My hat goes off to people like Gottlob Bruckner, who went to Indonesia as a missionary in 1814. Without God-given stubbornness, Gottlob would never have even arrived in Java, let alone finishing the translation of the Javanese New Testament. His story is also a good illustration of Isaiah 55:11. Bruckner saw little fruit for his labors during his lifetime, but God’s Word never accomplishes nothing! His story is five pages long, and worth the time to read.
Stubborn Saxon Seed Sower
Gottlob Bruckner of Germany and Indonesia
The greatest of all missionaries, Paul of Tarsus, once wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1Cor. 3:6)
This is the story of a missionary who planted seed. He was a stubborn Saxon from Germany who never knew when to quit.
Gottlob Bruckner was born in 1783. He was one of six sons of a farmer in the Saxon village of Linda. His very name tells of his parents’ faith, for “Gottlob” means “Praise God” in German. Often young Gottlob’s father sang hymns with his boys. In the evenings he read to them from Christian books.
When he was twenty, Gottlob Bruckner left home to seek his fortune. His father wept to see him go. “Remember Jesus Christ, who is risen from the dead!” Gottlob’s father reminded him.
Gottlob Bruckner had no money for easy travel. He walked the road northward for eight days till he came to Berlin.
As he met other young workingmen in the city, Gottlob began to doubt what he had been taught from the Bible. But he also met a preacher whose sermons made him think and pray. For the first time he became a follower of Jesus Christ on his own, not because of what his parents believed.
The Berlin pastor often read aloud reports from William Carey. Carey had once been an ordinary craftsman like young Gottlob Bruckner. Gottlob was still a boy plowing his father’s fields in Saxony when Carey the cobbler had left England to go as a missionary to India. For seven long years he had told the good news there before even one person would believe. Now reports reaching Berlin told of many Christians in India.
A voice deep inside Gottlob Bruckner seemed to say, “You must be a missionary, too.” His friend and pastor directed a missionary training school. That was a good thing because Gottlob probably could not have enrolled anywhere else for lack of schooling when he was younger. A year and a half he studied with the Berlin pastor. Then he was sent to Holland for more training.
It wasn’t easy for a Saxon farm boy to learn Dutch, even though that language is a lot like German. But Gottlob Bruckner was stubborn. He stuck to the task and studied for three more years.
By 1811 a mission society in the Netherlands was ready to send out Gottlob Bruckner with two of his fellow students. But how could they? The Emperor Napoleon with his wars had torn up the map of Europe. Holland was under the heel of France. No ship could get permission to sail, lest it help Britain, Napoleon’s great enemy.
At first the mission society sent Bruckner and his friends back to Germany again for another year of study. Then at last they thought of a plan. The three would be disguised as workingmen. (In fact they were workingmen, as well as being missionaries.) They would be smuggled from Germany to Denmark, from Denmark to Sweden, and from Sweden to England.
Bruckner never knew when he might need to run. So he couldn’t take a trunk or even a suitcase— just one small bundle. He never knew when his pockets might be searched. So the Dutch mission society didn’t dare give him a letter of introduction to Christian friends in England: He might get shot as a British spy!
German police in Hamburg made trouble for the three travelers. Finally they escaped across the border into Denmark. They sailed to Sweden, and then sailed again to England. Their roundabout journey took two months.
English Christians were happy to greet the three new recruits. But before appointing them as missionaries, there must be some testing done. Of course the tests were given in English… and of course nobody passed. “You must study some more,” the English mission society decided.
A less-stubborn man might have gone home to Saxony. Not Gottlob Bruckner. He studied English as hard as he had studied Dutch. After a year in an English seminary, he was ordained and appointed a missionary.
Where should he be sent? Some said Guyana, in South America. Some said the great island of Madagascar, near Africa. Some said Java, and other large island, with even more people than Madagascar. England had taken over Indonesia from the Dutch during the Napoleonic wars. Now the way lay open to send missionaries there.
By this time Napoleon had nearly been beaten. Peacetime travel was beginning again. So Gottlob Bruckner’s trunks could at last be shipped across the Channel to England. But the warehouse where they were stored caught fire; everything in it burned up.
Gottlob Bruckner forgot about his disappointment and loss. On New Year’s Day 1814, he sailed away toward the mission field. His ship nearly went down in a storm near the equator. Then it limped into port in South Africa. There Bruckner and his friends preached to white people and black, till another ship took them on toward Indonesia.
The three missionaries landed at Jakarta, the capital. A British governor welcomed them. Then Bruckner sailed on alone toward Semarang, a large seaport on the north coast of Java. Twice his ship was attacked by pirates. After going ashore again, he had to hike through forests where tigers roamed.
In Semarang he became pastor at a great stone church, built by the Dutch long before he was born. His church members were mostly Dutch, too, or people from mixed Dutch and Indonesian families.
Only four months after he arrived in Semarang, Gottlob Bruckner married the daughter of an old Dutch pastor. Children came into their home one by one, till there were eight of them in all. But tropical fevers often strike little ones, and there were no miracle medicines in those days. Four of the Bruckner babies died.
While Bruckner was visiting other cities in Java, a new missionary family arrived in Semarang. They were Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Trowt, Baptists from England. Gottlob Bruckner and Tom Trowt were the same age. Soon they became best friends. Bruckner admired Tom’s keen mind and the way Tom set to work learning the Javanese language.
Bruckner himself had learned the Malay or Indonesian language by now; he found that many of his church members didn’t really understand sermons in Dutch. What was worse, many of them didn’t really understand what it meant to be a Christian at all. Bruckner became more and more sad to see people who lived like the devil all week and yet came to church on Sunday. And he had to welcome them at the great stone church as if they were the truest believers on earth.
Bruckner talked with Tom Trowt. He thought more and more about what baptism really means. He studied what the Bible says about it.
Finally he made up his mind. On the last Sunday in March of 1816, he climbed the winding steps to the high wood-carved pulpit. From the great Dutch Bible there he read his text: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is those that bear witness of Me.”
Then he gave his congregation a shock. “I plan to be baptized,” he announced. “I now believe the Scriptures teach baptism by dipping, after a person believes in Christ and not before.”
The next Sunday, Tom Trowt baptized Gottlob Bruckner in the river that runs through Semarang into the sea. Many Dutch church members came to watch. But the Sunday after that, the great stone church was half empty. It wasn’t long before Bruckner was turned out of his pulpit.
He still had a house, and he invited the Trowts to share it with his own family. But only six months later, Tom Trowt was dead of a tropical fever. No new missionary could come from England to take his place. The wars were over now, and Indonesia had been handed back over to the Dutch.
Bruckner wrote letters to William Carey in India and to other Baptists in England. In due time he himself was appointed to take Thomas Trowt’s place.
The new Dutch governor of Java ruled, “All English missionaries must leave.” But Bruckner could prove he was a German who also spoke Dutch. So they let him stay.
Tom Trowt had started working on a dictionary and a translation of the New Testament into Javanese. He hadn’t gotten very far, and a lot of what he had done was lost. Now Bruckner, the stubborn Saxon, took up the task.
Javanese was far, far harder than any other language he had ever tackled. Morning after morning he struggled with books and teachers. Evening after evening he tramped through the villages, trying to make sounds that people could understand.
No Javanese people would listen when he told them the Good News. Java seemed to be an even harder mission field than India had been when William Carey first went there. Bruckner realized more and more that he needed to have the Good News in writing. So he kept plodding away on his translation. By 1819, the four Gospels were done; by 1820, the whole New Testament; by 1823, he had revised it all and felt it was ready for the printer.
But how to get it printed? The Dutch governor would not allow anything that might stir up the natives or cut profits from the great plantations on Java. Christians in England sent Bruckner a printing press, but no one on Java knew how to make it work. Besides, the Javanese language used letters different from any other language on earth.
Even the stubborn Saxon was about ready to give up. Then one day he received a letter from India. William Carey was still serving there, after thirty-five years. Carey invited Bruckner to come see him … and to bring along that precious manuscript of the New Testament in Javanese.
In 1828 Bruckner said good-bye to his wife and his two little daughters. With his two sons, he sailed away toward India. He never dreamed he would be gone for three long years.
First, he had to teach William Carey’s printers how to make type faces that looked like Javanese letters. Then he had to check every page they printed: No one else in all India knew what those strange-looking squiggles meant. His oldest son, a boy of thirteen, caught a tropical fever and died— far from mother and home. Bruckner himself got so sick he had to take a cruise to Malacca and rest awhile.
Finally the great job was finished. With his one remaining son, Bruckner set sail for Indonesia. The hold of the ship held precious cargo: two thousand Javanese Testaments, twenty thousand tracts, bundles of paper for printing, and a set of type faces with Javanese letters.
Near the island of Kalimantan (or Borneo), a typhoon struck the ship. Bruckner and his boy had to hug the mast to keep from being washed overboard. Even the hardened sea captain screamed, “There’s no hope!” But God heard the prayers of a Saxon seed sower that day. A battered vessel crawled into harbor on Java.
Gottlob Bruckner hardly had time to greet his wife and daughters. The next five days were full of excitement. Seven thousand Javanese tracts were passed out into the brown hands of people who seemed eager to read them.
But the Dutch army had been fighting in Java for five years. The colonial government had just put down a rebellion led by a Javanese prince. What if these new leaflets roused the people up again? Soldiers seized the rest of the tracts and all but a few of the Testaments. They locked Bruckner’s lifework inside a safe in Jakarta.
Yet the stubborn Saxon never knew when to quit. He still had his paper and his Javanese type faces. Quietly, a little at a time, he still printed tracts. And thus the good news in writing still spread through the land.
Bruckner also took two of his remaining Testaments and mailed them far away. One he addressed to the king of the Netherlands and one to the king of Prussia. The king of Prussia sent Bruckner a gold medal for his great achievement. The king of Holland did something even better: He used his influence to change the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia.
Little by little the contents of that safe in Jakarta were sent back to Semarang. And Gottlob Bruckner saw to it that those Testaments and tracts reached the people of Java.
Still, so few of them would believe! The Baptist mission society in England kept telling Bruckner he should give up and move to India. Yet the stubborn Saxon stayed on, sowing gospel seed in stony soil.
Finally he began to see the harvest. Strange … the first fruits came not in Semarang or nearby, but far away in East Java. When Gottlob Bruckner was nearly sixty years old, he sailed along the coast to Surabaya. In that great port city he found a few believers. When he traveled inland, he found even more.
“How did you come to know about the Lord Jesus?” Bruckner asked an old man who led a village congregation.
“For twenty-four years I was the Muslim priest here,” said the old man. “Then one day someone gave me this.” And he handed Gottlob Bruckner one of his own Javanese tracts.
What joyful days Bruckner spent with those village Christians! How thankful he was for the seed that had sprouted and grown!
To the end of his life Gottlob Bruckner never saw many direct results from his own faithful preaching and teaching. And for nearly a century after he died in 1857, no other Baptist missionary from anywhere helped spread the good news in Indonesia.
But other helpers came. Near the end of Bruckner’s long life, the Dutch government began to change its attitude toward missions. Before he died, he welcomed many new missionaries sent out from Holland by other churches.
When they arrived, they found a field prepared for them. They found the New Testament already in the Javanese tongue. They found gospel tracts, and hymns, and word lists and dictionaries, so that they could quickly start talking with Javanese people.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of Christians on Java— more than in any other place on earth where Islam is the strong majority religion. And this has come to be because in the beginning there was a stubborn Saxon seed sower named Gottlob Bruckner.
Bold Bearers of His Name
by William N. McElrath
Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1987
Broadman Press has returned the copyright to the author, but does not have the address of Mr. McElrath.