The Martyrdom of John and Betty Stam

It was a bleak December day in brick-walled Tsingteh [today spelled Jingde] in South Anhwei, China, when rumors began to sift through of a possible bandit attack on the city. Farther to the south the muddied waters of the mighty Yangtze rolled through Wuhu, past Nanking, Chenkiang and Kiangyin to stain the blue waters of the Pacific. But no echo of the world’s commerce ruffled the secluded city of Tsingteh this day in 1934. Hidden like a jewel in the heart of rugged natural beauty, Tsingteh was accessible to the outside world only by stone paths cut through the mountains.

John and Betty Stam were not the first missionaries to find their way to this isolated community of people, but they were the first to settle there as a family. Their first child, newborn Helen Priscilla – beautiful with blue eyes, innocent face, and curly hair – gladdened the hearts of the young couple. A rented shopfront on a stone-flagged street served as their home and preaching chapel as well.

John had already demonstrated remarkable facility in speaking Chinese. Fresh from language school in Anking he had attended a spiritual life conference led by Dr. James Graham for Chinese believers. Listening intently, John took careful notes. Immediately afterwards, with surprising effectiveness, the new missionary reproduced these messages in Chinese at a summer conference in nearby Sucheng. Now, however, he was married and wholly on his own for the first time on the mission field.

“Do you think we should leave, John?” wondered Betty as she bathed the baby that morning, little realizing that it would be the last time she would do so. “We’ll wait and see,” replied John.

The stories were contradictory and confusing, the rumors wild and unconformable. No one knew the truth. In the end the authorities were caught off guard. As the bandit horde piled into the city through the unguarded East Gate, the magistrate and his train barely escaped through the West Gate. By this time it was, of course, too late for John and Betty even to think of fleeing. Better stay and weather the storm, they decided.

But this storm was different from any Tsingteh had ever seen before. Wildly cheering, the bandits at last broke through the Stams’ front door. Urging them to sit down, John served the uninvited guests tea. But such courtesies were lost on the outlaws, who were out to avenge themselves on a thankless society, and John and Betty were ordered to get ready to leave.

Although the Stams had been in Tsingteh only a short time, many friends watched silently and helplessly from doorway and roadside as the young foreign couple, stripped of their outer garments, were paraded down the street. John’s hands were tightly tied behind his back. Betty, on horseback, held baby Priscilla. No one who saw them dared to lift a finger to help, for the city was in the grip of lawless terror. Wealthy people, landlords, stragglers among government officials and others were also taken captive. The communist bandits, perhaps fearing a counter-attack, urgently herded their “enemies of the people” along the stone-slab road that led to Miaoshou, some twelve miles west of the city.

John’s arms were probably unbound as the little family was thrust into a mud hut to spend the night, for in those first hours of capitivity John wrote a letter to the China Inland Mission leaders. It said, in substance:

“My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of communist bandits. Whether we will be released or not no one knows. May God be magnified in our bodies, whether by life or by death. Philippians 1:20”

And probably sometime during that night of prayer and suspense Betty tucked provision into her little daughter’s snuggle bunny (hooded sleeping bag) and bundled her into the pile of heavy winter bedding.

But what made the little baby sleep for 27 hours without a cry, a silence that saved her? What happened to the parents when the sun broke over the beautiful tree-covered hillside that December morning? These are questions we still ask. If there were eyewitnesses, we do not have their testimony.

We do know that the bandits moved on to fresh violence. We know that a courageous Christian, Mr. Lo, something of a lay evangelist, followed the trail as soon as he dared. It was he who found the bodies of John and Betty Stam and, at the risk of being discovered by lingering bandits, obtained coffins and sealed the bodies inside. The danger was by no means over – the times were so chaotic, in fact, that the coffins lay there for 40 days in the long grass of the Miaoshou hillside before even government help could be secured to bring them out for burial.

Having cared for the dead, Lo looked for the baby. He presumed she had been ruthlessly killed too – or kidnapped. At any rate there was no sign of the little foreign baby. Quite by accident he eventually discovered her, still sleeping in the little hut, content and carefree, unaware that the sword had made her an orphan for life. But after her long fast she was hungry – that she knew.

In the baby’s clothing, Lo found the ten-dollar bill, miraculously still where it was placed in faith and love by a tender mother, doubtless with the prayer that it might save her little one’s life. That it did. Wonderfully, Lactogen – milk powder of a special brand and a rare commodity in those parts – was found. And the one person in the area who knew the proper formula was Lo’s wife. So when Helen Priscilla arrived at the mission compound in Wuhu, carried there in a coolie’s vegetable basket, she was puzzled, perhaps, but in good spirits and in good health.

When the coffins were finally delivered to the missionary hospital in Wuhu, the heavy coffin lids were lifted to reveal the bodies, lying on their backs, modestly clothed in their underwear, just as they had trod the streets of Tsingteh a month and a half before. Each casket contained probably one hundred pounds of lime. The bodies, wrapped in clean, white cotton sheeting, were preserved in good condition. Apart from deep rope bruises on John’s wrists, there was no evidence of mutilation or abuse.

John’s straight, aquiline nose and jutting chin were tilted in his customary posture of candor and open friendliness. His lips were parted in an expectant smile. One could easily believe that when the dagger struck, tearing a savage hold in the front of his throat, that he saw beyond his assassin to the angel hosts at the portals of heaven. Certainly there was no sign of fear or terror, leading us to conclude that the attack was sudden, and death almost immediate. What courage it must have taken for Lo to make even unskilled attempts to stitch up the torn throat to make it more respectable!

With Betty it was somewhat different. On her face serenity was blended with terror and consternation. Obviously she had witnessed what happened to her husband. But in the same split second a heavy sword swung across her neck from behind, almost severing head from body. Even here Lo had succeeded in sewing the head back on again so that it appeared almost natural. What struck each of us who saw the bodies and what made the sight unforgettable was the underlying look of quiet peace and expectancy on the faces of the two martyrs.

Their bodies lie buried in a little Christian cemetery on a quiet hillside in the rice-bowl city of Wuhu. There they await an Easter deliverance that was denied them on earth. The handful of China Inland Mission missionaries and local Christians at the simple burial service took comfort in God’s assurance, “My ways are not your ways; neither are your ways My ways.” But more than one was heard to say, “Why were the Stams, with all their gifts, taken at the very beginning of their missionary career? And why was I left?”

Only God has the answer.

Helen Priscilla Stam was three months old when her parents were killed in China. She was brought to the United States and was cared for by her maternal grandparents, who had also been missionaries in China, until she was five years old. She was adopted by her mother’s sister and her husband who were missionaries in the Philippines. She grew up in the Philippines and returned to the United States for college, after which she was involved in student work for her denomination. Growing up, Helen wanted to avoid the publicity associated with her family’s experiences, so she took the name of her aunt and uncle. She lives in the Eastern part of the United States, is single, and worked as an editor of scientific journals until her retirement.

John Stam was born in 1907 in Paterson, NJ, and Betty (Scott) Stam was born in 1906 in Albion, MI. They met each other at Moody Bible Institute, where both felt God’s leading to China. Betty went to China in 1931 as a missionary of the China Inland Mission (CIM). John sailed to China next year also as a CIM missionary, and was stationed in a different region from Betty’s. A year later, the two married on October 25, 1933. In September 1934 (note: the civil war in China between government forces and the Red Army had already started) their daughter, Helen Priscilla, was born in a Methodist hospital in Wuhu. Two months later the Stams left Wuhu and returned to their station, Tsingteh.

The terrible death of the Stams shocked many Christians, including Frank Houghton who was at the CIM headquarters in Shanghai. Houghton, serving as editorial secretary of the CIM in England, happened to be in China during that time. His plan was to tour the country to visit various mission stations and to see the progress of the work. The tragic death of the Stams plus the capture of other CIM workers had made any travel questionable for foreigners at the time. When traveling over the mountains of Szechwan, Frank Houghton was reminded of God’s words in 2 Corinthians 8:9 (though He was rich, for your sakes He became poor). These words he made into a lovely hymn, Thou Who Wast Rich. Later Houghton accepted the calling as bishop of East Szechwan in 1937, the year when Japan started an eight-year war with China. Houghton also served as the general director of the CIM from 1940 to 1951.

The Stams’ death has inspired a generation of missionaries, and continued changing many Christians’ lives. The hymn (Thou Who Wast Rich), however, has gradually become unnoticeable over the years.

Thou Who Wast Rich
By Frank Houghton (1894-1972)
French Carol Melody
Thou who was rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who was rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest Man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenward by Thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest Man.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Savior and King, we worship Thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling
Make us what Thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling
Savior and King, we worship Thee.

By Gordon DunnFirst published in East Asia’s Millions, November/December 1984, as “For the Stams No Deliverance”

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