Adventure in Africa: The Story of Don McClure, by Charles Partee (Zondervan, 464 pp.; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Tim Stafford.

Don McClure was the archetype of a pioneer missionary: vigorous, persistent, cheerful, unthinking of danger, impossible to intimidate, able to speak five languages, and capable of fixing a broken truck axle with a piece of iron pipe, a file, and a couple of wrenches. Reading this immensely enjoyable book, I kept thinking that the apostle Paul must have been something like McClure. As McClure himself wrote, “A spear has several different parts, and they are all essential to its proper function, but I am only really happy riding on the point.”

Ride on the point he did, for nearly 50 years in Sudan and Ethiopia, until he was shot to death by Somali guerrillas in 1977. He lived among some of the most remote people on the face of the earth, and at the end of his life he had played a major role in the growth of the church in these areas. The 50,000 Anuak people had never heard of Jesus before McClure arrived; when he moved on, he could report that the gospel had been preached in every Anuak village, that one-fifth of the Anuak people had been baptized and another fifth were preparing for baptism, that the New Testament had been translated into Anuak (a language previously without an alphabet), and that 10 percent of the Anuak were literate. Earlier, he had worked among the Shulla people, with similar effect. Others worked with him, but McClure rode the point.

Elephants, Crocodiles, And Hippos

That does not, however, make McClure unique; the spread of Christianity in Africa has required (and found) many such astonishing men and women. What makes McClure unique is that he could write. Most of this book is composed of his letters from Africa, interlaced with explanatory paragraphs by his son-in-law, seminary professor Charles Partee.

McClure could tell a story. His descriptions of a herd of elephants slaughtered by spear-wielding Shullas is as blood-chilling as any I have read. His descriptions of power confrontations with witch doctors, of floods and famine, of moving his family by overloaded boat with his gun ready for abundant crocodile and hippo, of death and disease, of hunting for lion, of manufacturing a garment for the Shulla king, of preaching to a crowd that had never heard the name of Jesus, of delivering babies, of the dances of the Shulla and the Anuak, make wonderful reading. All are told with a sharp eye for detail and a marvelously self-deprecating sense of humor.

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Partee writes: “[McClure] is the only man I have ever known whom I believed to be perfectly content in every situation in which he found himself: whether dining with the filthy rich or eating with the filthy poor; whether preaching the gospel to people covered with animal skins or to the entirely naked; whether flying across Europe or walking across Africa; whether conferring with an emperor or bandaging a peasant.” On the evidence of McClure’s letters, this seems accurate, with one caveat: he was not content sitting still.

As a young man he was restless with older missionaries, whom he thought were bogged down maintaining their educational and medical facilities, unable to spare the time to evangelize. He foresaw far earlier than most that the white man’s dominance in Africa was coming to an end, and he crusaded, in the thirties and forties, to move quickly toward an independent, indigenous church. Ultimately he was permitted to run things his way—and to some degree to discover himself encumbered by the relentless accumulation of buildings, institutions, visitors, long-standing relationships, and church problems.

Laughing And Praying

Toward the end of his life he was made (ultimate irony) a mission bureaucrat in Addis Ababa, and he had to preside over (and fight savagely against) the dismantling of most of the Presbyterian Church’s mission there. He wrote some harsh words about the New York hierarchy that did this. He felt they had lost their zeal for the worldwide mission of the church, and “when the church loses her vision for the outreach of the gospel, she is dead.”

In his last years, rather than retire, he became a mission volunteer for yet another new project, among the Islamic people along the Somali border of Ethiopia. McClure was murdered there, apparently aimlessly. He was buried on the spot by his son in the pair of worn-out cutoff jeans in which he had died.

An anecdote from one of his letters captures the man’s humor and energy: “I never thought life would be a bed of roses, but I did not expect it to be a pile of what I have been working in.” He explained that his 60-foot-deep pit latrine had caved in, and the enlarging hole endangered the entire outhouse. He would have to dig out the pit of this “more-than-slightly-used latrine” himself and line it with bricks.

“I was standing inside looking at it when I heard two Anuaks talking outside. One of them said, ‘He [meaning me] is cursed to have his little house fall down. He will have to abandon this house.’ The other said, ‘You are crazy. You do not know Odon [McClure’s name among the Anuak], When something happens to us, we sit down and cry, but when something happens to him he laughs, and then he prays, and God starts to work for him.’ ” Reading McClure’s letters, I laughed and prayed with him, more than a few times.

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Also reviewed in this section:

Integrative Theology, Volume 2, by Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest
Outlines of Romantic Theology, by Charles Williams
Discipleship of the Mind, by James W. Sire
Patterns in History, by David Bebbington
The Man Who Met God in a Bar, by Robert Farrar Capon
Sexual Ethics: A Biblical Perspective, by Stanley Grenz
Today’s Music, by Al Menconi
The Homecoming Man, by Hugh Cook

The Accidental Surgeon

An Excerpt

“Another canoe had come in through the rain, and this time a young I girl was lying in bloody water. As two women lifted her out of the canoe, her big brown eyes looked piteously at me. Then I saw her trouble was caused by an umbilical cord that had not been removed and trailed behind her.… I stooped over to pick her up in my arms and bring her into the house, where I could treat her. As I lifted her and straightened up, she suddenly clutched my neck and screamed in pain, and I heard one of the women cry, ‘It is out.’
And so it was. In the dark the great Dr. McClure had stepped on the trailing cord when he stooped to pick her up, and in his lifting her with his foot still firmly planted on the umbilical cord, the whole placenta had pulled free. I daresay this is the only case on record where a placenta was removed in this manner. I think I will write it up for a medical journal.… Maybe I will be asked to address a plenary session at the next convention of the American Medical Association. Doubtless, the doctors would like the opportunity to examine the foot that does surgery. I would certainly love the opportunity to tell those physicians that we desperately need a bunch of them out here in Africa.”

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