t times, we can see what is unmistakably the hand of God in the spread of Adventism around the world. In speaking of the working of God’s Spirit, Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8, NIV). The Spirit has led in surprising ways throughout the history of Adventist missionary work.
Perhaps the best known and earliest Adventist missionary to Asia was Abram La Rue (1822–1903). Initially a gold prospector, his investment property in San Francisco tragically burned to the ground. La Rue then became a shepherd, and during this time, he received some literature that led him to faith. Eager to share his newfound beliefs, La Rue attended Healdsburg College (today Pacific Union College) and then asked that church leaders send him to China. Due to his advanced age, they encouraged him to go instead to one of the islands of the Pacific Ocean.
La Rue eventually made his way to Hong Kong, where he did ship work while spreading, translating, and promulgating literature to the far ends of the earth. He sold fruit and dried nuts to help support himself and eventually encouraged several sailors to join the Advent cause. When missionaries Jacob and Emma Anderson and Ida Thompson arrived in 1902, La Rue had seven men prepared for baptism. His work resulted in the first baptism by Adventist missionaries in Asia.
The new converts quickly internalized the Adventist message and sought to multiply the efforts of these early missionaries. One example was Timothy Tay, who had converted to Adventism in Fukien (today part of Indonesia) and studied the Chinese language in Amoy (today, Xiamen). There, he made friends with Nga Pit Keh (Zigying Guo), who was the principal of the language school Tay attended. Shortly before he came to the school, Tay studied with Ralph and Carrie Munson, missionaries who had converted to Adventism while on furlough, and Tay had begun to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. Tay studied with Pastor Keh, and Jacob Anderson baptized the two. Tay returned to Malaysia and Indonesia to share his faith; Keh became the first indigenous Adventist minister in China. Their work shows that Adventism was not a western faith imposed upon other people groups but an internalized biblical message that new people groups then disseminated.
Adventist missionary work wasn’t easy. Another young missionary, A. J. Cudney, sought to share his faith across the South Pacific islands. He outfitted a boat that he named after his wife, Phoebe Chapman. Unfortunately, the crew was lost at sea. Yet this loss didn’t diminish the will of Adventist young people to share the Adventist message; they saved their Sabbath School offerings for a new and better vessel. This boat was named the Pitcairn due to the request of the Pitcairn islanders for a missionary. A group of missionaries disembarked on the island to find individuals who had been converted by prior missionaries. The new missionaries baptized most of the people on the island.
Some of the most beloved individuals in Adventist mission history were medical missionaries Fernando and Anna Stahl. They sold their medical practice in the United States and went to Peru in 1909, serving mostly in the region around Lake Titicaca. The Stahls eventually learned the language and customs and fell in love with the people. One day, Fernando met the leader of a local mining company, who had had an accident on a perilous mountain road. Stahl treated the injured man and returned him to his home, not realizing that the person he needed to ask for property was the one that he had cared for. The man told Stahl that local religious leaders had asked him not to give Stahl any land. But his appreciation for the missionary’s care led him to offer Stahl not only land but also a salary if he would become his personal physician. The land and funds sustained the mission during its formative days as Adventism spread to many other villages around the lake.
From Asia to South America and in many other places around the world, our early Adventist pioneer missionaries gave their all to share their beliefs. And just as the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, the Lord has used the efforts of these Adventist missionaries, imperfect at times, to advance His work to the farthest ends of the globe.
Photos courtesy of General Conference Archives