After reading The Doctor’s Lady, a recent review book, I was curious about the missionary couple whose travels formed the foundation for the story. I had heard of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, but I didn’t know much about them. So, I looked up a couple of articles online.
I still don’t know many details, and I’d love to read more about them. But, all of the information did agree on a certain truth about their ministry. The Whitmans’ attitude and style of ministry created a tension between them and the people they were trying to serve. That tension resulted in strained relationships and ultimately led the locals to be susceptible to lies told about the Whitmans. Those lies incited the Indians to attack the mission, an attack which resulted in the deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman as well as several others.
It’s easy to sit here, over 150 years later, and pick apart the ministry of the Whitmans. I could point out how much different their ministry would have been had they not believed the Indians to be savage pagans who would be inferior until they learned to act like white men. I could use their example to highlight the importance of learning the language and making strides to honor the culture. I could point to the reality that respect goes a long way toward positive relationships, but disrespect goes even further toward negative ones. There are so many things that the Whitmans and their colleagues could have done differently. Things that might have even saved their lives!
And, all of those things would have been true. True, but incomplete.
You see, the Whitmans were acting on what they had been taught. They were living out what had been preached to them from the pulpits back home for decades. It was all they knew, and they lived out missions and ministry in the best way they knew how. And although they didn’t have a beautiful relationship with the Indians they hungered to see converted, they did have a huge impact on the families they touched. They ministered to a great number of orphans and bravely blazed trails that were later followed by many more ministry-minded people.
So, putting aside my critical evaluation of the Whitmans and their ministry, I must question myself: What is my approach? What am I persistently doing based simply on what I’ve always been taught? What if the very core of my method and approach was to be challenged? How would I respond, and would I change?
It’s hard for me to know from a simple self-evaluation. That’s why I must be so exceedingly careful to be continually studying the Bible and heeding the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why I have to be sensitive to the constructive input and correction of other people. I have to be willing to learn, and I cannot be stubbornly stuck in my ways.
But, even above those questions, the Whitmans’ story stirs up a level of thankfulness in my heart. Their approach was ineffective. It built barriers instead of breaking them down. But God still used them. He saved the lives of children through the work of this couple. He used their boldness to open doors for others. Their willingness to sacrifice all – not just family and comforts, but their very lives – paved the way for many years of ministry after them.
I can pray that God will reveal to me my mistakes. I can pray that He will change me and make my work effective. But, above all, I can be thankful because He can use me even in my imperfection. Right here, right now, His work can be done through me, even in my limitations. That knowledge must have always existed in the backs of the minds of the Whitmans and many other families like them. May it always stay in mine, and may it spur me on to becoming an increasingly effective vessel in His hands.