Though he suffered the deaths of three of his children while serving in China, Eric Martin Ekvall never wavered in 42 years as a pioneer missionary of the Christian & Missionary Alliance. He held stations in four provinces: Anhui, Hunan, Gansu, and Hubei, while working in a number of others.
Born in Krisdala in Smoland, Sweden in 1866, the second child of six, he emigrated with his parents Erik and Sophia and siblings in 1882 to the United States. The family bought a farm in Deerfield, NH where the intercession of a godly mother saw that all four children came under Christian teaching. When A.B. Simpson toured churches in New England, three Ekvalls responded to his call for volunteers to carry the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.” The teens enrolled in the Alliance’s Missionary Training Institute in New York City, class of 1891.
One earlier episode foretold that Martin was made of the “right stuff.” While waiting in Gothenberg for their passage to America, the family attended a fair where an entrepreneur was failing to persuade anyone to brave a ride in the suspended basket of his hot air balloon. Hearing an incentive equivalent to $50, Martin, 15, overcame his parents’ reluctance, stepped forward, took the ride, and gave the money to his dad.
Commissioned in Spring 1892, Martin and sister Otilia first returned that summer to Sweden for the sake of witnessing Christ and the cause of foreign missions. By autumn they had reached Shanghai, then Wuhu, headquarters for the Central China Mission of the Alliance, for language study. It was A.B. Simpson himself on an inspection trip to the Far East in 1893 who instructed Martin to start a church in the bustling city of Wuchang. After a period, he and his brother David—who had arrived in China in 1894—were appointed early in 1896 to open a station somewhere on the Han River as a link between Hankou and the Gansu-Tibetan border mission in Taochow Old City. The border mission had been recently launched by William Christie and W.W. Simpson (married to Otilia Ekvall in December 1895).
Setting out, the Ekvalls preached in a number of cities along the river until reaching Hanzhong in the southwest Shaanxi province. Here, 1200 miles from Hankou, they decided to push on into Gansu where, pausing in Minchow, they gained approval from the superintendent of Central China to open a station. Nobody expected it to be easy to overcome latent xenophobia, embedded religions and superstition, criminal forces, and a host of unforeseen challenges.
From this base, however, Ekvall began a career, described by Christie himself as: “of fervent evangelism equaled by few. To proclaim the gospel in new cities, towns was his passion. His earnestness was intense, his zeal unflagging. It was a fire burning in his soul, as I witnessed accompanying him.” Martin did this for the next four years when, having successfully courted fellow Swede, Emma Ek of the China Inland Mission (CIM) working in Sichuan (see her biography on this site), the couple were married on Sept. 15, 1900 while on furlough in the U.S.
Returning in 1901 after the Boxer Rebellion was quelled, the Ekvalls were posted to an established mission in Qingyang in Anhui on the Yangtze River where their first child, Gertrude, was born in March 1902. Records report Martin preached 162 times in local churches and 62 times on the streets, while Emma worked with women’s organizations. Several months later, the Ekvalls were sent to assist in Wuchang while a new church was being built. In 1903, they were assigned to Changsha, which had a house church on Baolan Kai (Precious Southern Street). Martin may have been only the second Alliance missionary in this strategic Henan city; he was soon to be replaced by Matthew Birrell.
Assured, for the moment, that turbulent Gansu was peaceable, the Ekvalls returned to the familiar city of Minchow with its population mainly of farmers, artisans, and merchants. In addition to serving his church, Martin preached in the countryside, riding horseback while wearing a pigtail and Chinese robe. His niece Margaret Simpson Jamieson observed: “He was never perfunctory. Regardless of status, Uncle Martin valued everyone and treated their problems as his own.” The Ekvalls were threatened by the anti-foreign Elder Brother Society and had to cope with triads in Minchow, which itself was sacked more than once by bandits and Muslim armies rebelling against the government. Along the way, there was growth: several dozen conversions and baptisms; a church with seating for 200 built in 1905. An intrinsic optimist, Martin persevered. One example: Wondering why congregants never arrived on time, he realized few had clocks. So he moved a 150 year old bell from a temple destroyed by a Hui uprising, and placed it prominently in front of the church. Ringing the bell solved the problem.
Four more children arrived before the Ekvalls furloughed in 1912 for three years in the U.S., restoring their health while deputizing around the country.
Returning in 1915, accompanied by Emma and three children, Martin was appointed pastor of the Alliance church in Wuchang that he had founded 20 years earlier. In addition to his beloved preaching, he served for a time as chairman of the Central China district, taught Bible classes, administered the church, and counseled new missionaries. He remained in Wuchang until he, as missionaries tended to say in those years, “went to sleep” on January 6, 1939 from prostate cancer.
The 1920s were considered the pinnacle of Ekvall’s service. His fluency in colloquial Chinese and reputation as a gifted speaker led to opportunities to minister to the Army troops of Feng Yu-Hsiang, the “Christian Warlord.” In addition to preaching in various encampments, Martin interpreted in 1924 for Australian evangelist, the Rev. T.B. Davis of the Pocket Testament League, who addressed 5000 soldiers outside Beijing while distributing Bibles to those assembled. Martin’s niece, Margaret, remembered how her uncle “would entertain us for hours with stories of how he welcomed teaching these unlearned soldiers about Christ’s love for them.” Accounts report that Feng baptized thousands of his men.
Ekvall had opportunities to dialogue with Feng and another Christian general, Li Mingzhong. He and wife also enjoyed the personal friendship of General Chiang Kai Kiang, Feng’s chief of staff, called “the Billy Sunday of China.” An outspoken believer introduced to Christianity in 1918 by C&MA missionary E.D. Chapin in Changdeh, Chiang was a guest in the Ekvalls’ Wuchang Mission House and remained true to his faith until his death in 1966.
The tri-cities of Wuhan, in the heart of the Yangtze basin, suffered greatly during the river’s annual flooding. Year after year the Ekvalls led relief efforts among tens of thousands of the temporarily displaced. During the epic 1931 and 1932 floods, Emma, assisted by Martin, other area missionaries, and church volunteers, spearheaded supplying food, clothing, and medicine in the camps set up outside Wuchang. She also organized Bible classes and worship services among receptive refugees. The mayor of Hankou cited Emma’s tireless work, and she was awarded a medal on behalf of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Nowhere was the Ekvall teamwork more evident than in the school for blind girls—and later, deaf and dumb men and women—founded by Emma Ekvall in 1919 and still operating under the People’s Republic. While she handled staffing, fund raising, and curriculum, Martin was essential in finding school housing in downtown Wuchang and advising in administration and spiritual oversight.
While the Ekvalls endured the terrors of Gansu banditry and Muslim revolts during Martin’s 18+ years in the province, nothing compared with the 1926 Siege of Wuchang.
Chiang Kai-Shek’s Northern Expedition forces quickly captured Hankou and Hanyang and surrounded Wuchang and warlord Wu Peifi’s 3000 soldiers inside the city. Most of the estimated 10,000 civilian deaths were by starvation, rather than the constant shelling, during the 51 days before the Southern Forces entered the city gates. The Ekvalls, supported by the Red Cross, protected the Chinese Christians as well as they could from looting and abuse. Only one of their flock, according to Emma’s report, was executed by the Northern army when falsely suspected of being a spy.
While the Ekvalls complied with their consulate’s urging to leave the country, at least temporarily, during the nationwide anti-foreign riots of 1927, spending three years in the U.S. while their children studied at Wheaton College (IL), they remained in Wuchang at their post at the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. As it happened, the Ekvalls were providentially spared in the devastating first aerial bombing of Wuchang in July 1938. Three bombs from 20 enemy planes bracketed the Mission House, causing extensive damage, where the Ekvalls were sheltering. One hit killed 68 patients and staff next door at the Government Hospital, and other bombs left over 100 dead and scores wounded in nearby residences. Instead of planned evacuation to Hankou, the couple remained to assist rescue operations and to house on mission grounds many citizens who had been bombed-out.
Emma said that Martin remained cheerful, hopeful, and brave during the terminal illness that confined him in Hankou’s Lutheran home for the final five months of life after the bombing. C&MA’s Foreign Secretary, Rev. Christie paid him the ultimate tribute, describing him as a “stalwart pioneer, adherent to the integrity of the Scripture and standards of truth, staunch friend of the Chinese people, and full of love for his Savior, family, and the Chinese church.”