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Africa missions pioneer John Mills dies

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Missionary pioneer John E. Mills, who personally opened missions work in Ivory Coast and later led Southern Baptists to nearly triple the number of mission fields in West Africa, died July 10. He was 87.

Mills, a Texan who never lost his booming cowboy drawl, was passionate about West Africa — and he proved it by serving and leading other missionaries there for more than 40 years.

“I believe this is Africa’s day of opportunity and progress,” he said in a report to the then-Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) in 1978. “With adequate resources now, Africa can be won” for Christ.

Mills “broke new ground for outreach in West Africa,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said. “Long before contemporary missionaries developed the expression ‘wigtake,’ which means ‘whatever it’s going to take,’ John Mills was a ‘wigtake’ missionary. Much of the progress that current missionaries are making was due to the foundations laid by Mills and his colleagues at a time God chose to expand His Kingdom in West Africa.

“He was faithful to the call of God and unwavering in his commitment to that call.”

Mills and his wife Virginia were appointed missionaries to West Africa in 1947. He taught at the Baptist Academy in Lagos, Nigeria, and advised churches in the area until 1953. He saw 120 formerly Muslim students baptized during his teaching years. He later served as the secretary of missions and evangelism for the Nigerian Baptist Convention and also was executive secretary of the Nigerian convention’s home and foreign mission boards.

The Millses pioneered work in Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) in 1966 as the first Southern Baptist missionaries sent to the former French colony.

Missions gained momentum as nations in the region gained independence from France. Fluent in French, Mills took part in surveys in Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Benin that prepared the way for mission work.

He later was based in Accra, Ghana, as the mission board’s West Africa field associate from 1969-76. The Millses resigned as missionaries in 1976 so he could assume the U.S.-based administrative role of area director for mission work throughout West Africa. He supervised hundreds of missionaries in the region. Mills also served as special assistant to R. Keith Parks, then-president of the Foreign Mission Board, for one year before retiring in 1988.

During the time Mills served as field associate and area director, Southern Baptist work expanded from five countries in West Africa in 1969 to 14 countries in 1988. West African Baptists counted 660 churches in 1969; by 1987 there were 3,344. Baptisms in West Africa also increased significantly from 6,874 in 1970 to nearly 31,000 in 1987. From 1969-87 church membership grew from 103,549 to 560,309. Today the number of West African Baptists tops 3 million.

Missionary access to many countries in West Africa came through responding to humanitarian crises. In Ghana, Niger and Mali, famines opened doors for Southern Baptist workers to help the suffering and share the Gospel.

“During my last conversation with John, I was reminding him of when we went to Mali and talked to a government minister about working there,” said Bill Bullington, a close friend and colleague who succeeded Mills as area director for West Africa.

At the time, famine ravaged Mali. Mills told the Malian official that they planned to share about Jesus and plant churches in addition to distributing food.

“The minister said, ‘That’s OK, you can try to do that, but I don’t think you will have any success,'” Bullington recalled. “I think if that government official still lives, he must be very surprised today, because God is at work bringing people to Himself and gathering them in churches in Mali.”

Mills also supported the development of major rural development, evangelism and church-planting projects in Burkina Faso and Togo. In Burkina Faso, 31 churches were started from 1981-85. Mills and other workers saw hundreds baptized, a dam built, 200 wells drilled and crops planted. In Togo, 30 churches were begun, a bridge was built and 50 wells were drilled.

“I would say that because John lived and worked to see West Africans come to Christ, there are multiple thousands in heaven or on their way there,” Bullington said.

Mills pointed any success he had to the Lord.

“Every successful missionary I know would attribute that success to the fact that the Lord called him, went with him and constantly provided the strength and the power to do the task,” Mills said in a 1987 mission report.

Mills was born in Mexia, Texas. He received bachelor and master of arts degrees from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a master of theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

A dry sense of humor accompanied his resounding voice. He teased new missionaries about the abundance of snakes in Africa and about needing lawn mowers to mow acres of grasslands. He told missionary appointees they’d make it to Africa “un de ces jours” — one of these days.

One of these days, he believed, Africa will be saturated with the Gospel.

In the 1987 report, his last one before retirement, Mills said:

“For almost 40 years I have traveled across West Africa, from the mushrooming cities to some of the remotest villages. Along with the missionaries, I have walked, ridden bicycles, I have gone by canoe, to some very out-of-the-way places. But in all of those places I have found evidences that the Lord was already there. His power was at work, convincing men of their need and bringing multitudes to find abundant, eternal life.”

Mills is survived by his wife, daughter Carol Shanks and son John T. Mills, all of Pasadena, Texas. A memorial service was held July 13 at South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena.
Caroline Anderson wrote this story on behalf of the International Mission Board.

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