A Brief but Brilliant Witness
Perhaps you are in your mid-twenties – just beginning to taste all the joys of adult life. Maybe you’re in love – you’ve found the man you want to spend the rest of your life with. Maybe you’re even married, and beginning to experience the solid happiness that comes from secure, committed, married life. Perhaps you’ve just had your first baby – and can hardly believe what a blessing God has given you. All your thoughts are of the future: what you will do to make sure this little one has the happiest childhood, the best Christian education, and the brightest start in life a loving parent can provide. At this stage in your life, would you be willing to trust God in everything, if He asked you to give your life into His hands? Could you pray this prayer, and mean it?
Lord, I give up all my own plans and purposes, all my own desires and hopes, and accept Thy will for my life. I give myself, my time, my all, utterly to Thee to be Thine forever. Fill me and seal me with Thy Holy Spirit. Use me as Thou wilt, send me where Thou wilt, work out Thy whole will in my life at any cost, now and forever.
You see, one young woman – a married woman, deeply in love, and with a little baby girl, prayed these very words every day. And one day, God asked her to mean it – utterly, and literally. And she did trust Him.
This young woman was Betty Scott Stam, a 28-year-old American missionary in China in 1934. She had grown up in China, the daughter of missionary parents: Dr and Mrs Charles Scott. It was a happy childhood – the family did everything together. When they returned to the U.S. so that Betty could attend college, they spent six months travelling and studying in Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, France and England. They learned about the history of their culture together. It was a wonderful time – they even saw the tomb where Christ was buried, and the hill of Calvary. After four years of college she attended a Keswick conference, and “surrendered” herself to the Lord in a way she believed she never had before, though she had been a Christian for years. To her father she wrote, “I have never realized that such victory was possible. The Way is just Christ – and complete consecration to His will in our lives.” She dedicated herself, gifts and all, to Him to use as He willed.
Betty Stam’s gifting
Betty certainly had poetic gifts. She conveyed her thoughts, and most particularly her faith, with wonderful expressiveness and clarity. This was her poem, “My Testimony”:
And shall I fear
That there is anything that men hold dear
Thou wouldst deprive me of,
And nothing give in place?
That is not so
For I can see Thy face
And hear Thee now:
“My child, I died for thee.
And if the gift of love and life
You took from Me,
Shall I one precious thing withhold
One beautiful and bright
One pure and precious thing withhold?
My child, it cannot be.”
She wrote this poem when she was considering the call to missionary service; considering, particularly, all that she would perhaps need to give up. At Moody Bible Institute, where she went to prepare herself for mission work, she thought mainly of China, but feared she was selfish, since she loved it partly for her parents’ sake: they lived there, and her heart was also there. Briefly she considered Africa, especially the need of lepers there. But still she was drawn to China. In one other poem she expressed, to her father, the distress of soul and mind that she experienced before she surrendered everything – even her inner motives – to God’s control. The last stanzas tell of the joy and peace that were hers once she did so:
I’m standing, Lord:
There is a mist that blinds my sight.
Steep, jagged rocks, front, left and right,
Lower, dim, gigantic, in the night.
Where is the way?
I’m standing, Lord:
The black rock hems me behind,
Above my head a moaning wind
Chills and oppresses heart and mind.
I am afraid!
I’m standing, Lord:
The rock is hard beneath my feet;
I nearly slipped, Lord, on the sleet.
So weary, Lord! And where a seat?
Still must I stand?
He answered me, and on His face
A look ineffable of grace,
Of perfect, understanding love,
Which all my murmuring did remove.
I’m standing, Lord:
Since Thou hast spoken, Lord, I see
Thou hast beset – these rocks are Thee!
And since Thy love encloses me,
I stand and sing.
Her meeting John
In her early twenties, Betty had learned commitment to Christ’s ways rather than her own. But God also gave her human joys. It was at Moody Institute in Chicago that she met John Stam, the son of a Dutch immigrant father, who had been converted to Christ on arrival in the U.S. to seek his fortune. Peter Stam was given a New Testament in Dutch and English by a friendly woman who prayed that it might speak to his heart. Keen to learn English, he studied it; and believed. Peter was an active, loving Christian, and gave his life to all kinds of evangelistic works – including prison ministry, visiting in hospitals and among the poor. His son John received a great example, but also good instruction in the faith from his parents. Deciding finally on missionary service, he went to Moody Bible Institute.
It was at the weekly prayer meeting of the China Inland Mission (the great mission work founded by Englishman Hudson Taylor in the 19th century) that Betty met John. The host of the meeting, Mr Isaac Page, loved the moving letters of 17th century Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford. They were already precious to John, and he recalled later that “never shall I forget the look in Betty Scott’s eyes as I repeated those wonderful verses on Immanuel’s Land.” (We know these words as the hymn “The Sands of Time are Sinking”). Betty was quiet and retiring, and certainly did not seek John’s attention. But in her he recognised the deep devotion to Christ that he shared. This is what attracted him. However, they were both committed to the will of God, and to missionary service. Neither imagined that would necessarily include marriage. Here is how their biographer, Mrs Howard Taylor, explained their situation:
... the call to China was more and more urgent (to John).
A million a month pass into Christless graves over there (he wrote to his father). God can use us if only we are empty, broken vessels in His hand. Oh, how much more do we need preparation of heart and spirit than of the mind! Pray that I may have that.
Another question was also exercising his mind. For a great love had come into his life. John had never, in the years at home, preferred one girl friend above another. He had kept entirely free in heart and outward relations. He expected not only to go to China unmarried but to remain so for at least five years, as his hope was to engage in pioneering evangelistic work. The forward movement of the China Inland Mission appealed to him, and he was ready to offer for the mountain tribes of the west or the Moslems of Sianking. But now he faced a new situation. “What did this great love mean? Was it a crowning gift that God was bringing into his life?”
John’s father, in summing up the attitude of these two young people, was sure that “Those children are going to have God’s choicest blessing!” He added, “When God is second you will get second best; but when God is really first, you have His best.”
Going to China
Betty was already accepted by the CIM for China. She was due to leave at the end of the academic year, but John had another year of study left. When Betty sailed for China, it was left for them to pray and seek God’s will further. There was no engagement at this stage. It was a long year, but during this time John decided it was right for him to go to China; and he was accepted by the CIM. He was much-loved by his classmates, and was chosen to give the Class Address at their graduation. Reading it is a moving experience. It is obvious that John had a comprehensive concern for the lost: though he was heading for overseas missionary service he saw the need for witness just as much at home. “Now is the time,” he urged, “to reach men whose minds are swept of old beliefs, before Communistic Atheism, coming in like a flood, raises other barriers far harder to overcome, and before this generation passes into Christless graves.” This was a realistic assessment, given the trends of the early 1930s.
When John sailed for China, he first arrived in Shanghai. By strange coincidence, Betty was also there, having gone for medical treatment. What joy! Now, as their futures in China were certain, they believed there was nothing to prevent their engagement. The Mission gave their blessing, and shared their joy. But it was a year before they married. These were troubled times in China. There were bands of bandit soldiers about, and Betty had to learn to stay calm in some trying situations. She was with one young mother whose sick baby was deprived of her medicine for too long on the way to hospital. About the baby’s death, and her parents’ attitude of faith,
Betty wrote: “here in this work you just have to trust everything to God, including your children, and know that He will do exactly what is best, and according to His will.” Of Betty at this time John wrote to his parents: “I was especially glad to see the cool way in which Betty was taking it all. I do thank God for her. But the above will help you to pray more understandingly for her – for us both when we get out into the work. One never knows what one may run into. Be we do know that the Lord Jehovah reigns. Above all, don’t let anything worry you about us.”
The CIM decided that John was to serve in Suancheng in an itinerant preaching ministry with an older missionary, a Mr Birch. He went there to make a beginning to his work during the summer of 1933. But on October 25, John and Betty Stam were married, at her parents’ home in Tsinan. Reuben Torrey, son of the famous evangelist, married them. This what Betty’s mother wrote:
We all thought she looked especially lovely, as she moved with ease and grace in our midst. On her lips was a sweet, happy smile, while she kept her eyes steadily on the face of the bridegroom ... And he, waiting at the altar, had eyes for her alone. We have witnessed many Chinese weddings, even among the Christians, when the bride never once glanced up into the face of the bridegroom, keeping her head bowed as if in sorrow or trepidation, and could not but feel that the willing, trustful attitude in this case made a deep impression on our Chinese friends, especially among the students.
Soon, they were back in Suancheng with the Birches, settling into their itinerant work, traveling often through the mountains and visiting small villages. Though still learning the language, John preached as he was able. They visited unbelievers, new Christians, and those who had endured bravely through times of persecution. Some Christians had only parts of the Bible. In September of 1934 John and Betty’s happiness abounded: they became the proud parents of an especially beautiful little girl, Helen Priscilla. And their work went on. John and another missionary, E.A. Kohfield, were very keen to see new districts progress, and he decided to settle in Tsingteh, a place that had been turbulent because of Communist military activity and a local famine. Assured by the local magistrate that he and his family would be safe, John moved to the area. He was cautious, and prayerful. The local CIM superintendent was happy with the move as well. Mrs Birch, farewelling the little family, wrote: “John was one of the finest Christian men we have ever met. It was a privilege to have his fellowship in the work. The Chinese were especially fond of him. Everyone, young and old, Christian or heathen, liked him. The Christians thought he would become an ideal missionary, because, first of all, he was full of the love of Christ, and secondly, he loved the Chinese so well.”
Soon after John and Betty settled in Tsingteh, there was a sudden attack by Communist forces on the town. It came on the 6th December, a winter’s day. It was early morning, and Betty was bathing Helen when the first messenger came to warn them. The shooting began before an escape could be made. John and Betty knelt in prayer with their Chinese servants. When the Communists came thundering at their door, they opened it with quiet courtesy. Betty actually served the soldiers tea and cakes. John was tied up and taken off for questioning, and soon the soldiers came back for Betty and little Helen. Apparently they had discussed in front of her parents whether they should simply kill Helen outright, to save them trouble. But her life was preserved. They stopped the night in Miaosheo. There, John wrote to his CIM fellow missionaries, and entrusted his letter to the local postmaster. It is a remarkable letter. Despite the stress of the moment, there was not a note of self-pity or fear.
The next morning John and Betty were led out by the Communist soldiers who had taken them, and beheaded by sword outside the town. They were painfully tied up and their outer clothing was removed. The Communists shouted ridicule at them and urged the locals to come and watch the execution. But what of little Helen Priscilla? Her parents had to leave her in the house they had slept in. There was only time to make her cosy in her little carry-cot, with a few dollars hidden in the blankets that covered her. Truly, they could do nothing other than entrust her to God. John and Betty died full of faith, and in a way that deeply moved the unwilling onlookers. All that night and into the next day, the town of Miaosheo was quiet – seemingly deserted. No one dared approach the house John and Betty had slept in, as the Communists were still only 3 miles away. But hiding in the hills were some refugees, including a Chinese evangelist, Mr Lo. For two days and nights they hid in the open, and Mr Lo’s child became very ill from exposure. But on hearing of the execution of two young foreigners, in harrowing circumstances, he could not leave. When he went back into the town, no one dared talk. Just as he was about to leave, an old woman mentioned that a foreign baby was still alive. Furtively, she pointed to the house. Wondering what he would find, Lo went into the house. There were many traces of the bandit army. Suddenly he heard a little cry, and there, in an inner room, was Helen, still safe in her carry-cot. After 30 hours, she was still alive and well. Taking her with him, he went out to the hill where the execution had taken place. There he found his young friends’ bodies. Mrs Lo took the baby, and her husband set to the task of wrapping the bodies and burying them. Then they all fled into the mountains with Helen and their little sick child. On foot, and as secretly as possible (they were in great danger because of the foreign baby) they walked over 100 miles over the mountains to reach the Birches. Just as lunch was being served Mrs Lo staggered in, carrying a bundle. “This is all we have left,” she said brokenly.
The life of Helen
By this time Betty’s parents and the CIM all knew of the tragedy, and Helen’s deliverance seemed a complete miracle. What a special little girl! And what brave and generous rescuers. Helen was cared for by the local missionaries until her grandparents, the Scotts, came to collect her. Her home was made with them; and then later Betty’s sister and her husband adopted her. What became of her? Helen grew up in the Philippines, as her new family were missionaries there. Later she went to the U.S. for college, just as her mother had done. After graduation, she served in student work for her denomination. She has always avoided the publicity her parents’ witness could have attracted, and took her adoptive aunt and uncles’ name. For many years, and until her retirement, she served as an editor of scientific journals.
This unusual story, of a young mother’s faithful witness cut – famously – short by martyrdom; coupled with that of a long, quiet, unobtrusive life lived by her daughter; makes me think of the ways God’s purposes are lived out in the lives of His children. His great plan of redemption is being worked out, in history and through many generations, in different ways. Some are called to glorious, public, yet unimaginably painful testimony. Others are called to live long, patient, unspectacular lives of service to Christ, seemingly without obvious fruit for their labours in stubborn and resistant times. None of us knows for sure what the ultimate effects of our witness will be. But God knows; and one day, we will all stand before His throne and together rejoice in what He has done. I can hardly wait! But can you imagine what rejoicing there will be when, one day, God will take this old lady, Helen Priscilla, home? Can you imagine the delight of her mother and father on seeing their dear child again – this child last glimpsed, lovingly, in her carry-cot in December 1934?
Blessing and glory and wisdom,
Thanksgiving and honour and power and might,
Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.Revelation 6:12