Dr. David Trim’s new book, A Living Sacrifice, is a book of mission stories—but quite different than the “happy ending” ones you may have read. Dr. Trim goes back to the early days of Adventist missions, and remembers those who gave their all for the cause of Christ, but who didn’t have books and stories written about them. This is a work of extraordinary biographical research, illustrated with stories, letters and pictures from General Conference archives and magazines. AT editor Loren Seibold talked to Dr. Trim about A Living Sacrifice.

In A Living Sacrifice the first person you introduce us to is Eva May Clements—who we know almost nothing about. Tell us a bit about Eva, and why this unknown person is the iconic figure in this mission story.

Eva was a young Australian woman who went as a missionary to southern Asia, aged just 22. She died in Burma in November 1920 having served in the mission field just seven months. Discovering this some years ago somehow captured me: she was willing to give her all and yet died before she really had a chance to make a difference. As I researched her life, I discovered when she was born, when she started working for the church, when she left Australia for India and arrived there, and so on. But we would know almost nothing, really, about her life or her character, except what she wrote in some of her letters home, which are very revealing. Eva was a secretary, not a pastor or a doctor, not a mission leader. But she had as much fire for mission as any famous figure in our history. In her last known letter she appeals to her family and friends to go as missionaries themselves, to tell people that Christ died for them.

This crystallized for me that we too often have too narrow a view of Adventist mission. The people whose stories we tell are mostly about the ones who survived and made it home, or at least whose family members did. As I started to search for stories like Eva’s, I found more and more of them. And I felt the need to write about those people, who suffered and often died—most of them young people, many of them women, some of them secretaries. They are forgotten; but their commitment was no less than the few we celebrate today, and surely their names are honored in heaven. They deserve to be remembered on earth, too, by the church which they, by their sacrifice, helped to make.

What made you want to write about missionaries? Is there something personal in this topic? 

My parents were missionaries and I was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. An uncle and aunt were missionaries to Papua New Guinea. Many of my parents’ friends served as missionaries in the South Pacific islands, Southeast Asia, and Southern Asia. I left India as a small child and have few memories. But I grew up with the stories, wonderful stories of mission, and so I also grew up with this very strong sense that to be a Seventh-day Adventist was to be part of a worldwide church which had a determination to take its distinctive message to every part of the world. That is why I research and write about missionaries.

You and I both grew up on mission stories, and many of them were quite triumphant. Your stories here tend to be darker, and more realistic. Do you think the way we told mission stories may have romanticized this work? Why is it important to tell of the tragedy, as well as the triumph?

Yes, Adventists have a liking for triumphalist narratives. It’s good to encourage people, and to let them know that their prayers and mission offerings were effective. But it’s interesting that our forebears shared the dark side; I point out in the book that these stories of tragedy and struggle come from the church’s journals and magazines, in the days when the great majority of church members subscribed and read them. So people knew the dangers. This didn’t stop new volunteers for mission service coming forward. Just the contrary.

But since the 1960s, we’ve preferred to accentuate the positive. I think you’re right: that has romanticized mission work, so we discount how difficult it was. But there’s another problem with triumphal stories: church members start to think that the work is almost done. I hear this so often from church members, in North America in particular: isn’t the mission almost achieved now, around the world? Well, in some places, yes; but in many others, no, not at all! I actually feel that we now need to start telling stories of mission failure!

I believe church members will respond when they realize that we still need people, in the areas where the church is strong, to offer their prayers, their money, and their own service, to the areas where the church is still very weak. In many of those areas, we will never make headway without support from the rest of the world Church. North America still has a special role to play because church members are far wealthier than in the rest of the world; but North America also has resources in people: skilled, educated people who can serve as missionaries. 

I believe we’ll be able to mobilize those people, those financial resources, once we make church members really aware that our work is not done. And the best way to do that is to tell stories––but of the realistic kind.

Your last section is about “Living.” There are several high-profile missionaries (the Fords, the Stahls, Eric Hare) who we remember from books about them. Are there people you discovered in this history who impressed you with their creativity and energy—people who should have had books written about them? The unsung heroes?

One could name so many! I’ll just mention Ezra and Inez Longway, Merritt and Wilma Warren, and George and Laura Appel. They all went to China in their twenties. They all served for four decades or more as missionaries. They all stayed through World War II and later (after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war), served in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They all learned local languages, learned the cultural context, and adapted themselves to it. They had tremendous energy, but also (and I think this is the key) tremendous affection and regard for the people with whom and for whom they worked.

For other missionaries, their energy–their refusal to rest–was a factor in their early deaths. The best examples of creativity probably come from missionaries who aren’t mentioned in the book, but who were extraordinarily bold in the way they contextualized the Adventist message. I’m thinking here of George Keough, a British missionary to the Middle East. But creativity and energy were almost hallmarks of Adventist missionaries.

Not all of those who lived mission service ended it in happiness. Some of the saddest stories were about those who lived, but were broken by it. 

Going through missionaries’ files and reading medical reports on them was pretty grueling. Tropical diseases could be horrible and remain in the body even after symptoms had been treated. Elizabeth Cott served with her husband, Alfred, in the mountainous jungles of the border region of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela, in the early 1930s. She required three operations after they returned to the USA and continued to suffer from amoebic dysentery and malaria for more than 20 months after they got back.

In writing these stories, I sometimes just had to turn away from my computer for a few minutes; what the sources were telling me was just so distressing. 

Many now criticize the age of missions as a sort of colonial expansion. Did anything you learn make you reflect on the usefulness, the purity, of their endeavor?

Did some missionaries act as agents of imperialism or economic exploitation? Yes, and some did so consciously. Did many missionaries instead empower indigenous peoples in mission fields to resist imperialism? Yes, absolutely. And they included Adventists – Ferdinand Stahl is still remembered by the Amazonian Indian tribes in eastern Peru as someone who enabled them to resist the big landowners who were already in the 1930s seizing their land and clearing the rainforest. 

More generally, what struck me as I dug deep into missionaries’ lives is that Adventist missionaries acted with great compassion. Their motives were pure, perhaps helped by the fact that Adventists are not well connected with governments, with the rich and powerful. The goal of Adventist missionaries was not to integrate “the natives” into a world economy or subjugate them politically. It was to emulate the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and help them to know Him. 

You’ve written about a golden age of mission service, one that seems exciting and adventurous. How is mission service different now than it was then? 

Today is very different in many ways. Few missionaries die today. Widespread, easy and cheap flights means they come home every year, whereas up to World War II it was typical to serve for ten years before getting a furlough. Cellular connection across much of the world, even remote or undeveloped regions, means Skype and FaceTime and similar options allow regular contact with family.

What hasn’t changed is sacrifice. Being able to see parents and grandparents, or children and grandchildren in person only once a year is a sacrifice. Skype is not the same as being in the room. Missionaries are less well paid. They often forfeit seniority in the homeland. Cross-cultural missionaries face challenges because local culture—at times, even the church culture—can seem so alien. They often feel very lonely. And there are still virulent diseases, which are deeply unpleasant to experience, and sometimes even still prove fatal.

What also hasn’t changed is the need to teach, to heal, and to tell people about Jesus. I hope that as Adventists today read these stories they will feel inspired to meet that need. The church we know was built by truly extraordinary sacrifices. I believe that as we understand that, as we get away from the romanticism and triumphalism, as we see the enduring need, Seventh-day Adventists today will say, Yes, I will pray and I will give. I hope that young people will say, Yes, I will go and serve. I hope the spirit of sacrifice for mission that flourished a century and more ago will be reignited.


David Trim, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S., is Director of Archives, Statistics, and Research in the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Order A Living Sacrifice e-book here.

Order A Living Sacrifice paper book here.

To comment, click here.