Long sealed off from the surrounding world, the kingdom of Tibet, for geographical and religious reasons, had long posed a formidable challenge to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theo Sorensen was one of the pioneering missionaries who faithfully faced the challenge. He served for about two decades (1899 to 1920) in Tatsienlu, the place traditionally known as China’s gateway to Eastern and Central Tibet. He pressed on in chaotic political circumstances and narrowly escaped death to deliver a truce letter during negotiations between Tibetan bandits and Chinese officials. Sorensen was a planter of many seeds. He was the first Protestant missionary to systematically compare multiple aspects of the Christian and Buddhist faiths. He communicated these in booklets and established the Tibetan Religious Tract Society in 1918. The number of its publications reached 160,400 by 1922, with another 650,000 printed in Shanghai. Read on to find out how Sorensen was able to persevere in spreading the gospel among Tibetans despite a lack of obvious results.

Theo Sorensen: A Pioneering Literature Evangelist in Tibet

By Charis

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Zhi Zhi for conducting research on Theo Sorensen and providing the materials for the compilation for this write-up, and in coordination of its publication. Gratitude is also due to Tze Hin for her contribution in editing the article.

James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission (CIM), once said, “To make converts in Tibet is similar to going into a cave and trying to rob a lioness of her cubs.” These words illustrate how difficult it was to conduct missionary work in Tibet. In spite of this, God’s servants were willing to face the challenge of venturing into the “lion’s cave” to shepherd the people of Tibet away from Satan’s powerful influence so that they, too, could become the Almighty Lord’s cubs. One such example was Theo Sorensen, a pioneering missionary from the CIM, which commenced work in Tibet in 1897.

Sorensen was born on 24 May 1873, in Kristiansand in Southern Norway. His father, a shipwright, died during a sea voyage, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise Sorensen and his four siblings. As the family was not rich, Sorensen only received a basic education and started learning boat building at the age of fifteen. His greater enlightenment began as he came to faith at sixteen. Through some Christian friends who were interested in Christian mission, he came to know of the work of the CIM. Determined to become a missionary, Sorensen attended a Bible school from 1892 to 1894 in the United Kingdom.

Commencing the journey to Tibet

While in the United Kingdom, Sorensen became aware of the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, led by Annie Taylor, a member of the CIM. Based in India, the program’s goal was to introduce Christianity to Tibet. In Spring 1894, Sorensen and several other Norwegians, including Edvard Amundsen, travelled from the United Kingdom to Darjeeling and Kalimpong. During his two years in India, Sorensen undertook studies of the Tibetan language and the region’s religions and customs. He also attempted to enter Tibet, but his visa application was rejected by the British authorities. There was no choice but to try to reach Tibet from China.[1] In April 1896, Sorensen and Amundsen were sent by the CIM to study the Chinese language in Chengtu (Chengdu, in today’s Sichuan Province). Two years later, he went to Songpan (also in Sichuan Province) and stayed there by himself for one year. In 1899, he relocated to Tatsienlu (also Ta-chien-lu or Dajianlu—打箭炉, today’s Kangding—康定—in Sichuan Province). It still took two to three months to travel to Lhasa from Tatsienlu, the place traditionally known as China’s gateway to Eastern and Central Tibet. As many of the residents in Tatsienlu were of Tibetan origin, Sorensen settled there and commenced his missionary work.

Woodcut of a Tibetan house, China’s Millions, British edition (1907): 45.

The CIM officially commenced work in Tibet in 1897, with up to ten missionaries assigned to Tatsienlu in the first several years, including Sorensen and Amundsen. However, because their missionary work there was not particularly successful, Sorensen ended up being the only one to remain. When the Boxer Uprising took place in 1900, the CIM office in Tatsienlu was looted and burned down. All of the missionaries who had been there retreated to safety, including Sorensen, who returned to Norway. There he met and became engaged to Cicilie Rasmussen. In 1902, Sorensen returned to Tatsienlu. His fiancée arrived in China the same year to study Chinese. They married in Kiating (Jiading, known as Leshan today, in Sichuan Province) in 1904. During the following years, two of their five children died young, and another son, Lief, died of pneumonia at the age of twelve. Lief passed away in a school administered by the CIM, far away from his parents, which was another devastating loss for the couple.

Narrowly escaping death

Sorensen worked in Tatsienlu from 1902 to 1922, amid one of the most chaotic eras in modern Chinese history. After the Manchu administration was overthrown in 1911, the whole Sichuan region suffered from frequent and violent battles among various warlords, which deprived the people of any security of life and property. Sorensen recalled his own narrow escape from death. In 1915, when Chinese soldiers and a three thousand-strong mob of Tibetan bandits fought over Tatsienlu, he, along with other foreigners, was captured and imprisoned in a temple. The bandits threatened to have them killed and their bodies thrown among the corpses outside the temple. Fortunately, they did not make good on their threat. Another close shave occurred when, during negotiations between the Tibetan bandits and Chinese officials, shots were fired and Sorensen had to crawl his way out of the snowy battlefield in order to deliver the bandits’ truce letter to a high-ranking official in a nearby town. Given a written reply, Sorensen was sent back to the bandits with whom he stayed for several months.

Theo Sorensen leaving Tatsienlu with ten loads of literature for free distribution in Tibet, from Annual Report of the Tibetan Religious Literature Depot for 1921 and 1922, (Tatsienlu: Tibetan Religious Literature Depot, n.d.), 1.

Missionary work using the Tibetan language

In order to enhance the CIM work in Tibet, Sorensen concentrated his efforts on writing and publishing gospel booklets and Christian readings in the Tibetan language. He was the first Protestant missionary to systematically compare multiple aspects of the Christian and Buddhist faiths. In this field, his publications included Buddhist and Christian Explanation of God, Buddhist and Christian Explanation of Creation, Buddhist and Christian Explanation of the Origin of Man, Buddhist and Christian Explanation of Sin, Buddhist and Christian Explanation of Salvation, as well as other booklets illustrating the nature and significance of Christianity.[2] In early 1918, Sorensen established the Tibetan Religious Tract Society in Tatsienlu, which was renamed the Tibetan Religious Literature Depot at the end of the following year. The depot produced Christian booklets in standard Tibetan and other Christian readings for distribution among the Tibetans and for use by other missionaries. Representatives of the depot were also sent to various Tibetan regions to distribute its publications and copies of the Bible. During the first year of its operation, the Tibetan Religious Literature Depot published 50,000 Christian booklets, which were posted to lamaseries—the monasteries of Tibetan lamas. By 1920, the depot had produced 115,500 Christian booklets. The number of its publications reached 160,400 by the end of 1922, and another 650,000 were printed in Shanghai, including collections of poetry and Bible stories exceeding 100 pages.

Woodcut of a lamasery, China’s Millions, British edition (1907): 44, http://findit.library.yale.edu/catalog/digcoll:219298

Sorensen often visited Tibetan villages and temples to distribute gospel booklets and Christian readings in the Tibetan language. He also discussed religious beliefs and spread the gospel among the local Tibetans. Among the thirty or so Bon monasteries (the traditional Tibetan religion) that Sorensen visited, some inevitably refused him entry and/or treated him unkindly. However, whenever a monk, priest, or clerk was willing to receive him, he would embrace the opportunity to discuss religious beliefs with them. Despite the differences in their faiths, Sorensen was able to befriend a good number of Tibetan monks, priests, and clerks. While some of them would request more Christian readings after receiving the initial gospel booklets, others would make inquiries and even launch discussions about Christianity.

Three missionary journeys to Eastern Tibet

Like St. Paul who went on three missionary journeys, Sorensen travelled to Eastern Tibet in 1909, 1918, and 1922 to visit and distribute gospel booklets among the local population. This was a region of precipitous mountain peaks and deep, narrow gorges, with neither clear nor smooth walking paths. The weather was also unpredictable, often turning from sunny and breezy to thunderstorms, hail, and even blizzards in a matter of hours. Worse, there were human obstacles in the forms of bandits who looted and killed. Once, Sorensen and his companions encountered a group of herdsmen who demanded money and other personal belongings in exchange of their safe passage. Another time, a mob of gun-toting bandits were eyeing their horses, and it was only thanks to God’s providence that they left without attempting any harm. In addition to these hurdles, Sorensen’s plans were also often hindered by local government officials. For example, his planned journey to Lhasa in 1922 was denied by local authorities. In spite of this, Sorensen was not disappointed. His clear goal of distributing gospel booklets and other Christian readings in Tibet, helped him press on to faithfully achieve it. Although government officials had prevented him from going to Lhasa, he was still able to spread the word elsewhere, and, over a period of about two months, visited and distributed a total of 60,000 Christian publications to the residents of many towns and villages across Eastern Tibet.

Half of his life devoted to China

Having worked in Tatsienlu for more than twenty years and traveled extensively throughout Eastern Tibet, Sorensen possessed a rich and extensive knowledge of the Tibetan people. As a result, he was declared a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1922 and the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1923. His substantial collection of Tibetan literature provided a treasury of rare and precious reference material in Tibetology research. Sorensen took his family back to Norway in 1923. When they returned to China in January 1925 they were assigned to receive newly-arrived missionaries. Located in Peking (Beijing), he continued to produce and publish Christian readings in the Tibetan language to help spread the gospel across Tibet, while providing much needed assistance to Tibetans sojourning in the capital city. Sorensen and his wife finally returned to Norway in 1936, having served in China for forty years. Cicilie died in 1955. Four years later, Sorensen was also promoted to glory at the age of 86 on 2 December 1959.

Throughout the twenty-one years of Sorensen’s missionary work in Tatsienlu (1899 to 1920), a total of ten local Tibetans converted to Christianity. This number may sound depressingly low in this day and age of cost-effectiveness, but Sorensen was able to persist and persevere in his mission of spreading the gospel among the Tibetan people despite a lack of obvious “results”. Sorensen was a planter of many seeds, and seeds once sown can take many years to bear fruit. He once said, after visiting a Tibetan village, that “It seems as hopeless for them to change their religion as moving the eternal snowcapped mountains of Tibet, and yet it is a great comfort to the missionary to know that Christ shall reign wherever the sun makes its daily journey.”[3] Indeed, although it is seemingly impossible to make converts in Tibet, we are certain that this “great mountain” can and will be moved by our Almighty Lord.

[1] For more information, see Zhi Zhi, “William Soutter—All he did was in the strength of God,” https://omf.org/blog/2021/03/29/mrt-all-he-did-was-in-the-strength-of-god-william-soutter/.
[2] Theo Sorensen, Gtso bo ye shu’i chos dang sangs rgyas kyi chos gnyis kyi byed grag ‘byed pa’i bshad pa bzhugs so = The Difference between Christian and Buddhist Teaching Concerning God, Creation, Man, Sin, and Salvation (Kalimpong, India: World Mission Prayer League, 1962).
[3] Per Kvaerne, A Norwegian Traveller in Tibet: Theo Sorensen and the Tibetan Collection at the Oslo University Library (New Delhi: Manjusri, 1973), 35.

References

陳建明。〈晚清民國時期中國內地會在西南地區的文字事工〉。林治平,吳昶興主編。《跨越三個世紀的傳教運動(1865–2015):內地會來華一百五十年宣教論文集》。台灣﹕宇宙光,2016。[Chen Chien-Ming, “The Literature Ministry of the China Inland Mission in Southwestern China in Late Qing and Republican Periods.” Lin Chi-Ping and Chen Chang-Xing, eds., Christian Missions Spanning Three Centuries (1865–2015): Essays on the 150th Anniversary of CIM-OMF Work in China. Taiwan: Cosmic Light, 2016.]

Kvaerne, Per. A Norwegian Traveller in Tibet: Theo Sorensen and the Tibetan Collection at the Oslo University Library. New Delhi: Manjusri, 1973.

Sanders, A. H. “Forward into Tibet: Diary of a Journey from Ta-tsien-lu (West China) to Dawo and Chango, in Chinese Tibet, by Three Missionaries of the China Inland Mission,” China’s Millions, British ed. (January 1907): 6–7; (February 1907): 21–23; (March 1907): 44–46, http://findit.library.yale.edu/catalog/digcoll:219298 (accessed 26 March 2021).

Sorensen, Theo. “Tibet—Its Widely Scattered People.” China’s Millions, British ed. (April 1910): 62, http://findit.library.yale.edu/catalog/digcoll:219712 (accessed 26 March 2021).

Sorensen, Theo. “Travelling in Tibet.” West China Missionary News XXI, no. 3 (1919): 5.

Sorensen, Theo. Work in Tibet. Tatsienlu, Szechwan: CIM, n.d., https://archive.org/details/workintibet00sore (accessed 22 February 2021).

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