James Robert Graham II was born in Virginia on October 19, 1863, to James Robert Graham I and Fanny Tucker Graham. His father was a well-loved pastor, and his mother was the descendant of veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They had the distinction of hosting Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and his wife at their home during the Civil War.
James Graham felt called to missionary work at the age of 14, inspired by reading about Henry Martyn’s missionary work in India and Persia. He met his wife while at Union Theological Seminary for graduate study. Sophie Peck was the daughter of Professor Thomas Peck, who had become Graham’s personal mentor. Sophie had also sensed a leading to become a missionary in Asia even before she met Graham. Graham was ordained on July 7, 1889 and married Sophie in October; the two left for China a month later.
The Grahams spent several months learning the Chinese language until at least Sophie was moderately fluent, and then moved to their assigned mission station. James continued to study Chinese throughout his time in China. The Grahams conducted their mission work in Jiangsu Province, a northern, rural region plagued by violent anarchy. James and Sophie Graham remained despite the danger, ministering to the Chinese in Jiangsu for forty years.
The mission station had been established only a few years before their arrival. Henry Woods, one of the founders, and his brother Eli worked there with a tiny team of two other foreign missionaries until the Grahams joined them. The local Chinese tended to be hostile to foreigners; they could easily be provoked into forming violent mobs and trying to stone missionaries. Graham suffered frequent injuries when he left his house to preach in the surrounding villages.
On one memorable occasion, Graham was traveling with a representative of the Bible Society, his friend Mr. Whitehouse. They came to a walled city where a floating population of boat people lived, which was the equivalent of a motorcycle gang camping outside the walls. Whitehouse determined to sell the Bibles in town regardless, but Graham preferred to preach in a nearby area.
When he returned to look for his friend, a mob gathered. They followed Jimmy, hurling first insults then rocks. They began to beat him with bamboo rods and chased him through the city streets. Reluctant to leave his friend behind, Jimmy fled into an official’s house for sanctuary. The official refused him asylum, complaining that his friend Whitehouse had already caused enough trouble and required an escort out of the city. He surrendered Jimmy to the angry mob. Covered with small wounds, out of breath, Jimmy prayed for strength to escape the mob. Gradually the people dispersed, and Jimmy collapsed by the roadside. He waited for several hours, continuing to pray that he would reconnect with his friend. Eventually the rest of his party, including Mr. Whitehouse, reunited with him, and they all returned home safely.
Jimmy thought that his wife bore these episodes stoically until one day when he doubled back to the house after departing for a journey. He found Sophie rocking their infant daughter with tears streaming down her face. “It was there that God showed His great tenderness for me,” Jimmy said.
The Grahams had worked in China for a decade when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900. Many missionaries in the region were caught in the midst of the violent political backlash against the presence of Western powers in China. One group of missionaries fled to the local ruling official for sanctuary, but he responded by first imprisoning them and then ordering their execution. Mr. Whitehouse and his new wife were among the casualties. The violence ended when Western military forces arrived to aid the missionaries.
The surviving Christians were left wondering why God had allowed the deaths of so many. Then a visitor came to the Grahams’ town, asking to talk with “the foreigner.” Graham’s gate man advised that Jimmy should not let him in because his face looked “evil”—and he was from the North, the source of most of the persecution against Christians. Graham insisted on offering him hospitality. Once inside, the man was very nervous; he asked to see behind every door in the house to make sure that they were alone and wouldn’t be overheard. Then he revealed that he was the captain of the guard that had slaughtered the missionaries who had come to their lord for sanctuary—and he was the one who had carried out the orders.
The captain shared his memories of the massacre with Graham. Before the missionaries’ death, he reported, the official had ranted at them about his hatred for them. “Then happened the strangest sight I have ever witnessed: There was no fear.” The parents comforted their children by reminding them of heaven. They sang hymns together. “When I saw how they faced death, I knew that this ‘Yiesu’ of whom they spoke was truly God.” His conviction struck the captain with guilt and fear that he could not be forgiven. He had come to Graham to find out how to atone for his sin.
At first, Graham was too angry to respond. Then he thought of Christ’s prayer on the cross and Paul’s conversion. He shared the Gospel with the captain: All men are sinners, but God’s mercy is greater than sin; God could forgive even him. They talked late into the night; then the captain bid Graham farewell—he was only passing through the town. They never saw each other again. Graham said that this meeting was the first sign that God gave him of a new harvest of souls to come. This was the answer to the doubts that had plagued the missionaries since the Boxer Rebellion.
For the remainder of their service in China, the Grahams faced challenges including famines, bandit attacks, and managing limited finances. The people in the region experienced flooding nine out of every ten years—but the flood of 1906 was more terrible than what the people were equipped to handle. 30,000 died from cold or plague. It was so severe that the crops were all washed away, and 600,000 refugees poured into their area. The missionaries responded with a relief effort that lasted for years. The Grahams began by distributing food supplies, while Sophie mended refugee clothing and sewed new clothes from donated scraps. “The love and sacrificial service offered by the missionaries during this famine profoundly impacted the attitude of the Chinese in the region towards foreigners.”
To care for the many orphans left in the famine’s wake, the Grahams took over an orphanage established by a British lady after she was called back to England. The children were starving, nearly naked, and suffering from diseases. For ten years, the missionaries cleaned them, fed them, and educated them until they could be adopted or chose to leave of their own accord. The children learned music, trade, and how to read the Bible.
Years later, Graham met a group of school teachers who had grown up at the orphanage. Now gentlemen, they were “quiet and dignified, more highly respected as men of culture and education than any others in their neighborhoods”—and committed Christians, who could use their academic skills and influential positions to present their faith at any level of society. From bedraggled and unpromising waifs, they now moved Graham to exclaim, “What hath God wrought!”
Along with natural disasters, roving bandits presented a constant threat to the people’s safety. Once they kidnapped a Christian woman, a member of the Grahams’ congregation. The whole church prayed for her release while scraping together a large ransom. They delayed paying it as long as they could, continuing to pray. Just when they had decided to pay the ransom, the woman appeared. She had escaped because the bandits failed to tie her hands securely. No one caught her as she was running away so she returned to the church free from harm. On another occasion, the Bradleys, a missionary family, heard bandits climb aboard their boat while traveling late at night on the river. They overheard the criminals discussing which child to take. They prayed, and the bandits withdrew without harming or kidnapping anyone.
The Grahams’ financial ledger revealed they had a habit of giving generously despite their small salaries. For example, they recorded donating to a blind man, travelers, church construction, a fund for crippled soldiers, famine relief, and flood victims. These habits interfered with their plans to visit Europe during a scheduled furlough in 1931. Both Sophie and Jimmy had needed to pay for dental care recently, and Sophie’s health in particular had been bad, but they had managed to save a small fund in anticipation of their trip. Right before they were due to leave, they wrote to their friends that they had decided to cancel. In fact, they had given away the budgeted money to the poor. Sophie declared she was not at all disappointed because they would be able to visit Europe any time once they had resurrected bodies.
Sophie continued to suffer from poor health. When the missionaries were evacuated during an attack by the Japanese in 1937, her condition was such that she could not walk. The Grahams had to board a small Chinese boat to reach an American destroyer anchored ten miles offshore. The sea was storming so much that each passenger had to leap from their small craft to reach the destroyer as it swung in their direction. As the sailors lifted Sophie into the air, preparing to carry her on deck, Jimmy prayed for her safety. At that moment, the wind stopped, and the waters calmed. As soon Sophie passed safely onboard, the storm renewed its force. Virginia and Ruth Bell, family friends who were accompanying them at the time, recalled the event as a miraculous demonstration of God’s omnipotence.
One of Sophie’s protegees, Calvin Chao, came to visit her on her deathbed. Chao was a Chinese preacher who had been very sick in his youth. Sophie had taken care of him and nursed him back to health when he was on the verge of death. He came to thank her and testify about his evangelical work. As they talked together, Sophie asked him whether she looked ugly. “No,” he responded, “you look like an angel to me.” He asked to write her biography, but she declined, because she didn’t want to “steal God’s glory.” Her health continued to decline until she passed away in 1940.
James Graham II passed away in China on May 9, 1943, three months before he was to officiate the wedding of Ruth Bell and Billy Graham (no relation). The Grahams had four children but only three survived to adulthood. The three surviving children all eventually became missionaries themselves, including the well-known James Graham III.
Besides their natural children, James Graham became “Uncle Jimmy” to the children of many missionary families during his service in China. Even after his adopted nieces and nephews returned to the United States, he maintained a letter correspondence and prayed for several of them faithfully. Jimmy and Sophie were considered family by almost all the missionaries they knew in China because of their warm, charming personalities and compassionate service.
- Fortosis, Stephen and Mary Graham Reed. Boxers to Bandits: The extraordinary story of Jimmy and Sophie Graham, pioneer missionaries in China from 1889-1940. Charlotte, NC: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 2006.