Why is it that some great men and women of God live to a ripe old age while others seem to be struck down far too early? A number of great saints who were so mightily used of God died – or were killed – at a rather young age. Their incredible stories deserve a wide hearing.
Thankfully of course many amazing Christians have lived to be quite elderly. Think of just a few contemporary Christians who may well have been slowed down quite a bit of late, but are still alive and edging up to be a hundred:
-Evangelist Billy Graham is 98 years old.
-Theologian J. I. Packer is 90 years old.
-Family expert James Dobson is 81 years old.
But there have been plenty of great saints who died while still in their prime, and one wonders how things would have panned out had they lived to be much older. But God knows the days of our lives, and he is in charge of our time here on earth. Here then are a dozen great saints who had terrific ministries for Christ, only to have had their lives cut short, either by natural causes or by enemies of the faith:
Perpetua, ???-203, said to have died at age 22.
We do not know too much about Perpetua, a married noblewoman who lived in Carthage. But we do have a record of her last days and her martyrdom. Emperor Septimius Severus wanted to stop the spread of the new faith. She and some other new Christians preparing for baptism were arrested and imprisoned.
Her non-Christian father wanted her to renounce her faith so she could go free. Perpetua said: “Father, do you see this vase here? Could it be called by any other name than what it is?” He said “No”. She replied, “Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” Even though she was still breastfeeding her child, she refused to recant. So Perpetua and her friends were condemned to die in the arena. As one account puts it:
[They] were dressed in belted tunics. When they entered the stadium, wild beasts and gladiators roamed the arena floor, and in the stands, crowds roared to see blood. They didn’t have to wait long. Immediately a wild heifer charged the group. Perpetua was tossed into the air and onto her back. She sat up, adjusted her ripped tunic, and walked over to help Felicitas. Then a leopard was let loose, and it wasn’t long before the tunics of the Christians were stained with blood. This was too deliberate for the impatient crowd, which began calling for death for the Christians. So Perpetua, Felicitas, and friends were lined up, and one by one, were slain by the sword.
Lady Jane Grey, 1537-1554, died at age 16.
This is someone who died the youngest of all on my list. Known as the Nine-Day Queen, she was an English noblewoman who briefly ruled in July 1553. She was a great grandchild of Henry VII and the niece of Henry VIII. She received a top notch Protestant education, learning Latin and Greek as a child. Just before he died, King Edward VI was convinced to make her the Queen, instead of his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor.
But Jane was soon deposed and Mary made queen. “Bloody Mary” ruled for five years, repealing many religious freedoms and burning at the stake hundreds of Protestants. Lady Jane and her husband were tried for treason, imprisoned, and condemned to death.
On February 12, 1554 her husband was beheaded. When she saw his body being carried away, she said, “Oh Guildford! Guildford … that is nothing compared to the feast you and I shall this day partake of in Paradise.” Before she was executed she told the watching crowd, “I look to be saved by no other means but the mercy of God in the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ.”
Augustus Toplady, 1740-1778, died at age 38.
The English hymn writer is most noted for his classic hymn “Rock of Ages”. He was converted at age 16 under a Methodist lay preacher, and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1760. He was ordained an Anglican minister and pastored several churches, including a French Calvinist chapel in London. As a preacher he became a vigorous defender of Calvinism, and wrote much on the issue.
He was never in good health, and he contracted tuberculosis while a young man. It was during this time that he wrote “Rock of Ages,” the opening verse of which goes like this:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.
A few years after the hymn was published he died. He said this to friends in his final hour: “No mortal can live having seen the glories which God has manifested to my soul!”
David Brainerd, 1718-1747, died at age 29.
Noted for his work as an American missionary to Indians in the northeast of the country, Brainerd was not always so inclined. He was raised in a Puritan home but rebelled against much of his upbringing. However, while walking through a forest in his early twenties he saw himself as a lost sinner in need of salvation.
He entered Yale and then became a licensed minister in 1742. He bravely and devotedly ministered to various Indian tribes for a few short years, despite all sorts of hardships and sufferings. But he died of tuberculosis while just 29. His life and his spiritual diary became well known throughout the world when Jonathan Edwards published The Life and Diary of David Brainerd in 1749. It has become a spiritual classic and is still touching lives even today, leading many into missions work. William Carey was just one of many who was greatly touched by Brainerd’s Life.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 1813-1843, died at age 29.
M’Cheyne was a minister in the Church of Scotland from 1835 to 1843. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, and was licensed to preach in 1835. He was keen on missionary activity to Jews in Palestine, and held a number of evangelistic campaigns in Scotland and North England. As an evangelist and pastor he had a remarkable impact for the Kingdom, even though he died so young. He left behind plenty of memorable quotes, such as: “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likenesses to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
The Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne were used mightily since then to touch many. For example, Jonathan Goforth (1859-1936) devoted his life to missions and evangelism after reading the book, and his decades of service in China and Korea were mightily used of God, even though he paid a heavy price for it (five of his eleven children died while he was ministering in China).
Oswald Chambers, 1874-1917, died at age 43.
The Scottish born preacher led a full but short life. After becoming a Christian in his teenage years, he tutored in philosophy, did a worldwide preaching tour in 1906-1907, was the Principal of a Bible college, and ministered to soldiers in Egypt with the YMCA. He is most noted for his devotional classic, My Utmost for His Highest which was edited by his wife and released ten years after his death. Let me share just one portion of that book. Even though he knew much about suffering, he could write this:
Does it really matter that our circumstances are difficult? Why shouldn’t they be! If we give way to self-pity and indulge in the luxury of misery, we remove God’s riches from our lives and hinder others from entering into His provision. No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity, because it removes God from the throne of our lives, replacing Him with our own self-interests. It causes us to open our mouths only to complain, and we simply become spiritual sponges— always absorbing, never giving, and never being satisfied.
William Borden, 1887-1913, died at age of 25.
Bill Borden was born into a wealthy Chicago family. He was converted as a young man at Moody Memorial Church under the preaching of R. A. Torrey. He graduated from high school at 16 and travelled to Europe, Africa and Asia. He developed a deep burden for missions and wished to minister to unreached Muslims in China.
He went to Yale, and then studied at Princeton seminary. While there he was involved in a number of Christian ministries and works. He then joined the China Inland Mission and went to Cairo to study Arabic before heading to China. But soon thereafter he contracted cerebral meningitis. After a few weeks of great suffering, he passed away on April 9, 1913, never having made it to China as a missionary.
He left his large fortune to various home and foreign mission agencies. After he had died it is said that his friends found a note under his pillow with these words: “No Reserve! No Retreat! No Regrets!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945, died at age 39.
The Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis and eventually was killed by them had done much in his short life. After gaining several theological degrees in America and Europe – including studying under Karl Barth – he pastored German churches in Barcelona and London.
He lectured at the University of Berlin from 1930-1936, and helped draft the 1934 Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Churches which pitted the church against the Nazi state – a risky move at that time. He was part of the resistance movement, and was busy in the work of underground seminaries. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 for plotting against Hitler and was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945.
While his theological views were still evolving, and we do not know how they would have fully developed were he allowed to live longer, he wrote a number of important works, some of which appeared in English after his death, most notably, The Cost of Discipleship (1948). Other volumes include Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison.
Eric Liddell, 1902-1945, died at age 43.
Liddell is best known because of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire which featured his life, especially as an Olympic runner. He was born to missionary parents in North China but did most of his studies in England. While at Edinburgh University he became known as the fastest runner in Scotland. He participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Because of his devout Christian beliefs, he is remembered as the one who refused to run in his best event, the 100-metres race, because it was held on a Sunday.
In 1925 he returned to China as a missionary, doing a lot of work with children. He married in 1934 and had several children, but they had to flee while he remained as Japanese aggression increased there. In 1943 he was put in a prison camp by the invading Japanese, but he continued to teach children and preach the Bible. He died of a brain tumour while there in February, 1945 at age 43.
Jim Elliot, 1927-1956, died at age 29.
The American missionary was one of five young men killed in South America while faithfully serving the Lord. His story has been told often, especially in detail by his wife Elisabeth Elliot in her 1957 volume, Through Gates of Splendor and in the 1958 book, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot.
She had met him at Wheaton College in Chicago. He was a sold-out, on-fire Christian with a passion to reach the lost. He and four young men and their wives ended up ministering to the Auca Indians in eastern Ecuador in the early 1950s. However, early in 1956 the five men were speared to death by the Indians.
Incredibly, some of the wives (with their very young children) kept on working there, as well as other missionaries, and eventually some of these Indians became Christians, including some of those who had helped to kill the five. One of them, giving his testimony at a meeting, said, “I have killed twelve people with my spear! But I did that when my heart was black. Now Jesus’ blood has washed my heart clean, so I don’t live like that anymore.”
Paul Little, 1928-1975, died at age 46.
Little is the person who was the oldest to die on my list. But I often wonder what he would have gone on to do if he lived longer. I heard him speak as a newish Christian back in Wisconsin, and I always appreciated his ministry. News of his death (he died in a tragic car accident) was hard to take.
He worked for 25 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and was an associate professor of evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. He was also InterVarsity’s director of evangelism from 1965 until 1975. He wrote a number of important books which became best sellers and are still widely used today. These include:
–How to Give Away Your Faith, 1966.
–Know Why You Believe, 1967.
–Know What You Believe, 1970.
Keith Green, 1953-1982, died at age 28.
Green of course is the well-known musician, song writer and evangelist who impacted so many in his short life. I have told his story elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/07/29/notable-christians-keith-green/
He was born the same year I was, and went into the hippy scene as I did. Thankfully we were both converted at a relatively young age, and I did meet him once while serving as a missionary in Holland. He had the privilege of being discipled – in part – by Leonard Ravenhill, which helps explain his great passion for God, for holiness, and for discipleship.
Tragically a plane crash cut his life short, and we only have a few albums of his wonderful, soul-stirring music, but his songs still touch millions of people today. We don’t know why he was taken from us so soon, but we certainly can thank God for the rich legacy he left behind, and which his wife Melody continues in.
I am much older than all of the champions mentioned here. And most of these saints did far more for Christ and the Kingdom in their short lives than I have done in a much longer period of time. Reading about these saints makes me want to finish my final years fully on fire for Christ.
These great saints have left their mark: No more playing games. No more trivial pursuits. No more obsession with self. Time is short and Christ deserves our all, since he gave his all for us. As C. T. Studd once said, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Or as a young Jim Elliot put it: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”