William Soutter helped to build the China Inland Mission premises in Tatsienlu in 1898. But he left a legacy that far exceeds those foundations. Soutter had given himself to mission work to Tibet in 1893 when he responded to Annie Taylor’s appeal for men to take the gospel to Tibet. He was one of twelve men accepted by the Tibetan Pioneer Mission who sailed with her to India in 1894. At Darjeeling, when the British administration did not permit them to cross the border into Tibet, they used the time to study the Tibetan language. Later, Soutter was a tower of strength to his team when they faced severe testing at the harsh outpost of Gnatong near the border of Tibet proper. In 1896, as the door from India into Tibet Proper remained closed, Soutter met with Hudson Taylor and joined the CIM to take up Tibetan work on the Chinese border. Cecil Polhill-Turner, one of the “Cambridge Seven”, credited Soutter for assisting him to compose the book “The Colloquial Language of Tibet.”
Read on to find out about William Soutter and his prayer for others to follow in his place.
William Soutter—“All he did was in the strength of God”
By Zhi Zhi
Little is known about the early life of William Soutter, although we do know that he was born on 25 October 1864 in Peterhead, the most easterly town in Scotland. Following in his father’s footsteps, Soutter went to sea at the age of fifteen. In 1881, when he was eighteen, Soutter accepted Christ during a late night, New Year’s Eve church service, and quickly became an enthusiastic member of the Topping’s Hall Mission. One of his earliest dreams was to serve Christ in Tibet. His first cross-cultural evangelism mission was with some Jews in Russia, during one of his seafaring trips. Visiting a synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath day, Soutter and another Christian sailor shared the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but were both soon chased out by an angry crowd.
In August 1893, God opened the door for Soutter to go to Tibet. Annie R. Taylor, a former member of the China Inland Mission, returned to Britain after a seven-month journey in Tibet. Upon hearing a series of presentations given by Miss Taylor and her appeal for twelve men to take up the work there, Soutter responded with zeal. The twenty-nine-year-old Soutter applied to, and was accepted by the Tibetan Pioneer Mission (TPM) under Miss Taylor’s leadership.
The “Tibetan Pioneer Band” who went out with Annie Taylor (in the center of the group), from Isabel Suart Robson, Two Lady Missionaries in Tibet (London: S W Partridge, 1909), 83, https://archive.org/details/dli.pahar.1851 (accessed 25 February 2021).
The day finally came when, on 24 February 1894, Soutter boarded the steamship “Manora” in London. Traveling with Soutter were Annie R. Taylor, her Tibetan aide, and the other brothers of the TPM. (One of these was married and travelled with his wife and child). All were committed and willing to live and die for Tibet. After a parting prayer meeting, the TPM team gathered on the upper deck of the ship. When the steamship sailed down the Thames, they heartily sang “Praise Him, Praise Him, Jesus my Blessed Redeemer.”
Travelling on ships in the nineteenth century was challenging. The steamship encountered rough seas while crossing the infamous Bay of Biscay. Many had to lie down to reduce seasickness, but not Soutter, for he was a seasoned sailor. On calmer days, the TPM members filled their time by studying the Tibetan language. Having led a seafaring life for fourteen years, and thus missing out on some of his formal education, Soutter at first felt it would be difficult to learn a new foreign language. To make up for his lack of educational grounding, Soutter worked extra hours and came through with flying colors. Attesting to Soutter’s success, Cecil Polhill-Turner, one of the “Cambridge Seven”, who later became Soutter’s team leader, credited Soutter for assisting him to compose the book “The Colloquial Language of Tibet.”
Portrait of William Soutter, “Death of a Peterhead Missionary in China”, Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser, 24 January 1899, 6. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).
The team disembarked in Calcutta on 30 March 1894, after a five-week-long sea voyage. To avoid the April thunderstorms, the team proceeded to Darjeeling after taking just a few days of rest. When they arrived, the local British administration in Bengal informed them that they were not permitted to cross the border into Sikkim or Tibet. To make good use of their time, Soutter and the other team members continued their study of the Tibetan language, assisted by several Tibetans who had fled from Tibet. These Tibetans would never be able to return to Lhasa, as they would have been beheaded for teaching the Tibetan language to Europeans. They also attempted to commence a series of open-air evening services, though opposed by the Chief of Police in Darjeeling. The TPM members were ordered to stop toward the end of the first service. When Soutter enquired whether the music was too loud, the Chief of Police responded that he objected to the whole thing, and would put them under arrest if they continue to hold the open-air meeting. By September, the prohibition of cross-border movement of people had been relaxed. The TPM team then proceeded to 3,650m-high Gnatong in Sikkim to acclimatize. Before departure, they changed into Tibetan attire, an action that immediately won the hearts of local Tibetans. However, the Europeans, like the Jewish priest and the Jewish Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, responded by passing them by on the other side of the road!
Map of Eastern Himalayas, used with permission from Social Science Open Access Repository (SSOAR). Originally published in Alex McKay, Their Footprints Remain: Biomedical Beginnings Across the Indo-Tibetan Frontier (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), 17, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n0qk (accessed 25 Feb 2021).
In Gnatong, the team began to crumble. A military outpost for British soldiers, Gnatong was eleven miles from the border of Tibet proper. This was as close as the TPM could get to Tibet, and the team by then was already reduced to nine adults and two children. Differences also cropped up between the team leader and members regarding the suitability of Gnatong as a new center for their work in Tibet. Stumbles (who later wrote “In Memoriam – William Soutter”) described Gnatong as “one of the most inhospitable places to which I have been, and no one would reside there but those who were really obliged.” This initial difference was further aggravated by the fact that they could only secure a small room, which was subsequently surrendered to the female group members and children. As a result, all male members had to stay outside in makeshift tents. At 3,650m above sea level, they suffered from the cold (their luggage had not yet arrived), malnourishment (there being no animal food delivery for three weeks), and they had to perform strenuous physical labor, helping to build the barracks. Soutter, being the oldest member of the team, and having the right mix of God’s love, justice, and wisdom, became a tower of strength for the other team members.
Subsequently, the TPM was split into two groups. The wife of one member (and mother of two) began to show signs of deteriorating health, resulting in all TPM members except Anders Jensen, Annie Taylor, and her Tibetan aide, to withdraw from Gnatong. They proceeded to Kalimpong, West Bengal, while waiting for Cecil Polhill-Turner of the China Inland Mission (CIM) to arrive and take over from Annie Taylor as the team leader. The handover was finalized in February 1895. The newly formed “Tibetan Mission Band” members then continued their language learning and practice for another year under Polhill-Turner’s leadership. While the door from India into Tibet Proper remained closed, Soutter and five single brothers met with Hudson Taylor, the founder of CIM, at Ghoom in January 1896 to explore the possibility of taking up Tibetan work on the Chinese border. This decision was not taken lightly, as they needed to acquire a fair knowledge of Chinese to enable them to proceed inland with safety. On 17 April 1896, these six brothers headed for West China.
Soutter made good progress with the Chinese language in Kia-ting, Sichuan. In 1898, he was transferred to Ta-chien-lu (or Tatsienlu—打箭炉, now Kangding—康定), which had been set up as a center for Tibetan work in 1897. He first spent five months helping to build the mission premises. Then, together with Johansen—one of the other single men who had gone to West China—Soutter made another attempt to secure a station at Batang. On his way, Soutter became sick. His companion, sensing Soutter might be suffering from typhoid fever, sent a letter to Polhill-Turner for help. Soutter had already been sick for a week, and the letter took almost two weeks to arrive. Upon receiving the letter, Polhill-Turner immediately sent a rescue team of two—Mrs. Rjinhart, a qualified doctor with a nursing background, and a male colleague. Inside the log hut at Rati, a little place three days’ journey east of Batang, Soutter expressed that he would have “liked to do some more work for Jesus amongst the Tibetans, but the will of the Lord be done. Wherever He has a place for me I will try to fill it.” Sensing his sickness might be fatal, Soutter gave deathbed instructions on how to handle his body after death. He also requested his companion to say goodbye for him to his missionary friends at Ta-chien-lu and his loved ones at home including his parents and three younger sisters, Mr. Sharp (Treasurer) and his wife, and his Auntie Betsy who had been praying daily for Soutter for many years. On 19 December 1898, Soutter passed away after a ten-day illness. He was just thirty-four years old. Two Chinese soldiers carried Soutter’s body to his last resting place. As directed, his companion wrapped his remains in his coverlet and then laid him in the grave. Though he died young, some words he spoke at the end of his life ring out as a challenge to those who follow: “I should [have] liked to have lived a little longer, but Thy will be done; only send another to take my place.” Those who dare to follow will need the same testimony that one of Soutter’s friends said about him: “All he did was in the strength of God.”
Soutter’s grave, from Zenas Sanford Loftis, A Message from Batang: the diary of Z.S. Loftis (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1911), https://archive.org/details/amessagefrombat00loftgoog/page/n152/ (accessed 20 January 2021)
 John Bray, “Stumbling on the Threshold: Annie R. Taylor’s Tibetan Pioneer Mission, 1893–1907,” Bulletin of Tibetology (2014): 102.
 H. M. Stumbles, “In Memoriam—William Soutter,” China’s Millions, British ed. (April 1899): 70; “Editorial Notes,” China’s Millions, British ed. (April 1899): 56, http://findit.library.yale.edu/catalog/digcoll:217687 (accessed 25 February 2021).
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“A Lewisham Man in Further India.” Kentish Mercury (14 June 1895): 3.
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“A Ross-Shire Missionary’s diary. With the Tibetan Pioneer Mission.” Ross-shire Journal (5 October 1894): 6.
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https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/6344/ (accessed 30 January 2020).
Yu, Zi. “A Description of CIM Missionary Workers to the Tibetan Highlands Prior to 1950.” Mission Round Table 12, no. 1 (January-April 2017): 42–46, https://omf.org/blog/2019/07/11/cim-missionary-workers-to-tibetan-highlands/ (accessed 25 February 2021).