The honor of being the first Protestant martyr in China belongs to the American Walter Macon Lowrie, the son of a famous politician from Butler, Pennsylvania. Lowrie’s father, Walter Lowrie Sr., represented the state in the American Senate from 1819 to 1825, and was then elected secretary of the Senate, an office he held for 12 years. He engaged in politics in the fear of God, and founded the congressional prayer meetings. After he retired from politics, he became the corresponding secretary for the Western Foreign Missionary Society (later the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions). His eldest son, John, was a missionary to India, while Walter Jr. volunteered to go to China after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary in November 1841.
The American Presbyterian Mission commenced work in China in 1837, and the eastern province of Zhejiang was first entered in June 1844 by Dr. Divie McCartee, who settled initially in the large city of Ningbo. When he found that life in the heart of the city held too many distractions, he rented some rooms in a Daoist monastery on the outskirts, and in this peaceful environment he made good progress in his language studies.
Walter Lowrie sailed for China on 19 January 1842, aged just 22. He arrived at Macau and remained there for two years, spending his time learning the language while indulging his passion for studying the scriptures. Lowrie could read both Hebrew and Greek, and was highly respected by his fellow missionaries for his knowledge and humble demeanor. In April 1842, he sailed up the coast to Zhejiang to take up residence with McCartee in the monastery. The Ningbo Mission was duly formed that year with a total of eight missionaries, with McCartee the leader. In July of that year, a printing press was brought in by sea, and over the next two years some 635,000 pages were printed and distributed—mostly gospel tracts and portions of scripture.
Not long after his arrival, Lowrie wrote:
The people are as civil and obliging as could reasonably be expected, considering the severe and uncalled for treatment they received during the [First Opium War with Britain], and the thoughtless course of some English officers, in destroying the public buildings for firewood. We are better treated here, by far, than a Chinaman would be in New York or London; though it does occasionally ruffle one’s temper to hear himself called a … white devil, with some other such choice epithets.
In 1847, he was attending an inter-denominational mission conference in Shanghai when a messenger arrived from Ningbo asking him to return immediately to deal with an emergency. Lowrie set out across Hangzhou Bay on 16 August, and his servant recorded what happened next:
Suddenly, a pirate ship was seen bearing down upon their small craft. Discharging their firearms, the pirates boarded the ship with swords and spears plundering everything in sight. Concerned that the foreigner would testify against them they decided to throw him overboard. He was pushed over the rail. As they did this Lowrie threw up on the deck a copy of the book he had been reading—Bagster’s edition of the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and English. Lowrie floated around in the water for some time and then sank out of sight.
Walter Lowrie was dead at the age of just 28. When his home church in Pennsylvania heard the tragic news, they were shocked and full of grief. In 1850, Lowrie’s father published a huge, 504-page book entitled Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China. Tens of thousands of copies were printed. The result was that many Christians committed their lives more fully to Christ, while many unbelievers saw in Lowrie’s testimony what a true Christian life was like and they believed in Christ for the first time. Lowrie Sr. subsequently published two more books in honor of his son’s life and studies.
China’s Book of Martyrs. Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. Used by permission.