Kingdom Women: Taking the Gospel to China 2 by Susan Allendorf
This is part of an ongoing series on Kingdom Women—women God has used and is using in His great Kingdom endeavor. We meet these women in God’s Word, in the early church, in the dark ages, in the past great missionary efforts and among today’s true followers of Jesus. The Trio described here were part of a group of mostly single women who took the gospel into Inland China. You can read Part One here. The full story is told in Not Less Than Everything by Valerie Griffiths, granddaughter of Hudson Taylor.
MILDRED CABLE, AND EVA AND FRANCESCA FRENCH: THE TRIOPART TWO: ALONG THE SILK ROAD AND BEYONDby Susan Allendorf
THE FIRST 20 YEARS:
Mildred Cable and Eva and Francesca French spent their first 20 years in China in Shanxi province. Their ministry there had a huge impact on the churches and in the five adjacent provinces. Because of their work, Christian women were emerging as significant leaders.The main need for the churches during those years was the training of women and girls. Putting aside their love for evangelism, the Trio had devoted themselves to education. Mildred commented at a China Inland Mission (CIM) conference in 1922, “We purpose moving from our settled stations to unevangelized regions; but in practice the time never seems to come.” When the government forced the closing of the senior school that same year, they were free to focus on evangelism.
A NEW DIRECTION:
The need was great. Their research had shown that there was no Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from the town of Jiuquan in north central China to the town of Urumqi not far from the northwestern border with Mongolia. They knew that the Silk Road was a major route for travelers. But they also knew its dangers. Winter months there were bitterly cold, and summer months were unbearably hot. Their living conditions would be primitive.
This would not be an easy journey, especially for 3 middle aged women who had spent the previous 20 years in the structure of a girls’ school and a women’s Bible college. As part of their research, they wrote to Geraldine Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s daughter-in-law, asking for advice. At 60 years of age herself, she had just spent 5 winter months in the far northwest. She wrote back encouraging them, that “enthusiasm and experience were more important than youthful fitness.”
Despite the concerns of mission leadership, they were undeterred. The Trio began their journey on June 11, 1923. Traveling by rickshaw, they headed northwest toward the Silk Road. Distances were great, with one day’s journey being about 20 miles. Travel to Jiuquan, at the southern border of the Gobi desert, usually took 50 days. They took their time, visiting mission stations and holding meetings for women along the way. Their plan was to stop briefly in the town of Zhangye, but God had something else in mind.
AN UNEXPECTED MINISTRY OPPORTUNITY:
A young Chinese couple, Dr. and Mrs. Kao, had begun a ministry of pioneer evangelism in the Zhangye area in 1918. They had a small group of converts. With their modest, productive farm and his income from medical work, their small group grew into a self-supporting Christian community.
Their focus was evangelism. Dr. Kao was a gifted evangelist, but he lacked the gift of teaching which was essential for grounding his people in the broader foundations of the faith. He and his people had been praying for God to send two older, experienced women teachers.After the Trio visited Dr. Kao’s church, he proposed a plan to meet their call to evangelism and his need for teachers. The Trio would spend the summer months that year in Zhangye doing concentrated teaching. They would then join the church’s evangelistic teams to autumn fairs in the area. During the winter, a team from the church would join the Trio going further northwest to the town of Jiuquan.
The Trio was in agreement, and the partnership they formed with Dr. Kao formed the basis of their work for the next 10 years. They developed a process of evangelism, training and sending out disciples for further evangelism, which resulted in explosive multiplication.During their first winter in Jiuquan, it became their home base for future ministry. It was six days journey from Zhangye, and was known as “the last town in China” before the Gobi desert and the frontier. It was very strategic, as every person crossing the desert had to stop there for two to three days to gather supplies. It was also at the intersection of two major trade routes. Because literature was scarce and valued, anything the Trio gave to travelers was treasured or passed along the trade routes.
In Jiuquan, the men students studied and then preached in the streets, and also sold Bible portions. The women students worked to break down barriers of fear with friendship, visiting women in their homes, and sharing the gospel as often as possible.The following Spring, most of the students returned to Zhangye. A few remained with the Trio, going northward to evangelize during Spring festivals before returning to Zhangye for their summer Bible classes. They returned the following winter to their base in Jiuquan. Noticing that curious children followed them constantly around town, they began holding children’s services every evening. Forming a children’s band, the music drew in the adults who streamed in each night for music and a brief message. Because of the children’s band and services for the adults, as the Trio visited homes, everyone already knew them and welcomed them in.
LAUNCHING OUT TO NEW AREAS:
In partnership with Dr. Kao’s church, the Trio experienced a fruitful season. Although Jiuquan was their home base, they knew they were called to move further afield in proclaiming the gospel. In August, they set out toward the desert, visiting all the towns between Jiuquan and the border. Taking their time, they looked to see what opportunities arose. They had conversations with travelers along the road and in the inns. They would stop and stay awhile in towns and villages off the main road, building relationships as they went. Valerie Griffiths shares that Mildred always had her eye on strategy, endeavoring to survey the whole area as they travelled, establishing objectives and planning the future, as the early CIM pioneers had done across China.
When the women passed through Jiayuquan at the end of the Great Wall, they saw the city gates filled with poems written by exiles leaving China. In their years of ministry, the Trio had seen how the people of China spent their lives trying to earn forgiveness. As they left the city, Mildred, Eva and Francesca put their own poster on the gates, offering a message of hope: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Traveling southwest, they visited Dunhuang, the City of Sand (another crossroads town for people from India, China, and Tibet). Here, they met a new people group, the Muslim Uighurs. At this point, the Trio had lived among at least six different cultures, and over time felt at home in all of them.
HOME AND BACK:
In 1926, north China was deep in civil war. The Trio decided this was a good time for a furlough. They set out back along the Silk Road across the Gobi desert. Traveling by an overland route, they finally arrived in London on October 27, 1926. There was tremendous interest in their work, and they had many opportunities for speaking engagements. During their time in London, they were honored with national and royal recognition for their journeys.
Returning to China in 1928, The Trio found it much more difficult to get there this time, and they had to travel inland from the coast. Widespread civil war across China had caused most of the missionary population to evacuate the interior. During the absence of the Trio, national church leaders were of necessity forced to function on their own. The result was tremendous spiritual growth in their lives.
CONVERSATIONS ALONG THE HEXI CORRIDOR:
The Hexi Corridor is a string of oases along China’s Silk Road. As the Trio began their journey westward along that route, they found that every city had locked and guarded its gates in the face of encroaching Muslim forces. They continued to conduct ministry as they waited, and after several months, were able to set out once again.
One of the Trio’s strengths was spontaneous conversation along the way. Some of these conversations were in unexpected places. In Dunhuang, the women found two places of quiet where they could escape the crowds. Wong Tao-si, a Buddhist priest, ran a guest house for travelers. They spent many hours there talking to him about Jesus, and they gave him books to read. Their other refuge was the Lake of the Crescent Moon, three miles from town. The sole resident there was another Buddhist priest who gave shelter to the occasional traveler.As they were leaving there one day, a weary lama (Tibetan monk) arrived. They gave him a copy of John’s gospel and began to tell him about Jesus. They recorded his response, writing, “His face lit up. ‘I know about this,’ he said. ‘This Jesus of whom you speak has been troubling me lately in my dreams. I know I shall have to believe in him.’ And he went on his way.”
Stopping later in the town of Hami, they spent several weeks there. One day they visited the local lama at the temple. Their approach with people was always friendly and respectful. The following conversation is a good example of their gentleness in sharing the gospel:
The Trio: They asked the lama what the crowds were looking for when they came to the temple.Lama: “The remission of their sins.”
The Trio: “Do you know of any way by which sin may be remitted?”
Lama: “No, I do not. Men must do good actions and thus acquire merit.”
The Trio: “Forgiveness is free, lama, and eternal life is a gift. It is not to be won by good works or fastings, for all have sinned. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is Saviour of the world and all who trust in Him have life – eternal life.”
MULTIPLICATION THROUGH PARTNERSHIP:
Leaving the town of Hami, the Trio traveled 6 more days, arriving back in Urumqi. They were a tremendous aid to George Hunter and Percy Mather, single missionaries there. These men were limited in their ability to reach women with the gospel. As a result of the Trio’s visits there, many more women were able to be reached. This time they spent 2 months visiting homes daily. Percy Mather reported that numbers at the Sunday services grew steadily, and the Trio organized a women’s mission for a week. He wrote, “It was fine to see the Church crowded every midday and to watch some three hundred women listening to the gospel message. Our Sunday services are now a great sight and at last the women’s side of the Church is filled as well as the men’s.”
HOME AND BACK:
After another furlough of 3 years in Britain, the Trio returned to Urumqi in 1935. Eva was now 64, Francesca 62 and Mildred 57. Because of a prolonged wait for permits, they had to wait for winter to begin their journey down the Silk Road. This gave them another opportunity to strengthen the church there. Once they set back out along the towns of the Hexi Corridor, they received warm welcomes from all who knew them.Reaching Jiuquan, they stayed for 6 months, resuming their ministries of children’s services, literacy classes, and Bible studies. They also visited in homes and traveled in the surrounding area, but knew their time was limited because of increasing Communist pressures and subsequent tensions. Also, Mildred was struggling with asthma.
THE FINAL FAIRWELL:
In 1936, the order came that all foreigners must leave. Bidding their friends a sad goodbye, they boarded a lorry for the 400 mile journey back to Lanzhou in Gansu province. On the way, the Lord gave them an unexpected gift. The lorry broke down in Zhangye and they had to spend the night there. By early morning, word had passed around the church, and by 6 a.m. people were arriving from miles around to spend one final day with the women who had come to mean so much to them.
From that point on the road was closed, so Eva, Mildred and Francesca travelled by train to Beijing, where they boarded the Siberian railway for London. There they settled, keeping in touch with and giving their support to various Christian ministries and missionary societies. The Trio had become well-known and respected among the Christian population, and they were in great demand.
IMPACT AND LEGACY:
In 1943, Mildred and Francesca finished their book about the Gobi desert. It is considered to be unsurpassed, even today. They were awarded two medals for their travels, the Livingstone Medal and the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal. In 1943 they were invited to Buckingham Palace for tea and to show their photographs.
Mildred, continuing to struggle with her health, died unexpectedly in April 1952 at the age of 74. Eva and Francesca died within 3 weeks of each other in 1961. Eva was 91 and Francesca was 89.
Their impact on the church in China was profound. In her book, Not Less Than Everything, Valerie Griffiths shares that impact with these words, “The Trio had resolutely set out to make Jesus known along the main trade route; they achieved this, selling relevant books and distributing literature in several languages, which would then be carried throughout Asia. They visited and revisited, building relationships and winning confidence and respect, repeating the message until people began to understand. It speaks volumes that the Muslims referred to them as ‘the Teachers of Righteousness.’ They travelled five times along the 1,000 miles of the Silk Road from Jiuquan to Urumqi, and over the years systematically visited the towns and oases of the Hexi Corridor six times.”
Mildred’s comments in 1933 remain true: “During the more than 30 years of my missionary life I have seen the seed spring up in such unexpected places that I have done with questionings and fears as to whether there will be results. Statistics in things spiritual mean nothing to me now. It is ours unstintingly to sow the seed whose life is in itself. It is God’s husbandry and He will give the increase.”
Reading Mildred Cable’s words, I can’t help but think of a quote from Dr. Bill Bright in the latter half of the 20th century, “Success in witnessing is simply sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.”
The Trio has left a legacy upon my life. I am awed by their story, but I am also reminded that they began their journey as ordinary young women who allowed God to use them in an extraordinary way. The thing that made them great was their courage and faithfulness to follow the call of God upon their lives and to walk daily in the power of the Holy Spirit, regardless of the obstacles along the way. They finished well, and I am inspired to follow their example.
What about you? Where have you followed Jesus into the unknown?
Quotes from Not Less Than Everything: The courageous women who carried the Christian gospel to China, by Valerie Griffiths
Susan Allendorf has been on staff with Cru for 30 years. She has served previously in the Campus Ministry, International School of Theology, Nairobi International School of Theology, Orlando Institute and CrossRoads. For the last 14 years, Susan has served on the Women’s Resources team in the Global Leadership Office. She is currently a writer and editor with the Women’s Resources Communications Team. Susan is a widow and mother of a grown daughter, Amy. She loves to read, spend time with her daughter, and take day trips around Central Florida.