Letters from Lisuland: The Ministry of Isobel Kuhn

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives commemorates the many women whose unique voices and stories are preserved in our collections and who labored—in the public eye or in obscurity—in faithful Christian services as missionaries, writers, doctors, preachers, musicians, evangelists, and more. This March, the Archives highlights the ministry of Isobel Miller Kuhn, author and long-term missionary with her husband John to the Lisu people of southwest China and Thailand from 1928-1954 under the auspices of China Inland Mission. The Kuhns’ nearly three decade service with China Inland Mission is documented in the organization’s records, including the couple’s voluminous newsletters, a CIM-published biography of Isobel, and John’s report on missionary evacuations from China in 1951, following the Chinese Communist Revolution. Isobel Kuhn’s personal papers, including prayer letters, photographs, correspondence, and articles, are described in Collection 435: Ephemera of Isobel Miller Kuhn, and provide a glimpse into the daily struggles and joys of missionary service—the loneliness and isolation of rural evangelism and church planting, the breathtaking beauty of remote Yunnan Province, Lisu culture and customs, and her own deep Christian faith.

Born in 1901 to Samuel and Alice Miller in Toronto, Canada, Isobel’s academic gifting and talent for descriptive flair were evident early in life. Her father later remarked on her narrative skill in a letter dated August 28, 1931: “Isobel is a happy writer, and the talent that God has given her for making an interesting letter from a small incident is really one of the gifts from the Hand of God, and people are interested in reading her letters.” Isobel, called “Belle” by friends and family, went on to study English language and literature at the University of British Columbia, graduating with honors in 1922. Her university studies marked a turning point in Isobel’s spiritual life. Though she had been raised in a devout Christian home, Belle struggled with spiritual doubt during her years as a student, becoming a self-professed agnostic. In her autobiography, By Searching: My Journey Through Doubt Into Faith (1959), Belle recounted how a broken engagement and thoughts of suicide provoked a spiritual crisis, resolved only by submitting her life to God’s will.

Following graduation, Belle intended to pursue her talent for writing into an academic career at the college-level. But her aspirations shifted again after meeting J.O. Fraser, a celebrated missionary to the Lisu people of southwest China, at a summer Bible conference in 1924, and her imagination was captured by the vision of spreading the Christian gospel among the marginalized Lisu people in the remote interior province of Yunnan. After a stint teaching a third grade class in Vancouver in 1923, Belle began her journey toward missionary service by matriculating at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, where she also met her future husband, John Kuhn, another student also discerning a vocational calling to China. A breeding ground for missionaries-in-training, MBI recognized Isobel as valedictorian of her graduating class in 1926. Still determined to reach the Tibeto-Burman Lisu people, Isobel applied to China Inland Mission twice and was finally approved to sail as a missionary candidate two years later. Departing from Vancouver port on October 11, 1928, Isobel’s earliest writings are preserved in Folder 1-2, describing her ocean voyage and excitement for the work ahead. Various excerpts from letters to her family exhibit Isobel’s descriptive powers and idealism.

We sighted the Aleusian [sic] Islands some days ago! Just one big rocky barren mountainous one was visible. It was a gray drizzly day and lowering clouds around its crest and waves dashed themselves into foam at its feet, but it towered up there serenely independent of its solitude and desolation, and reminded me of great missionary lives that endured hardship and loneliness with that same serene indifference, needing nothing but to know that God was there.

Letter from Isobel Miller to family members, October 15, 1928.

In addition to family correspondence, Belle launched a series of prayer letters after landing in China, a habit she maintained for the rest of her life. These “Letters from Lisuland” capture the novice missionary’s wide-eyed enchantment with the people and places of her new home. The following prayer letter excerpt finds Belle reunited with her spiritual mentor, J.O. Fraser, enjoying stunning landscape of interior China with her fiancé, and an account of meeting Teddy Roosevelt’s intoxicated sons:

On March 29th, I left our dear Yangchow Language School, and came to Shanghai, where our Yunnan superintendent, Mr. J. O. Fraser, met our party and as we glided into the still waters of the cup-like bay, the sun was rising over the towering mountain peaks that circled us on all sides, a scene whose beauty will live in my memory. Our stay was but a few hours, then we boarded a small boat which took us across to Haiphong, Tonquin. From then on we left British rule and Chinese faces for French rule and Anamese faces.

At Haiphong, on the morning of April 14th, a great event took place in two lives—John and I met, after separation of some tree years. He came down to the coast purposely, so that we could have the three days’ journey through beautiful Tonquin and Yunnan together. It was a most wonderfully happy time, and we felt as if we were on our honeymoon. The scenery up through this ‘Switzerland of China” is a series of gorgeous panoramas from mountain peaks, followed by plunges down into valleys shadowed by towering heights…. At Yunnanfu we met with a most hearty welcome from all the missionaries, a large party of them coming down the railroad line to meet us. For nearly three weeks John and I were together in the capital city, hiking over the surrounding hills, going on horseback through the lovely plain, and incidentally shopping and getting ready for our respective s tat. One evening’s program may interest you. We were invited to the American Consulate to dine. It so happened that on that very day Colonel Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt arrived from a hunting trip in the west of the province, and made their home at the Consulate, so we met them persona1ly. But I am sorry to say that they were the worse for liquor.

John and I said goodbye on May 8th, and he went off to Tonghai with a new worker, Mr. Mulholland, while our senior missionary, Mr. Allen, escorted me to my station of North City (the Chinese name is Behcheng). We hope to come to the capital to see one another in the late summer or fall, for a few days, but although he is only about 40 miles from me, Chinese custom does not permit him to come to see me here. This is to be our life for the next year or longer, that is, until our marriage.

Prayer Letter, May 1929 [CN 435, Box 1, Folder 2]

After completing language school, Isobel married John Kuhn on November 4, 1929, in Kunming, China. The couple would spend the next twenty-five years working as Bible teachers and translators, church-planters, and friends to the Lisu people of southwest China, Burma, and Thailand. Besides helping to introduce Christianity to the Lisu people, Isobel Kuhn also introduced the Lisu church to American Christians through decades of newsletters to Stateside supporters, depicting the challenges and progress of translating the Christian gospel across cultural and linguistic barriers with her characteristic down-to-earth style. From 1929 to 1950, the Kuhns and their growing family served among the Lisu in multiple missions stations across Yunnan Province, spending the largest stretch of time in a village called Oak Flat. The “Oak Flatters” come alive in Isobel Kuhn’s letter and photograph collections, both camera and pen capturing the Lisu at work, play, and worship.

 Belle’s talent for bringing the missionary experience alive to American audiences served more than just the Kuhn’s personal supporters. Over her lifetime, Belle authored nine books describing her personal journey to Christian faith, the Lisu people and culture, the challenges of cross-cultural missionary services, and the joys of a ministry marriage. Published by China Inland Mission (later Overseas Missionary Fellowship) and Moody Press, Isobel Kuhn’s titles include Stones of Fire (1951); Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in North Thailand (1956); Precious Things of the Lasting Hills (1963); and Whom God Has Joined Together: Sketches From A Marriage In Which God Is First (2001).

 

Belle not only documented the Kuhn’s evangelistic work among the Lisu, a marginalized tribe within broader Chinese society, but also the tumultuous political climate facing Western missionaries in China. The following prayer letter provides a breezy account of just one rapid evacuation CIM missionaries underwent to escape advancing Communist forces in 1936.

After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Western missionaries began permanently evacuating from mainland China. The Kuhns relocated to Wheaton, Illinois temporarily, but returned to work with the Lisu in 1952, this time in Thailand. In her book, Green Leaf in Drought (1957), Belle captured the harrowing story of Arthur and Wilda Matthews, the last CIM missionaries to escape from Communist China.

 

The Kuhn’s ministry in Thailand was short-lived. Isobel Kuhn was diagnosed with cancer in 1954, and the Kuhn family returned to the United States and settled back in Wheaton, Illinois, where Belle continued to write and published several books before her death on March 20, 1957.

More information documenting John and Isobel Kuhn’s ministry among the Lisu is found in Collection 435: Ephemera of Isobel Miller Kuhn, along with more photographs, and prayer letters, as well as the China Inland Mission Records that contain additional publications from Isobel Kuhn and John Kuhn’s report on the final evacuation from China [see Folder 12-18], among others.

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