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It is not death to die

1 March 2011 | by John Legg

It is not death to die

In the year 1881, Jessie Murray, a missionary in China, wrote home describing the death of a Chinese schoolgirl: ‘It seemed as if she had been … to the very door of heaven.’ She had said she was, ‘Inexpressibly happy. I wish you could come – there is nothing to fear.’ The missionary added, ‘It is not death to die. How glorious!’ At the end of that century, 1898-1900, the missionaries and Chinese Christians proved just how glorious it was.

The rise of the Boxers

The work of the gospel was prospering in China, especially that of the CIM (China Inland Mission, now OMF, the Overseas Missionary Fellowship), under the leadership of James Hudson Taylor (1832-1903). Churches were being established even in the interior of the huge country, not just in the ports on the coast. However, the Chinese people, especially their rulers, were reacting against the increasing foreign influence, including the wars to enforce the opium traffic. The Emperor’s mother, the Empress Dowager, (Ci Xi) held the real power and humiliated her son, eventually compelling him to abdicate! She hated all foreigners and worked against them. There was also a drought, causing a severe famine, which was blamed on the foreigners, too.

The ‘Boxers’ were an innocuous-sounding secret society, ostensibly intended to promote boxing and gymnastics. However, it involved military drill and mystical rites, going into trances and foaming at the mouth, while uttering terrifying blood-curdling shouts. The Empress Dowager encouraged them, allegedly to ‘uphold the dynasty’, but in reality to exterminate all foreigners. She proclaimed official edicts in the name of the Emperor, promising rewards for the capture alive of any foreigners, but also issued secret decrees to slay them. Publicly she blamed the murders on ‘bad elements’ among the Boxers. The number of Boxers increased ten-fold in 1900 and they killed ‘many hundreds’ of Chinese Christians.

‘The wolves are unleashed’

The first missionary killing occurred on 31 December 1899. A member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was attacked by a band of men wearing symbolic red head cloths and girdles, chased, captured and beheaded. The Boxer rising had started. The Christians, both missionaries and Chinese, were injured, decapitated or stabbed with swords, burned in their houses or died from the hardships of persecution. Some provincial governors co-operated with the Boxers; others protected the Christians at risk of decapitation. However, their protection often meant house arrest, while offering safe transit could just mean moving the victims away before killing them at a safe distance. Many Roman Catholics suffered too; their priests had provoked the Chinese by imitating the official dress public appearances of the mandarins. In about a year the CIM lost fifty-eight missionaries (around a fifth) and twenty-one children; other societies lost seventy-seven with thirty-two children. Thousands of Chinese Christians were tortured, killed or scarred with a cross on the forehead, and, of course, lost all their property as the town rabble joined in the fight. A.J. Broomhall* wrote, ‘Terrible as the sufferings of the missionaries had been, they were a fraction of the anguish the Christians had endured.’ They refused to recant or to give up their beloved missionary ‘friends’.

For example, on 14 June 1900 the Boxers appeared in a place called Datong and began their threatening drilling. Nevertheless, eighteen new Christians dared to be baptised just four days later. The expected massacre began on 24 June and six missionaries with their four children and thirty-two Chinese Christians were killed by the sword and thrown into the flames of their burning homes. Five of the newly baptised Chinese were among them! CCH (Chang Chih-heng) was a trusted undercover cell-leader known, for safety’s sake, only by his initials in CIM circles until well after the Boxer rising ended. He was entrusted with money for those in need and, with his friends, visited the most dangerous areas, encouraging the persecuted believers, distributing the money as he did so.

Missionary experiences

Most of the following sample events happened in a few days in July 1900. Among those murdered on 1 July was Mary Morrill. She tried to persuade them to kill her and spare the others. A young soldier, aged twenty, heard her and thirteen years later was converted at an evangelistic meeting in Peking. On the 9 July, Thomas Pigott was handcuffed to a colleague as he was transported in an uncovered farm cart; at roadside halts for watering the animals, he and his companion preached to the crowds that surrounded them. A Christian overheard these words from the watchers: ‘They are going to be killed for preaching, yet go on doing so.’ They were both beheaded. On 22 July May Nathan wrote her last letter to her mother: ‘Now we are called to endure, perhaps, extreme bodily suffering. But, darlings, death is but the gate of life; we shall see his face.’

On 9 June Archibald Glover and his pregnant wife, Flora, felt they had to leave for safety at the coast. His later account of their experiences was entitled, A thousand miles of miracle in China. On 12 July they were locked in a room with five stark naked, opium-smoking guards while a mob outside yelled for their execution to bring an end to the drought. Glover remembered Psalm 50:15 (‘call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me’), so they prayed – in Chinese so that the guards would know what they asking:

Scarcely had we risen from our knees when … down upon the howling mobs swept the sudden fury of a torrential flood of waters. In a few seconds the street was deserted and not a sound was heard but the rushing rains. The effect upon our gaolers was immediate; something akin to awe took the place of their hard incredulity. The rain fell in sheets… all that day and far into the night.

The Glovers finally reached safety and much-needed medical care on 14 August. However, Flora Glover’s baby, born next day, lived only ten days, while Flora herself died on 25 October, the last of the martyrs.


The Boxers had attacked the traders’ settlements and besieged the foreign legations in Peking (now Beijing), which aroused the European governments to action. Eventually the armies and navies of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and America recaptured Peking, liberated the foreign legations and ended the Boxers’ reign. Ci Xi, however, cunning to the last, survived to rule again. On 12 February 1901, at a memorial service back in England, one escaped missionary summed up the testimony of those who had died: ‘Perhaps thousands have seen their triumphant death, which yet is not death to the child of God.’

How easy it is to recite ‘to die is gain’ and ‘to be with Christ is far better’ (Phil. 1:21,23) in the security of Wales/Britain. Doubtless it is true that we only receive dying grace when we need it, but it is also true that such grace does not come by accident. All these men and women, and not a few children, first knew what it was to live for Christ, before they were called upon to die for Him. At least this story should place our own trials in perspective. It challenges us in our peace and comfort to witness to our neighbours, support our missionaries and pray for the persecuted in many lands.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.

* For the facts and quotations in this article I am indebted to Dr. A.J. Broomhall’s Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century especially Volume 7 (1989): It is not death to die.