The telegram contained only a single sentence: “Cablegram from mission headquarters Shanghai reports Stam baby safe Wuhu.”
Viewed today, the fragile, yellowing Western Union message is unremarkable, but to Peter Stam, its original recipient in Paterson, New Jersey, the telegram furnished yet another detail in a still-unfolding tragedy on the other side of the world. But this time it was good news. Signed by Robert Glover, longtime North America Home Director for China Inland Mission, the telegram announced to desperate, waiting relatives that their granddaughter was alive and safe at Wuhu General Hospital in Anhui Province, China, the same institution where she had been born three months earlier. Only now, she was an orphan.
The deaths of John and Betty Stam at the hands of communist soldiers and the “miraculous” survival of their daughter, Helen Priscilla, have been documented in multiple books, articles, blogs, and testimonies over the decades, becoming something of twentieth-century American evangelical missionary lore. Much like Jim Elliot and the “Auca Incident” twenty years later, the Stams’ deaths shocked American Fundamentalists, heightening anxiety over the spread of global communism and inspiring a new generation of missions efforts.
This December, the Billy Graham Center Archives remembers the lives and spiritual legacies of John and Betty Stam, killed by communist soldiers in Anhui Province, China eighty-five years ago this month and showcases a few items from the Stam Family Papers and China Inland Mission Records (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship).
From Moody to the Mission Field
The oldest child of Presbyterian missionaries, Elisabeth Scott was born in Albion, Michigan but raised on the mission field in China. From a young age, Betty felt called to a life of spiritual sacrifice and missionary service (see Collection 449 for examples of her poetry) and after graduating from Wilson College in Pennsylvania with a stellar academic record, she enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for further training in missions work. A major hub of missionary training in the 1930s, Moody Bible Institute also drew John Stam, another young missionary candidate intended for the mission field in China.
While at Moody, John and Betty’s friendship developed into love, but the couple postponed the possibility of marriage as John was convinced his first years in China would be spent in rural regions too dangerous to for a family.
A year ahead of John in the program, Betty graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1931 and sailed for China under the auspices of China Inland Mission, where she completed six months of language school.
China Inland Mission officially accepted John Stam’s missionary application in July 1932, and he sailed for the mission field three months later. After landing in China, John unexpectedly met Betty again in Shanghai where she was receiving medical treatment for tonsillitis, and the pair became formally engaged.
John Stam and Betty Scott were married by American evangelist R. A. Torrey on October 25, 1933 in the Scott’s garden in Jinan, China.
John and Betty Stams’ wedding portrait. The ceremony was performed by R.A. Torrey (fourth from left) at the home of Betty’s parents (second and third from right) in Jinan, China. October 25, 1933.
The Stams spent the year following their wedding completing further language school and preparing to join the CIM mission work in Jingde. The fledgling mission station at Jingde was only five years old when the Stams replaced the Warrens, a missionary couple due for furlough. In 1934, the region surrounding Jingde was reeling from more than eight years of civil war, plagued by bandits and outbreaks of violence between Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces. After a brief stay in Wuhu, where Helen Priscilla was born in Wuhu Hospital in September, the Stams returned to Jingde in mid-November after the district magistrate personally guaranteed the their safety from communist attack.
“Things Happened So Quickly This A.M.”
Two weeks later, on December 6, Jingde fell to a sudden attack by the communist forces. Moving from house to house, communist soldiers plundered the city. The Stams, along with household staff, were in their home when soldiers appeared, demanding money and valuables. After surrendering their possessions, the Stams were marched to the local jail, where their captors discussed killing Helen Priscilla and forced John to write a ransom note to China Inland Mission headquarters in Shanghai demanding 20,000 dollars for their release (see transcription below). The Stams spent the night in prison, and the ransom note was never delivered. The next day, the foreign hostages were forced to walk twelve miles to neighboring Miaosheo, where they spent the night in an abandoned house. On the morning of December 8, John and Betty were paraded through the city to their execution. When a local Chinese merchant, Chang Hsiu-sheng, pleaded with authorities to spare the couple, soldiers searched his home. Finding a bible and hymnbook among his possessions, they arrested Chang Hsiu-sheng and killed him the next day. The Stams were forced up a hill outside Miaosheo, where they were executed by decapitation at the summit. Their bodies were left behind by the evacuating soldiers.
The “Miracle Baby”
As the Red Army moved out of Miaosheo, a local Christian evangelist, Lo Ke-chou and his family, cautiously returned to their plundered city, where they were told about the deaths of two foreigners. Having met John Stam only weeks before, Pastor Lo recovered the Stams’ bodies and began a frantic hunt for their missing daughter. Retracing the Stams final steps led Pastor Lo and other local Christians to the abandoned home where John and Betty spent their final night. Inside they heard faint crying and found Helen Priscilla hidden in her mother’s sleeping bag with several clean diapers and two five dollar bills.
Pastor Lo hastily arranged a funeral for the murdered missionaries and arranged to carry Helen Priscilla to safety. Traveling northward, Pastor Lo and his family carried Helen Priscilla and their four year old son in rice baskets through the mountainous regions surrounding Jingde, using the ten dollars Betty concealed with Helen Priscilla to buy powdered milk for her. On December 14, nearly a week after the Stams’ murder, the Lo family trudged into Xuancheng, in southeastern Anhui Province and delivered the baby to George Birch at the local CIM mission station. Within hours, the Stam family in Paterson, New Jersey received Robert Glover’s telegram: “Stam Baby Safe.” Transferred to Wuhu Hospital where she had been born three months earlier Helen Priscilla was examined by doctors and declared a “miracle baby.” Shortly afterward, the baby was sent to her maternal grandparents in Jinan, where she lived until the age of five.
Becoming Missionary Mythology
The Stams’ death sent shock waves throughout China Inland Mission and American Fundamentalist circles, as authorities scrambled to uncover how the missionary couple were allowed to return to Jingde despite the Red Army’s presence in the region, and details slowly emerged about the Stams capture and final days. A full month after the couple’s death, Robert Glover sent the following letter to the Stam Family in New Jersey, still piecing together the timeline of events and providing a copy of John Stam’s final written words.
In January 1935, the bodies of John and Betty Stam were reinterred in the foreigners’ cemetery outside Wuhu, Anhui Province at the request of the governor.
Today, the Stams are honored as China Inland Mission martyrs, and for years afterwards the compelling narrative of their tragic deaths and the rescue of the “miracle baby” has become part of twentieth-century missionary mythology. The Stams’ sacrificial deaths are often cited as galvanizing a new generation of missionary candidates, including 700 young people at Moody Bible Institute, the Stams alma mater, and 200 at nearby Wheaton College, all pledging to follow the Stams example of selfless Christian service and echoing John Stam’s final message to his missionary colleagues: “The Lord bless and guide you—and as for us—may God be glorified whether by life or by death.”
The BGC Archives’ fullest account of the Stams’ brief ministry and final days in China are recorded in a packet of letters from missionaries serving in Anhui Province to the Stam family in New Jersey in the weeks following John and Betty’s death. Included below is the extended letter from George Birch, who delivered Helen Priscilla safely to Wuhu Hospital in December 1934. For more of these letters, see Collection 449, Box 1, Folder 5.
The items featured in this post and many others documenting the life and ministry of the Stams are found in BGC Archives Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family. More information about the Stams’ deaths and China Inland Mission’s response to the crisis is found in Collection 215: Records of Overseas Missionary Fellowship.