CHINA: A large “Welcome” sign greeted delegates and visitors as they assembled in the basement of a church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Thursday, December 13, 1900. The primary topic of this conference was a vital issue for those in attendance: should the congregations present organize a church body called the Church of the Lutheran Brethren?
It was quickly and unanimously agreed that such a step would be in harmony with the Word of God and the majority of the delegates agreed that the timing was right for such an action.
On Tuesday, December 18 a decision of major significance was made. The Milwaukee meeting recommended to the newly formed denomination that China be the foreign mission field of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and that it undertake mission work to the country as soon as possible.
The Church of the Lutheran Brethren faithfully continued its mission to China until the communist takeover in 1949 closed the country’s door to international mission.
On the afternoon of December 26, 1922 I attended the Christmas program rendered by the students of the boys’ school. I had a strange feeling of uneasiness and could not remain until the close of the program. I returned to the house with one of my teachers for a season of prayer.” So wrote widowed missionary Juline Kilen, describing the eve of her 23-day ordeal as a captive of bandits in China. Mrs. Kilen was unaware at the time that the bandits had already infiltrated the walled city of Tsaoyang and some were sitting as strangers in the audience with her that day. They had bribed children and beggars to smuggle their weapons and ammunition into the city.
Missionary Bernard Hoff and his wife of four months, Hannah Broen Hoff, were awakened by the sound of gunshots during the night of December 27. By then, thousands of bandits were inside the city. As the Hoffs and Mrs. Kilen climbed a ladder to escape over the back wall of their compound, shots were fired at them. Hoff was hit several times, his wife once. The bandits were looking for hostages to hold for ransom, and had decided to take the young Mrs. Hoff. But Mrs. Kilen intervened—asking to be taken in her place—in order that Hannah might attend to her husband’s mortal wounds.
“I was then taken away and I did not see them again, nor did I see any other foreigner until January 17… About 4:30 a.m. I was taken down the main street. Bullets were whizzing by my head and body. Many dead were seen along the streets. I was taken into several places but stayed in each place only while they looted.
“I was kept in this house in the suburb one day and one night together with a number of other captives. These were tied together with ropes… With the exception of two nights, not a blanket or comforter was offered me during the time I was in captivity.
“A horse was provided for me and we started travelling in a northerly direction. Men came from every direction and joined us until the band appeared to have grown to 15 or 20 thousand, including the captives… The following cities lay in the path of this roving horde: Ku chi, Yangtsai, Pao an, Kiah-sien, Lushan and Juchow, besides countless small, defenseless villages… A very severe battle took place at Juchow on January 10. During this battle I was lying in a little ditch with the bullets singing on their way all around me.
“During the two days and one night after the second battle was fought, every village and house on our way was burned. It appeared as though the bandits were getting frantic. A large body of men was assigned for this task and did nothing but set fires. People were shot down by the hundreds. The cursing, crying and weeping; and the burning and crashing of the buildings—was it a resemblance of hell?
“One night while lying under a table, shivering with the cold, Psalm 91:4 became a living reality. I prayed to God to keep me warm and within a few moments I was conscious of his presence and a warmth surging through my body. Soon I was fast asleep.
“As time went on the soldiers seemed to be closing in on us. The bandits became more nervous and desperate and there was a mad chase up and down the mountains. At times people would fall off their horses or those who were walking would be pushed down and trampled to death.
“[The bandits] were becoming more confused and uneasy and they seemed to think that I was the cause of all their trouble. Because of a foreign captive in their ranks, the soldiers naturally would have to attack them.” The bandits’ leader, Lao Yang ren, gave orders to have Mrs. Kilen executed. Seven officers were assigned the task. They took her outside the village. Hundreds stood watching. Mrs. Kilen asked to write a letter to her daughter. After a moment’s hesitation and without explanation, they all returned to the village, promising to shoot her if the soldiers threatened them again.
The very next day they encountered a large force of soldiers. “After this battle where thousands had been killed, including Lao Yang ren himself, great confusion seized the ranks… We journeyed all night and the next day about noon I was again taken out to be executed. They finally decided it would be safer if they could report to the soldiers that I was no longer with them. When the bandit was about to fulfill his order, I asked permission to dismount from my horse and kneel in prayer. After a moment’s hesitation his gun sank to the ground after which he said, ‘I cannot kill you. You are too good and honest.’ Seeing he really meant this, I got off my horse, sat down and talked to the two men about sin and the love of Christ. The message seemed to touch their hearts and tears trickled down their cheeks and they said, ‘Ah, this is a hard life.’”
After this time, Mrs. Kilen was threatened again with execution, even by burning. “However the threat to burn me was not fulfilled. When I had reached the limit of my endurance and could continue no longer, God intervened and that very night men arrived…to negotiate for my release.”
After the tragic events of December 1923 and January 1924, missionary M.J. Werdal wrote: “Our faith has been tested. With the great task before us and the depletion of our foreign staff by the tragic experiences of these last months, we feel that we can accomplish very little with so few workers. But we must continue by the grace and help of God.” And they did.
The CLB mission to China was difficult work from the beginning in 1902. In the first 20 years, about 500 Chinese people came to faith in Christ and were baptized. The next 20 years saw 500 more. On numerous occasions the CLB missionaries were forced to evacuate due to civil unrest, but each time they returned to their work. Three adult missionaries and at least four of the children died in China. Many experienced severe sickness and various injuries.
From the very beginning of the work, Juline’s husband, Reinholt Kilen, worked toward self-support for the Chinese Church, “because first we want them to understand this work is for their own good and as Christians they must be taught and helped to give, and give with joy and thanksgiving. Secondly, the day will come when the Chinese Christian Church will more or less be left without our help and support. Then they will need to have the faith and courage to carry on the work begun by the mother Church and missionaries.” Kilen, who died of malaria in 1913, was quite right. Eventually, 1948, the CLB missionaries were forced to leave China for good.
Nearly 50 years after the CLB Chinese mission work ended, four men returned to the region for a visit. Americans Joel Nordtvedt, Joel Christenson, Jim Werdal, and Taiwanese Pastor Hsu were blessed to discover that the indigenous Church had not only survived, but had increased approximately 70 times!
Juline R. Kilen served as a missionary in China for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren from 1902 until 1940.
[All quotations are taken from the book Forty Years in China by Juline R. Kilen (Broderbaandet Publishing Co., the forerunner of Faith & Fellowship Press).]