Paul Bartel was the son of Henry and Nellie Bartel, missionaries in China. He grew up during turbulent times of warfare, banditry, and great suffering for the Chinese. As boys, he and his brother Loyal held Christian services for Chinese children in their village. Later, Paul formed a Gospel band of converted orphans, who joined him in iterant preaching in the surrounding area.
Returning to the United States for college, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Tabor College, a Mennonite school in Kansas, then went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was influenced by J. Gresham Machen, Charles Erdman, and Samuel Zwemer.
In 1930, Paul Bartel attended the Missionary Training Institute in preparation to serve with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Soon after graduation, he was accepted as a missionary to China by the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA).
On January 1, 1931, Paul married Ina Birkey, whose parents were co-workers with Paul’s parents at the Mennonite Mission in Tsaoshien. Later that summer they went to work and live in Guizhou, Sichuan (Kweichow, Szechuan) in the city of Lungtan, which means “Dragon Pool,” an area brand new to the gospel. Their first child, Robert, was born on the way in a mission hospital.
Lungtan was known then to be full of bandits, superstitions, idolatry, and opium growing (95% of the people were opium addicts). The Bartels were watched by the villagers constantly, and rumors about them and their habits abounded.
In March 1933, they welcomed their second child, LaVonne Mae. They encountered a variety of difficulties in these days - various people trying to destroy them and the work they were doing; disease in the family; intense heat; short food supplies; guerrilla warfare waged by the communists; and finally, the death of their baby daughter, whom they had taken to a nearby mission hospital for treatment. During these times, Paul would say, “It seems God has forsaken us.” And then a few moments later, “But we know He has not.”
When they returned after losing their daughter, the people seemed more receptive to their message. They seemed to trust the Bartels now and believe that the missionaries loved them and were not in China for personal gain. The people of the town began to see the results of others’ following Christ, and many turned from their opium habits, banditry, and the power of sin. After his conversion, one of the bandit chiefs promised to assist in keeping the family safe.
(Many years later in 1995, when Paul was visiting Lungtan, he discovered an active church meeting in his former home, in which the pastor was the granddaughter of one of the bandit-converts. )
Paul made trip after trip into the mountains, sometimes being gone for weeks at a time. One year he walked a total of 2,600 miles.
In January 1935, the Bartels’ third child, Vivian Joan, was born.
The Bartels went on furlough after Paul had been in China for 7 years, Ina 8. While there Paul attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In February, 1938, Carol was born. They then settled in California. With the Japanese invading China, and World War II about to break out. China was in chaos and Paul felt the pull of the needs there. The Bartels decided that he should return there alone for a year.
While preaching and teaching in the Lungtan area, Paul worked several times with Ina’s brother, Roy Birkey, who was also with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Before departing again for America, he organized local believers into evangelistic teams.
Paul again left for China alone in 1940, because the US government would not allow women and children to go, due to the dangerous situation in the war-torn country. Because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the capture of the only highway out of that part of China, Paul was trapped there for over three years and communications were cut off between him and his family.
After returning again to the U.S. by way of India, Paul earned a Master’s Degree in Chinese Classics from the University of Chicago. He later wrote a commentary on the Psalms in Chinese, which is still used by several seminaries in China. In addition, he composed two books on the prayers of the Bible and many articles for the Bible Magazine, as well as tracts for distribution in Lungtan.
In the closing years of the war, he and Ina spoke at churches and conferences all over the United States. Along with 700 other missionaries of all denominations the Bartels set sail for China in December 1946.
As Paul began to help the new missionary recruits to settle in, the civil war flared up again communist troops began moving southward. Christians were beginning to be persecuted, and Paul, seeing the need to prepare for the future, urged the Alliance leadership to gather the Alliance missionaries all over China into one central organization, run by Chinese leadership.
Paul then pushed the formation of the All-China Committee, which united all four fields of Alliance missionaries. Pastor Sha E of Central China was elected as chairman of the Committee. Paul felt this unity under Chinese leadership was essential for the continuation of the church, for he foresaw the time when missionaries would be required to leave China.
Paul Bartel took great care of the missionaries under his supervision. He is remembered as gentle, wise, and thoughtful, and has been referred to as “a tall giant who walked with light steps.”
Paul prepared the church for the coming onslaught in other ways - in organizing and speaking at conferences, retreats, and in preaching over a huge area of the country. As he heard more news of worsening conditions, he made preparations for the missionaries to evacuate to Hong Kong, a withdrawal which began at the end of 1948, women and children leaving first. The men stayed behind for some months, finally leaving in mid-1949. Paul left Sichuan for the last time in September, 1949.
Paul foresaw that the China Alliance Press in Shanghai was in danger of being destroyed by the communists, so he arranged for it to be moved to Hong Kong, thereby allowing the press to continue with its usual influence, even to this day.
The conditions in Hong Kong were then desperate, with the thousand of many refugees from China pouring in. Most of the people, who were northerners and spoke Mandarin, were sent by the government to Rennie’s Mill, a deserted hillside on the other side of Hong Kong. It was here that Paul and Ina then ministered to these needy newcomers, and started the Rennie’s Mill Alliance Church and Bible Training School. Hundreds were converted and dozens of men and women were trained for ministry, and opened many Chinese Alliance churches around the world.
By mid-1950, the three Bartel children and Ina had settled in Wheaton, Illinois.
China was now firmly shut to missionaries. Paul continued working out of Rennie’s Mill, preaching there and other places in Hong Kong, writing for the Bible Magazine, and corresponding with pastors and leaders inside China, until communication was eventually impossible and severe persecution of the Church ensued.
In 1951, Paul joined his family in Wheaton. The Bartels took a leave of absence from ministry so that the children could have a stable home base from which to make decisions concerning their futures. Paul was asked to be interim pastor at the Mennonite Brethren Church in Yale, South Dakota; and then he served as Professor of Missions at Canadian Bible College in Regina, Saskatchewan for two years. The Bartels not only ministered to students, but also to Chinese who had emigrated to Canada.
Paul developed a vision for a popular magazine that would “bridge the gap between secular literature and the Christian press; one which would appeal to intellectuals because of the wide range of subjects, yet one which would clearly present the gospel.”
Paul and Ina returned to Hong Kong in December, 1955 to further this project. Eventually, the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and Christian Missionary and Alliance joined forces to launch , or in Chinese. A Chinese editor was found, Liu Yi-ling, a man well-versed in Chinese classics, trained as a journalist, and who had been praying for this sort of opportunity to reach Chinese people worldwide. In September, 1956, the first issue was released, with responses to the magazine being received from 73 countries.
In 1960, he took up a position as Academic Dean of Canadian Bible College; Ina would be Dean of Women. Besides his job at the college, Paul encouraged groups of Chinese to start churches and ran Chinese student conferences at the college during break time.
He moved with Ina back to Hong Kong in 1965 to become the Director of the Alliance Press, in order to oversee its world outreach, improve the quality of the , and raise up pastors to send to Canada to lead the Chinese churches there.
In 1969, Paul and Ina left Hong Kong, settling in Escondido, California. But within a few years he was off travelling again, making a last tour of the Chinese churches of Southeast Asia.
After that, Paul traveled to 21 countries in South and Central America to look into the possibility of Chinese churches in those places. This trip of Paul’s caused the North American Chinese Church to realize its need to reach the Chinese people in Central and South America.
Ina died in April of 1990, and Paul died in 2001, just weeks after a family gathering celebrating the 100th anniversary of Paul’s parents’ departure for China.
- Bollback, Anthony G. . Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 2002.