“Potential victim’s attacker is scared off by guardian angels” is a common glurge theme. (Another widely-circulated tale about a girl who barely avoids becoming the victim of a rapist also draws upon this theme):
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2000]
A missionary on furlough told this true story while visiting his home church in Michigan.”While serving at a small field hospital in Africa, every two weeks I traveled by bicycle through the jungle to a nearby city for supplies.
This was a journey of two days and required camping overnight at the halfway point. On one of these journeys, I arrived in the city where I planned to collect money from a bank, purchase medicine and supplies, and then begin my two-day journey back to the field hospital. Upon arrival in the city, I observed two men fighting, one of whom had been seriously injured.
I treated him for his injuries and at the same time talked to him about the Lord Jesus Christ. I then traveled two days, camping overnight, and arrived home without incident.
Two weeks later I repeated my journey. Upon arriving in the city, I was approached by the young man I had treated. He told me that he had known I carried money and medicines. He said, ‘Some friends and I followed you into the jungle, knowing you would camp overnight. We planned to kill you and take your money and drugs. But just as we were about to move into your camp, we saw that you were surrounded by 26 armed guards.’ At this I laughed and said that I was certainly all alone in that jungle campsite.
The young man pressed the point, however, and said, ‘No sir, I was not the only person to see the guards. My five friends also saw them, and we all counted them. It was because of those guards that we were afraid and left you alone.'”
At this point in the sermon, one of the men in the Michigan congregation jumped to his feet and interrupted the missionary and asked if he could tell him the exact day this happened. The missionary told the congregation the date, and the man who interrupted told him this story:
“On the night of your incident in Africa, it was morning here and I was preparing to go play golf. I was about to putt when I felt the urge to pray for you. In fact, the urging of the Lord was so strong, I called men in this church to meet with me here in the sanctuary to pray for you. Would all of those men who met with me on that day stand up?”
The men who had met together to pray that day stood up. The missionary wasn’t concerned with who they were; he was too busy counting how many men he saw. There were 26!
This story is an incredible example of how the Spirit of the Lord moves in mysterious ways. If you ever hear such prodding, go along with it.
These tales are obviously parables, but since the version cited in the example section above has been embellished with details intended to demonstrate it to be a “true story,” we’ve once again received numerous “Is this true?” queries about it. As a literal account of an actual occurrence, this one has a few implausibilities:
- The native who had received treatment for his serious injuries and been told about Jesus Christ by a missionary decides to repay the kindness by killing and robbing that same missionary.
- Even though the attacker expects to find the missionary alone, unarmed, and asleep, he enlists the aid of five confederates to help him overpower his victim.
- When the gang of six thugs unexpectedly discovers their victim is not alone but is protected by a swarm of armed guards who outnumber them by more than four to one, instead of turning tail and running before they’re hacked to bits, each and every one of them risks death by hanging around to conduct a census of exactly how many guards are present.
- Weeks later, for no explicable reason, the wayward native approaches the missionary and exposes himself to punishment by announcing that he and his gang had planned to murder the lone missionary if only he hadn’t been so heavily guarded.
These details are all obvious plot devices: The attackers have to count exactly how many guards stood watch over their intended victim, and their leader has to confess to the missionary that they conspired to kill him, because without these revelations the missionary wouldn’t have known how many guardian spirits were protecting him, and thus the unexpected news that exactly 26 Michigan congregationalists had gathered to pray for the missionary’s safety at the very same time several would-be attackers had approached him wouldn’t seem nearly as astonishing. Additionally, given that Michigan is in a time zone that places it anywhere from five to eight hours behind the time zones on the African continent, one would be hard-pressed to find a region of Africa where it would be night while it was “morning” in Michigan.
Once again, we have a lovely little parable someone couldn’t help but attempt to dress up. A more plausible version of the same story appeared in the 1986 book Touch the World Through Prayer:
During the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1960, missionaries Matt and Lora Higgens were returning one night to Nairobi through the heart of Mau Mau territory, where Kenyans and missionaries alike had been killed and dismembered. Seventeen miles outside of Nairobi their Land Rover stopped. Higgens tried to repair the car in the dark, but could not restart it. They spent the night in the car, but claimed Psalm 4:8: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” In the morning they were able to repair the car.A few weeks later the Higgenses returned to America on furlough. They reported that the night before they left Nairobi, a local pastor had visited them. He told how a member of the Mau Mau had confessed that he and three others had crept up to the car to kill the Higgenses, but when they saw the sixteen men surrounding the car, the Mau Mau left in fear. “Sixteen men?” Higgens responded. “I don’t know what you mean!”
While they were on furlough a friend, Clay Brent, asked the Higgenses if they have been in any danger recently. Higgens asked, “Why?” Then Clay said that on March 23, God had placed a heavy prayer burden on his heart. He called the men of the church, and sixteen of them met together and prayed until the burden lifted. Did God send sixteen angels to represent those men and enforce their prayers?1
However, the story had appeared in print even prior to that. Billy Graham’s 1975 Angels: God’s Secret Agents contained this telling of it.
The Reverend John G. Paton, pioneer missionary in the New Hebrides Islands, told a thrilling story involving the protective care of angels. Hostile natives surrounded his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. John Paton and his wife prayed all during that terror-filled night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see that, unaccountably, the attackers had left. They thanked God for delivering them.A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Jesus Christ, and Mr. Paton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, “Who were all those men you had with you there?” The missionary answered, “There were no men there; just my wife and I.” The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard – hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack. Only then did Mr. Paton realize that God had sent His angels to protect them. The chief agreed that there was no other explanation. Could it be that God had sent a legion of angels to protect His servants, whose lives were being endangered?2
Missionaries protected by the prayers of loved ones at the precise moment of danger is a common tale. Here’s an example from a 1979 collection of anecdotes and inspirational tales:
In 1947, while I was travelling on horseback in Central China with Mr. Fred Mitchell, we came to a spot that was notorious as a robber hide-out. The missionary accompanying us was keeping a sharp look-out. Suddenly we came upon a body lying beside the path. The victim was obviously not long dead. The brigands had been at work.A few days later I received a letter from my wife, asking whether we had been in any danger on a date and at a time she named. On that particular night she had been suddenly awakened with the strong impression that I was in danger. She rose and prayed until the burden lifted and peace returned.
On consulting my diary, I discovered that this midnight prayer synchronized with the time we were passing through the robber-infested area. God heard and answered the prayer for the safety of His servants. — J.O. Sanders
We found yet another example of this sort of tale in a 1954 collection of inspirational anecdotes, which had itself reprinted it from a 1950 collection. In that tale (which is too long to type in here), the tent of two female missionaries serving in Africa is surrounded one night by headhunters. Rather than cower in the dark, they light their lamp and proceed to make and drink tea all night. In the morning, they discover the headhunters have left. Months later, one of them receives a letter from a mission supporter back home telling how she’d been unable to sleep on that very night and so had stayed up all night to pray for the safety of the missionaries serving at that particular station — had the missionaries had any sort of special need that evening?
As usual, we make the point that inspirational tales don’t suddenly gain the power to change lives because someone claims they’re fact, nor do fictional tales lose their power to inspire believers to move mountains because they were made up. Folks will find inspiration in parables whether the tales have a factual basis or not; thus, this “true story!” flourish is unnecessary at best and downright insulting at worst. Moreover, it’s sadly ironic that so many tales contrived to display a particular belief system as The One True Way include fabrications tossed in to better carry the message.
The Christian commandment about not bearing false witness just isn’t getting the mileage it used to.