James Adam arrived in China from Scotland in 1887, at the age of twenty-three. He felt deeply discouraged in his initial years trying to reach Han people in Guizhou, and he struggled to see any way forward in the work. Then, in August 1894, he was devastated by the sudden death of his Canadian wife, who perished from fever just two days after giving birth to a baby girl. Adam rushed home to find his beloved wife already lying in a coffin. His little daughter also died soon after.
Adam was struck to the core, and he told the local believers:
When my wife was in Guiyang she was told that it would be dangerous for her to live in Anshun because of the malaria; yet she was willing to go, hoping to help you women trust in Jesus. God asks my all, my wife, my babe; He gave them to me; I willingly let Him take them back.
Adam was able to muster the courage to write a letter on the day after the funeral:
I laid my darling wife and precious wee babe in the grave yesterday morning. This is such a sudden plunge into deepest affliction, that at first I felt crushed, but now, I can truly say with my glorified wife: “I am pleased with God’s will.” This was one of the precious things she said to me before she fell asleep in Jesus.
The Christians have all shown great sympathy … but the greatest comfort to me was that wee Mary was a living babe. But alas the Lord saw fit to take her from me too, so that He has taken all . . This is indeed a sore trial, but the Lord is having mercy upon me, and I can say, “Though he slays me yet will I trust in Him!”
As I told the crowd yesterday at the grave, Jesus can heal broken hearts, and He would heal mine. Pray for me and for our relations that God may bind up our grief and that I may truly profit by this greatest of trials.
After a period of grieving, Adam visited Britain in 1896, where he met with the great mission leader Hudson Taylor. When Adam asked how he could possibly share the gospel with both the Chinese and the Miao, Taylor responded, “Go on, dear brother, and do the best you can for both.”
Upon returning to China, Adam expanded his work, visiting every Miao village in a 15 mile (25km) radius from Anshun. Over time, he visited 250 different Miao villages and built relationships with many community leaders.
James Adam, who remarried in 1897, discovered that in addition to having suffered centuries of abuse at the hands of the Chinese, the Miao were plagued by malaria, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people each year. Moreover, the hot summer months brought infectious skin diseases, which cast many onto a bed of suffering. All of these factors combined to humble the Miao of Anshun, leaving them with little pretension of self-righteousness.
The mission obtained a supply of medicine and ointment to treat malaria and skin diseases, and a steady flow of grateful people developed a deep respect for the servants of the gospel. The first believers in Anshun were baptized in 1898, and the following year a chapel and a Christian school for boys were opened. The school turned out to be a key to advancing the gospel. One source noted that “Adam successively took in a group of poor Miao children and orphans for studies … Within less than a year he could speak the Miao language of several dialect areas.”
Anshun proved to be a strategic center for the Miao work, with members of many different tribes passing through the area, both for commerce and during migrations to other areas… . Adam’s writing referred to various tribal names, but it appears the two largest Miao groups he encountered in the early years of his ministry were the Hua Miao and the Hmong Shua.
The “King of the Miao”
Many of the Miao tribes shared a common belief that they had once possessed a written language, but when the Chinese drove them from the fertile plains into the barren mountains of south China … their sacred books were destroyed. A widespread legend persisted that one day a “King of the Miao” would one day come and return their written language to them. Many were astounded to discover that a white man was able to speak several Miao languages. When James Adam began translating the Bible and teaching them how to read, many people were convinced that he was the long-awaited Miao king.
In 1903, a prominent Miao leader named Li Matai proclaimed to the people, “There has appeared a Miao king in Anshun. He is very affectionate and kind-hearted to the Miao. He calls us his brothers, and he helps ordinary hard-working Miao as much as possible.”
Veteran missionary William Hudspeth described the impact made by the arrival of the first Miao Scriptures:
When the British and Foreign Bible Society sent the first gospels and these were distributed the legend grew – that the once-upon-a-time lost books had been found in the white man’s country, and they told the incomparable story that Jesus loved the Miao. Only the imagination can conceive what this meant to those hillsmen, some of whom travelled for days to view the books.
Mission work in Guizhou was put on hold in 1900 when the Boxer Rebellion broke out throughout China. Adam was ordered to evacuate to the coast until the uprising subsided. When he returned to Anshun in 1901, he found that only a few dozen Miao were still faithfully following God, but a year later he had the joy of baptizing more than 20 new Hua Miao converts, some of whom became his eager assistants, tirelessly spreading the gospel to as many villages as possible. The CIM magazine China’s Millions broke the wonderful news that at Anshun, “Sixty-one Miao were baptized in the presence of 1,000 to 2,000 of their fellow tribesmen … many of whom have been coming to the services at Anshun once a month for more than two years.”
Revival Among the Miao
The awakening among the Hua Miao near Anshun soon spread to other tribes in the region. The first to benefit was a group known as the Shui (“water”) Miao, who called themselves the Hmong Shua in their own language… . On the second day of Adam’s visit with the Hmong Shua, a man suddenly died while working in his field. Adam immediately went and shared the gospel with the villagers, and the Lord granted him favor. At the start of 1907, Adam announced:
The work quickly spread from village to village, and before long we had people from scores of villages attending services at Anshun. Later we built a chapel and opened an out-station at Dengdeng. The Miao gave the site – trees for pillars, and stone for the building, also money and free labor. Now there are at Dengdeng about 64 church members, and 200 to 300 people attending the services on Sundays.
After a Hmong Shua schoolteacher had read a Chinese copy of the Gospel of Luke and had explained it to his students and then to the whole village, they sent a delegation to Adam, asking him to visit their village. There, at sunrise, they gathered around a bonfire and threw into it “drums used in sacrifice and sorcerer’s wands and other instruments and charms.” Adam baptized nine Hmong Shua Miao soon after; the next year, twenty more men and women in that village were baptized.
One day while he was staying at Dengdeng village, Adam was surprised to see a group of Miao men returning from a boar hunt. They were covered in dirt and had their hair twisted around their heads in the shape of a horn. In all his travels Adam had never encountered this group before, and he was excited to discover the men were from the A-Hmao tribe. Most of the A-Hmao people lived nine days’ walk from Anshun, across numerous valleys and deep valleys.
Although James Adam didn’t know it at the time, his chance encounter with the hunters was the start of the largest and most powerful people movement to Christ among all the tribes of Guizhou. The missionaries at Anshun suddenly found themselves in the midst of a full-blown revival, and each day was filled with extraordinary experiences of the glory of God. Adam recalled that when an old man first understood the gospel, he exclaimed:
“It is not good for us to keep such good news to ourselves. Let us go and tell our kinsmen… .” The old man went at once and told the people about the Lord Jesus Christ … the people from that village came down in great numbers to Anshun to see us, at first several times a month and later regularly once a month.
The A-Hmao were hungry to learn more about the living God, so they dispatched delegations to Anshun to soak in all they could about the new faith. Such was their intense desire for the gospel that they made the long journey of nine or ten days each way over steep mountains and through deep rivers.
Adam and his wife felt overwhelmed by the steady stream of people who came to visit. They wrote: “Our house was just crowded out with them. One night I went round and counted my guests. We had over 300 sleeping in the house. Still they came from more and more distant places.”
When Adam discovered that that the A-Hmao knew of the town in Yunnan where the missionary Samuel Pollard was working, he advised them to visit Pollard, which they did. Pollard then witnessed the same outpouring of interest in the gospel that Adam had. Despite intense persecution from the Chinese and from their own people, the number of Christians continued to grow. James Adam described the A-Hmao believers’ unquenchable zeal for God:
They go out two by two visiting the villages far and near, preaching, singing, and praying. Often when visiting these villages my heart has been delighted at the eager way in which the people seek to learn and gain the most from the visit, even if it is only for one night. They will sit up listening till one or two o’clock in the morning. Frequently I have retired at that hour and have awakened to find them still learning to read texts of Scripture or some hymn of praise. Or perhaps giving earnest heed to one of the Christians.
As they traveled around the A-Hmao villages, Adam and his co-workers customarily used a kerosene lantern to project images of Bible stories onto the wall of any suitable building. The tribespeople often watched transfixed as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was presented an explained to them. At one village, when they came to the betrayal and crucifixion, Adam recalled:
A great hush and silence fell upon the crowd… . Many in the great congregation were weeping, and I myself could not keep back the tears … Next day 240 communicants sat around the Lord’s table breaking bread and drinking the Lord’s cup, thus showing the Lord’s death till He comes. It was a glorious scene and my heart overflowed with praise to God at the sight of so many who were recently devil-worshippers and sunken in immorality and sin, but who are now among His blood-washed ones.
The revival among the A-Hmao had appeared suddenly, and it burned with such intensity that the missionaries and their helpers had no way of keeping up with the progress. Throughout the hills of Guizhou, thousands of men and women who had been crushed and despised by the Chinese and people of other tribes for countless generations now found their worth in their Creator, Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the work among the Han Chinese had made hardly any progress. By the year 1904 there were only 123 evangelical Han Christians in the entire province.
When James Adam returned from a furlough in 1909, however, he wrote from the village of Kopu: “On the Lord’s Day several thousand A-Hmao attended the services, and about 900 sat around the table of the Lord… . Connected with Kopu are 217 villages and hamlets; a Christian population of 7,000; and 2,000 communicants.”
The work continued to expand under the blessing of God, and Christian meetings were soon being held every night in hundreds of villages. By 1911, the influence of the Anshun mission, which Adam led, had expanded so rapidly that they now served a total of 3,504 church members, 19 evangelists, 192 local leaders, 3 Biblewomen, and 13 schools. Just a few years earlier, few people in Anshun had shown any interest in the gospel.
When the missionaries looked back several years after the revival began, they found that the Spirit of God had done a deep and lasting work. It was reported, “Of the 1,200 candidates baptized in 1906, we only know of three who have failed in trusting God.”
Continued Ministry During a Time of Chaos
After the revolution of 1911, much of China was thrown into confusion, conflict, and chaos. Gangs of bandits roamed the land, preying upon innocent people and upsetting society and the economy.
Government leaders in Anshun were concerned for James Adam’s safety, and they insisted that armed soldiers be sent to protect him on his travels. At first Adam resisted the idea, but he relented when the violence worsened. On the first few journeys, however, Adam discovered that the soldiers sent to accompany him were not used to trekking for days over high mountains, and they often lagged many miles behind. The missionary pressed on, only reconnecting with his “protectors” days later at prearranged stops along the way.
During one grueling six-week journey Adam and his colleagues were tipped off that a massive group of five hundred bandits was hiding in a large came near the road they intended to travel down the next day. They would have walked right into the ambush but for the help of local Christians, who led the missionaries on a long detour through another district to avoid the murderers.
All through that time of social chaos and turmoil, Adam’s greatest concern was for the Miao churches. In 1912, he wrote:
If the newly-interested Miao enquirers were only grounded in the Truth, persecution would, no doubt, help them, but they are for the most part only beginners, and one fears lest they should not stand firm in the face of such fierce opposition as they are called to endure. Over 1,000 families have been enrolled as enquirers. Please pray much for these dear, persecuted Miao enquirers.
Hitherto, the Miao had not had the Scriptures in their own language, but had to rely on the Chinese Bible, which was mostly unintelligible to them. The gifted James Adam found himself at the forefront of a new initiation to translate God’s Word into A-Hmao. He began the work in 1908, and the entire New Testament was completed and printed in 1917, using Roman letters to represent the A-Hmao words. One missionary reported that the A-Hmao “were eager to learn to read, and those who do read are zealous in teaching others. Very soon they will be a reading community.”
At the same time, however, the genius missionary linguist Samuel Pollard was pondering whether the A-Hmao might better understand God’s Word by using a different orthography. “The Pollard script quickly gained favor among the A-Hmao Christians, and James Adam’s Roman version soon fell into disuse.” A hundred years later, the Pollard script Bible is still being used by the A-Hmao.
Reaching Other Groups of Miao
The missionaries in Anshun, of whom Adam was the leader, sometimes came across several other tribes during their frequent travels throughout Guizhou. One Miao tribe they called the “Wooden Comb” or “Lopsided Comb” Miao because of the women’s elaborate hairstyles. In 1914, Adam was thrilled to report:
Two delegations from the Wooden Comb Miao came down the mountains asking for teachers to go and teach them the gospel. Peter and Timothy [whom Adam had trained] returned with them. They are now busy up in the mountains telling forth the old story of Jesus and His love.
Traveling by another route, we came upon a new tribe called the Big Horn Miao… . We stopped, and spoke to them first in Chinese and then in one of our Miao dialects. They did not run away, but stood and listened to what I had to tell them… . Oh when shall the very long-waiting, lost tribes hear the message?
Praise God for the many who are now hearing and learning the gospel. How the heart of the Lord Jesus rejoices over so many of his lost, wandering sheep finding their Good Shepherd!
There was a great need for medical missions in Guizhou. Sensing God’s leading, Edward Fish gave up his lucrative practice and moved to Anshun. After gaining his orientation with Anshun, in August 1913, Fish joined the intrepid missionary on one of his arduous journeys among the tribes. Fish was stunned by the poverty and sickness of the tribespeople he met.
James Adam was a loving man. He knew the new recruit was overwhelmed by his first journey, so when they returned to Anshun, Adam spent much time taking care of Fish and praying earnestly for him. Adam realized that treating the sick on long itinerant journeys was not the most productive way to utilize the doctor’s skills. He decided to open a small hospital in Anshun, where people from throughout the region could come to be treated and receive medicine. When the hospital opened in 1914, Adam joyfully wrote:
It is my great privilege to open the first hospital in this entire province. Great as the medical need is, it cannot be compared to the spiritual darkness – which is appalling. Our hospital and dispensary work must always be secondary in importance to the real needs of the people. While doing all that is within our power to alleviate their suffering and to heal their diseases, we must never forget that we are here, primarily, as ambassadors of our Lord Jesus Christ. May He give us the needed grace to be successful “fishers of men,” and that when the day’s work is done it may be “well done.”
Death of a Great Missionary
Adam had arrived in China in 1887, at the tender age of 23. He had served wholeheartedly for the next 28 years, and was preparing to return home to Scotland on furlough when he was struck by a lightning bolt while standing on the porch of his home one evening in August 1915. The beloved missionary and one-time “King of the Miao” was dead at the age of 51.
Right up to the end of his time in this world, James Adam continued to preach the gospel to the lost and to baptize new believers into the family of God. His boundless joy and unquenchable passion for reaching the lost shone through in one of his final reports:
This evening I baptized 126 men and 98 women; 224 trophies of the Lord’s mighty saving power. Hallelujah! … The Lord’s power and blessing were wonderfully manifested, and His love filled all our hearts. Think of it! These dear believers were once unrighteous, fornicators, demon worshippers, adulterers, unclean, drunkards, revilers, etc… . Oh, why do we ever limit the saving power of the Lord? All these Miao are saved, and washed to the glory of His great name … Nearly all of the 626 children of God baptized have been true believers for at least one and a half years. Quite a large number hope to confess the Lord in baptism next time we visit.
After James Adam died, tributes to him poured in from all over the world. John Stevenson, Deputy Director for the CIM, wrote:
A more indefatigable and hard-working missionary than Mr. Adam we have never had, a man who never spared himself and who was greatly beloved by those whom he was used to bring to the Lord …
There have been baptized from the commencement in Anshun and district 6,449 people, and at the end of last year there were 5,590 communicants. When we think of the 42 evangelists, 29 school teachers, with 639 students and 323 unpaid helpers, one can realize a little of the magnitude of the work …
No CIM worker has ever had the privilege of receiving so many converts into the visible Church, and I question whether any single missionary of any society has either … Now, just when he was about to take a much-needed furlough, he has suddenly been taken from us. Deepest sympathy is felt for his widow and two children in Scotland who had been looking for his return.
(James Adam married his first wife [whose maiden name was Haynes] in 1893, his second wife Harriet in 1897, and his third wife [whose maiden name was E.M.S. Anderson] in 1904.)
A century later, missiologist Ralph Covell commented:
Untiring in travel to hundreds of villages, outgoing and friendly, fluent in the Miao language, he baptized nearly 7,000 of the Miao.
Early in the work Adam sifted out those with potential for leadership and brought them into his own home for weeks of concentrated discipleship. Those initial disciples took the lead in preaching to and teaching the many hundreds who later would respond in this snowballing movement …
Adam aggressively confronted Miao society with the claims of the gospel. After several people in a village were willing to confess the name of Jesus publicly, Adam called for a bonfire, at which time all the spirit paraphernalia was burned … Adam allowed no one to be baptized who had not made a clear break with the demon world.
Even when only a few people in a village had believed, Adam, along with these converts, took the initiative in tearing down the houses used by young people in their sexual orgies. He helped in sweeping out all remaining signs of idolatry, in cutting down spirit trees, and in finding and destroying all traces of opium, opium pipes, and lamps.
Two Miao Christians wrote a letter of sympathy to Adam’s grieving widow in January 1916:
Incalculably strange, that on the evening of the 29th day of the sixth moon, it was God’s will to receive our beloved Pastor up to heaven, while we are left behind to mourn our loss.
We were formerly dead in sin, passing our days in ignorance and darkness … The dear Pastor came bringing us the teaching of the Saviour’s love. He led thousands of us Miao to repent and believe in the Lord, and he loved us with a love surpassing the love of parents for their own children. Therefore, all the Miao believers were broken down with grief, just as though we had lost our own parents.
Our hearts are pained beyond expression. We who are near cannot realize that he has been taken from us to heaven. We cannot again serve him with our own hands, neither again will we hear his words of precious instruction …
We deeply desire the speedy return of our Lord Jesus, then we shall again meet our beloved Pastor, and it is for this our hearts long …
May the Triune God protect you and your family. Greetings to the two boys. We send this memorial to you with reverence.
Yang Xiguang (Water Miao tribe)
Tao Joshua (flowery Miao tribe)
The quality of the foundation laid by Adam and of Pollard, who died at about the same time, can be seen by the fact that, more than a century after their deaths, approximately 80 per cent of the A-Hmao (big flowery Miao) people and the 130,000 Gha-Mu (Small Flowery Miao) people continue to walk by faith in the Son of God.
Taken verbatim (with some omissions and additions), with permission, from Paul Hattaway, Guizhou: The Precious Province. Second volume of The China Chronicles. London: SPCK, 2018, 63-94.