News & Stories


A Description of CIM Missionary Workers to the Tibetan Highlands Prior to 1950

In this research paper, Zi Yu presents the sociodemographic characteristics of early CIM pioneers who sought to take the gospel to the Tibetan plateau prior to the withdrawal of CIM from China in 1952. Based on data extracted from China’s Millions and the CIM Registry, the paper describes key characteristics of the sixty nine CIM missionaries who served in the Tibetan Highlands from around 1880 to 1952.

A Description of CIM Missionary Workers to the Tibetan Highlands Prior to 1950

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 1 (January-April 2017): 42-46

IntroductionThe Tibetan Highlands, also known as the Tibetan Plateau, are located in Central Asia, encompassing “all of the Tibet Autonomous Region and much of Qinghai province and extends into western Sichuan province and southern Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.”[1] Since the mid-nineteenth century, attempts were made to evangelize Tibetans living in the Tibetan Highlands. Leafing through the Directory of Protestant Missions in China, we find that by the early 1900s both the China Inland Mission (1897) and the Seventh-day Adventists (1919) had set up mission stations in the Sino-Tibetan border region to reach out to Tibetans in Tatsienlu (now Kangding), a major commercial center where Tibetan wool was traded for Chinese brick tea.[2] The Disciples of Christ Foreign Christian Missionary Society, in 1916, stationed six couples in Batang, a Tibetan-majority town in westernmost Sichuan close to the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.[3] William S. Martin also described some key individuals of missionary organizations engaged in this effort before 1950.[4] While these missionary workers made significant contributions to the economic, social, and cultural developments in the Tibetan Highlands, no detailed record or overview on their lives and work are yet available.

Tatsienlu, situated in the west of Szechwan, 15,000 feet above sea level. The C.I.M. began work in this center in 1897, making it a base for work in Tibet. China’s Millions (Dec 1913): 187.

Knowing who the missionaries were, where they came from, where they served, and how long they stayed there is the first step to unfold the impact of Christian missionary work in the Tibetan Highlands. Though missionaries from different agencies worked in the Tibetan Highlands, this review only focuses on members of the China Inland Mission (CIM). Established by Hudson Taylor in 1865, CIM reached out to people in rural and inland China. Detailed information on the mission and vision of the CIM is available elsewhere.[5] Between 1865 and 1949 CIM sent 2680 men and women aged eighteen or older to spread the word of God in China.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the sociodemographic characteristics of the individuals who worked with the China Inland Mission among the Tibetans prior to the complete withdrawal of the mission from China in 1952. As this paper is an overview, a discussion of what the workers accomplished and how they carried out their mission is outside of its scope. Future research will be required to examine and report on these important aspects of their lives.


Search Strategy

The information for this review comes from computerized searches of the 1875 to 1952 issues of China’s Millions, the monthly magazine published by CIM. Using the Boolean operator “OR”, the keywords “Thibet”, “Thibetan”, “Tibet”, and “Tibetan” were combined in one search request. Two separate searches were performed. The first was conducted in October 2015 and covered articles published between 1875 and 1935. The second was conducted in June 2016 and covered the years from 1936 to 1952. The two searches yielded a total of 733 article pages.[6]

The articles found were then scanned to identify individuals who met at least one of the specified criteria.[7] The scanning process yielded forty-one eligible single or married missionary units engaged in Tibetan work.[8] To ensure the identified individuals were members of CIM, their names were individually checked against the CIM Registry. One member—James Neave—was excluded from this review because his name was not found in the Registry.

A further internet search was conducted to locate literature pertinent to individuals identified through the above-mentioned search strategies. The phrase “China Inland Mission” plus the name of each identified individual were searched and the titles and descriptive text of the first ten results of each search query were reviewed.[9] In addition, CIM publications identified during the database search were scanned for relevant information on the identified missionaries. Additional materials were suggested by my colleague Joyce Wu.

Data Extraction

From early in its history, CIM produced a Registry of all members that recorded sociodemographic details of each missionary, including: (1) name, (2) date of arrival in China, (3) age at arrival, (4) previous occupation, (5) marriage details (spouse’s name, date, and place), and (6) reason for cessation of membership (e.g., death, resignation, or retirement). The names of those engaged in Tibetan work and the relevant information as listed above were extracted from the Registry and supplemented by details from the List of Directors, Members of Councils, Missionaries, and Stations of the China Inland Mission, which included data on the location of mission stations, including the year when they opened.

To analyze their age distribution at the time of arrival in China, missionaries were divided into three age groups: under 25 years old, 25 to 29 years old, and 30 years old or over. Reasons for membership cessation were classified under five categories: resignation, retirement, death, on reserve list, or withdrawal from China (i.e. up to 1952), whichever came first. Previous occupation was grouped into eight categories: religious (e.g., ministers and missionaries), professional (e.g., physicians, engineers, nurses, and teachers), clerical (e.g. clerks), service (e.g. Draper’s assistant, dressmakers, and parlour maids), labourer (e.g., farmers, miners, coopers, carpenters, and builders), and homemaker and others. Furthermore, two additional variables were considered: “years of service with CIM” (calculated based on difference between the “year of arrival” and the “year leaving membership”); and “age of marriage” (computed as “age of arrival” plus the “difference between the date of arrival in China and date of marriage”). Unless otherwise stated, all summary statistics were expressed as mean ± standard deviation (SD) or number and percentage. Microsoft Excel 2010 (Microsoft Corporation) was used to perform all calculations.


The search identified forty-one missionaries—six single women, and thirty-five men among whom twenty seven were married. Most marriages occurred between coworkers and after their arrival in China. One member—Norman John Amos—married a second time after the death of his first wife. Thus, including the spouses, this review covered a total of sixty-nine individuals. The average age of marriage was 30.0 (SD 3.3) for men and 30.1 (SD 3.9) for women (Table 1).

Their mean age of arrival in China was 26.4 (range 19 to 35 years). The majority of the missionaries were 25–29 years old when they arrived in China. Table 2 records the arrivals during each of the ten-year periods from 1880 to 1949. While only three workers arrived in China between 1910 and 1919, seventeen (25% of total) arrived during the period 1930–39, representing a number almost equivalent to that of the previous three decades.

As shown in Table 1, the majority of the workers (82%) came from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia; with the largest number coming from the United Kingdom (39.1%). While similar rankings of sending countries were observed among women, the top three sending countries for men were the United Kingdom (42.9%), Australia (17.1%), and the United States (14.3%).

The kinds of previous occupations held before joining CIM varied between men and women. While 28.6% of the men had previously been employed as labourers, 20% were involved in religious work before they joined CIM. A full 45% of the women came from professional backgrounds.

Of the sixty-nine workers, 24 (34.8%) served with CIM for at least twenty years and 21.8% (eight men and seven women) served for thirty years or more. The most common reason reported for cessation of membership for both men and women was retirement. Ten workers died while in service, four of whom died during the first seven years of service. The causes of death for these individuals included typhoid (a.k.a. typhoid fever; two people), consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis), and cholera. Deaths among those with twenty or more years of service were mainly attributable to cancer (two people), and heart failure/heart trouble (two people).


From the CIM Registry and China’s Millions, we have identified sixty-nine missionaries who worked in the Tibetan Highlands before the CIM completely withdrew from China in 1952. The data showed that nearly 29% of the male workers had previously worked in fields such as farming, digging, mining, and carpentry. It may be that such backgrounds better adapted them to rustic life and the demands of living and working in the harsh and challenging environment of the Tibetan Highlands. Statements by or about missionaries who served in the area support this conclusion. In a tribute to Robert Cunningham, who was promoted to glory after thirty-five years of service, Arthur Taylor stated that Cunningham had been a leading gymnast in United Kingdom and “his magnificent physique enabled him to remain for practically the whole of his missionary career at Tatsienlu, over 8000 feet above sea level.”[10] Walter Jespersen suggested that CIM assigned him to Tatsienlu because of his farming background.[11] A preponderance of the male workers came from missionary backgrounds. This can be attributed to the fact that five single male missionaries, originally from Annie R. Taylor’s Tibetan Pioneer Mission (1894-95) and later regrouped into Polhill’s Tibetan Mission Band (1895-96), were officially affiliated with the CIM in March 1896 to continue their Tibetan work.[12]

That only three people who joined CIM between 1910 and 1919 entered Tibetan ministry could have been influenced by a number of factors including the founding of the Pentecostal Missionary Union by Cecil Polhill in 1909 which might have drawn away some missionaries, and the outbreak of the First World War (1914–1918) which severely diminished the mission work force.[13] However, the period 1930–39 witnessed a significant increase in CIM missionaries to the Tibetan Highlands, an intake that more than doubled that of the previous decade. The higher than usual number of new recruits might be attributed to the “Forward Movement” initiated in 1920s. In 1929, D. E. Hoste, the General Director of CIM, issued a call to Europe and America for 200 new workers within a two-year period. Despite internal disorder and external aggression, two hundred and three individuals responded and were sent to China by 31 December 1931.[14] Among them, seven were later designated to work in the Tibetan Highlands.[15] The ripple effect of the movement could be felt even years later when several hundred new workers were deployed to China between 1930 to 1936.[16] It is possible that the thirteen individuals sent during the 1940s followed on this growth.

Language learning is a prerequisite for effective missionary work. Based on available published materials, we were able to confirm that 28 (68%) of the identified individuals fulfilled the language acquisition criteria. While most of the workers were still learning the language when the articles included in this review were written, some had demonstrated their proficiency in the Tibetan language over the years. For example, it was said that Euphemia P. Reid Cunningham learned to speak the Tibetan language so fluently that she could gather Chinese and Tibetan women and children around her.[17] Demonstrating their ability in the language, George and Dorothy Bell developed course material for a twenty-five-week Tibetan-language course for new workers in 1950.[18] The book Tibetan-English Colloquial Primer: Kham Dialect, which was published by George Kraft in 1991 and has proved to be invaluable in the study of Kham Tibetan, testifies to his fluency in Tibetan.[19] While these examples indicate that some missionaries succeeded in learning Tibetan, more evidence is needed to clarify the language acquisition status of the other workers.

Up-to-date research data on CIM work among Tibetans is very limited. This review is based on a search of the China’s Millions, the CIM Registry, and other relevant published materials. The data analysis yielded some basic characteristics of the missionaries to the Tibetan Highlands from around 1880 to 1952. However, because an in-depth study of the workers’ assignments has yet to be completed, this paper could not examine the impact of the work at mission stations on local Tibetan communities. In view of the time constraints and limited resources, this review may have left out some missionaries. Nonetheless, the current review represents a first attempt and the first step to acknowledge the contributions of individual workers to the lives of Tibetans living in the Tibetan Highlands. It is hoped that further work will turn the data into stories to highlight how each worker accomplished his or her mission. A summary of these stories would also bring out the essence of the uniqueness of this period of Tibetan missionary work. This review therefore lays the foundation for future research into understanding how these missionary workers impacted the life of the Tibetans.

Beloved Highland

In a special programme broadcast on 10 November 1935, the BBC interviewed Frank Doggett Learner and listeners were captivated as he introduced them to the Tibetan mission work of the China Inland Mission. Unknown to them, they were listening to a man who was welcomed by people in Sining (Xining today) from all walks of life. Read on to find out how Frank Learner witnessed the unfolding story of God’s work in the Tibetan frontier.

Read more


Victory in Weakness

In the winter of 1924, the  Vancouver Daily World  carried the headline, “Bride-Of-Day Sails Away to Mission Field.” That bride, Dorothy Wade Bell, had bid a reluctant farewell twenty-eight months earlier to her husband, George Bell when he left to join his brother and sister-in-law for missionary service in China. George and Dorothy would see the first-fruits of their Tibetan work after almost three decades. Read on to find out how they learned to persevere in faith.

Read more



Theo Sorensen: A Pioneering Literature Evangelist in Tibet

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. Read on to find out how Sorensen was able to persevere in spreading the gospel among Tibetans.

Read more




William Soutter—“All he did was in the strength of God”

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. Read on to find out about William Soutter’s work to reach Tibetans and his prayer for others to follow in his place.

Read more


Bibliography of early mission work in Tibet

Amundsen, Edward. In the Land of the Lamas: The Story of Trashilhamo, a Tibetan Lassie, in Which Are Described Tibetan Character, Life, Customs, and History. London: Marshall Brothers, 1910, (accessed 24 January 2017).

Bell, John and Edith. Tell us a Story. Seattle: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Broomhall, Marshall. The Chinese Empire: A General and Missionary Survey. London: Morgan & Scott, 1907, (accessed 3 February 2017)).

Broomhall, Marshall. The Jubilee Story of the China Inland Mission. London: Morgan and Scott, 1915, (accessed 3 February 2017).

Cable, Mildred. The Challenge of Central Asia: A Brief Survey of Tibet and its Borderlands, Mongolia, North-west Kansu, Chinese Turkistan, and Russian Central Asia. London: World Dominion, 192, (accessed 3 February 2017).

Coates, Charles H. The Red Theology in the Far East. London: C. J. Thynne & Jarvis, 1926.

Edgar. James Huston. The Land of Mystery, Tibet. Melbourne: CIM, 1928, (accessed 24 January 2017).

Edgar, James Huston. The Marches of the Mantze. London: CIM, 1908, (accessed 3 February 2017).

Hinton Linnet. Never Say Can’t. Singapore: OMF, 1987.

Lawless, Agnes C. Under His Wings: Protected by God in China. Pasig City, Philippines: Action International, 2003.

Learner, Frank Doggett. Rusty Hinges: A Story of Closed Doors Beginning to Open in North-East Tibet. London: CIM, 1933.

Macintosh, Amy Bona and May Roy. May Roy: Missionary to Kashmir and the Philippines, etc. Oliphants: London, 1966.

Marston, Annie Westland. The Great Closed Land: A Plea for Tibet. London: S.W. Partridge & Co., 1894, (accessed 6 February 2017).

State Historical Society of North Dakota, “Johan August Johanson Papers,” (accessed 24 January 2017).

Sørensen, Theo. Work in Tibet. Tatsienlu, Szechwan: Tibetan Religious Literature Depot, 1921, (accessed 3 February 2017).

Bosher, J. F. “Moyes, James (1870–1950),” in Imperial Vancouver Islands: Who Was Who, 1850–1950, ed. J. F. Bosher. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2010, 511–515.

Thompson, Phyllis. No Way Back: The Biography of Dr. Rupert Clarke. Guildford: Highland, 1992.

Usher, John Martin. “‘For China and Tibet, and for World-wide Revival’ Cecil Henry Polhill (1860–1938) and his Significance for Early Pentecostalism.” PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2015, (accessed 6 February 2017).


[1] Encyclopædia Britannica, “Plateau of Tibet,” (accessed 24 January 2017).

[2] The China Continuation Committee, Directory of Protestant Missions in China 1921 (Shanghai: Kwang Hsuëh, n.d.) 94, 124, (accessed 24 January 2017).

[3]Directory of Protestant Missions in China 1921, 113.

[4] William S. Martin, “A Bibliographic Essay on American Missionaries to the Tibetan Prior to 1950,” Lungta 11 (1989): 13.

[5] OMF, “History of OMF and the China Inland Mission (CIM),” (accessed 24 January 2017); M. Geraldine Guinness, The Story of the China Inland Mission, Vols. 1 and 2 (London: Morgan and Scott, 1893, 1900), and (accessed  26 February, 2017); James Hudson Taylor, “The Formation of the China Inland Mission,” in A Retrospect: Story of the Origin of the China Inland Mission (Toronto: CIM, 1900), 93-96.

[6] Though James Cameron was among the first missionary workers to make itinerary trips to eastern Tibet (see the diary of his journey into eastern Tibet, published in China’s Millions (1879): 65-73, 97-104, and 109-116), he was not included  in this review because he did not meet the inclusion criteria as described in Footnote 7. Important early articles include: John R Muir, “The Opening of Batang,” China’s Millions 34 (1908): 78; Ch’ung-king Correspondent of the North China Daily News, “A Lady’s Adventures in Thibet,” China’s Millions 18 (1893): 103; Cecil Polhill-Turner, “Suffering for the Gospel,” China’s Millions 17 (1892): 163; G. M. Urech, “Kokonor Camp Fires,” China’s Millions 60 (1934): 45; A. H. Pocklington, J. H. Jeffrey, and E. E. Beatty; “The Advance of Mowkung,” China’s Millions 60 (1934): 52;  Mary Milner, “Tibetan Firstfruits,” China’s Millions 57 (1951): 22; J. H. Jeffrey, “The Claims of the Rgyalrong of Eastern Tibet,” China’s Millions 63 (1937): 232; E. E. Beatty, “Tibet: A Notable Observation,” China’s Millions 56 (1950): 125;  F. Doggett Learner, “Advance in Tibetan Work,” China’s Millions 32 (1924): 70;  R. Cunningham, “A Religious Stronghold,” China’s Millions 40 (1932): 210.

[7] (1) they must have been designated by CIM to engage in Tibetan work; (2) they must have attempted to learn the Tibetan language; and (3) they must have been stationed in one of the designated centers for Tibetan work and reached out to Tibetans for a minimum of two years.

Nine stations were set up in the northeastern and eastern edge of Tibetan Highlands to carry out missionary work. In Qinghai province, the first station was set up at Xining, Qinghai in 1885 (though Tibetan work did not begin until 1891), followed by Kweiteh and Payenjungko (a.k.a. Hwalung) in 1927, and Hwangyuan in 1933. Another five stations were opened in Sichuan including Sung-pan in 1892, Tatsienlu in 1897, Batang in 1908, Weikiu in 1909, and Mowkung in 1933.

[8] See Appendix.

[9] See Bibliography for books discovered during this process.

[10] A.T. [Arthur Taylor], “In Memoriam: Mr. Robert Cunningham,” China’s Millions (1943): 8.

[11] Agnes C. Lawless, Under His Wings: Protected by God in China (Pasig City, Philippines: Action International, 2003).

[12] The five were William Soutter, Edward Amundsen, Johan A. Johansen, Theodor Sorensen, James Moyes, and James Neave. James Neave was excluded from this study because his name is not found in the CIM Registry. For this union, see “Gleanings from Mr. Cooper’s letters,” China’s Millions 21 (1896): 114; John Martin Usher, “‘For China and Tibet, and for World-Wide Revival’ Cecil Henry Polhill (1860-1938) and his significance for early Pentecostalism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Birmingham, 2015), 104. (accessed 19 February 2017).

[13] “Short Report of the China Inland Misson,” China’s Millions (1920): 63-67.

[14] Frank Houghton, “Appendix III,” in The Two Hundred: Why They Were Needed, How They Responded, Who They Are, Where They Are (London: CIM, 1932), 76-78.

[15] These were Arthur Pocklington, Leroy William King, Edward Ernest Beatty, John Howard Jeffrey, Merle Young, Willimena Mirian Graham, and Velma Eunice Booth.

[16] Joel A. Carpenter, “A Thriving Popular Movement,” in Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: OUP, 1997), 29.

[17] R. N. D., “In Memoriam: Mrs. Robert Cunningham,” China’s Millions (1950): 33.

[18] Mrs. George Bell, “Progress with the Tibetan Language,” China’s Millions (1950): 35.

[19] George C. Kraft and Tsering Hu Heng, Tibetan-English Colloquial Primer: Kham Dialect (Littleton, Colorado: OMF, 1991).

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF International website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.