We are many who have lost loved ones the past years. Coping with grief is part of life and something we all go through at one point or another, always hoping it will be later, rather than sooner. Through the years I have written a few obituaries. It has always felt a bit strange, trying to fit a loved one’s life within a set amount of characters. And of course, there is so much to a life that can´t easily be described. Often, I find obituarys saying more about the zeitgeist and what people around the deceased want to see in print, than about the actual person.
As I’ve been researching family history, I find myself more interested in personality than profession. Records of personality traits are hard to come by, though. It’s much easier to access information and read about the occupations people had – like how all the men in the family up until the 19th century were smiths of some sort. Sometimes, one can find scribbles in the church books about how well they knew their Bible or if they were living morally, but it would have been even more interesting to know if a person was well-liked, humorous, mischievous or such.
92 years ago, today, my great grandfather Robert passed. To understand what his peers thought of him, I have looked a bit closer at a couple of obituaries written about him at the time.
Robert died from a heart disease when he was 62 years old. He and Dagny had returned to China eight years earlier, after a vacation in Sweden. In the years leading up to Robert’s passing, several of their children had also joined them in China to work in different capacities within the mission.
In the mission’s news bulletin from that time, he is described as never tiring of understanding the difficulties in his assigned districts, often taking time for personal conversations with the Chinese – even in the middle of the night – trying to solve different problems and challenges.
A truthful obituary
The obituary published in the mission bulletin does stand out in a way. I have found this description in several places and I have to say, I am a bit surprised at how his personality is outlined.
It’s not as glorifying or strictly professional as one is used to. Even though there are some sentences that could have been expressed with his family in mind, I kind of like how it’s written. It says more about Robert as a person than most obituaries about lost ones do:
“Robert had a long, work-filled time behind him in China. He was a very thorough and capable missionary. He was always pressed for time, but never hurried. His life was filled with intense work, but he had learned the art of taking care of his own soul. He approached God with the greatest worship, both in public and in his own home. Robert was well cut out for life in Sweden, but he was even better in China – and he is at his best where he is now”.
Yes, one can wonder how empathetic it is to write that a recently deceased man is better off… dead. But in this context, I would say it was some kind of recognition that he was a person that was close to God, and who would fit well in heaven. I have noticed that the missionaries often expressed how they would rejoice seeing each other on the other side.
My great grandmother Olga, for instance, expressed concerns in her letters to her teenage daughters in Sweden. Were they pious enough so that they could get to meet with her in heaven? She saw heaven as her real home, and this life only as a passage way. Therefore it seemed more important to her to see her daughters in eternity, than during this relatively short time on earth.
Myself, I am still working on understanding how it was possible to choose the missionary work over being there for one’s children as they grow up. But times were very different, that’s a certainty.
Not a fast thinker
The obituary continues: “His strong suit was not to think fast, but once the decisions were made, they turned out to be well thought through. Amongst the Chinese, thinking and acting slowly was a virtue. He was most respectful towards the Chinese. The work amongst them was always put first, and thus he won their hearts. The great congregations in the Hancheng and Hoyang districts bear witness to what a God devoted soul can accomplish.”
Additional information can be found in another obituary about Robert. His son Morris was asked to write something about his father after his passing. I’m very happy he did, as he starts back at Forssa Bruk where Morris’ grandfather Wilhelm worked as a hammersmith (I visited Forssa last summer and found the remnants of the old smithy that is still there, hidden in the bushes alongside the river – read more here).
Robert’s eldest son, Morris, writes about his father back in the house where Robert was born in 1867 and where his grandfather started the small congregation that was to inspire Robert to go to China as a missionary.
I can only imagine what he was feeling, putting pen to paper, trying to summarize his father’s life: “Here, my father played as a child, building replicas of the smithy in the stream. My grandfather was a smith. His heart belonged to God and was filled with His praise and worship about God’s work. In his home, travelling preachers were always welcomed, and prayer was often raised from his humble abode.
And Morris goes on to describe his father’s way to the mission:
“When he was around 19 years old, father experienced salvation and started to tell others about it. He understood the mission’s needs and in 1892 we find him as a missionary in China. Father wanted to work as far as possible inland of China, where the least work for God had been carried out.
He had his wish and started out as pioneer in the northwestern part of the mission field. At the time, there was no missionary in the whole northwestern area. The resistance from the scholarly Confucians was tough, but through being very considerate and sensitive, as well as being protected by God, he managed to open the first missionary station in Hancheng in 1897.
Through his opium asylum, the first souls reached salvation and not long after, people started coming from afar to listen to the preachings. One man had travelled 30 days to listen to the gospel in order to bring it back home.”
Robert himself also writes, in one of the small booklets the mission publishes, about the success in curing patients from opium. He submits a few pictures (above). At the time, many Chinese put all their earnings into opium and it was not unusual to end up as a beggar. At the mission station they could get help and replace the addiction for opium with religion.
In the rememberance text, Morris describes how the missionary station became larger and was extended to other areas as well and how Robert and his wife Dagny had great help from many other colleagues. Five male and around 20 female missionaries worked side by side and relieved each other during these first years in China.
The work Robert and Dagny did in China is well documented – both by their own writings and in different books and bulletins, but less is told about how Robert was as a person.
Morris does share some personal memories:
“Father was a person that submerged himself fully in his work. Nothing, that was not directly related to the mission or the honor of God, was allowed to take his time. There certainly are many things that a missionary can rejoice in and give thanks for, that is not pure missionary work: the beauty, of the Swedish nature, Swedish culture, science and art. But father never needed any of this. He was uniquely cast for his service to the mission in China.
Someone said that father did have another interest in life. And it was supposedly politics. His organizational skills brought him a thorough study of daily politics. But if you investigated which newspapers he read, you found that they mainly treated events in China. Sweden and journalism from Sweden were sacrificed on the mission’s altar.”
Politics – a way of life
And it’s true that Robert did have an interest in politics. In 1927 he writes home and talks extensively about the political situation in China:
Robert writes about the national revolutionary army, marching towards Beijing:
“Here and there, they are forced to make halt, due to the resistance they face, but they win the enemy over by promoting them, offering them high salaries and thus most battles are mere fronts, aimed at saving face for the generals that have already been bought. This way, “the south” has already reached Shantung. Listening to the Beijing diplomats and the leading newspapers, it’s only a matter of time before Chang Tso Ling will have to leave Beijing for Mukden. In general, it seems Feng Y Hsiang is not great enough for the reputation he has as a warlord. If one looks closer at his warfare, one sees he has won most of his battles simply by being cunning.”
He goes on about Feng Y Hisang a bit and tells us that Hsiang has left Shensi and is now in Honan, something Robert regards as a blessing and as a sign that Hsiang has lost Shensi. Because of this, Robert thinks there might be a possibility to get the missionary stations there back in an acceptable state.
It does seem Robert follows the politics in China closely. And who wouldn’t, seeing it was a matter of life and death with all the warlords fighting each other for power and the risk of loosing everything he had invested his time and belief in over there.
Chinese at heart
Perhaps Morris’ account of his father was what prompted the obituary that was later widely spread.
He writes: “Father’s strong suit was not to think fast. The decisions came slowly, but they were well thought out. A young missionary could sometimes feel impatience towards this process, where every question was looked at from every angle, but one learned to appreciate this thoroughness, the like of which one seldom witnesses. Father knew the Chinese well. So well, that he almost became Chinese himself in regard to his habits and thoughts. He acted calmly and thoughtfully. His congregation was formed with a safe hand and it grew large and strong. Father was a firm believer in God and God’s word. He usually wrote God’s name with capital letters and after every suggestion he made, he put down a “GOD willing.”
As his children, we also remember his reverence for all that is holy. When father took the Bible in his hands, one could feel how he stood on holy ground. Often, he reprimanded us for having put another book or some object on top of the Bible. Father prayed for us children. He did not pray that we should become missionaries. He did not want to force it. But he prayed that we, in our lives, would honor God.”
In any case, the picture of a thinking man, interested in China, it’s people and politics, trying to help his congregation the best he could and being quite cunning himself – in replacing opium with religion – emerges through these different accounts. I wonder what he, himself, would have thought about it?
Something that strikes me is that humour is not mentioned in connection with Robert in these accounts. Somehow, I thought he was a bit on the humourous side. We’ll see if further research can shed some light on this. At least his wife Dagny is said to have laughed a lot, and I hope she did not have to laugh alone 😉
At least Robert’s wishes for his children came through – almost all of them did become missionaries, as well as many of his grandchildren.
(In fact they made it to the papers by being so many generations simultaneously active as missionaries… I have written a little about this here).
Considering the above, I will make sure to include telling anecdotes if I am to write about someone who has passed away. It might well be that future generations will be happy about that, when there’s no one left to pose these interesting questions. At least I am very thankful to have found these telling records of Robert by his son and the mission bulletin. 🙏