Ten Christians Who Died Young

Having not long turned fifty, I have found myself increasingly reflecting on my own mortality. The Bible says that the key to gaining a heart of wisdom is to “number our days” and that we should—on average—only expect seventy years, or maybe eighty if we have the strength (see Psalm 90:10-12).

As that milestone comes ever closer into view, I’ve also observed that the LORD sometimes calls home some of His most fruitful servants even sooner. As a pastor, I have witnessed this firsthand on more than a few occasions, as I’ve comforted brothers and sisters in Christ on their deathbeds for whom I had prayed might have been given longer on earth.

Sometimes God wills for our life on this earth to finish sooner than we had hoped. And not necessarily through the heroic test of martyrdom, but the more mundane trial of sickness. A brief look back over church history reveals how often this has been the case. Not all of Christ’s servants reach seventy years.

What follows is my own personal list of some of the more notable examples:

1. Jonathan Edwards, October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758, died at age 55.

Edwards died as a result of complications from receiving a small pox vaccine just after he had been appointed President of Princeton University. Recognised as one of America’s greatest theologians, Edwards’ writings continue to be reprinted and widely distributed today through Banner of Truth.

What’s more, George Marsden writes in his biography that Edward’s descendants have had a disproportionate effect upon American culture, stating that “the Edwards family produced scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many other persons of notable achievements.”

2. John Calvin, July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564, died at age 54.

Without question, Calvin was one of the greatest theologians to have ever lived. Calvin’s commentaries on the Old and New Testament, as well as his Institutes of Christian Religion are still widely read and appreciated. Reportedly, John Calvin’s last words were, “I am abundantly satisfied, since it is from Thy hand.” Significantly, Theodore Beza wrote of Calvin:

While oppressed with so many diseases he was never heard to utter a word unbecoming a man of firmness, far less unbecoming a Christian. Only, raising his eyes  towards heaven, he would say, ‘O Lord, how long!’ Even when he was in health this was   an expression which often he used in reference to the calamities of his brethren, which night and day affected him much more than his own sufferings. When we advised and entreated him that while sick he should desist from the fatigue of dictating, or at least of writing, ‘What’, he would say, ‘would you have the Lord find me idle?

3. Robert Murray McCheyne, 21 May 1813 – 25 March 1843, died at age 29.

While this well-known Presbyterian minister from Scotland was greatly used during his lifetime, his Memoirs and Remains—edited by Andrew Bonar—came to be published into over a hundred English editions. Some of his hymns became well known and his Bible reading plan is still in common use. He is also widely quoted. Some of his more popular sayings are:

[Affliction] shows the power of Christ’s blood, when it gives peace in an hour of trouble, when it can make happy in sickness, poverty, persecution and death. Do not be surprised if you suffer, but glorify God. 

It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.

If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.

Your afflictions may only prove that you are more immediately under the Father’s hand. There is no time that the patient is such an object of tender interest to the surgeon, as when he is bleeding beneath his knife. So you may be sure if you are suffering from the hand of a reconciled God, that His eye is all the more bent on you.

[Affliction] brings out graces that cannot be seen in a time of health. It is the treading of the grapes that brings out the sweet juices of the vine; so it is affliction that draws forth submission, weanedness from the world, and complete rest in God. Use afflictions while you have them.

My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.

4. David Brainerd, April 20, 1718 – October 9, 1747, died at age 29.

The great American Presbyterian missionary to the Native American Indians, thanks to the biography produced by Jonathan Edwards, The Diary and Journal of David Brainerd, Brainerd’s story inspired the likes of William Carey, Jim Elliot and Henry Martyn to cross-cultural missions.

The Diary has never been out of print and has had a massive influence on subsequent generations. Especially inspiring was Brainerd’s single-minded perseverance for the work of the Gospel and the glory of God in the face of personal illness and hardship. For instance, Brainerd wrote in his journal on April 19, 1742:

In the forenoon, I felt a power of intercession for precious immortal souls, for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Saviour in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation, and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it… God enabled me so to agonize in prayer that I was quite wet with sweat, though in the shade, and the wind cool. My soul was drawn out very much for the world; I grasped for multitudes of souls… I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Saviour. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world, and so much resigned to God in everything. Oh, that I may always live to and upon my blessed God!

5. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, June 19, 1834 – January 31, 1892, died at age 57.

Stephen Lawson writes in his book, The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon:

By 1863, Spurgeon’s sermons had already sold more than eight million copies. At the time of his death in 1892, fifty million copies had been sold. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than a hundred million sermons had been sold in twenty-three languages, a figure unmatched by any preacher before or since. Today, this number has reached well over three hundred million copies. A century after his death, there were more works in print by Spurgeon than by any other English-speaking author.   Spurgeon is history’s most widely read preacher.

And yet, for all this spiritual fruitfulness, Spurgeon had a long history of poor health and ultimately died from gout and congestion of the kidneys.

6. Eric Liddell, 16 January 1902 – 21 February 1945, died at age 43.

Often referred to as ‘The Flying Scotsman’, Liddell was made famous through the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell refused to run in the 100 metres—his favoured event—because the heats were on the Lord’s Day. As a result, he switched to the 400 metres in which in broke the world record three times in two days and also won the gold medal.

Liddell was widely quoted as saying: “Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives, but God is not helpless among the ruins.”

7. William Perkins, 1558-1602, died at age 44.

Perkins was considered as the Father of Puritanism and by the early seventeenth century, Perkin’s writings were more popular than those of Calvin, Beza and Bucer. He published nearly fifty substantial works which were translated into Spanish, Welsh, Dutch, French, Italian, Hungarian and Czech.

A whole generation of preachers in New England were influenced and shaped by his writings. Reformation Heritage Books has just published a new ten-volume series of his complete works.

8. George Whitefield, December 16, 1714 – September 30, 1770, died at age 55.

Christianity Today provides the following helpful summary:

Largely forgotten today, George Whitefield was probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century. Newspapers called him the “marvel of the age.” Whitefield was a preacher capable of commanding thousands on two continents through the sheer power of his oratory. In his lifetime, he preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million hearers…

In 1770, the 55-year-old continued his preaching tour in the colonies as if he were still a young itinerant, insisting, “I would rather wear out than rust out.” He ignored the danger signs, in particular asthmatic “colds” that brought “great difficulty” in breathing.

In his last sermon, ‘He was speaking of the inefficiency of works to merit salvation,’ one listener recounted, “and suddenly cried out in a tone of thunder, ‘Works! works! A man gets to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.’

The following morning, he died.

9. James O Fraser, 1886 – September 25, 1938, died at age 52.

Fraser was instrumental in bringing the Gospel to the Lisu people of China, Myanmar and Thailand. Much like Adoniram Judson (see below), Fraser was the first to put the Lisu language into script (now officially called the Fraser Script) and translate the scriptures into Lisu. Fellow missionary, Lela Cook, described Fraser as follows in the book Mountain Rain:

His help with the translation was not the only help we received. His daily message for morning prayers were an inspiration…His capacity for work was astonishing, but with it all he always seemed fresh and full of life, always of an even temper, always considerate of others, and a perfect gentleman…He had read widely, and his conversation was rich and varied. He would sit, between whiles, and play on our little organ—Chopin’s Polonaise and treasures from Beethoven—bringing such glorious music out of it! The Lisu would crowd in to listen. And one thing that impressed me as the months went on—he had such a wonderful control over every part of his life. He was completely master of himself. He not only wanted to live a self-denying life, enduring hardness for Christ’s sake, he could do so. To bring his life up to his highest thought seemed to be quite natural with him. And he was so practical about it.” 

Sadly, Fraser died of a malignant cerebral malaria, for which no suitable medicines were available.

10. Adoniram Judson, August 9, 1788 – April 12, 1850, died at age 61.

Judson was the first overseas missionary to be commissioned from the United States. His remarkable story is told in the missionary classic, To the Golden Shore (1956) by Courtney Anderson. When Judson began his mission work in Burma (now Myanmar), he hoped to be able to translate the Bible into Burmese and found a church of 100 members. But by the time of his death, he had not only translated the entire Bible, but had also half-completed a Burmese-English dictionary, witnessed the establishment of approximately 100 churches which had a membership of over 8,000 believers.

Sadly, Judson died of lung disease when he was 61. In his 37 years of missionary service, Judson had only returned to America once.

Make the Most of Every Opportunity

The fact that so many choice servants of Christ died well before most of us might have hoped is a reminder to use our time well. It is also a much-needed corrective to the thought that someone dying of sickness before the age of seventy is a sign of the LORD’s discipline or displeasure.

None of us know when our heavenly Father might call us home. Now is the time then to be giving ourselves fully to the work of the LORD. As the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 5:15, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

– Mark Powell