As a Millennial Christian, you might assume that I was raised on a diet of spiritual feel-good junk food. That I sang choruses redundantly repeating over-simplified attributes of God or read safe, cheesy love stories where everyone apologized in a timely manner and even the rebels were somehow modest and appropriate in their speech.
You wouldn’t be fully wrong.
However, I was an odd kid. Alongside those influences I found myself drawn to older things to satisfy the turbulent questions of adolescence. Things of literature and history. Various mentors and organizations exposed me to traditional expressions of doctrine and faith. Where most teenagers had never heard of the Apostles’ Creed, I could recite it. When most Christian girls were subscribing to hip new magazines like Brio, I bought a leather-bound version of My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers.
It seemed to me that the older something was, the more authentic it must be—and, seriously, what good is a Millennial if not to harp about authenticity? I was a theological hipster, at 17 years old. When I picked up the book 12 Faithful Men, I had no idea how familiar the tone and purpose would feel, so reminiscent of all the historical thoughts I’ve chased since my adolescence.
Taking the Cup of Christ
12 Faithful Men details the suffering of 12 famous pastors whose legacies transformed both the church and the world. Their acts were so influential that most people today know these men more often by what they did than by their name. Men like the author of Pilgrim’s Progress and the primary influencer of America’s First Great Awakening and the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace.
These are the original “celebrity pastors.” And where one might expect this book to offer encouragement by reminding readers of the faithfulness of Christianity’s “heavy hitters,” its purpose is as much caution as support. Intentionally absent are references to any pleasant or even moderate biographical moment. Instead, the continuous onslaught of stories detailing sorrow, persecution, and loss pile up chapter by chapter like a fallen line of dominoes.
The intended audience for this book is those entering the ministry. It is meant to contrast our perceptions of modern ecclesiastical rock stars, to contradict the Instagram filter through which we view the ministry—those “perfect” pastors with unfaltering smiles and unlimited cultural influence.
Editors Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson want young ministers to have realistic expectations as to what their new calling will hold. Pastors don’t just guide other people through suffering; they also experience a seemingly disproportionate amount of suffering themselves.
In the book’s foreword, Nashville pastor Ray Ortlund reminds readers about passages of Scripture that warned of this. How does a person reckon with verses like:
“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you…But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
1 Peter 4:12–13
“Young pastors today are often cool, impressive, and popular,” Ortlund writes. “But the pastoral ministry that has borne eternal fruit down through the centuries has been something deeper, grander, and more resilient.”
That search for something deeper has been a driving force behind my interest in historical narratives. It is not that modern platforms are incapable of offering meaty and challenging direction. But sometimes stepping back a few decades—or centuries, in this case—helps realign perspective.
Showing Devotion Worthy of a Disciple
12 Faithful Men is an overview more than a deep dive, with each short chapter devoted to a separate individual. Readers will learn about men who faced racism, imprisonment, and bankruptcy. Some faced internal suffering, such as heartbreak. Others were raped and murdered for the gospel.
In the late 1990s, the band DC Talk embarked on a similar attempt with their popular book Jesus Freaks, which chronicled the stories of various individuals martyred for their faith. The band, along with their collaborating partner, Voice of the Martyrs, was rightly attempting to wake my generation up from our privilege. 12 Faithful Men is about general suffering, not martyrdom specifically, but both books attempt to use sobering nonfiction to provide a contrast to the ease of modern issues.
However, where Jesus Freaks was marketed for teens and had a “hip and easy to read format,” according to its official description, 12 Faithful Men reads more like an excerpt from my American Literature anthology from college. The language in 12 Faithful Men isn’t overly dense, but the tone is traditional and the language blunt. That’s hard to avoid when writing about characters from previous eras, several of whom lived before the American Revolution. While it may be easy to dismiss these men as too outdated to be relevant, the stories in this book show—as history always does—that there is nothing new under the sun.
Modern writing often practices what I call “belief segregation”—where every piece of an article, essay, or book is made by likeminded people for likeminded people. These authors will not so much as quote or even use the research of a person unless they fully agree with that person on 90% of major issues, even issues unrelated to the topic at hand. Unfortunately, that has left modern readers used to the idea that if a person or character or point of view appears on the page, the author must be making a statement therein. That makes it hard to tackle a project like 12 Faithful Men, where each person highlighted believed controversial things and said them in ways appropriate their time but seemingly insensitive to our modern ears. In today’s environment, allowing for historical context or differing opinion has become the ultimate act of grace. We do not have to agree on all the points of doctrine these men preached in order to grasp the important takeaway, spelled out in the book’s title: each man’s faithfulness to God.
Cover image by JJ Jordan.