Tag Archives: Biography

Review: Shadow of the Almighty

Rating:

Who: Elisabeth Elliot first became famous as the wife of Jim Elliot, missionary who was killed in Ecuador in 1956. After publishing the bestselling story of “Operation Auca” in 1957 (Through Gates of Splendor) and Jim’s story in 1958 (Shadow of the Almighty), she returned to the Huaorani with Rachel Saint to serve as a missionary until 1963, and became a respected devotional author in her own right.

Overview: Shadow of the Almighty is “the life and testimony of Jim Elliot,” one of five men who were killed in the Ecuadorian interior while trying to make contact with an unknown tribe, then known as the Aucas, now known by their endonym, Huaorani (also spelled Waodani).

Elisabeth Elliot had already shared the thrilling story of Operation Auca in her other bestselling book, Through Gates of Splendor, so this book acts as a prequel in some respects. Chronologically, this book ends where Through Gates of Splendor begins.

Meat: Shadow of the Almighty is essentially a journal of missionary consecration. That is the one secret of its impact. Numerous people first encountered the truth of the missionary call through Elliot’s books. The Elliots may come off to some people as traditional or perhaps stodgy, but no one can doubt this: their story has become a living link between the crucifixion and the Great Commission.

Almost the entire narrative happens in the United States, which emphasizes Elisabeth Elliot’s firm stance on missionary preparation. The story weaves together Jim’s early life, his consecration to ministry, his college days, and rather distanced courtship with Elisabeth. Only in the last few chapters is he on the mission field.

The Elliots’ strong roots in the Holiness movement give them a very countercultural stance, which must increase the notoriety of their books. Shadow of the Almighty‘s popularity has now continued unabated for more than half a century. At the time of this review, Elisabeth Elliot has three books in Amazon’s top 50 books on “Christian Missions & Missionary Work,” which is more than any other author.

Although this book, like many others, could stand to be salted with the grace of tolerating other viewpoints, the Elliots’ no-nonsense speaking style is tempered by plenty of humorous stories and interesting anecdotes both in America and in Ecuador.

Bones: Jim Elliot’s journals, which make up a large percentage of the book, are often a very private space in which he vents his disappointments and criticisms about himself and about the church. At some points, I felt that Elisabeth could have spared us so much detail, or at least so many criticisms of the modern church, which fall short of providing for her a better way.

One case in point is the story of their courtship and marriage, which was very protracted. Elisabeth has made much of their story not only in this book but in several others (Passion and Purity, Quest for Love). She shares Jim’s very negative opinions on marriage ceremonies as a cultural institution, an opinion likely stemming from their background in the Brethren, a nonconformist group with tame anti-establishment leanings. Jim was also flabbergasted when a colleague decided to marry ahead of joining the mission field—not sharing his joy or surprised merely, but actively disappointed. Elisabeth and Jim seemed to see Christian marriage first and foremost as a hindrance to missions, and have presented it that way to many young people.

Quotes:

“Missionaries are very human folks, just doing what they are asked. Simply a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody.” (p. 46)

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (p. 108)

“The command is plain: you go into the whole world and announce the good news. It cannot be dispensationalized, typicalized, rationalized. It stands a clear command, possible of realization because of the Commander’s following promise. . . . Rest in this—it is His business to lead, command, impel, send, call, or whatever you want to call it. It is your business to obey, follow, move, respond, or what have you.” (p. 150)

“In my own experience, I have found that the most extravagant dreams of boyhood have not surpassed the great experience of being in the Will of God, and I believe that nothing could be better. . . . That is not to say that I do not want other things, and other ways of living, and other places to see, but in my right mind I know that my hopes and plans for myself could not be any better than He has arranged and fulfilled them.”

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Review: Now and Then (Buechner)

Rating:

Full Title: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Who: Frederick Buechner, preacher and writer of novels and spiritual nonfiction.

Overview: Buechner divides this book into three places he has lived: New York, Exeter (New Hampshire, not England), and Vermont. He gives us a tour through several unspectacular events and places in his life, yet draws the truth out of them like an unlooked-for flavor in a meal prepared by a master chef. The book is along the line of a spiritual autobiography, not giving many details about his life and work, but piecing together the truths he learned along the way.

This book carries forward particularly an idea present in Buechner’s other books, about seeing God as the main character in your own autobiography. “Listen to your life,” he says more than once.

Meat: Buechner is consummately skilled as a writer. He speaks truth more unobtrusively than almost any other author I have read, and in that I would see him as a predecessor to Donald Miller. (Or, others would say Donald Miller is a successor of his.)

The main theme, repeated at the beginning and the end, is stated thus:

Here and there, even in our world, and now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

He also shows a great appreciation for “the dark night of the soul”—an idea I’ve written about elsewhere—and shows that preachers and theologians (such as those he studied under) are not exempt from being mystics to a certain extent. Intellect does not guard us from doubt.

Bones: Where I was less impressed is his theology proper. I sense a deep sympathy in some paragraphs where he mentions times of doubt or depression, but at other times it simply felt like he was hedging with his language. Occasionally I felt that Buechner was betraying more skepticism than is becoming of a preacher, and perhaps that is why he is so popular in theologically mainstream-to-liberal circles.

As just another instance, when he cites examples from Buddhism, they are, for the most part interesting, but I can’t help but feel that it is a ploy to keep less religious readers engaged, especially when he backpedals and says that the Christian view is more encompassing.

Of course, Buechner himself mentions this dillemma of audience, which tries to straddle the line between those who are “in” and “out” of this club we call religion. He is neither the first nor the last to experience this dillemma, but all in all I feel that, whoever his reader is, Buechner truly has something to say, and says it powerfully—not so much like a trumpet, but more like rising string overture, a gentle reminder that your soundtrack is already playing, the camera is running. This is your life. What is God saying through it?

Quotes:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

“I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”

The Life of Peter Jaco

The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, no. 4. Edited by Thomas Jackson.

[These little biographies were personally commissioned by John Wesley in examining his associates for ordination. Forty-one of them responded by penning their own biographies; we will be posting a few of the shorter ones here for those interested.]

THE LIFE OF MR. PETER JACO,

WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.

LETTER TO THE REV. JOHN WESLEY.

Rev. and dear Sir,

I am sorry that I cannot comply with your desire so effectually as I could wish; having left the papers containing the particulars of God’s dealings with me some hundred miles off. At present I can only give you some circumstances as they occur to my memory.

I was born of serious parents, at Newlyn, near Penzance, in Cornwall, in the year 1729. When capable of learning, I was put to school, where I continued till I was near fourteen; but, being of a gay, lively disposition, and my master being given to drink to excess, (on which account I soon learned to despise both him and his instructions,) did not make that proficiency which I otherwise might have done. As I could not endure the school under such a teacher, my father took me home, and proposed several businesses to me; but I chose rather to be under his care, and to be employed with him in the pilchard-fishery: first, because I knew him to be a perfect master of his business; and, secondly, because I knew he was a truly serious man.

From my infancy, I had very serious impressions, and awful thoughts of God; which, with the care and precepts of my parents, prevented my running into many excesses incident to youth: though in other respects I was bad enough. I was exceeding proud, passionate, and ambitious; and so fond of pleasure, that at any time I would neglect my ordinary meals to pursue it. But amidst all my follies, I was still miserable; and often to such a degree, that I wished I was anything but a rational creature. After many a restless night, I was ready to say, with Job, “He scareth me with dreams, and terrifieth me with visions.” I frequently resolved to leave my sins: but, alas! my goodness soon vanished away. Thus I repented and sinned; and as I was totally ignorant where my strength lay, I was frequently at the point of giving up all striving against the torrent; and of gratifying every passion as far as my circumstances would permit.

About the year 1746 God sent His messenger into our parts, who proclaimed free and full redemption in the blood of Christ. But though this was the very thing my conscience told me I wanted, yet I would not give up all to come to Him. No: I would dispute for His servants, fight for them, (an instance of which you, dear sir, saw the first time you preached on the green between Penzance and Newlyn, when a few lads rescued you from a wicked mob,) but I would come no nearer. However, going one Sunday night to hear Stephen Nichols, a plain, honest tinner, the word took strange hold on me, and seemed like fire in my bones. I returned filled with astonishment, retired to my apartment, and, for the first time, began to take a serious review of my past life, and present situation with regard to eternity. My eyes were now truly opened. I saw myself a poor, naked, helpless sinner, without any plea, but “God be merciful to me.” My convictions became more and more alarming, till I was driven to the brink of despair. And though my religious acquaintance (for I immediately joined the society) did all they could to encourage me, I would often say, “I have no hope.” In this deplorable state I continued near four months, when one Sunday, (may I never forget it!) as I was attending to the exhortation before the sacrament, when the minister pronounced, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself,” (a very wrong translation,) “not discerning the Lord’s body;” I immediately concluded, “Then I am lost for ever.” Yet, through the persuasion of my father, I stayed; and I resolved, if I did perish, I would perish in the means of grace. Accordingly, in the afternoon, I set out by myself for church, a mile distant from the town, for solitude was all my comfort. I had not walked far, before it was strongly suggested to my mind, “Jesus Christ died for the vilest sinner.” I immediately replied, “Then I am the wretch for whom He died!” In that moment it seemed to me as though a new creation had taken place. I felt no guilt, no distress of any kind. My soul was filled with light and love. I could no more doubt of my acceptance with God through Christ, than I could of my own existence. In this state I continued near two years, and am firmly persuaded might have still continued in it, but for my own unfaithfulness. I was now convinced it was my duty to do all I could for God; and, accordingly, reproved sin wherever I saw it, without regard to the character or station of the person; and, wherever I found a disposition to receive it, added a word of exhortation.

Some years after, my friends thought I might be more useful, if I was to exhort in the society: with much reluctance I made the attempt; but, though God blessed, in a very remarkable manner, my feeble efforts, I was with difficulty persuaded to continue it.

When you, sir, visited us in 1751, you persuaded me to enlarge my sphere, and appointed me to visit several societies. I accordingly complied, but still with unwillingness. In your next visit to Cornwall, you thought I was not so useful as I might be, and proposed my taking a Circuit. This I could by no means think of. I looked on myself as an occasional helper, having a good deal of time on my hands; and if a preacher was ill, or unable to keep his Circuit, I thought it my indispensable duty to fill his place. But, though I knew I was called to this, I could not see that I should go farther, on account of the smallness of both my gifts and grace.

In the year 1753 you proposed my going to Kingswood School: and accordingly, having settled the terms, I set out for Bristol in April, 1754; but, to my great disappointment, I found the school full, and a letter from you, desiring me to come immediately to London. This, together, with your brother’s telling me, that if I returned back to my business, he should not wonder if I turned back into the world, determined me to comply with your desire. At the Conference in London, the 4th of May, 1754, I was appointed for the Manchester Circuit, which then took in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, and part of Yorkshire. Here God so blessed my mean labours, that I was fully convinced He had called me to preach His Gospel. Meantime my hardships were great. I had many difficulties to struggle with. In some places the work was to begin; and in most places, being in its infancy, we had hardly the necessaries of life; so that after preaching three or four times a day, and riding thirty or forty miles, I have often been thankful for a little clean straw, with a canvas sheet, to lie on. Very frequently we had also violent oppositions. At Warrington I was struck so violently with a brick on the breast, that the blood gushed out through my mouth, nose, and ears. At Grampound I was pressed for a soldier; kept under a strong guard for several days, without meat or drink, but what I was obliged to procure at a large expense; and threatened to have my feet tied under the horse’s belly, while I was carried eight miles before the commissioners: and though I was honourably acquitted by them, yet it cost me a pretty large sum of money, as well as much trouble.

For many years I was exposed to various other difficulties and dangers. But, having obtained help from God, I continue to this day! And, all thanks to Him, I wish to live and die in His service. At present I find my mind as much devoted to Him as I ever did. I see and feel the necessity of a greater conformity to Christ. May I never be satisfied till I awake up after His likeness!

Thus, dear sir, I have given you a brief account of my life, as far as my memory would assist me. If it is useful to any soul, my purpose is full answered.

PETER JACO.

London, October 4th, 1778.


It is stated by Mr. Atmore, that Mr. Jaco was remarkably comely in his person, tall and handsome, and possessed an amiable natural temper. His understanding was strong and clear; and he had acquired much useful knowledge, which rendered him an agreeable companion. His talents for the Christian ministry were very considerable; and he was a scribe well instructed in the things of God. In consequence of bodily indisposition, he was compelled, for several years before his death, to desist from his itinerant labours. He died in peace at Margate, in Kent; and his remains were interred in the burying-ground connected with the City-Road chapel, London; where a stone, erected to his memory, bears the following inscription:—“In memory of Mr. Peter Jaco, who died July 6th, 1781, aged fifty-two years.

‘Fisher of men, ordain’d by Christ alone,
Immortal souls he for his Saviour won;
With loving faith, and calmly-potent zeal,
Perform’d and suffer’d the Redeemer’s will;
Steadfast in all the storms of life remain’d,
And in the good old ship the haven gain’d.’”

The following original letter of Mr. Jaco is worth preserving. It was addressed to Mrs. Hall, of London:—

“NEWLYN, NEAR PENZANCE, Sept. 11th, 1776.

“Having a few minutes of freedom from multitudes pressing on every side, to ask me how I do, and bid me welcome once more to the place of my nativity, I with pleasure embrace the opportunity of fulfilling my promise to my much-esteemed and valued friend. Perhaps it may not be unentertaining to give a brief account of my journey to this world’s end, which is upwards of three hundred miles from London.

“On Thursday, August 29th, at six o’clock in the morning, Mr. Folgham and your friend set out. We travelled hard all the day, being allowed fifteen minutes for breakfast, and twenty for dinner; but no tea, nor any supper. We arrived at Salisbury at seven o’clock; stayed half-an-hour for Mr. Folgham, who had some business to do; and then set out for Blandford, in Dorset, twenty-three miles from Salisbury, across the plain and open country, without any enclosures. The night was remarkably fine. The moon was full; and there was not a cloud in the sky to obstruct her light. Not a breath of wind was stirring, nor any living creature near, except large flocks of sheep, penned on each side of the road, whose innocent bleating, reverberating from the adjacent hills, rendered the scene awfully delightful. All the fine sentiments dispersed through the ‘Night Thoughts’ crowded upon my imagination; more especially those in the ‘Ninth Night,’ where the author has given us a picture at large, which I would recommend to your serious perusal. I was much affected with that instructive passage:—

‘Night is fair Virtue’s immemorial friend;

The conscious moon, through every distant age,

Has held a lamp to wisdom.’

“But, alas, like all transitory scenes, this pleasant night gave way to a gloomy rainy morning, when the bleak winds, coming down from the stupendous mountains, attended by impetuous floods, formed a contrast the most disagreeable.

“Nothing memorable happened till Saturday afternoon, when I had the pleasure of seeing our worthy friend Mr. Wesley, who received me with the warmest affection.

“At Plymouth-Dock I stayed till Tuesday morning, and then set out on horseback for this place; full ninety miles. Through the infinite mercy of God, I arrived safe on Monday evening, to the great joy of an affectionate father.

“My apartment here is, perhaps, the most agreeable that you ever saw. I have two neat chambers, built upon the extreme margin of the shore. A large bay opposite my windows is twenty-one miles long and twelve wide; so that at this moment I can see nearly twenty sail of ships, and upwards of a hundred large fishing-boats, passing and repassing. Nothing on earth can be more agreeable to me. Yet I must soon part with it. I have no home but heaven. God grant that I may not fall short of it!

“I hope this will find you resolved to be a Christian indeed; determined to take heaven by violence. Nothing short of this will do. Christ cannot approve of any sacrifice but that of the heart; and not even of this, without a surrender of the whole. O, give it Him. He is worthy of it. It is His undoubted right. He has paid dearly for the purchase. Let Him have it, in God’s name. This is perhaps the most critical period of your whole life. [* At this period Mrs. Hall had lately become the youthful and unencumbered widow of a negligent spendthrift. She was possessed of great personal beauty, and of sprightly conversational talent. In her second choice, she profited by the advice of her friend.] You have need of all your understanding and prudence. Above all, you have need of much prayer, that God may direct and keep you in every step you take.

“How long I shall stay here I know not. I have done nothing yet; and when I shall do anything I cannot tell. Perhaps I shall do nothing, after all my expense and trouble, except that of getting a few fair promises of amendment from my brothers, which may last while I am on the spot.

“Your affectionate and obliged friend,

“PETER JACO.”

 

New Compilation on Women in Missions!

“And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.”
Joel 2:28-30, NIV

March is Women’s History Month! And today we are pleased to announce that we haven’t missed our chance to brag on a few women in missions history. Our newest book is Sixteen Pioneer Women in Early Modern Missions. We love to bring to light biographies that have gone out of print, including stories of women in missions and indigenous peoples participating in missions. If you only believed the popular books on the topic, you would think that Protestant missions only involved white, English or American men until around 1960. We hope in time to restore some balance to the narrative of God’s glorious and global enterprise of building his church.

Thomas Timpson (author of The Angels of God) arranged this book in 1841 based mostly on previous memoirs, letters and journals of British women who had been missionaries. Of the sixteen women in the compilation, only eight of them reached the age of 35. In an era that preceded the steam engine, the telegraph, or modern medicine, these women “forsook all” to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Timpson shows the height of their consecration and the depths of their humility through their personal letters and journal entries.

The narratives are challenging and profound. When Jesus taught in Capernaum, his disciples said, literally, “That’s a tough word.” (John 6:60, my translation) That is exactly how I felt reading these simple and frank narratives of triumph and tragedy on the mission field.

These memoirs focus on having a heart for missions. Each of these ladies is unknown today, but they had a chance to play a significant role in Protestant missions, and they took it. The time period extends from the late 1600s to 1840, and the scope of the book is global. Missionaries in this book reached out in the American colonies, Malta, Guyana, Jamaica, many parts of India, Sierra Leone, eastern Siberia, and many Pacific islands.

There is an introductory chapter—probably worth the price of the book—that surveys the conditions of gender inequality on a global scale, especially where Christianity had little or no influence. This chapter was arranged by Jemima Luke (née Thompson)—author of the hymn “I think when I read that sweet story of old”—when she was 28 years old. It conveys some sense of the influence of the gospel on gender relations in the past 200 years.

The entire book has been proofread, updated, and re-typeset into a new edition, released March 2018.

Now available in paperback: $11.99
Kindle edition: $5.99
(The Kindle download will be free with the paperback.)

Lover of Life by F. W. Boreham

Review: Lover of Life (Man Who Saved Gandhi)

Rating: ★★★★½

Who: J. J. (Joseph John) Doke was a Baptist pastor and missionary who ministered in New Zealand and South Africa. As the original title suggests, he became coincidentally entangled with Mahatma Gandhi when an uprising nearly killed him; he afterward nursed him back to health in his own home, winning his lifelong friendship and respect.

The author, F. W. Boreham, was an English pastor and a prolific author who ministered in New Zealand and Australia for more than thirty years.

Overview: This little book is an uplifting and quick read that will stir you concerning the pioneer mission field. This book tells the story of Doke’s mentorship of Boreham in New Zealand, a relationship that was highly formative in his early career. Doke not only had a great impact on Boreham’s notorious reading habits, but he also connected Boreham to an editor that led to the beginnings of his writing career. The publisher makes a case that this book should be placed in the hands of budding pastors as an illustration of healthy mentorship.

Doke’s life itself is also fascinating. As the old title suggests, he did save Gandhi’s life before he had reached his present level of international fame. J. J. Doke’s brother was a pioneer missionary who lost his life in the Congo, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps. He pastored in New Zealand for a time, but later returned to the African mission field. Doke eventually lost his life, like his brother, while pioneering a new station in the region of present-day Zimbabwe.

For lovers of Boreham, this book tells you almost as much about him as it does about J. J. Doke. Although Boreham often tells personal stories, this book gives a new angle to how he became who he was.

Bones: My main beef with this book is that it was so short—I wanted more detail about his life as a missionary. The original title, The Man Who Saved Gandhi, led to me to believe it was a full biography; the newer title, Lover of Life: F. W. Boreham’s Tribute to His Mentor, is a little more fitting. It does trace Doke’s life through, but not in detail.

Related: George Augustus Selwyn: Pioneer Bishop of New Zealand is the only full biography that Boreham penned.

Doke himself wrote two adventure novels about lost races in remote Africa, The Secret City and The Queen of the Secret City. Both are extremely rare and out of print.

A new copy is available from John Broadbanks Publishing for $7.00.

Review: St. Francis of Assisi (G. K. Chesterton)

Rating: ★★★

Who: St. Francis of Assisi, Italian friar who lived in voluntary poverty, and founded several religious orders. He felt deeply connected with nature and tried to bring peace to the Crusades. He was also credited with several miracles in his lifetime and is now venerated as a “saint” in the Catholic church.

The author, G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer and journalist. He wrote biography, literary criticism, novels, poetry, and lay theology, and has been aptly named “the Prince of Paradox.”

When: St. Francis lived from around 1181 to 1226. Chesterton published this biography in 1923.

Where: Francis was raised in Assisi, Italy, but also travelled widely in the Mediterranean, meeting with the Sultan in Egypt, and visiting Palestine.

Overview: Chesterton gives us a somewhat fanciful introduction to the life of St. Francis. He deals with issues surrounding the life of St. Francis but does not delve into problems of historiography or attempt to untangle the plethora of legends about Francis. Rather, he focuses on St. Francis’ sublime life of worship and the meaning behind his great influence, seen through a few key decisions and events. This short book is suitable as an introduction to the life of St. Francis and is not written solely for Catholics.

Meat: Chesterton’s historical and biographical books read more like essays than stories. After finishing this book, it might be hard to reconstruct an orderly account of St. Francis’ life and influences; instead, Chesterton dissects key events of Francis’ life in his rambling, lavish style, often stepping off the beaten track to offer perspective on the meaning of these events. For example, Chesterton does not give us a medical analysis of the stigmata—rather, he tries to show that Francis’ ironic desire for martyrdom is a major key to understanding his work, and the stigmata were one scene in that panorama.

Chesterton presents St. Francis as a figure out of time, more contemporary than the most progressive moderns. He envisages Francis’ monastic life as joyous, effusive, worldly, and charitable. He brings out all that is childlike and sublime in Francis’ worship. He praises Francis’ “marriage to poverty” out of a middle-class Italian life, though he points out that some of Francis’ followers may have missed the sublimity of his monastic poverty.

Francis’ intentions to preach to the Saracens (=Muslims) and make peace from the Crusades makes him, for this reviewer, a beam of light in an otherwise dark and turbid age in which religious identity and nationalism walked hand in hand.

Bones: The only disappointment of this book is the many interesting stories that it leaves out. Tales surround the life of St. Francis, as one of the most interesting and influential saints of Catholic tradition. Perhaps Chesterton was trying not to write a fabulous hagiography, distanced from real life by its many unverifiable legends; he places the biography in the context of true history, and tries to maintain that context fully.

Quotes: “To this great mystic, his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” (ch. I)

“A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.” (ch. I)

“He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.” (ch. IV)