Tag Archives: Ion Keith-Falconer

Echoes of Eternity: How Death Affected Great Men

Thoughts after the death of Nabeel Qureshi

On September 16, Nabeel Qureshi tragically passed at the age 34, and went confidently into eternity. He had been diagnosed with aggressive Stage IV stomach cancer just a few short months ago, in the middle of a busy career of academic study, preaching, writing, and evangelism.

In many ways, his death is a challenge to Western believers. Lest we miss the lesson his death would teach us, I want to look at some historical precedent for how many believers have been challenged by the immediacy of death.

I could give a long list of faithful believers who re-examined their lives after the death of someone near them. J. J. Doke went to the mission field dreaming of carrying on the impact of his older brother who had died doing mission work in the Congo. On the other side of Africa, in 1846, Ludwig Krapf buried wife and child in the remote deserts along the Eritrea-Ethiopian border, and there he famously wrote that the church ever advances over the graves of its members.

For the church of the resurrected Christ, death has always been transmuted by the deathless optimism of the one who saw the travail of his soul and was satisfied. Let’s take a look at three ways that untimely death has caused many to hear the echo of eternity.

1. Eternity calls us to consider if we living for things that will last.

Adoniram Judson is one of the most famous missionaries in Protestant history. With a small cadre of friends, he spearheaded the founding of America’s first missionary society, and, in 1812, he was on the first ship to leave America to bring the gospel to the world’s unreached people.

But few know that in college, Judson was a hardened skeptic. The atmosphere at Providence College was in the grip of Enlightenment thinking. He had one friend in particularly—he is called E— in the story—who was an outspoken, revelling, scoffing skeptic, mocking the church and all that pertains to it.

In between college terms, Judson was travelling on horseback, touring the northern states. He stopped into an inn. We have one vacancy, the innkeeper told him, but the tenant in the room next door is horribly ill—he may not pass the night. No matter, Judson told him. Death was less than nothing to him, although he would feel sympathy for the dying.

As he lay in that inn, he heard the racking coughs and groans of a dying man. The walls seemed paper thin. Whoever he was, he must be dying comfortless, with no family member to attend him. Judson lay awake thinking of the nearness of death, struggling to use his young age as a shield against the spectre of eternity. After all, what would his skeptic friends back at college think? What would his friend E think?

The rest of the story is in F. W. Boreham’s words:

“He rises at dawn; seeks the innkeeper; and inquires about his neighbor.

“‘He’s dead!’ is the blunt reply.

“‘Dead!’ replies Judson. ‘And who was he?’

“‘Oh,’ explains the innkeeper languidly, ‘he was a student from Providence College; a very fine fellow; his name was E!’”

Judson was shaken to the core. Eternity stared him in the face, and it wasn’t long before he turned to Christ. He cut short his vacation, went home, and discussed the state of his soul with his parents. He was soon a member of their church.

2. Eternity calls us to remember that there are no little people and no little places.

Although his name is no longer well known, Ion Keith-Falconer was a serious intellectual with both evangelistic and medical experience, willing to use whatever means to reach his Muslim neighbors.

Keith-Falconer seemed to have everything going for him. He was from a noble family; he was a champion athlete; he was at the top of his class at Cambridge; he was newly married; and he was ordained under the Free Church of Scotland to an important and difficult mission field.

After studying Arabic at schools in Germany and Egypt, he went to Aden—in present-day Yemen, then a British colony—to see if it would be feasible to bring his family there. After receiving a very flexible appointment as an Arabic lecturer at Cambridge, he took his wife and a young child to live in the neighborhood of Sheikh Othman.

He only preached and practiced medicine for five months before he died of a fever, now believed to be malaria. News of his death reached Scotland the night before the opening of the Free Church’s annual General Assembly, the same meeting at which Keith-Falconer had been ordained just one year before. The moderator, Dr. Somerville, spoke about his death:

“What may be the beneficent result which God may educe from this calamity, we know not. This, however, we may venture to hope for—that the death of this noble young man may prove the means of awakening attention, greater than has ever been directed, to all Arabia’s provinces, and tend to give a lasting wound to that fatal system of Islam which so long blighted the souls of millions. What Christian Scotchman, with qualities in any way resembling those of him who has passed away, will stand forth to raise the banner of the Gospel in the place of the gallant warrior who has fallen?”

The custom in that day was not to withdraw when a missionary was lost; the usual response was to send two more to take his place! After his death, his mother and widow offered a stipend that would fund two more missionaries for Arabia. In the months that followed, a total of thirteen students of Edinburgh’s New College offered themselves for foreign mission work. Eleven of those were from the 1888 graduating class, which only included forty students. Needless to say, the appeal of Keith-Falconer’s death is attributed to be an important factor.

3. Eternity calls us to remember that even short lives can have an lasting echo if they are lived for Christ.

There is another story in Arabian missions of a young Lebanese preacher. Like Nabeel Qureshi, Kamil Abdulmasih ‘Itany turned to Christ out of a Muslim background, and it wasn’t long before he was doing everything he could to persuade other Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Hindus, that Jesus was the only way.

Kamil learned the basics of the Bible from Henry H. Jessup for a few months in Beirut. Later, he joined Samuel M. Zwemer and James Cantine in the Arabian Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the few years that he lived as a Christian, Kamil did preaching and Bible distribution tours in Syria, Yemen, Djibouti, and Iraq.

He showed in his letters that he knew both the Bible and the Quran well. He was persuasive and tactful in evangelism. While selling Bibles in the remote coasts of eastern Yemen, a group of men went around forbidding people to accept his books. Kamil found the troublemakers and quoted to them several scriptures in which the Quran praises both the Old and New Testaments which they were selling. He recorded the conversation in his journal, which Henry Jessup later translated:

“Then I said, ‘Does this Quran speak truth or falsehood?’

“They said, ‘Allah forbid that it should speak falsehood.’

“I said, ‘Are my words true?’

“They replied, ‘Yes; there is no doubt of it.’

‘Then,” said I, ‘Why did you forbid the boys buying the books?’

“They said, ‘We did not,’ and denied it absolutely.

“I then said, ‘You should buy the books if my words are true.’

“They said, ‘We certainly will after hearing the proofs you have given us.’”

Kamil’s life was cut short in a season of intense preaching and visiting in Basra, in present-day Iraq. His journals written in 1892 show that he had visitors of every variety, some hostile, and some very keen to find copies of the New Testament.

When he died, Zwemer found him surrounded by soldiers and religious authorities. They believed he was poisoned, but the authorities prohibited an autopsy. They protested that he was a Christian, but the authorities buried him as a Muslim. They had proof that he was a Christian, but the soldiers had seized his papers. There was no recourse.

Henry Jessup wrote that Kamil’s life was “a rebuke to our unbelief” in God’s power to change the Muslim heart. His tragic murder must have brought home to supporters of the Arabian Mission the reality of people who turn to faith in Islam’s heartland. Grace may be free, but that doesn’t mean faith doesn’t cost us.

After Kamil’s death, Zwemer eventually became the most widely known name connected with Christian missions to Muslims. He left behind a stream of literature long enough to fill a bookshelf. God only knows how the loss of this budding native preacher must have hardened Zwemer’s resolve in his early career.

Final thoughts

Death, then, doesn’t have to be a white flag; in Christian missions, it is a call for advance, not retreat. When a soldier on the front lines is lost, someone must rush forward to hold the line.

When I woke up to the news of Nabeel’s passing, I thought of how the disciples felt when Jesus ascended and left them. Leaderless, they thought—but they wouldn’t be left comfortless. There was a greater work that they would have to begin.

The task of missions is the task of the whole church. With Nabeel’s passing, we mourn the loss of a leader who had a monumental impact in his short time—but when we dry our eyes, we remember, we have a lot of work to do.


References:

F. W. Boreham, “Adoniram Judson’s Text.” A Temple of Topaz.

Henry H. Jessup, Kamil Abdulmasih: A Syrian Preacher of the Gospel.

Robert Sinker, Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer.

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Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

Arab World Pioneers

The Arab World Pioneers series seeks to draw together the best available histories and biographies of the early modern missionaries to the Arab world. Among these pioneers, the most well known are Ion Keith-Falconer (Yemen), Henry Jessup (Syria), and Samuel Zwemer (Bahrain, Iraq, and Egypt). However, even these men didn’t come the earliest, or stay the longest. They must be taken as only a sampling of the host of both men and women who sacrificed and plodded in a place that has remained, even to this day, one of the driest and most difficult mission fields on the globe.

Arab World Pioneers

Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer by Robert Sinker
Douglas M. Thornton: A Study in Missionary Ideals and Methods by W. H. T. Gairdner (coming 2018)
Fifty-three Years in Syria: The Autobiography of Henry H. Jessup (coming 2018)
Heroic Bishop: The Life of Thomas V. French by Eugene Stock
History of the Arabian Mission by Mason & Barny
Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer by J. Christy Wilson