This article was first published at Christianity Today on February 24, 2017.
Tucked away in the northwest corner of the American cemetery in Cairo lies the neglected grave of William Borden, one of the most celebrated missionaries of the 20th century Student Volunteer Movement. Heir to a family fortune, the Yale graduate instead devoted his life to Christ, pledged in service to the Muslims of China.
But at age 25 Borden died in Egypt, having contracted spinal meningitis while studying Arabic in preparation. His will distributed nearly everything to mission groups and Christian ministries, leaving him only a cement slab as a gravestone. Engraved at the bottom were words uttered in memorium, “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”
That is, if anyone could read them. A recently erected wall in the poorly tended cemetery pressed square up against his plot. This meant that the gravestone now faced the wrong direction, requiring the rare pilgrim to slither in between the wall and the grave to read the inscription. It was an ill testament for one whose death was mourned from Chicago to New York to Cairo to China.
Even stranger is the fact that what Borden is perhaps most known for—the inspirational quote that he is reputed to have written into his personal Bible, “No reserves. No Retreats. No Regrets”—has not been found by historians or biographers.
Is the central anecdote of Borden’s life a case of hagiography? That it has not been found does not mean it is not true. But as with many Christian heroes, the reality is more inspiring than any potential fiction.
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