Swift and Beautiful: The Amazing Stories of Faithful Missionaries

Written by David B. Calhoun Reviewed By Joe M. Allen III

In ten short chapters, David B. Calhoun tells the stories of twelve men and women who devoted their lives to make Christ known. Calhoun’s expertise in church history and more than six decades of ministry in the Presbyterian church inform his selection of subjects from the early 1600s to the mid-1900s. Drawing from the personal diaries, correspondence, and biographical works of the selected missionaries, Calhoun’s biographical sketches focus on the personal piety and convictions that led each one to labor for the sake of Christ. While Calhoun mentions some of the strategies and approaches that proved fruitful on the field, his primary concern is to explore how the Christian missionary impulse expressed itself in the lives of these individuals.

Calhoun chooses an eclectic mix of well-known and lesser-known missionaries from America and Scotland. Their commonality is expressed by their pioneering spirit and their Presbyterian connections, not necessarily because they crossed cultural or geographic boundaries. The chapter-length summaries provide only a bare outline of each missionary’s life and ministry, touching on significant highs and lows in each person’s story. Still, in this short space, Calhoun packs each story with thought-provoking nuggets. For example, Calhoun’s narrative counters—or at least adds nuance to—the assumption that early missionaries were Imperialists and Colonialists. Modern consensus on various social issues, such as slavery, women’s rights, and the rights of indigenous people to self-government, might obscure the moral courage and insight required for these men and women to work to respect the cultures and peoples among whom they labored for the gospel. However, Calhoun affords the reader the opportunity to see that these positions stood against the tide of public opinion in their time. Of all the missionaries in the book, David Livingstone (1813–1873) exhibited the most imperialistic tendencies, explicitly stating that his strategy was to bring “civilization, commerce, and Christianity” to Africa (p. 71). Calhoun points out, however, that Livingstone’s attitude toward the African people was quite progressive compared to the prevailing disposition of British people toward Africa at that time.

Calhoun honors the missionaries in his book, but he avoids hagiography by refusing to paint them as impeccable. One chapter in particular, chapter 7, takes an unexpected turn, but it is perhaps the most instructive in the whole book. In this chapter, Calhoun recounts the story of William Henry Sheppard (1865–1927) and his wife, Lucy Gantt Sheppard (1867–1940). Sheppard, a native of Virginia and son of a former slave, accepted a commission from the Southern Presbyterian Church, alongside Samuel Novell Lapsley (1866–1892), son of a former slave owner, to establish a mission station in the Congo. For two years, these two men worked side-by-side as brothers in Christ until Lapsley succumbed to malaria. After Lapsley’s death, Sheppard returned to America and married Lucy Gantt, who was herself the daughter of a former slave. Together, William and Lucy returned to the Congo Mission. Despite the loss of their first child and many setbacks, their work progressed to the point that they were regularly preaching to thousands of people, training preachers, establishing schools, and planting churches. Scholars at Stanford University called their ministry “one of the most important centres of Christianity and civilization in Central Africa” (p. 118).

Then a grim plot twist occurs within this account of ministry success. The Sheppards returned to America because William committed adultery with a Congolese woman. William admitted his affair to his wife and the missions committee. Calhoun recounts that the missions committee responded with tears and a desire to bring restoration, and so they suspended him for a year. At the end of that year, William confessed to affairs with three other women, one of whom had given birth to a son. The committee extended his suspension and enacted disciplinary measures, but eventually examined him and restored him to ministry. Although he did not return to Africa, William served the African American community as a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Stories of missionaries who fail morally are not usually included within missionary annals. Calhoun does not make editorial comments regarding the reinstatement, yet he includes it in his book of “Amazing Stories of Faithful Missionaries.” A thoughtful reader might wonder, on the one hand, if the missions committee took William’s sin seriously enough to prevent predatory abuses of power by those in spiritual authority? Did they take appropriate steps to care for the women and children affected by his actions? On the other hand, does Calhoun view the reinstatement of William Sheppard to ministry a restoration success story? Calhoun’s description lacks the details needed to render a considered opinion on such questions.

Swift and Beautiful is an inspiring book that reads like a devotional, not a textbook or a typical biography. The chapters are too short to provide more than a glimpse into the character, experiences, and practices of the missionaries, but they succeed in demonstrating the surpassing value of Christ and the importance of preaching his gospel. Calhoun’s little volume commends men and women who eschewed a life of worldly comfort and notoriety in favor of a life of eternal significance. Calhoun serves the church by reminding her of the joy and peace that comes—despite hardships—when one joins God in his global mission.

Joe M. Allen III

Joe M. Allen III
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Kansas City, Missouri, USA

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