Standing by two Christian graves on the outskirts of Urumqi on Easter Sunday morning in 2011 with a group of believers we remembered the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
We also remembered and honoured the sacrifice of the men who gave their lives in Urumqi in the siege of 1933. One, a doctor, who arrived only 18 months previously, the other Percy Mather, a veteran missionary – and the only man to have served with the legendary George Hunter, from 1914 until Mather’s untimely death from typhus in 1933.
Hunter and Mather were pioneers with the CIM, serving in Xinjiang working with all the diverse people of that far-western region of China. They shared the good news of Jesus with Chinese, Manchus, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Mongols, Russians, Hui and many other people groups that make up the mosaic of China’s ethnic complexity.
George Hunter was a dour Aberdonian. Arriving in China in 1889, after language study he was assigned to the newly opened district of Gansu, serving in Lanzhou, Linxia and Liangzhou. His independent, single-minded spirit quickly distinguished him as a loner, unable to work with others, and frequently causing friction due to his firm principled stand on many issues of doctrine and churchmanship. For instance, strictly keeping the Sabbath, absolutely refusing to celebrate Christmas (‘Christ-mass! There shall be no Mass said in this church!’) and firmly denouncing any who sought to introduce games, sports or other forms of recreation. ‘A game? Do you think I am here to play games?’.
He had single-mindedly set his hand to the plough, and he would not look back. Finally being able to trek across the Gobi desert, he settled with Urumqi as his base in 1906. The first missionary to cross the fiercesome Gobi desert; the first to translate portions of Scripture into Kazakh, he was deeply respected by all ethnic groups, local government officials, British and Russian Consuls, and (from afar) his fellow missionaries. He had settled himself to pioneer alone, until Percy Mather, from Lancashire, joined him in 1914. Together they formed a close bond of partnership in the gospel for almost 20 years, based on mutual respect and admiration. The closeness of their bond was masked by their quaint habit of only ever referring to each other as ‘Mr Mather’ and ‘Mr Hunter’.
Far from support of other workers, their dependence on God was comprehensive
The two men itinerated widely – covering many thousands of miles by mule, often away for several months at a time, pioneering in unmapped areas, facing hardships, dangers and toil. Far from support of other workers, their dependence on God was comprehensive. They trekked the furthest reaches of the province, from Kashgar to the Altai, Turpan to the Russian border in Ili, always selling Scripture portions and seeking to share the good news of Jesus. They lived meagrely, preferring a diet of porridge, mutton and rice every day; and were described as ‘dressing shabbily’ on the rare occasion of a foreign visitor. They preferred to spend all their money on the expensive paper on which they spent the winter months reproducing gospel portions in various Mongol dialects – Tibetan, Kazakh, Chinese, Manchu, Russian and Arabic.
Only once did either man take home assignment – Hunter when the Boxer rebellion necessitated his removal in 1900: he didn’t enjoy furlough, but endured it until which time he could return to China and Mather in 1928 when he spent his year in Fleetwood gazing at the sea and looking after his mother.
Through the great instability of the Republican period, with warlordism spreading to Xinjiang in the 1930s and the ensuing civil war, Hunter and Mather treated all people equally with love, kindness and respect, yet always seeking to make Jesus known. Finally in 1931, CIM decided that a new party of six workers should be assigned to support Hunter and Mather. Dr Emil Fischbacher was one of the six, and served all casualties of the siege of Urumqi with Mather at his side; both succumbed to typhus within three days of each other, being buried together in the afore-mentioned grave. A grieving Mr Hunter would later say that the importunate behaviour of some of these new workers led to a deep suspicion by Soviet soldiers that these missionaries were actually spies, and Hunter was indeed later imprisoned and tortured for 13 months by the Soviet secret police. Such treatment and constant pressure to confess his crimes as an imperial spy broke his health but not his spirit, and he only ever confessed ‘I am a servant of Jesus Christ’.
When finally released he was banished from Xinjiang and flown to Lanzhou, never again allowed even to visit the home he and Mather had built. He rented a meagre room as close to the border with Xinjiang as he could get, waiting for the day that he could return to his God-appointed task. Instead, on 20 December 1946 he received his Victor’s crown.
We who seek to follow in their footsteps recognise that the world was not worthy of them, and that indeed we stand on the shoulders of such giants.
Their task is unfinished.
- ‘The Making of a Pioneer’, Cable & French (1935). China Inland Mission
- ‘George Hunter’ – Apostle of Turkestan (1948). China Inland Mission