By Jason Harris
It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Most Christians are familiar with the great British and American missionary martyrs of previous centuries, but perhaps less familiar are the martyrs of Australian missions. The first Australian missionaries to plant their blood in the seedbed of the mission field were two sisters, Topsy and Nellie Saunders, and another young lady, Annie Gordon.
It was 1895 and the anti-foreigner sentiment in China that would eventually break out in the Boxer Rebellion was gathering momentum. On 1 August of that year, the “Vegetarian” rebels carried out an attack on a mission station where the Saunders sisters and Miss Gordon were working (Welch, Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study, 16).
Nellie and Topsy were woken by three men with trident spears who tipped their beds over and dragged them out. Nellie was stabbed immediately and collapsed at the door. Topsy was marched outside and surrounded by several more men. “Walk! Walk!” they shouted at her, “tell us where you have hidden gold!” “We have no gold,” she replied: “there is money in the bedroom. Go and take it.” Angry, one of the braves dug a spear into her. (Gittings, link)
Eleven missionaries were martyred that day. Among them, the three Australian missionaries.
The next Australian martyrdom occurred three years later. Tensions continued to mount in China as the anti-foreigner sentiment, which would culminate in the Boxer Rebellion just two years later, continued to simmer. In November of 1898, missionary William Fleming, who had been saved through the ministry of the YMCA in Adelaide, was stabbed as he attempted to protect his native assistant, Pan Shoushan, from an attack. Both men died in the attack.
William Fleming was one of over 100 missionaries who were recruited from Australia to serve in Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission (Welch, Nellie, Topsy and Annie, 10). Fleming had the distinction of being the first martyr of the CIM. On hearing of Flemings death, Hudson Taylor wrote “How sad the tidings! Blessed for the martyrs but sad for us, for China, for their friends… Doubtless it means fuller blessing, but through deeper suffering” (link).
When the full force of the Boxer Rebellion hit, the violence was unrelenting. Before it was over, 188 missionaries had spilled their blood in cause of the gospel in China (Piggin, Spirit of a Nation, 73). Among them was David Barrett, a young Australian who had been in China for only three years when the rebellion began. On 30 August, as Barrett contemplated the reports of massacres all around him and the prospect of his own death which followed soon after, he wrote these words to a missionary friend:
Our blood may be as a true centre for the foundation of God’s kingdom, which will surely increase over this land. Extermination is but exaltation. God guide and bless us! “Fear not them which kill,” He says, “are ye not of much more value than many sparrows?” Peace, peace to you. We may meet in the glory in a few hours or days…. Let us be true till death. (link)
Indeed “extermination [was] but exaltation” for these heroes of the faith. They are our heritage. Their lives testify that they saw a “better country,” and gave up everything that would hold them back from living for eternity. May we follow in their steps.