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Happy 175th Birthday, Jesse Engle!

The only extant photograph of Jesse Engle shows the pioneer Brethren in Christ missionary driving a mule-drawn cart at the early Matopo Mission in present-day Zimbabwe. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.)

According to a “Today in Christian History” post from yesterday’s Gospel Herald, June 19 was the 175th birthday of Jesse Engle (1835-1900), leader of the first band of Brethren in Christ missionaries to establish an overseas mission outpost.

After the jump: We remember Jesse Engle and his many contributions to the Brethren in Christ Church’s overseas missions work in Africa.

As Carlton Wittlinger wrote of Engle and his foreign missions work in Quest for Piety and Obedience:

While still a young man, Jesse Engle had felt called to carry the gospel to unevangelized lands. The Brethren had no foreign work at that time, and other factors may also have inhibited his response. [In 1897], at fifty-nine years of age, he volunteered to go. . . .

General Conference of 1897 accordingly approved Jesse and Elizabeth Engle, Frances Davidson, and Alice Heise . . . as foreign missionaries. . . . Barbara Hershey joined the group shortly before their final farewell service at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. All five missionaries were from Kansas.

The missionary party sailed from New York to Liverpool, England, and from there to Cape Town, South Africa, where they arrived on December 26, 1897. After much prayerful consideration, and with the personal encouragement and assistance of Cecil Rhodes, promoter of British Empire interests in Africa, they launched their mission in the Matopo Hills near Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia [present-day Zimbabwe]. The native people were the Matabele, a branch of the Zulu tribe of Southeast Africa. . . .

Jesse Engle, pioneer leader of the founders of the Matopo Mission, did not live to see much of the fruit of his dedication and labors. In the spring of 1900, after less than three years of service, he died and became the first assignee of the Foreign Mission Board to lay down his life on the field. [1]

Shortly after his death, the Evangelical Visitor published an excerpt from one of Engle’s letters — a poignant benediction to the life of an important church leader:

As for myself it would be a very small matter to decide to spend the short remnant of my life in Africa were it the Lord’s will, but rather incline to the thought that after a few years more we will think of coming home . . . The matter, however is entirely with the Lord; my coming to Africa was no half-concluded step. There was not much ceremony about it, but enough of clearness in the call to move me forward with an unconditional surrender even unto death; so now I have nothing to choose or dictate. The Lord will doubtless consummate all things well. [2]

On the occasion of his 175th birthday, the search for piety and obedience celebrates the life and ministry of Jesse Engle.

[For more on Engle and the early mission work in present-day Zimbabwe, see Anna Engle, John Climenhaga, and Leoda Buckwalter, There is No Difference (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1950). A children’s book also tells the story for younger readers: Noreen Trautwein, The Everywhere Missionary (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Publishing House, 1998).]


[1] Quest for Piety and Obedience (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 183-184.

[2] Jesse Engle quoted by George Detweiler, Evangelical Visitor, June 1, 1900, 214-215, quoted in Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 184.

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