“Stam Baby Safe”: Remembering John and Betty Stam

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.

Telegram

Telegram sent by Robert Glover, China Inland Mission Home Director for North America from 1929-1943. The original telegram is found in Collection 449: Ephemera of the Stam Family.

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
Stam Portrait

Undated portrait of John Stam (1907-1934) and Elisabeth Scott Stam (1906-1934).

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.

John Stam

Portrait of John Stam, taken on the rooftop of Moody Bible Institute a week before his graduation. April 14, 1932.

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.

Stam Wedding

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”
Helen Priscilla

Three-month old Helen Priscilla Stam, where she was found in an abandoned farmhouse two days after her parents’ deaths.

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 and Helen

Helen Priscilla balanced in a rice basket with her rescuers, Pastor Lo (left) and his wife (third from right). December 1934.

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
Helen with Chinese Girls

Baby Helen Priscilla with Chinese schoolgirls in Jinan, China in early 1935, where her maternal grandparents lived.

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.

Letter to Cornelius Stam

From CN 499, Box 1, Folder 5. Letter from CIM North America Home Director to the Stam Family in Paterson, New Jersey a month after the Stams’ death.

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.

Stam Coffins

The coffins of John and Betty Stam, as they arrived under military escort at Wuhu General Hospital for reburial in January 1934.

 

Headstone

Headstone for John and Betty Stam in Wuhu, Wuhu, Anhui Province, China.

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.

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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.

Chariot Racing in the Archives

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On any given Saturday, thousands of Americans are giving garage sales and tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands are looking over these dubious treasures as they lay on card tables set up on the driveway and the lawn.  One thought that must strike anyone who has glanced over these accumulations is that one person, one family in a lifetime sure collects a lot of stuff.  Some of it is obvious – old TV guides, second best dinner settings.  Others are inexplicable – a 1300-year-old coin, a vintage Monopoly board game.  Archivists too, often have the same revelation.  When we get the papers of an individual, it is because they contain substantial information on the topic which is the archives’ main area of interest.  But there will be other things as well that reflect all the unexpected corners one encounters when intruding in the remains of another person’s life.

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Take, for example, Grace Liddell Cox.  Grace was born in 1906 and went to China as a missionary with China Inland Mission in 1934 until she came back to the United States in 1944, having been a witness to the Gospel through war and revolution. Shortly after her return she died, in 1946.  The BGC Archives collects documents about the history of evangelism and missions and Grace’s papers, donated to the Archives by her daughter, contain much that illuminates the part played by women in the 20th century church, the patterns of American missionary efforts, the development of Christianity in China and many other relevant topics.  The accession also documents plenty of other topics, not exactly irrelevant, but different.  Her letters and diaries and scrapbooks and memorabilia shed light on the life of Western Union College, which she attended; the thoughts and actions of an American woman, wife, and mother in the 1930s and ‘40s; and even the nature of cinematic extravaganza of the 1920s as typified by the movie Ben Hur.

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As a young woman of 19 Grace may have attended the film or anyway someone had been impressed enough by the film to pay the whopping 25 cent price for the program sold at the movie theater.  She kept it with her scrapbooks.  Ben Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, was written by an American Civil War general, became an instant best seller, and has been produced as a play and movie many times.  There is usually more emphasis on the spectacular as opposed to the historical or the theological, but it is undoubtedly a rattling good tale.  The 18-page program described in loving detail the production of the 1925 silent film, using a cast of thousands, as the phrase goes, on two continents.  The program contains as well as dozens of images from the film (a few of which are on this page), plot summaries, a history of the book and more.

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And Judah Ben-Hur, as he races Messala one more time across our blog, serves as a reminder that a person’s life is made up of many parts.  In the Archives, when we get a person’s papers, we get a few remaining fragments which allow us to glimpse, perhaps, through the documentation of a life’s major actions and minor interests, all the variety and mystery in every God-created human soul.

More details about Grace Liddell Cox’s life and ministry are found in Someone to Be with Roxie: The Life Story of Grace Reed Liddell Cox Missionary in China 1934-1944 (Miriam G. Moran), a biography written by Cox’s daughter.