THE STEPCHILDREN OF CHURCHES?
By Missionary Buddy Smith
Gardiner was the last to die. One by one his companions weakened through starvation, cold, and disease until they could no longer stand. In vain Gardiner watched and prayed for the supply ship from England until his eyes, too, were dimmed in death. The last entry in his diary reads, ” Great and marvellous are the lovingkindnesses of my gracious God unto me. He has preserved me hitherto, and for four days, although without bodily food, without any feeling of hunger or thirst.” Forty-six days later a British navy ship dropped anchor and sent a boat ashore, only to find the bodies of three of his companions lying unburied on the shore. A storm drove them away before they could search for Gardiner and Maidment. It was to be another three months before they were discovered near their wrecked boat at Banner Cove. The supply ship did not arrive until some months later.
The place? Tierra Del Fuego (the land of fire) at the very tip of South America, named by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520. Tierra Del Fuego is broken into hundreds of islands, and is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. It is swept all year by freezing gales, rain, sleet, and snow. Magellan never saw Picton Island where the missionaries starved to death. He sailed through a passage far to the north. Francis Drake missed it in 1578 as well, sailing through the Strait and then south toward Antarctica. In 1770 Captain Cook saw it when he named an island only a stone’s throw to the south, but it was Robert Fitz Roy who knew it best. Picton Island lies in the mouth of the channel named after Fitz Roy’s ship, the Beagle. (On his second voyage in 1834 he carried a young naturalist with him, Charles Darwin.) Here on the shores of Beagle Channel seven men died, attempting to carry the gospel to the Fuegians. Altogether, fifteen missionaries gave their lives before the first Fuegian came to Christ.
The time of the missionaries’ death? 1851. In 1844 Gardiner had attempted to establish a beachhead for the gospel on the shores of the Magellan Strait, 150 miles to the north. Abandoning this location, two attempts were made to reach the Fuegians on Picton Island, in 1848 and 1850. Remember, this was barely half a century after William Carey, the father of modern missions, baptised his first converts in India, and only seventeen years after Carey lay down to die.
Who was Gardiner? Gardiner was Allen Francis Gardiner, retired British Naval Captain. He was converted in Malaysia in 1820 when he compared the emptiness of Buddhism with the living faith of his mother. He soon embarked upon that greatest of all adventures, taking the gospel to those who had never heard it. Some of the time he went alone, some of the time he took his wife and children, to Tahiti, to South Africa (where he helped to found Durban), to Chile where he backpacked 1000 miles, handing out tracts, to Indonesia, and then finally to Patagonia, the gateway to Tierra Del Fuego. He knew of Darwin’s description of the Fuegians as being incapable of being “civilised.” But his missionary heart rejected the racism of Darwin, knowing that there is no civilising influence like the old, old story of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Somewhere along his travels, he saw his need of helpers, so he asked God for a few good men, godly men, men who would go the distance, men who would be willing to suffer any hardship. Men who would die for the Cause. And God gave them, a good half dozen volunteers. None of them could have known beforehand the hardship and suffering they would endure. Students of Gardiner’s missionary work search in vain for any word of complaint from even one of his companions. These were Gardiner’s companions in life and in death.
So how did they come to grief? How was it that these valuable men starved to death in service for Christ?
The answers are diverse. No one event or person caused them to perish on the windswept, bitterly cold, pebbly beaches of the Beagle Channel.
Human error on the missionaries’ part was to blame. They had mistakenly left half their gunpowder on board their supply ship, and so were unable to provide enough meat to eat. The cave they chose for shelter flooded and their food staples were further diminished.
Human error on the supply ship captain’s part was to blame. Initially, no one could be found who was willing to make the hazardous journey merely to supply provisions for missionaries. When a ship and crew were finally found, the captain delayed his departure for personal reasons, and was several months late in arriving. By the time they arrived, all the missionaries had starved to death or succumbed to the intense cold and disease.
Human error on the part of the Fuegian Indians was to blame. In the darkness of their hearts, they were totally self centred. It was of no concern to them that the missionaries were hungry or sick. In fact, they felt that the missionaries should feed them. Ministering to the wants of the needy is the lifeblood of the redeemed, but this mindset does not belong to the superstitious, unenlightened sons of Adam.
Human error on the part of the churches in England was to blame. As today, most churches did not take a great interest in the work of their missionaries. True, prayer letters were few and far between, but when they arrived in the post, they were not often read in the meetings. No special times of intercession were set aside to lay siege to Heaven for the missionaries’ needs to be met. (God had called them. He would take care of them.) Once the excitement of their going to such a dangerous and exotic place had waned, the memory of the men and their zeal for God faded, and the Christians in the churches forgot them. The missionaries became the “stepchildren of the churches.” Very few, if any, pastors carried them daily on their hearts before the Throne of Grace. Missions to the heathen had already become an abstract sideline of the churches. It took less than seventy years from Carey’s call to India for missionary work to become blasé. Missions became a necessary burden for the churches, but not one to talk about in public. The collection boxes for the Patagonian Missionary Society acquired more cobwebs than farthings.
And so Gardiner’s strength declined until he followed his companions into the sleep of death. Gardiner and his helpers starved to death on the mission field. What a strange martyrdom! Slain by human error, their own and others’.
When word of their deaths reached England some months later, the public outcry was great. The London Times carried “a blistering editorial” protesting “the loss of life and resources for so foolish a cause.” England still had the ability to blush with shame and she did. A book was written which included Gardiner’s journal. And the church did what she has done many times before. She awoke from her slumber. And attended to her stepchildren. She began again to care for her missionaries. She remembered her duty, her Great Commission to the lost tribes of the world. New recruits volunteered for missionary service and funds were raised. Another attempt would be made to reach the Fuegians. It, too, failed, but this time it was because the Indians killed all but one of the missionaries. Others took their places. And the story goes on. The old, old story of the spreading of the gospel. Soldiers are often described as “cannon fodder.” There is a very real sense in which it is true that missionaries are “gospel fodder.” One of Gardiner’s biographers quoted the verse from John’s gospel, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” (12:24, 25) If we go there to Tierra Del Fuego today we will find no stone upon Gardiner’s grave. But if there were, this text would be eminently suitable for his epitaph.
Pardon me if I muse for a moment on these “stepchildren of the churches.” Gardiner, for all his faith and zeal, never won a convert in Tierra Del Fuego. Not one. Gardiner, for all his faith and zeal, starved to death on the mission field. He would have been the first to lament his failure to meet his companions’ needs. What a burden must have been his, for it was he that had forgotten to bring the gunpowder left behind on their supply ship! A little mistake that contributed to the death of seven men. Yes, missionaries make some fatal mistakes. But I am a pastor of a church which supports missionaries, and I often ponder on that little barrel of gunpowder, and ask myself, “Did any pastor in England love Christ and his gospel enough to pray that his missionaries would not lack, would not forget the supplies they needed?” The human errors that are made are not all made by the missionaries. Some of them are made by us at home.
It is a sad fact that in fundamental churches around the world our programs (however good or bad they may be) often make our missionaries the “stepchildren of the churches.” A false accusation? Maybe so, in some churches. But what about a little checklist?
Do I, as a pastor, ever write a personal letter of concern to my missionaries?
Do we, as a church, ever set aside a prayer meeting to do nothing else but pray for our missionaries’ needs?
Do we ever alter our order of service on a Sunday morning in order to read an urgent prayer letter from one of our missionaries, and then take the time to pray for them there and then?
Do we read our missionaries’ letters to the prayer meeting, all of them?
Do we make it a point to pray for the specific needs in their prayer letters?
Do we ever send any of our people or the pastor to assist our missionaries in their work, even for a short time?
Do we use our missionaries when they come home on furlough (or are they ignored like stepchildren?)
Do we let our missionaries preach in our missions conferences? (Or do we only use the professional fundraisers?)
Do we, as a church, ever really make any sacrifices to help spread the gospel on the mission field?
Do we support them consistently with our finances?
Do we ever cut the support of our missionaries while they are on the field and leave them stranded there?
Do our missionaries see when they come home on furlough that their work is known and appreciated?
Do our people know and love our missionaries because we pastors show them how?
Do they know we love them?
Or are they, just maybe, the Stepchildren of the Churches?
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.