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Captain Allen Gardiner: Showing the Glory of God, Even to the Ends of the Earth

6 min

A rescue ship drifted slowly toward the rocky coastline. This particular area was known to be at “the end of the earth.” Long feared by sailors for its violent storms, hidden rocks, and savage natives, this desolate region of rocky islands is known as Tierra de Fuego. It is located off the coast of Patagonia, the southernmost tip of the mainland of South America. The mission of the rescue ship was a desperate one: to locate and assist seven missionaries who had come to bring the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to these desolate islands.

Those seven dedicated men had landed here on December 17, 1850, with the purpose of evangelism. They had brought supplies to last for six months, but now the time had passed beyond their resources. Every effort to send them fresh supplies had failed thus far, and their fate was unknown.

Finally, a British naval vessel had been dispatched to find the lost men. As the rescue ship neared the rocky coastline, there was no successful sighting of the missionaries at the point where they were known to have landed. Instead, the searchers found a crude inscription painted on a large rock, directing them elsewhere. Following the directions, they came upon a grim sight. Near the water were three bodies. One was lying in a shallow boat. Another body, spotted at the waterline, had been beaten to gruesome pieces by the pounding surf. The third body was discovered further up the beach, lying half-buried, probably interred by the kind but weak hands of one of his companions.

Due to an approaching, fierce snowstorm, the rough seas and a strong gale forced the search party to temporarily suspend their mission. Once the storm had passed and the weather permitted a more thorough search, additional bodies were found. But the body of their leader, a former British naval captain named Allen Gardiner, was still missing. For a while, it was hoped that he might still be alive. But finally his body was discovered. He had not been dead long, and it was evident that he had fought valiantly for life.

Captain Allen Gardiner was found wearing three suits of clothing to protect himself from the cold winds. He had pulled stockings over his arms to give extra warmth. Despite the extra clothing he wore, the seagulls had begun to peck and pull at his lifeless body. Yet his manly face was still recognizable to the searchers. Gardiner had had his Bible with him, and many precious promises of consolation had been underlined by the dying captain. The men also found a final letter Gardiner had written to his wife and children, tucking it safely where it could be discovered and delivered. With the captain’s body was also his journal. The final entries told, with touching detail, the story of the last days of a life well-lived. The entries of the starving man were not words of defeat and despair, but words of hope and victory. The last words, weakly written, referenced the glories of the new Jerusalem where there will be “neither hunger nor thirst.”

From a human standpoint, the mission effort would have seemed to be a complete failure. Not one single native of Tierra de Fuego had been converted. At the death of Captain Allen Gardiner, the islands were still in the firm clutches of darkness, superstition, and cruelty.

Indeed, the natives of Tierra de Fuego were regarded as among the most primitive and barbaric people on planet earth. Any European vessel that wrecked in these islands could expect no mercy from the ferocious inhabitants. The Fuegians were notoriously cruel and cannibalistic, not only to stranded sailors from the outside world, but even to their own. During storms, the Fuegians were known to throw their own children overboard to lighten their native boats. There were very few elderly Fuegians, because adult children would strangle their own parents and then eat them.

To add to these shocking cruelties, the Fuegians were regarded as stunted, ugly, and stupid. Their speech was hoarse, guttural, and entirely unintelligible; it was compared to a man clearing his throat. When Charles Darwin had sailed around the southern tip of South America, he had written about these savages, referring to them as “wild animals” and taking them for an example of the link between apes and men. Darwin said of the Fuegians, “such were our ancestors.” Consistent with his view of the survival of the fittest, Darwin belittled missionary efforts to help such primitive people, and he encouraged the elimination of the Fuegians, saying, “hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

In contrast to the opinion of Charles Darwin, the prophet Zechariah prophesied of the Lord Jesus Christ, “His dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.” Believing this promise, Captain Allen Gardiner gave his life to show the glory of God, even to the ends of the earth.

Allen Gardiner was born into a Christian home in Berkshire, England, on June 28, 1794. His father and mother were devout Christians, and they read the Bible daily to their son in family worship. As a boy, Gardiner came to admire the exploits of Lord Nelson and he, too, longed to go to sea. At the age of thirteen, young Gardiner went to the Naval College in Portsmouth and was soon a midshipman. He gained experience quickly as an officer in fighting against the United States in the War of 1812. At twenty-four years of age, he commanded his own ship and sailed around the globe in the service of the Royal Navy in the majestic days when Britannia ruled the waves.

During his youthful days of naval glory and adventure, Captain Gardiner turned his back upon the God of his fathers. The rough life of a sailor made him proud and profane. But God would not let him wander far. Letters from his pious parents continued to reach him in the farthest reaches of the globe, warning him of the deadening effects of sin upon the conscience. A friend of his mother’s also wrote to him, pleading with him to bow the knee to Jesus Christ. Eventually, the Word of God penetrated the heart of Captain Gardiner, and he was converted by the grace of God.

Captain Gardiner had seen the effect of the Gospel upon the hearts of former savages in places such as Tahiti and the coast of Africa. As a new Christian with naval experience around the globe, he dedicated his life to taking the Gospel of Christ to places unknown.

Gardiner left the service of the Royal Navy to carry the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to the distant reaches of the globe. He married a Godly wife and sailed for Africa where he gave the Gospel to the Zulus. When war ended his work there, he took his wife and children to the Pacific Ocean and pioneered the work of the Gospel on Papua New Guinea, in spite of the scornful Dutch officials who said that he might as well try to instruct the monkeys! Undeterred, Gardiner laid the groundwork for future triumphs in New Guinea. His next place of service was the steamy jungles of South America. There he labored among various tribes in the areas that would eventually become Chili, Argentina, and Bolivia.

Returning to England, Gardiner sought to awaken British Christians to the vast spiritual needs of South America. Having sailed through the Strait of Magellan many times, and having witnessed the dark paganism of the Fuegians, he set his heart upon winning the Fuegians for Christ. Gathering six volunteers, he sailed for the spiritually dark islands at the bottom of the world.

It was there in Tierra de Fuego that the seven brave evangelists, unable to obtain fresh supplies, starved to death on the rocky coastline. However, their death was not in vain. The interest of Britain had become aroused by the story of the lost men, and a generation was inspired by Gardiner’s zeal to reach “the most hopeless.” In addition to the seven men who starved, eight more missionaries were lost in the effort to reach these islands, all slain by the savage Fuegians. But the mission of sharing God’s love through the Savior continued. The slogan of the Patagonian Missionary Society was derived from the words of their fallen leader, “Hope deferred, not lost.” Allen Gardiner’s own son courageously went back to Tierra de Fuego and was an instrument of reaching the very people for whom his father had given his life.

After a few short years, the power of the Gospel of Christ was undisputedly evident in this dark, remote corner of the earth. The remarkable change among the Fuegian tribes came to the attention of Charles Darwin, who wrote in astonishment, “I could not have believed that all the missionaries in the world could have made the Fuegians honest.” Perhaps the greatest tribute to the life and sacrifice of Captain Allen Gardiner is the fact that evolutionist Charles Darwin in his later years became a regular contributor to the funds of the Patagonian Missionary Society.

Sources and Further Reference:
Lambert, John C. The Adventure of Missionary Heroism. San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2005.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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