In one sense, there is not a great deal to say about Eleanor (Nellie) and Elizabeth (Topsy) Saunders. Their missionary work in China lasted less than two years. They were Christian girls in nineteenth-century Australia who planned a normal middle-class life for themselves. Nellie was training to be a professional pianist. Topsy was preparing to be a private tutor. But in 1889, Hudson Taylor visited Melbourne and shared about the needs of China. After hearing him, the sisters responded to a call to meet the needs of women and children. They were then accepted as missionaries by the Church Missionary Association (CMA) as their first (and the youngest ever) missionaries to China. While still very young, they set sail - Nellie was twenty-two and Topsy was only twenty. Previous to leaving, they had both received some basic theological and medical training.
After landing in Shanghai, they “went to Fuzhou (福州) in Fujian (福建) province, where they met with Robert and Louisa Stewart, who were to be their mentors and guardians. In Fuzhou they saw “many orphan children especially girls, women with bound and misshapen feet and, by the river, the so-called ‘baby-towers’ where unwanted girls were discarded and washed away.”
The sisters responded to these needs that lay so openly before them. They started learning the local language and then began their work when they had some language proficiency. “Nellie taught boys who would become teachers, women on Sundays, a day school on Saturday afternoons, and she visited villages each week. Topsy taught women’s classes, ran a little dispensary, and was constantly with Chinese women, visiting them and being visited by them. The sisters immediately donned Chinese dress.”
From Fuzhou they later travelled to the remote city of Kucheng (Gutian 古田), “where the mission had established a presence. To identify with the people, the sisters lived very simply, as did all the other missionaries.” There they began their work again.
In the summer of 1895, less than two years after they had landed in China, they went “outside of Kucheng to a place 1,500 feet higher than the city, where there was a summer home where missionaries could rest and fellowship”. A religious movement called zhaijiao (齋教 "fasting school") “had begun wresting control in the area in the wake of the crumbling Qing dynasty. Their power grab was further fuelled by their hatred of foreigners. Early one morning, they brutally attacked the missionaries staying at the summer home, spearing to death most of them, nine missionaries including the Saunders sisters and two children. The murdered missionaries were all buried in Kucheng.” Nellie was 24 years old, Topsy 22.
There was criticism from some sources that the mission had sent women into the interior, especially young women. Yet “the courage and faith of the martyrs stirred greater interest in missions and brought in more recruits. Local Chinese Christians were also strengthened in their faith and dedication to the gospel. Eventually, Kucheng became a vital centre of Christianity in the province. In death, the women continued to speak.”
As the father of five daughters (who are now much older than Nellie and Topsy Saunders), I cannot help wondering how we would have felt at the loss that the Saunders parents experienced. Would they have asked themselves if they should have delayed or even stopped the girls from travelling to China while so young? We very nearly lost our eldest daughter in a car crash while we were in Singapore, and she was in the UK. But we heard by phone within hours. The Saunders parents would not have heard for weeks, possibly. How distant and removed they must have felt. Did they ever get to visit Kucheng? If so, could they forgive the killers for such a costly loss? Did they have other children?
History does not give us answers to those questions. But Jesus, by His words and His death, laid down a marker that lasts for eternity: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Yes, the girls were martyred at a very early age. But as a result, other recruits were raised up, and “Kucheng became a vital centre of Christianity.” There was a double reward for these youngsters: they “produced much grain” and kept their lives (and those of others) “for eternal life."
Source: Studies in Chinese Christianity, edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021.