James was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania. He finished school with a degree in law, which he practiced for four years. Realizing that he wanted something more with his life than studying law, he went on to Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1833. That same year, he and his wife were sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to Ceylon.
For ten years, the Eckards labored faithfully in Ceylon. But as the years grew, Mrs. Eckards health began to break. At first, it was the intense heat of the tropical climate. Then, tropical diseases began to attack her body. James was torn about what to do. Should he stay here, where he had a great ministry and God was working? Should he stay in this place he had grown to love? Or should he return to the states, where his wife would be free from the constant pain and diseases?
As he considered his choice, his wife’s health got so bad that James said, “It was manifest that either we must leave or her life be probably soon sacrificed.” Realizing his role as a husband was far more important that his role as a missionary, he returned to the states, where he began to pastor a church in Washington D.C.
Once he was back in the states, he wrote a book entiled, A Personal Narrative of Residence as a Missionary in Ceylon and Southern Hindostan. Among the numerous topics covered in his book, he dealt with the topic of illness and the missionfield:
In some parts of America, the question has been much agitated whether a missionary ought to leave his held on account of ill health. It is clear that this step should never be taken from insufficient causes but where loss of life or permanent prostration of strength will be the consequence of remaining. I should almost as soon think of inquiring whether it was not the duty of Christians to commit suicide or murder or whether a man was bound to do what he could for the salvation of souls.
By remaining in the foreign field, the only result is that a life is lost which, by removal, might be prolonged through years of usefulness in another part of the world. To require that a father or mother should die and leave their children orphans in a land of fearful wickedness and deprive them of parental guidance, and this, not to do good to men’s souls but on the contrary by death to lose opportunities for usefulness which might offer in a more salubrious region, is a demand which nothing short of a direct revelation from heaven ought to have power to enforce.
Equally clear is the case when, instead of death, a confirmed failure of health is to be the probable result. Neither in this case nor in any other has the individual sent, nor the churches who send him, a right even to consent that he shall languish through years of usefulness when by removal he might glorify God by aiding in men’s salvation for years in another place.
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