Anna Ziese was born in 1895 in Germany where she attended public school. In 1911 she immigrated to the United States to live with her older brother Carl in Baltimore where Ziese found work as a private nanny, and shortly after heard the Pentecostal message and was “wonderfully saved and rejoiced in [her] Redeemer.” That same year her mother passed away, followed by her father a year later. Ziese’s sisters Helene and Ida had also immigrated to the United States, and in 1911 Ida married Edgar C. Steinberg and moved to Shanghai where they served as missionaries with the Apostolic Faith Mission 使徒信心会. Marriage was in the air, as sister Helene soon wed an Assemblies of God minister and Ziese herself became engaged to a dentist. This was not to be, however, for now Ziese sensed a call to China missions, and as the dentist did not share her calling she broke off the engagement and enrolled at the Elim Bible Training Institute in Rochester New York. Ziese emerged from her 1916-1918 course of studies firmly committed to a life of mission, inspired by a heavenly vision of the lost and perishing. She wanted to be a foreign missionary in order “to tell others of His love;” and she wished to go to China, specifically, because “God has called me” to go there.
In March 1920 Ziese was finally appointed as a missionary with the Assemblies of God 神召会 and sent out by the Elim Faith Work of Rochester, New York. She sailed for China in April 1920 to join the Steinbergs, who had been serving in Taiyuan, Shanxi since 1914 and by 1916 were also serving with the Assemblies of God. Though little is known about how she acquired the Chinese language, Ziese appears to have immediately jumped into a range of mission work throughout the city and outlying villages, ministering especially among the women. Her letters home during these early years recounted the terrible destruction of famine and her efforts with the Steinbergs to alleviate some of the human suffering, as well as stories of miraculous healings and spiritual warfare involving the “baptism of the Spirit” and speaking in tongues. At the height of the Anti-Foreign and Anti-Christian movements of the late 1920s, Ziese reported (with regret) that the Taiyuan government felt it necessary to send police to guard her home, even as angry crowds roamed the streets of the city.
Shortly after her arrival in Taiyuan, Ziese and her brother-in-law Steinberg had begun a ministry in the city prison. According to one letter from 1923, Ziese and Steinberg “go to the prison every week and they [the prisoners] usually meet us with smiles, and they love to sing with us and we are trusting God to touch their hearts that they may be saved.” This work continued for many years, with Ziese’s time in the women’s department (women were not allowed in the men’s department) proving especially fruitful. Ziese herself did not perform baptisms, but in one letter published in 1932 she describes a baptism service at the prison officiated by Balthasar August Theodor Bard, also known as “Brother Bard,” another Assemblies of God missionary who had earlier worked in Taigu 太古 and Yuci 榆次, but had since moved on to a Bible school in Beijing. One hundred and sixty female prisoners attended the service to see four women receive baptism; the previous year seventeen women had been baptized, including several women who were serving life sentences. Another letter published in 1935 describes the baptism of eighty-one men and five women, as well as the testimonies of two older female prisoners who had found joy and physical healing through Jesus as they neared the end of their life sentences. Ziese’s persistent labors in the prison were bearing fruit.
Anna Ziese tended to work on her own, though she got along very well with the rest of the missionary community. As described by her fellow missionaries, Ziese was tall (1.8 meters) and something of a homebody. Her motherly mannerisms and prematurely white hair ensured that the missionary children and many of the adults called her “Auntie Anna.” Family tradition suggests that Ziese may have at some point adopted a Chinese daughter of her own, but there is no other evidence to support this claim. As her second decade in Taiyuan progressed Ziese’s kinship with her Chinese brothers and sisters also deepened. As one colleague recalled, “she was one with the Chinese, dressed Chinese, ate Chinese food.” Ziese was comparatively quick to promote Chinese Christians into positions of leadership in the churches she cared for, which included a large church on Xiyang Shi Street 西洋市街 in Taiyuan as well as several other smaller fellowships and outstations which over the course of her lifetime of ministry were increasingly located in Jinzhong 晋中 just south of Taiyuan. Her reliance on male missionaries for the baptisms in her prison work may reflect a theological preference for male leadership in ecclesiastical matters—perhaps further encouraging her promotion of local believing men into positions of authority.
Throughout her forty-nine years of missionary service Ziese only left China once, for a period of furlough from 1928-1930. During those two years she returned to the Elim Bible Training Institute as well as spending time with her sister Ida Steinberg and family in Minnesota (the Steinbergs had left China in 1923). Attempts in the 1940s to send Ziese on a second furlough failed owing to a lack of funds and Ziese’s own unwillingness to go.
Following her furlough, Ziese returned to a China increasingly consumed by war. She immediately resumed caring for the churches she had helped plant and ministering to the women of Taiyuan, both in the prison and in their homes. Taiyuan’s residents were terrified of the coming Japanese invaders, and many chose to flee the city or construct hiding places prior to the occupation of the city by the Japanese in 1937. In the midst of this widespread panic, Ziese drew upon a peace that was literally otherworldly:
I am glad that we as children of God know and feel that He is our refuge and strength, yea a present help in need, and I feel sure that He is able to protect us, but should He see fit to take us home this way, then it is all right, too, for this world is not our home anyway.
During the 1930s many China missionaries were imprisoned by the Japanese. Although sent out and supported from North America, Ziese had never become an American citizen. With no valid passport, Ziese headed to Tianjin in 1939, where she managed to renew her long-since expired German passport. Returning to Shanxi as a citizen of Japan’s ally, Ziese was now free to remain in Taiyuan with her fellow Chinese Christians. While violence eventually forced her to retreat to Beijing for a few months, Ziese was back in Taiyuan when the city was captured by the Chinese Communists in 1949.
At a gathering of foreign missionaries at the Yuci Church in Jinzhong at about this time, Ziese resisted her coworkers’ efforts to persuade her to leave, pointing out that with no family members left in Germany she would much prefer to stay in China. Still, by 1951 most of the missionaries had left China, either by choice or by force. Ziese’s Beijing colleague Bard eventually ordered Ziese to pack her trunk and join the rest of her coworkers on a steamer out of Shanghai bound for the USA. Ziese arrived with her baggage in Shanghai not long after, but at the last minute she bolted from the dock and caught the last flight back to Taiyuan, her worldly possessions abandoned to travel to America without her.
Few details remain of her ensuing years in Taiyuan. From time to time a brief letter from Ziese would reach family members, affirming that she was being taken care of and treated well. The spread of Communism through Eastern Europe left Ziese an unwitting citizen of East Germany, and there is a record of her receiving a consular visit in 1967. In 1985 a letter was received from an unknown Chinese Christian reporting that Anna Ziese had died peacefully in 1969, offering testimony to the unique power of her witness: “Her lifestyle was the same as ours when she lived among us.”
Interviews with local people who knew her in Shanxi add some details to our reconstruction of her later years of life and ministry. Sometime after 1951 she was living in a one-room adobe home, where she also raised goats to provide herself with food and a modest income to supplement the monthly stipend of $3 she received from the Chinese government. From 1965 onwards she was placed under close surveillance, and her life became quite difficult. But even during the darker periods of China’s political turmoil, Ziese received visits from local Christians determined to care for her at all costs. One Christian recalled that during the Cultural Revolution his father bravely visited “Teacher Qi” six times while she was confined in “Nanyang” (presumably somewhere between Jinzhong and Taiyuan).
Anna Ziese’s faith and steadfast perseverance through forty-nine years of service alongside the people of Shanxi, including some of their most difficult years, has made her a legend of the Assemblies of God mission.
- David Bundy, “Anna Ziese: For God and China” in Assemblies of God Heritage 20, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 13-21.
- Andrew T. Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: A History of Christian Missions in Shanxi, 1869–2016 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015).
- Personal letters and other papers related to Anna Ziese are held in the archives of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, Springfield, MO.
- During Anna Ziese’s years in China, several of her letters home were published in the periodical Pentecostal Evangel.
- David Bundy, “Anna Ziese: For God and China” in Assemblies of God Heritage 20, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 16.