A biography of an early-20th-century American Presbyterian missionary in Pakistan.
Debut author McRight’s grandfather, Bible scholar and missionary Robert Maxwell (1871-1946), died just three days after her birth. She lays out his life story, drawing on family accounts and wider world events, and often quoting letters directly. Maxwell and his sister, Elizabeth, wrote to each other faithfully during the years that he lived in Pakistan, producing a large cache of correspondence, now held by Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Historical Society: “Reading Grandfather’s letters was a good reminder that…we cannot presume to change a culture or impose on its people our own assumptions about the way the world works,” the author writes. Maxwell, who was educated at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and Allegheny Seminary, was respectful of Pakistan’s local culture; he learned Urdu to preach in the vernacular, simultaneously “devoting himself to education and evangelism” as the manager of Boys High School in Rawalpindi. His wife, Maud, taught at the girls’ school, and they eventually had four sons; two of them, George and Pollock, followed their father into ministry (as did the author, now retired). Maxwell later served on the executive committee of the Presbyterian synod’s New World Movement ecumenical missions program and surveyed schools and hospitals in Gujranwala. Over four decades, he pondered the Anglo and Christian influence in the Pakistan area and witnessed rising unrest, including Mohandas Gandhi’s 1930 march to protest the British salt tax. Overall, this is a touching tribute to an unassuming, dedicated man with a keen sense of purpose. The author sometimes inserts generic pages of political and social history to move the biography along. However, she re-creates some scenes in Maxwell’s life with real verve, such as one in which he encountered a cobra while bathing. At other points, McRight makes readers eyewitnesses to her grandfather’s birth and infuses good sensory details into a sequence outside his college boardinghouse. A few more scenes as vivid as these would have been welcome, although the family photographs, and especially the letters, do give readers a real sense of Maxwell’s personality.
A clear-eyed, sometimes-colorful account of a missionary’s life and times.