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LETTER FROM CHINA: Lottie Moon gives her thoughts on the breakdown of missionaries

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each day during Baptist Press’ coverage of the Beijing Olympics, we are publishing a letter from a Southern Baptist missionary who served in China during the years before the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Some of the letters reveal these missionaries’ great love for the people of China; others provide glimpses into what life was like for an American living abroad in the 19th century. We hope the collection helps Southern Baptists capture the passion of these great souls and understand the sacrifices they made so the good news of God’s love could be taken to what was, for them, the ends of the earth. The letter below was written by the venerable missionary Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Moon, who served in China from 1873 to 1912.

TUNGCHOW, China–When an army is in the field and a fight is coming on, it is wise to send the sick to the rear. Many a noble life has been uselessly wasted by the determination to be in the battle at all hazards. Men, scarcely able to rise from their beds, have dragged themselves to certain death, impelled by patriotism or driven by the fear of their comrades’ sneers.

In the army of the Lord, it is no mere idle boast to say that foreign missionaries constitute the van. Theirs is the post of honor; it is they who are obeying in person the last command of their risen Lord. Theirs is the post of danger.

The time may have passed, in China at least, when a missionary has cause to fear personal violence. Yet there remains the climate with its subtle influence, sapping a man’s vitality almost without his consciousness, until he awakes to find himself a physical wreck. There is the fierce, pitiless Eastern sun blazing down 15 hours a day for many months in succession till the very sunlight is heart-sickening.

There are the physical hardships necessitated by his work of which one is ashamed to talk, less he should seem to be complaining. There is the crowd, often hostile, always curious, pressing upon and around him until his nerves are worn beyond endurance. There is exposure to loathsome diseases in unavoidable contact with all conditions of people. There is, wearing upon the mind, the ever-present depressing consciousness of being hated by the people one is giving his life to save.

In the missionary’s surroundings, there is everything to drag him down spiritually and mentally and nothing to lift him up. Then, as regards the work to be done, there grows upon him the feeling of overwhelming odds in the contest. He looks forth and sees villages on all sides as far as the eye can reach and knows that beyond these they go on and on, until the imagination wearies in the effort to grasp their numbers. Then there are the great cities in few of which is there any resident missionary. The sense of responsibility presses upon him and with it the feeling of powerlessness to affect anything. Fancy one man set to meet the spiritual wants of the whole state of Georgia and you will have some conception of the case in heathen lands.

Last year, a Methodist missionary wrote to the Woman’s Board urging that reinforcements be immediately sent. He described how those already here were overworked and added that failure to send reinforcements meant death to some of those already on the field. Ten years ago, the Missionary Conference, which met in Shanghai, sent forth a stirring appeal for more laborers. “Many among us,” says this paper, “are tempted to undertake many duties. Hence, the broken health and early death of not a few of our best men.” Those words are as true now as when they were penned.

A missionary who has passed safely through the trying time of acclimation and who has been enabled by the blessing of God to continue in the field, watches with painful interest and sympathy the breaking down of new missionaries. I knew a party of five young Presbyterians missionaries who came out to Shantung in the fall of 1881. They were followed a little later by three others. A brighter, livelier, more hopeful set of young people, it would have been hard to find. Among them were characters of rare worth and beautiful consecration. Of these eight, within four years and half, three were filling graves in Tungchow or Weihien, three had returned to America to remain and two were left.

A good many years ago three Presbyterian missionaries opened a station in the capital of this province. Of these three, one lost his reason and with his wife was sent home and one died. The mission has been repeatedly reinforced and now numbers six on the field and two on furlough. The Weihien mission, begun by the Presbyterians in 1883, has suffered heavy losses. Two of its members returned to America in that same year, one died in the following year and another in 1886. A physician who was sent out to the mission in 1884 broke down and went home in about two and half years. By repeated reinforcements of experienced missionaries from other stations, the mission now numbers six.

Facts such as these seem to teach some serious lessons. First, a lesson of sympathy. Give the returned missionary a cheerful welcome, even if he breaks down in two or three years, remembering that in his place you might not have done so well as he did. Second, a lesson of caution. It seems exceedingly unwise to put upon new missionaries the heavy responsibilities connected with opening a new station. New missionaries break down or die under overwhelming burdens, the weight of which is largely due to their inexperience and ignorance of the language and the ways of the people. It would be well if young missionaries could be held back from all work except that of learning the language until they are acclimated. Third, a lesson of prudent provision. The minimum force of a new station should be at least six missionaries, and more if possible, to provide against the certainty of illness, departure or death. Lastly, when the sick and wounded are borne to the rear, there is all the more pressing need for reinforcements to be sent speedily to the front.

L. Moon.
July 27, 1887

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  • Lottie Moon