Remembering (and Learning from) Unsung Heroes

by Gary Corwin

Every mission society seems to have its own stable of unsung heroes — one of those is Walter Gowans.

Every mission society seems to have its own stable of unsung heroes—little-known folk from both genders who scaled great heights, crossed broad deserts, or navigated treacherous waters to bring the gospel to people who may not have wanted anything to do with it or them. And yet they persevered and quietly made inroads for the building of Christ’s Church, often at the expense of their own health—and in many cases, even their lives.

These individuals are heroes and deserve the celebration of their own “Memorial Day” for the gallantry and impact of their sacrifices, rather than the obscurity in which the memory of so many of them unfortunately dwells. And yet, because they may not have written much or lived long, they are all but forgotten.

For those who know something of the history of the Sudan Interior Mission piece of SIM (now Serving in Mission), the name Rowland Bingham is the one that usually comes to mind. This is understandable since he was one of its three founders and served as general director until his death in 1942. But another founder, Walter Gowans, a young Canadian of Scottish background, was actually looked upon as the group’s leader when Bingham, Gowans, and Thomas Kent set out in 1893 for the Islam-dominated “Central Soudan” (roughly centered in what we know today as northern Nigeria). It was actually Gowans’ mother, Margaret, who first had the vision and burden for the “Soudan,” and this she passed on to both her son and to Bingham.

Although the initial leader of this youthful band (all three in their mid-twenties), the actual missionary career of Gowans (and Kent as well) was cut short by death in less than a year. Gowans and Kent, both convalescing from illness, left Bingham on the coast and began their trek inland in February 1894. They had been told upon their arrival in Lagos that neither they nor their children would ever see the Soudan, but that perhaps their grandchildren might. They proved the prophecy wrong about seeing the Central Soudan; however, the cost—losing their lives—was great.

In spite of the brevity of his missionary career, Gowans penned some words that are both inspiring and revealing. Below are several quotations from his diary and from a letter he wrote to the Young People’s Society and the St. James’ Square Presbyterian Church in Toronto, with which he had a strong connection.

I have included headings that attempt to capture the essence of their application for us today.

Gowans died shortly after writing these words, but he also had “a hand in the redemption of the Soudan.” That which he and his colleagues began is now a network of churches that claim more than six million worshippers in Nigeria alone, and is part of an energetic reproducing gospel movement that stretches across the globe. Gowans and Kent were both unsung heroes, but just as clearly, there is much in their lives to teach us all.

Burden for the least reached
As most of you are aware, I anticipate going to the Soudan—a pioneer for Christ. The Soudan, with a population of from 60 to 90 million, is, of all foreign fields, the most destitute of the gospel, being almost entirely without a representative for Christ.

Love for the lost more than for life
Our success in this enterprise means nothing less than the opening of the country for the Gospel; our failure, at the most, nothing more than the death of two or three deluded fanatics…. After all, is it not worth a venture? Sixty million are at stake. Is it not worth even risking our lives for so many?

Faith over fear
It is said that God has closed the door to the Soudan. Beloved! God closes no door to the Gospel. It is not God, it is the enemy who closes the door. With God no door is closed. We have simply to march forward in the name of Jesus, and in the faith of God, and the doors must and will fly open every time. Hallelujah!

Maintaining an eternal perspective
Diary for August 9, 1894: I am 3 days from Zaria. I would have been at Kano long ago were it not for the repeated delays caused by the war on the road. Written in view of my approaching end which has often lately seemed so near but just now seems almost imminent, and I want to write while I have the power to do it….

I have no regret for undertaking this venture and in this manner my life has not been thrown away. My only regrets are for my poor Mother, and for her sake I would have chosen to live….

Don’t mourn for me darling dearest Mother. If the suffering was great remember it is all over now and think of the glory I am enjoying and rejoice that “your boy” was permitted to have a hand in the redemption of the Soudan.


Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 260-261. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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