Jesse Boardman Hartwell was born in the home of a pastor in South Carolina in 1835. His father, in addition to pastoral ministry, served as a teacher. His mother was a woman of faith and piety, hardworking and virtuous. Because her husband was busy night and day with his work, the ceaseless burden of housework, caring for her children, and educating them fell upon her shoulders. The Christian atmosphere of his home, with his parents’ wise words and noble conduct, deeply influenced Hartwell, so that even as a young boy he liked to preach the gospel to his playmates. He would solemnly assume the role of temporary pastor and gather a few children under the shade of a leafy tree to worship God. The little children of his neighbors loved to hear him expounding the Scriptures and tell the story of Jesus. His innate ability as a missionary and leader were thus already manifesting itself.
When he was eight and nine years old, he would pray with his older sisters before going to bed. Daily, whenever he sensed that he had done something wrong or was otherwise upset, he would be sure to go off to a quiet place by himself and pour out his heart to God. Thus, he nurtured a habit of prayer from childhood and accumulated a rich store of spiritual experiences. Actually, he was born again at a very early age, but in keeping with the rules of his church he was not baptized and admitted to church membership until he was fifteen.
He entered Howard College in Alabama when he was seventeen. While in college, he organized a student Christian fellowship, whose members prayed for their unsaved classmates and shared the gospel with them regularly. When the time seemed ripe, they put on a revival and evangelistic meeting; the Spirit worked, and a number of teachers and students repented of their sins and placed their faith in Christ. Even students from outside the campus were attracted to the meeting, and the fires of revival were kindled at the college.
After graduation from college, Hartwell returned to Greenville, South Carolina, for further study at Furman University. He was ordained as a pastor in 1858 at the age of twenty-three. In July of that year, the southern Baptist Foreign Missions Board assigned him to go to China as a missionary, thereby fulfilling his parents’ long-cherished hopes for him. His father had originally intended to be a foreign missionary, but it had never worked out, so he placed his hopes on the next generation. He and his wife had prayed earnestly for this even before they had any children, for they fully believed that nothing was impossible for God. As an answer to prayer, they not only had several daughters, but also a bright, capable son, the future pastor and missionary Jesse Boardman Hartwell.
When their son was born, their best friend, the Rev. Luther Rice was visiting them from a distant place. They took the newborn infant into their arms and, together kneeling by the bed, consecrated him to God, giving him the name “Boardman.”A missionary to India had borne this name, and they were hoping that when their son grew up, he would follow in the steps of this missionary and go to a foreign land to preach the gospel. His father also gave the boy his own name, “Jesse.” [Ed. note: Jesse was the father of King David.]
Jesses Boardman Hartwell did not fail to live up to his parents’ expectations. In the winter of 1858, at the age of twenty-three, he sailed for China from New York with his bride, Eliza Juvett. During the voyage, whenever he had some spare time, he found opportunities to share the gospel with the crew, some of whom received the grace of God in Christ. One day, at dusk, the sailing ship on which he was traveling was about to collapse under the onslaught of howling winds and crashing waves, and everyone on board was crying out in crazed terror. Only Hartwell and his wife were at peace as they knelt in prayer in their cabin, beseeching God to still the wind and the waves and preserve everyone’s life. After a short while, the storm did indeed reside, and everyone on the ship thanked God with joyful hearts. They finally arrived in Hong Kong after a voyage of seventy days. They left Hong Kong for Shanghai, where they commenced language study. Seven months later, amazingly, Hartwell could preach in Chinese.
In 1860, Hartwell and his wife arrived in Yantai (Chefoo), Shandong. They moved in January of the next year to Dengzhoufu (now Penglai), thus embarking on extremely arduous pioneer missionary work. When they first arrived in Penglai, they were unfamiliar with the place and the people and they met all sorts of difficulties. Just renting a place to stay proved to be a huge headache, for the local people were suspicious, fearful, and hostile towards foreigners, so no one was willing to rent them a house. After many twists and turns, they did manage to secure a single-storey house, which became the location of the first Baptist church in Shandong.
In such a superstitious and anti-foreign environment, it was not easy to preach the gospel. For example: Hartwell’s language teacher, Mr. Wu Chunqiao, upon first meeting Hartwell, said, “My condition is that, even though I shall be your teacher, I absolutely cannot believe in your message.” Afterwards, because of Hartwell’s sincerity and love, along with his zeal in serving God, this man accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. Soon after that he was selected to be a deacon, and after a while was ordained as a pastor! He was the first deacon in the Shandong Baptist church and Penglai’s first Chinese pastor.
As a result of the Hartwells’ diligent labors, by 1862 they had helped eight people to put their faith in Christ. They established a church, the first Baptist church in northern China. Using this as a base, Hartwell often went to outlying areas such as Huang County, Zhaoyuan, Pingdu, Yantai, etc., to preach the gospel, planting churches in each place. The experiences and testimonies of the some of believers are very moving. For example, in Huang County there was one Christian whom after he was born again, heedless of the bitter cold, went into the river outside the south gate of the city, broke the ice with a stone, and was baptized by immersion in the presence of the crowd. Afterwards, his fervor only increased, and went about preaching the gospel of salvation through Christ, seeking to persuade everyone with whom he came into contact to turn to the Lord. This is the man who later became Pastor Zang Yuting of the Huang County Baptist Church.
Aside from preaching, Hartwell emphasized theological education. In 1893, he established a seminary in Penglai. Teaching twice a day, he aimed at a combination of Bible study, devotional teaching, and cultivating church leaders. This was the first Baptist seminary in north China, a small model of what was to come. Later, an American, Mr. J. C. Bush, donated ten thousand dollars for the purpose of building a seminary campus, in memory of his father and mother. Hartwell used this money to erect a building outside Huang County’s east gate, establishing it as the “Bush Theological School” with the purpose of training workers for the church. Mrs. Hartwell also started a school for girls in Penglai, the forerunner of the North China Girls’ School.
The time in which Hartwell lived was one of war and turmoil, and the environment was perilous. Not long after he and his wife arrived in Penglai, an outbreak of fierce banditry took place, driving refugees from surrounding areas into the city for protection. The military officers and soldiers in the city locked the city gate for safety. Seeing inescapable robbery and murder, the refugees outside the city cried out in distress. When the Hartwells observed this, they risked their lives and brought the fleeing people up to the city wall, one by one. They turned their own quarters into a temporary shelter, provided food for these poor folks, and administered medical care to the sick and wounded, sharing the gospel with them all the while. Seeing such a display of love, a number of the refugees were moved deeply and turned to Christ.
Times of peace would be followed by a recurrence of violence, and there was no cessation of banditry, and then the Taiping Rebellion broke out, astounding Chinese and foreigners alike. This chaotic war, which lasted more than ten years, reached even as far as Shandong. Two missionaries sacrificed their lives while trying to protect the terrified villagers. Despite many close calls, Hartwell came through the period relatively peacefully.
In 1894, during the Sino-Japanese War , Penglai was bombarded by Japanese warships, and Hartwell and the other foreigners were under the threat of shelling, but it was “all sound and no danger” and they did not suffer harm. Most terrifying was the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when many missionaries, Chinese pastors, preachers, and believers were killed during the Boxer Rebellion. The church in Pingdu was especially hit hard, and suffered catastrophe. An old evangelist was beaten to death; two believers were buried alive; a number of Christians were put into prison and were tortured severely. One believer who had been cruelly beaten still had scars on his back many years later. This was Pastor Houting Li, who was called as “The athlete of the kingdom of heaven” by the Pingdu Baptist church.
For decades of unremitting toil and travel, Hartell’s body was put under great stress. In 1897, his health had reached the brink of collapse, and he had to obey the doctor’s orders to stop working. He went south to Guangzhou for medical treatment. After examining him, the doctor said, “You should get prepared for your death.” Surprisingly, he replied calmly, “There’s nothing to worry about. I am supposed to be called to my heavenly home in 1912; it is still early.” In fact, after he had recovered, he returned to his labors in Shandong. Just as he had foretold, his life did not come to an end until December, 1912. With his family and friends all around him, he died peacefully on his bed at the age of seventy-seven.
Hartwell had seven children, of whom four remained in China to finish the tasks he had started, engaging in preaching and educational work.
- C. C. Au-yeung, Forerunner’s Characteristic. Hong Kong: Baptist Press, May, 1984.
- Wu, Lile, Brief historical sketches of Baptist missions in China. Hong Kong: Baptist Press, reprint, 1970.