On Nov. 23, 1891, 15 young missionaries arrived in Yokohama from the United States: six men and nine women. The youngest was 19 years old, and the oldest was 35. Most were in their late 20’s. Among them, 12 were lay evangelists. They had all responded to the earnest call of Fredrik Franson, a Swede who was involved in evangelism around the world. (Fredrik Franson founded the Scandinavian Alliance Mission (SAM) in the US and several missions in Europe.)
All of them were first or second generation immigrants to the US from Scandinavia. They came to Japan from the western part of the United States. Their involvement in Japan was pioneer evangelism to unreached or very-hard-to-reach areas, rather than toward the mainstream population, upper class samurai, or their children.
While studying the Japanese language they resided in Tokyo, and started by ministering among slum areas or “red light” entertainment districts.
Sadly, just three months after they arrived, they lost the youngest member of the group, Marie Engstrom. She had been taking care of a senior missionary who had been sick with smallpox. She also caught the disease and died on Feb. 26, 1892.
As a child, Marie had said that when she became 18 years old she wanted to serve as a missionary in a foreign land. She was ready to go wherever God sent her, and so she joined the team to Japan.
While suffering from smallpox, she kept praying, “May many Japanese be saved through the missionaries and may God bless them.” She also prayed, “When I meet Jesus, I would like to have many Japanese with me.” Her missionary colleagues said, “She has been called to God to pray for our work.”
Her funeral also served as the commisioning service for the other missionaries. Right afterwards the missionaries left for their own areas all over Japan.
Other missionaries from this group who also lost their lives early were Anna Danielson and Hannah Anderson. They worked very hard and gave their lives, damaging their health and dying young, in the difficult-to-access mountainous Okuhida area in Gifu. They went there in the Meiji era when local people had never seen foreigners. The people were filled with hatred for these evangelists for Yaso, a derogatory name for Jesus. They said, “They have beautiful eyes with blond hair, but act like devils. We do not want any foreign religion in our holy Buddhist lands.”
A foundation built
However, because of their labors, several churches were born which have produced many Japanese evangelists. The places where they lived have many big shrines and temples, and from their records we can feel the suffering they endured from local Japanese in those days.
The work of these unsung first 15 missionaries and the prayers of this young 19-year-old girl are the foundation for the ministry by the mission now called The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) and for the more than 200 churches in the Domei church association (Nihon Domei Kirisuto Kyodan—Japan Alliance Christ Church). Their early work has resulted in sending out many evangelists to Japan as well as Japanese missionaries to other countries.
Their spirit was characterized by simplicity, but also great patience, a humble attitude and, despite some clumsiness, great earnestness and passion as they made inroads into unevangelized areas. If more Christian churches today were to carry on in this same spirit throughout Japan, the ministry of the gospel in today’s Japan would be greatly enhanced.
Adapted with permission from Hyakumannin no Fukuin (Gospel for the Millions magazine), November, 2006 issue, Heritage of Faith Series #8. Translated by Don Regier and Sachiko Niimi.