The Risky Upside of Missionary Biographies

By M.R. Conrad (Reposted from Rooted Thinking)

Eighteen-year-old Sarah Hall curled up in her New England home, her legs tucked beneath her voluminous 1700’s skirt.1 Neither the chill of the room nor the hardness of the wooden chair distracted her from her book. She barely noticed her younger brothers and sisters as they noisily went about their business in the common room. The hardbound volume, stiff with newness, recounted the life of the recently deceased missionary Samuel Mills.

What Missionary Biographies Did to Sarah Hall

Soon after finishing the book, Sarah wrote to a friend: “I have just completed the perusal of the life of Samuel J. Mills; and never shall I forget the emotions of my heart while following thus the footsteps of this devoted missionary. I have almost caught his spirit, and been ready to exclaim: Oh! that I, too, could suffer privations, hardships, and discouragements, and even find a watery grave, for the sake of bearing the news of salvation to the poor heathen!”2

Reading missionary biographies ignited Sarah’s passion for serving God. What she read would shape her future life and ministry. This young woman caught the spirit of Mills, launching her first into local ministry and then foreign missions.

Fast-forward just a few years. Sarah and her new husband, George Boardman, would step off a ship on to a pier in Burma (modern-day Myanmar). They would get to know and learn to love the Karen people. Sarah and her husband would lead many to Christ and start a church planting movement in the jungle. They would brave disease, societal unrest, and even tigers. Sarah entered her own missionary biography. That’s one potential danger of reading missionary biographies.

What Missionary Biographies Might Do to You

However, the risky upside of reading missionary biographies goes well beyond inspiration to become a missionary. The experience might even influence you to be holier or more dedicated to God where you are now. Take warning from the list below of the dangerous blessings missionary biographies could potentially bring to your daily life.

1. You just might catch some historical perspective.

Our generation tends to flee historical perspective as if it had the plague. Consequently, we can easily consider the difficulties we face today to be unprecedented when they are not—not pandemics, not societal unrest, not ungodly rulers, not unjust laws, and not even untrustworthy news. If you thought these things were new for the 2020’s, you might want to swallow some historical perspective like they swallowed castor oil in the old days. If you don’t like history, hold your nose and take it in story form from a missionary biography. Your understanding of the world will be better for it.

2. You just might be confronted by what lived-out truth looks like in daily life.

What does a life of surrender and obedience to God look like? How do you apply the truths of God’s Word to the trials of daily life? How should you respond when you fail? Where do you find strength when everything looks impossible?

A good biography will give insight into the lives of those who went before us. 3 They will quote personal journals and letters—the blogs, tweets, and emails of days gone by. You will get a glimpse of the hearts of those who have lived out the truths of God’s Word. You just might discover areas where you need to grow.

3. You just might discover that our times are not quite as superior as we think they are.

Yes, you are right to assume that previous eras were gravely flawed. You are correct to presume that the words and actions of individuals highlighted in missionary biographies sometimes show them to be products of their day. However, you are mistaken if you believe this makes them inferior to us. We too are affected by our times. We just don’t smell our own stink. Every generation seems to think they are better than those who came before them. As you read missionary biographies, you may find your preconceived ideas upended.

The Missionary Biography Challenge

So curl up in your overstuffed chair. Wear your stretchy sweat pants if you like. Pop in your noise-canceling earbuds. Climate control your environment. Take advantage of the comforts of modern life. But get into a missionary biography—whether it be the tactile experience of a print book, the convenience of an eBook, or the luxury of an audio book.

If you don’t know where to start, I have a list of excellent choices on my website. I also have bite-sized biographical snapshots in my recent devotional book, designed to introduce new readers to the world of missionary biographies.

Get a missionary biography. It will challenge your thinking. It might even change your life.

Read it if you dare.


1 Read more of Sarah Hall Boardman Judson’s testimony in my book Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises.

2 Judson, Emily. Memoir of Sarah B. Judson. Kindle Edition. (Sarah married Adoniram Judson after her first husband, George Boardman, passed away.)

3 Yes, some biographies are guilty of hagiography, presenting the missionary as a saint and erasing their faults. I have included a list of biographies that usually avoid this error on my website (

Photo: Ben White

M.R. Conrad serves in urban Asia. He, his wife, and their four children squeeze into a 700 square-foot apartment where he seizes rare moments of quiet to write amidst homeschooling, a cacophony of musical instruments, and the steady stream of visitors they so enjoy having in their home. He enjoys birding, board games, and basketball. He is the author of Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises.

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