India. Global Mission Agencies such as ALWM, as well as our other CGM agency partners and so many others, exist because of the courage of this young man. He changed the way Christians organized to answer the call to the nations with his little 50-page booklet!

map of India

Rev. August Carlson, missionary to India from 1878 until his death in 1882, had originally left his native Sweden in 1861 to further his education in the US. While in college a serious illness became a turning point in his life and brought to him a definite spiritual experience. Up to that time he had had no special aim beyond that of obtaining knowledge… God now spoke to his soul and he found peace through the promise:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

— Philippians 4:6

From this time on his desire was to serve the Lord and his fellow men, and his thoughts were set on the ministry. In 1876, after meeting Danish Missionary C.W. Gronning, he heard of the need in India, and began to seriously consider global missions.

Photo of Rev. Carlson

Rev. August Carlson

Rev. Carlson addressed a missionary service at the Augustana Lutheran Church in Princeton, Illinois, on June 18, 1878, the evening before he and his wife were to depart for India. “A Few Reasons Why the Church of Christ Should Carry on Missions” from Matt 28:18-20  He closed his stirring sermon by saying:

“Dear friends, … if I reach the mission field and there will be  privileged to see some Gospel progress, I shall be glad to report this to you. But I beseech you: if I should be unable to persevere, if sooner or later I shall fall in the struggle – and it would surprise me if I should live to return – then I ask one thing of you. What may this be, you ask? Your intercessory prayers ? Indeed, but you who know how to pray for yourselves, you will also pray for me without my asking. Your money? Jesus will supply my needs. I make bold to ask for a memorial. This is the memorial for which I ask: if I do not come  back, do not look upon the cause as lost or hopeless but pledge yourselves instead to send forth hundreds of other missionaries. …” (*6) He passed away in March, 1882, just under four years after their departure.

August Carlson was governed by one compelling passion – love to his Savior. He believed it his high calling to confess boldly and heroically his Savior before all men. He had a most unusual ability to appeal to and attract the masses wherever he came. He traveled about in the villages and preached on the streets and in the market places and played on an organ As soon as he began to play and sing the multitudes would flock around him to listen to his preaching. The substance of his preaching was a joyful Gospel message: Come to Jesus! (*7)

photo of Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson was a Norwegian sailor, turned immigrant, turned farmer, who felt God’s call to serve the Chinese people with the gospel while roofing his house in 1890. Within a few months, he sold the farm and took his entire family to China with $500 in his pocket to Shanghai, China. They eventually went to Wuhan and then north to Xingyang, where he served 27 years.


map of China

Daniel and his wife, Anna, began a mission outpost in a remote town in southern Henan Province (about 500 miles west of Shanghai). Soon others joined them in the work. After his death in 1926, Anna continued the work for many years. By 1950, when the “Bamboo Curtain” of communism closed China to missionaries, they had already founded many churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals. I personally visited there in 2016 and saw some of the fruit of the Nelsons’ work and many others who followed them.

photo of Bruce Olson

Bruce Olson

Bruce Olson was a young Lutheran from south Minneapolis who answered God’s unusual and dramatic call to go to Colombia in 1961 at age 19! Going untrained as he did is rare and not the normal path, but his passion for languages and innate linguistic skills were powerfully used to reach the Motilone Indians, a true stone age tribe. 

map of Columbia

The powerful story of his teenage years when his faith came alive, his family struggles, and his call to head to South America are all told in the classic missions book Bruchko. He spent 9 months in captivity at the hands of the Colombian National Liberation Army in 1988, which only added to the unbelievable but true story of God’s work in Colombia that has continued to unfold over the past 60 years.

Kathy and Tom L. are dear friends who have been working with a team of Seko Padang speakers translating the New Testament into the Seko Padang language, spoken in Sulawesi, Indonesia, by about 6000 people. They have been working diligently since the mid-1980’s, developing the written language and then launching into the important and painstaking process of Bible translation. They are an ongoing source of inspiration to me with their skills, dedication, and incredible commitment to the call and the task the Lord gave them a generation ago.

map of Indonesia

They pressed on through health issues, visa challenges, trekking in and out of the jungle first by foot until the hand-dug airstrip was completed, and then at times still needed to go by motorbike, and so much more. The New Testament is done, and has just been printed! Kathy shared with us a few years ago that her call to missions began when she was very young. She heard the stories of faith and sacrifice from the missionaries who visited her church during her primary school years, and it seems that even then God was already speaking to her heart, calling her to one day be a missionary!

photo of Tom and Kathy L

Tom and Kathy L. translating the closed captioning for the Jesus film into the Seko Padang language.

The Gospel is carried to the nations by men and women, young and old, who answer the call with “yes.”

The journey always starts at the beginning – a first “yes” to the gentle prompting of  the Holy Spirit to pray, explore, listen, read, watch, serve — and even go. It’s about finding and embracing the path God has for your life, rather than ardently pursuing the life plans you may desire.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’ ”

— Matthew 16:24-25

Note: The powerful testimony of the martyrdom of Elliot, Saint and three others is told in Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Through Gates of Splendor. The powerful follow up a generation later is written by Nate Saint’s son, Steve Saint, in The End of the Spear.

What you may ‘give up’ for the sake of investing more of your life in God’s call to the nations is worth it. Nate Saint, martyred with Jim Elliot while reaching out to the Auca Indians in 1953, said it well:

“People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives … and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” (*8)

What about you?

What part of the unfolding history of God’s passionate heart for the nations that is yet to be written does God want to do through you?


*3: Winter, Ralph D., and Bruce A. Koch. 2009. “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 531-46. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
*6: S. Hjalmar Swanson. Three Missionary Pioneers And Some Who Have Followed Them. Page 9 (out of print).
*7: Ibid, page 35.

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