I became very interested in China missions when I traveled there this summer for the adoption of my daughter. I was struck by the busyness of life, the billions of people, and the lack of hope that many seemed to have. What would draw someone to serve as a long-term missionary in China? How does one conduct a missionary endeavor in a closed communist society? I was told before we left that it was illegal to proselytize and the church service we attended was closed to Chinese citizens by law. Conditions were much worse in the early 1930’s when John and Betty Stam dedicated their lives to mission service in the country of China. Although they were initially separated by time and geography, and had not yet been married, they each carried out their initial phase of mission work, cultural adaptation, and language training. We are very fortunate to have many of their letters, diaries, and poems which offer a unique insight into their lives. When communists burst through their doors, bound them, and removed them from their home in China, the couple wondered if they would survive the next twenty-four hours.
Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey where both the English and Holland[i] [Dutch] languages were spoken, John Stam was the fifth of six boys in a family that totaled nine children. Prior to each meal, the Bible was placed and ready for each person to read one chapter and then a prayer was offered.[ii] His father Peter, started a mission called Star of Hope, as an evangelistic enterprise to reach all classes of people and train others for open-air preaching and discipleship. John was impacted by this mission, but it was while away at school he came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. His father had hoped he would help full-time in the mission, and a combination of influences made John arrive at the decision to abandon a business career for full-time Christian service.[iii] His next big decision would be where to obtain an education for this service.
John’s wife, the former Betty Scott, experienced China first-hand, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. Her parents were aware of the hectic schedule and inevitable separation of missionary life so they devoted time for outdoor games, family prayers, and the reading of children’s books.[iv] In a poem Betty wrote to her parents, she expressed their commitment in lines such as “but not content with mental culture, seeing my spirit mourn in night, you taught the Word and way for sinners, until Christ’s Spirit brought me light.”[v] Although, it was not expected or intended, it was no surprise that Betty would return to China for mission work after her return to the states for schooling. She was deeply impacted by a conference at Keswick, NJ and devoted herself to live for Christian service.
One year ahead of John, Betty entered Moody Bible Institute and attended weekly CIM (China Inland Mission) meetings. It was at those meetings that she met John and although they were attracted to each other, marriage was to be secondary to the mission work in China.[vi] John had intended to be a pastor of some community and saw himself spending a short time in China, five years or so, as a single man, unencumbered for the work of service. Betty applied to CIM and eagerly waited to set sail for China in 1931 while John remained to finish his final year at Moody.
Although Betty was very well traveled and had spent a good deal of time in China, this
trip would be under different circumstances. She was an adult, caring for herself and her love was thousands of miles away. She committed herself to the same high standards as her parent’s commitment for the good of the Chinese people.[vii] John was very well thought of at Moody and was asked to deliver the address at his graduation, where he stated,
Let us remind ourselves that the Great Commission was never qualified by clauses calling for advance only if funds were plentiful and no hardship or self-denial involved. On the contrary, we are told to expect tribulation and even persecution, but with it is victory in Christ.[viii]
John certainly had missions on his mind, particularly missions in China. He was accepted by CIM in the summer of 1932 and left for China.
The climate for missionary work in China could be one of excitement for the possibilities of God’s work, but it could also be one of uncertainty. Hostilities against Christian missionaries were spiritual and physical. Since the founding of CIM by Hudson Taylor in 1865, who had as its goal to appeal to the working class for mission service in China,[ix] the cause of Christ was challenged by political forces that sought to expel China of western influences and in the process killed one hundred and thirty-five missionaries and fifty-three missionary children in1902.[x] Thirty years later, there was no great deal of change with communist bandits ravaging the innocent and no short supply of stories of kidnappings. John and Betty, although separated at the beginning of their mission work, would not be deterred by the unrest.
Life on the Field
Betty had written a poem at the age of eighteen in which she described the characteristics she would look for in a future husband. The final stanza offers a summary of the biblical traits she envisioned:
He’ll be, he’ll be, my hero-A strong-armed fighting man,
Defender of the Gospel, And Christian gentleman.
Oh, if he asks a question, My answer “Yes” will be!
For I would trust and cherish Him to eternity.
A few months after John’s arrival in China, he and Betty reunited and were married by the Rev. A. Torrey, son of the famous evangelist. During the service, there was mention of the manner of life and total commitment to the Lord by the young couple. Three quarters of those in attendance were Chinese Christians and many commented on the benefit they received from that.[xi] After years of education, training, and waiting, John and Betty were ready for service together.
Their lives during this time were filled with various missionary activities, such as handing out tracts, evangelism, discipleship, and tent meetings. In addition, they forged numerous relationships with other missionaries and indigenous Christians. Although they lived and served in many places in China, their home during this time was the city of Tsingteh, where they worked closely with the evangelist Lo, who John had a deep respect for, to reach the Miaosheo people.[xii] A lot of great work was being done by the Stam’s and their Chinese friends, and this success also brought with it the knowledge of their activities by the communists.
Faith in the Face of Danger
The Stams had a little girl, Helen Pricilla, and when she was three months old a period of extreme unrest exploded in the city. Communist bandits intruded their home, but John tried to reason with them, and Betty offered tea. John was dragged away and they came later for Betty and the baby. They were forced to march to another city, and John was allowed to write a letter to CIM that there ransom was $20,000. The end of the letter expresses their attitude at the time. “The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.”[xiii] The Stams, as told by witnesses, exhibited tremendous courage during this time.
Little is known of their last hours. They most likely knew of their fate, due to the way in which Betty hid the baby, praying that God would sustain the child until someone found her. The rebels had previously discussed killing the infant, because she might cause too much trouble. With hands bound, they were humiliatingly led through the streets in their undergarments. They were forced to kneel and were both beheaded by sword. John was said to have a look of joy on his face and Betty quivered only slightly.[xiv] News quickly spread, first to those that worked with them and eventually back home. Although certainly grieved, many were encouraged by the thought of John and Betty crossing into eternity together. But what of the baby that was left behind? Thirty hours after the executions, the evangelist Lo risked his life to see what had happened to them and discovered the baby. He said the child was fine as if someone had cared for it for the last thirty hours.[xv] Little Helen Pricilla eventually returned to the states and grew to adulthood.
Lessons from John & Betty Stam
The world sees the story of the Stams as a tragedy. While certainly tragic, the world does not see the eternal implications. We may never fully know the purpose of this event in this life, but there are several things we can glean from their lives and their attitudes during their last days. How do we apply what we have learned from their faith, their parents, and their obedience to the call?
As parents of four children, my wife and I have been given an incredible stewardship by God to bring up the lives he has created and help form them into the type of people He wants them to be. How fortunate John and Betty were to be raised by parents that cherished the Word of God. What a wonderful tradition it would be if we did more than only say a short prayer before a meal, but what if we, like the Stams, prayed and read the Scriptures before each meal. The message for our children would be that we place the Bible as vital to life and food takes a second place.
I have been wavering on whether to take my ten year old son on a mission trip next year, but after reading some of Betty’s writings I am convinced that his being there would speak to him in a way that books and stories never could. Betty actually thought that her surrender for service to Christ was not complete unless she volunteered for service in Africa. She felt that China would not be as much of a sacrifice, because it felt like home.[xvi] What an awesome perspective! As previously stated, Betty’s parents did not expect her to dedicate her life to full-time mission work, but it naturally occurred. Her parents demonstrated the missio Dei by action in the presence of their children. I am asking myself how I can demonstrate the missio Dei to my children. How can I raise them in a way that they see the furtherance of the Gospel and the glorification of God as the essential task of their life?
As a homeschoolers we seek to provide an education for our children that is grounded in biblical principles. Not that parents cannot do this through public or private school, but this was the best decision for our family. It enables us to consistently reinforce that everything they learn has as its sole purpose to edify them for the body of Christ. Everything they learn is a gift from God. This was certainly the attitude of both John and Betty while at Moody Bible Institute. John said himself in his graduation address that, “our educational systems are sweeping us away from faith.” Can one attend public school and a public university and spend his life in secular work and still glorify God? Absolutely. What John was saying, and the lesson we learn from their education, is that all learning must be grounded in the Word of God with its aim to glorify God.
John and Betty were continually forging relationships whether in school or on the mission field. These relationships were a tremendous service to them and they to others in the areas of fellowship, evangelism, and ministry. What relationships am I intentionally building today for evangelism and ministry? Their relationship with the evangelist Lo saved their baby’s life. Betty had felt that it seemed her whole life was one missional relationship after another. They either stayed with or had a missionary couple staying with them her whole childhood. How can I participate in the community of believers?
Following the Call
Schuyler English described John Stam, and referencing Philippians 3:7, as a man in the prime of his life, with every opportunity that America offers a young man, who heard the call. He did not count the cost, but those things that were gain to him, those he counted loss for Christ.[xvii] There is something very affirming when one is called to mission work. Chip Ingram calls this a dislocated heart. It is the overwhelming desire to be in another place for the service of God, to bring the Gospel to the lost, to show mercy to the needy, no matter the costs or the obstacles. Betty Stam’s determination to serve the lost in China was a very compelling part of the reading. Even a deep love for the man she would most likely marry, could not keep her from her true love, the service of God. Although not explicitly stated, the implication that they were risking their lives was a certainty. They were called to China and they responded obediently. Let me respond like that.
Many have remarked that the blood of martyrs is a powerful testimony for the church. I am strangely jealous that John and Betty now know what there suffering brought. I have to trust God that I do not need to know. I am to come closer to God by seeing their faith. English stated just a few years after their death that the witness of John and Betty will continue to be a fragrant flower to those of us who wait down here.[xviii] I wonder if he knew that some of use would still feel that way seventy years after their death. This is why my wife and I read our children missionary biographies. We want them to hear, and feel, and see the struggles, triumphs, sacrifice, and commitment evident in so many people that have given their lives for God. I want to see and want my children to see that to live for Christ and to die for Christ are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They both have their place in service to God. When I get to Heaven, I hope I get to meet John and Betty and thank them for touching my life.
English, E. Schuyler. By Life and by Death: Excerpts and Lessons from the Diary of John C. Stam. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1938.
Hamilton, E. H. Not Worthy to be Compared: The Story of John and Betty Stam, Revised ed. Publisher not stated, 1936.
Taylor, Mrs. Howard. To Die is Gain: The Triumph of John and Betty Stam, 35th ed. Denton: Westminster Literature Resources, 2004.
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
White, Kathleen. John and Betty Stam. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989.
[i] The author of To Die is Gain: The Triumph of John and Betty Stam, Mrs. Howard Taylor chooses to refer to the Dutch language as “Holland.”
[ii] Taylor, Mrs. Howard, To Die is Gain: The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. (Denton: Westminster Literature Resources, 2004), 3.
[iii] Kathleen White, John and Betty Stam. (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 28.
[iv] Ibid., 41.
[v] Taylor, 25.
[vi] Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 403.
[vii] White, 56.
[viii] Taylor, 54-5.
[ix] Tucker, 192.
[x] Ibid., 200.
[xi] White, 76.
[xii] Taylor, 85.
[xiii] White, 104.
[xiv] Taylor, 108.
[xv] White, 115.
[xvi] E.H. Hamilton, Not Worthy to be Compared: The Story of John and Betty Stam, Revised ed. (Publisher Not Stated, 1936), 16.
[xvii] E. Schuyler English, By Life and by Death: Excerpts and Lessons from the Diary of John C. Stam, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1938), 52.
[xviii] Ibid., 62.