Seventh-day Adventist missionaries who went to overseas mission fields at the turn of the 20th century knew they might not come back alive but were happy to give all they had, including their life, to share Jesus in faraway lands. This was the gist of the opening presentation at the 2018 Annual Council of the Adventist Church, which started in Battle Creek, Michigan, United States, on October 11, 2018.
The 60-minute presentation by David Trim, director of the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research (ASTR), highlighted the commitment of hundreds of early missionaries, mostly young Adventists, who sailed overseas to spread the gospel among strangers.
The October 11 meeting was held in a “big tent” in the Historic Adventist Village of Battle Creek. Hundreds of members and invitees of the General Conference Executive Committee from around the world met under a tent that, in some respects, resembled the early camp-meeting gatherings of Seventh-day Adventists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many of the attendees — men as well as women — accepted the invitation to dress in period costumes, including, among the men, natural beards that dozens of Executive Committee members have been growing for weeks or months. The stage setup featured historical pieces of furniture, including the podium used by Ellen G. White on more than one occasion while preaching at Battle Creek more than a century ago. Even the selection of hymns for the weekend is based on songs mostly written between 1852 and 1902, some of which still can be found in the Adventist Hymnal.
Church leaders welcomed delegates and introduced Battle Creek mayor Mark Behnke. Behnke read a City Council resolution naming October 11, 2018 “Adventist Day” in Battle Creek. “Seventh-day Adventists have been a seminal part of the history of Battle Creek for more than 150 years now,” he said in sharing the rationale for the city resolution. “We welcome you and celebrate that you have decided to meet in our city.”
Those Who Gave All
Most of Trim’s presentation focused on some of the lesser known Adventist missionaries, many of whom lost their lives to typhoid fever, tuberculosis, malaria, and snake bites. Many of those mostly young missionaries died just a few months after arriving in the mission field.
“At the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy of missionaries in Africa was just 24 months,” Trim said. “And yet, that knowledge did not deter them from going to Africa and to the Caribbean, South America, the South Pacific, and Southern Asia, where they could also expect to face an early death.”
When compared with the overall number of Westerners residing in India at that time, for instance, the toll on Adventist missionaries was staggering, Trim said. “While Westerners in India had an average of 25 deaths per 1,000, statistics show that the death of Adventist missionaries reached 83 per 1,000.” Even though a variety of reasons explain this high number, including the early missionaries’ tendency to overwork, Trim explained they had another “disadvantage.”
“Colonial powers’ residents lived isolated from indigenous populations and made every effort to live separate lives,” he said. “On the contrary, Adventist missionaries mingled with people, attending to the residents’ needs where they lived. Many missionaries contracted fatal diseases after ministering to people suffering from the same disease that would eventually take their lives.”
Letters and reports from that time reveal how hard and heartbreaking it was for missionaries to say goodbye to husbands, wives, and children who died in the mission field. Hubert and Pearl Tolhurst, for example, traveled from Australia to China as missionaries in 1918, but Pearl got sick and died in an isolated mission outpost at just 28 years of age. One of her husband’s friends later recalled her passing. “Alone, Hubert washed his wife’s body, dressed it, dug a grave, conducted her funeral service alone, then buried her.”
Emma Wakeham had served for some time alongside her husband in Egypt when she got very sick. Trying to find a way for Emma to recover, the Wakehams began a long journey from Egypt to Liverpool, England. While sailing by the coast of Spain, however, Emma passed away. In recounting the event her husband reported, “With hearts sad and sore, yet buoyed up by the blessed hope, we committed her body to old ocean’s arms, confident that, though no monument marks her resting place, she will not be overlooked when the Life-giver calls the sleeping saints.”
Another missionary reported on the death and burial of Edith Bruce, a missionary nurse in the Himalayas in 1920. “We laid her to rest on the quiet slope of the lower ranges of the mighty Himalayas, until those ancient mountains shall catch the gleam of the bright morning when Jesus shall come to redeem from the grave the saints whose death is so precious in His sight, and whose last resting place He marks so tenderly.”
Committed to the End
One of the striking features of the letters and reports of dying missionaries is seeing the commitment they showed to mission to the end, Trim said. “They were not so worried about losing their lives; they worried their passing would deter others from following in their footsteps.”
Take Albert Fischer as an example, Trim said. Fischer and his wife, Ina, went as young missionaries to Puerto Rico, but less than six months later, Albert got sick and eventually died. Another missionary, A. J. Haysmer, wrote back to the United States, stating that in his last days, Albert “was afraid that many would think that he and his wife had made a mistake in coming to this field.” Fischer had asked Haysmer to emphasize that the Lord had sent them, and they did not regret the move they had taken. Indeed, Haysmer reported, Fischer was convinced that “if the Lord should call him aside to rest awhile, he was glad to be found at his post of duty.”
Another missionary, Charles Enoch, died not long after arriving in Trinidad in 1907. Sometime later, his brother George reported, “I am thankful that he died at his post of duty…. We have no regrets to offer but take this bereavement as one more link to bind our lives in the altar of missionary endeavor.”
Trim shared that before and after reports such as these, Adventist missionaries, many of them just married, kept leaving the comforts of their Western lives to joyfully travel to overseas missions. A typical case was Fred and Katie Brown, who left Battle Creek in 1899 for India.
“As the train sped on its way,” they wrote, “there was joy in our hearts … because we were taking the message of the third angel to that ancient land. God grant that many may see the truth and repent before it’s too late.”