Gray Hair ... A Blessing?
It turns out that Elizabeth would never have been as effective in China if she had come as a young woman instead. It seems her gray hair was especially fascinating to the local women, and they were sure that this “Elder Sister” (as they nicknamed her) was especially wise and knowledgeable because of her silver hair. While many missionaries struggled to gather crowds, the locals begged Elizabeth to talk with them and teach them because of their respect for the wisdom that her hair color implied. They stayed to listen because she was wise, wise in the things of God.
Elizabeth's first year as a missionary was was spent in learning the Chinese language and become accustoming to its culture and customs. Next, she had the exciting opportunity to accompany J. Hudson Taylor himself on a five month tour of missionary stations belonging to the China Inland Mission. This had to be so exciting for her, after waiting so long to work in China.
She then worked in the village of Hankow for three years. After three years, it seemed that a a young couple – the Kings – were preparing to head deeper into China and needed someone to “hold the fort” at their current mission station. This was going to be a difficult task, but Elizabeth was the first to volunteer. She was an ideal candidate: as a mature woman, it was easier for her to travel without being suspected or questioned.
Elizabeth had a coworker on this mission, a young woman named Miss Faussett who had also answered the King's call for help. The decided to make this dangerous trip without a European male escort, accompanied only by two native Christians. This was a brave choice, but they felt it would make their travel easier. They left on this one thousand mile trip, depending on the Lord to be their protector and guide.
This act, by two single female missionaries, is said to have eclipsed all other frontier mission in China up to that time. People were amazed that a middle-aged spinster and her young assistant -- both inexperienced missionaries -- had the courage to travel without a European male escort that deep into China, and succeeded in doing so. This courageous act opened the door for even more frontier work by lady missionaries.
This may not seem like much to us today, but in that time it was pretty awesome. There were many difficult aspects to such as trip, besides just the physical dangers. Any European missionary, male or female, was likely to be accosted by extremely curious crowds; in fact, one missionary lady reported have had 500 visitors to her home in a single day. In addition, there was usually little to no medical help for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles around. Such frontier work also meant separation from other missionaries for extended periods of time, and what missionaries called "close contact with the evils of heathenism.
The Work Continues
After making contact with the King family, Elizabeth and Miss Faussett began to venture out into some of the neighboring villages. They were quite well received (due in part to Elizabeth's graying hair). One year later, though, Mrs. King died from typhoid and left behind a baby boy who died less than a year later. Fortunately, Elizabeth was quite experienced as a nurse and caregiver, and was thus able to provide the King family with help and support.
Elizabeth spent eight years in Han-Chung. At one time, an incident arose concerning a young boy with leprosy that the Hudson Taylor and his wife had been caring for. The boy needed a new home because the Taylors were moving further inland to an area whose environmental would aggravate his condition. Elizabeth offered, without hesitation, to take this young boy with her. She ended up thoroughly enjoying his company, and marveled at both his testimony and the anointing with which he witnessed to the lost.
Elizabeth become seriously ill, and had to moved to another part of China -- Chin-kiang -- to be under the care of a doctor. Her illness became worse, however, and to her distress there was no choice but for her to return to England. She said at the time that if she had been living for China instead of living for God, this would have been an impossible disappointment to overcome. But, she was living for Jesus Christ, and if He saw fit for her to return to England, then she would obey.
Even under the care of a doctor in England, Elizabeth was in great that resulting in countless sleepless nights -- night that she spent in prayer as much as she could. She believed that her health would be restored, but it was not the Lord's plan. Apparently one of the areas of her body that was affected the most by her disease was her throat. She could only speak in a whisper with great pain and difficulty.
She was also concerned that the pain, fatigue, and sickness would cause her to grow cold in her heart toward the Lord ... so Elizabeth made up her mind to seek the Lord even more. In addition, she also worried that she would spend her remaining hours in a way that pleased the Lord.
She continued to carry a burden for China throughout the sickness, and loved to talked to about the missionary work in China with what little strength she had left. She in turn asked that others would pray for her to be given a deeper revelation of her savior, Jesus Christ. In her lasts hours, Elizabeth prayed for grace to bear the pain. She was heard praying softly right up to the time of her death on October 14, 1899 after only two years in three months in the mission field.
Her memorial in China's Millions, the missionary paper produced by the China Inland Mission, emphasized how she had given all for Jesus, and had not regretted it all. That is a powerful testimony in and of itself.
Why did Elizabeth have to wait so long? And why, after she had only been there a short time, did she have to die?
We may never know the answers to these questions this side of eternity, but allow me to make a few observations. First, we tend to forget that God's timetable is not the same as our timetable. Elizabeth had to wait for 30 years to be able to fulfill her call, yes -- but during that time she remained where He had placed her. She shows a high level of spiritual maturity and responsibility in staying with her ill parents, and this was no doubt part of the Lord's will for her. Staying with God's timetable is a form of testing in itself.
Next, remember that her gray hair, the natural result of getting older, managed to help her in the work, including the time she and Miss Faussett ventured deep into inland China. Two young women would likely not have been able to accomplish what she and her associate did. Our society tends to worship youth, and encourage a youthful appearance to extremes. However, youth often lacks what maturity possesses: experience through many trials, wisdom gained from following God for some many years, and lessons learned through trial and error.
Finally, think of the witness of Elizabeth's life as she supported missionary work as best she could while living in England. People knew she was a Christian, knew she was keen on missions, but also knew that loved and honored her parents. She cared for them until their deaths. That is a tremendous witness all on its own. Doing what we can for our loved ones is part of our obedience. Whether we are a parent raising kids or a child helping our parents, that work is as holy in the sight of God as missionary or evangelical work. If we neglect our responsibility to do a work we claim is for God, do we really think the Lord will be impressed?
Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret (free on Audible and 0.99 on Kindle)
Wikipedia, Hudson Taylor
China's Millions 1899, published by the China Inland Mission (for her obituary, look here)
China Inland Mission Digital Archive
China Inland Mission Headquarters Archive and Missionaries of the CIM at the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton University
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.