Cora Amelia Martinson was born February 13, 1902, in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Andrew and Anna Martinson. At only six months of age she made her first voyage across the Pacific to China as the infant daughter of her pioneer Lutheran missionary parents (Lutheran United Mission). They settled in Henan, China, where Cora was soon joined by a sister, Pearl, and a brother, Harold. Chinese was their first language, Norwegian their second, and English not used until they began school. As a child she witnessed dire poverty and death, experienced bandit threats, and more. At the age of 18 she graduated from the small school for missionary children, the American School of Kikungshan (ASK).
She remained in China for a year, during which she kept busy—teaching English to three Russians, substitute teaching at ASK, and teaching the three children of a millionaire relative of President Yuan Shih-kai, who provided her not only with a rickshaw and coolie for transportation by also a bodyguard! The next year she returned to the United States to attend St. Olaf College. Upon graduation in 1925 she taught at the Madison Normal School in Madison, Minnesota for five years, at Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta, Canada for three years, and at Gale College, Galesville, Wisconsin, for three more years. In the latter two schools she also served as dean of women.
During the early post-college years, however, Cora was struggling with her faith. She was also haunted by a sense of call to return to China as a missionary, a prospect she dreaded. She rejected the first letter of inviting her to return, suggesting a friend be called instead. Several years later, in 1937, she received a second letter asking her to go to China as a missionary. Only after intense struggle, hoping to the end that some unexpected turn of events would prevent her from actually going, did she finally yield. As the ship pulled away from its California port, she sighed, “That’s it.” At that moment, she felt enfolded in a deep sense of peace and the assurance that she had made the right decision. From then until the end of her life, she possessed this singular commitment and unwavering determination—to bear witness to the gospel among Chinese people, and indeed all others who came her way.
Upon her arrival in China, Cora’s first assignment was to teach in the I-Kwang Middle School for Girls in Xinyang. But because of the Japanese invasion, the wartime situation became too chaotic for continuing these classes beyond the spring of 1938. Most of the school evacuated to Chongqing, while Cora was asked to help with the mission work in the city of Runan. There she spent half her time teaching in the new middle school and half doing evangelistic work together with her colleagues and close friends, the Chinese Bible women. At the end of each day, Cora would prepare tea and snacks for them in her home and together they would talk of that day’s labors and experiences, and often share devotions.
Her missionary colleague at the time was her brother, Harold Martinson. At times she would accompany him on evangelistic trips to villages in the area. During these journeys, which lasted one or two weeks, they would stay in small guest rooms in the simple village chapels and eat their meals with the Christian lay workers.
With her typical creativity, Cora also worked with children, meeting them on the playground after school. There they interspersed games with Bible stories and memorizing Bible verses. The children greatly looked forward to this. At another time, in addition to her other responsibilities she began classes for girls, aged 15 to 25, who had never been able to attend school. Through these classes she was also able to share the gospel, and one by one many of the girls became Christians.
In spite of the dangers brought by the Sino-Japanese War, she remained in China, experiencing two invasions (once by 30,000 Japanese troops) and eight bombings, witnessing unbelievable atrocities, sharing the fears and sufferings of those around her, and often, when the Japanese soldiers came to their compound, hiding especially the girls and young women to keep them safe. She once told a friend, “I feel we were very close to the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War. Together we feared, fled, waited, fasted and prayed, always searching for promises from the Scriptures and sharing these with one another as we claimed them.”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked it was imperative, both for the sake of the missionaries and the Chinese, that they flee the country. While some of the male missionaries took to their bikes, she and others rode in wheelbarrows. After several days (the coolies were sometimes able to travel 30 miles a day) they reached a point where they were able to hitch rides in trucks and even, once, on a train. Finally they reached their destination—Chongqing, a free city in western China. After a two-week wait they were able to get a plane for the perilous flight over the Burma Hump and into India. After yet another wait, a large transport ship carried the group, zigzagging for 45 days across the submarine - infested ocean safely back to America.
Even in these circumstances Cora was a missionary. It happened that on this ship were 300 Chinese cadets headed for training in the United States. They noticed Cora on deck reading from her Chinese Bible and struck up a conversation. This led to regular English and Bible study sessions throughout the trip. One of these cadets later served as personal pilot for Chiang Kai-shek. Still later, he moved to Hong Kong, where he again met Cora and became a member of the Lutheran church there.
For the next three years, she served as dean of women at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, awaiting the end of WWII. At the war’s end, however, China itself was not at peace because of the civil war which was rapidly intensifying. Cora nevertheless returned to China in 1947. Asked at a later date if she knew what she was getting into then, she responded: “Yes, but it never entered my mind that anything out there should hinder me from going. We knew that people were being kidnapped and killed, but we considered our call to China as a lifetime commitment, so we went.”
But by 1948 new political upheavals forced the missionaries again to flee, many to continue work in the British Colony of Hong Kong. There, for the next twenty-five years, Cora taught English and the Bible in several high schools, colleges, and church youth groups. Through her teaching, her counseling of students, parents, and many others, and through her friendship, and not least her keen wit and wonderful sense of humor, she attracted many Chinese, young and old, to a knowledge of Christ.
In 1974 she left Hong Kong and retired to St. Paul, where she continued to give expression to her missionary commitment, especially through her contacts with the local Chinese community, tutoring English to many newly-arrived Chinese and sharing her faith with them.
It was Cora’s unique gift of being at ease with people at every echelon of life—the poor and the powerful, old and young—that contributed to her unusual effectiveness as a missionary wherever she was. Her nephew, Paul Martinson, relates an incident during Cora’s 1986 visit to China, when the family traveled to the closed city of Queshan to visit her father’s burial site:
Five of us—four missionaries and one elderly Chinese woman—sat in our stiff chairs with as many Chinese communist cadres. We had a long wait—perhaps about two hours—before they would take us to visit the site of Grandfather Andrew’s grave in Queshan, Henan. What was this odd combination of folk to talk about? The cadres sat stiffly in their chairs less sure of themselves than even we. But, no problem. Cora got going and we were entertained and enlightened.Without warning she started citing some indigenous Chinese nursery rhymes and tongue twisters from her childhood, all in the local dialect. The cadres’ eyes popped out. They had not heard such things for a long time—they were used to communist style ditties, and songs of praise to Chairman Mao, and here it was a foreigner who brought them back to childhood and their own cultural soil!
But Cora did not stop there. She began to regale the group with stories of what Christians and the missionaries did during the frightful war with Japan—escaping air raids, protecting the young school girls from marauding Japanese soldiers, hiding groups in homes, and the like—risking their lives in the process. Again these poor cadres heard things that had never entered their imagination. The personal and concrete touch of Cora’s ways worked their magic. And so we passed the time away…I can never forget it.
At the age of 89 she was invited to join a Chinese team on a speaking tour in 26 Chinese churches and schools in fifteen cities throughout Canada. Arriving in Vancouver, she learned that a book she had written, The Call of a Child, based on a childhood memory, was being broadcast just at that time into the People’s Republic of China. As author, she was then invited to say a few words to the listeners, which she gladly did.
Cora loved children. Her nieces and nephews among others remember her as “wealthy,” for she would lavish on them candy, gum and trinkets. They remember how she introduced them to collecting butterflies, moths, beetles, teaching the best techniques to use. Everywhere children flocked around her, to hear her stories (she was a master story-teller), to play her games—hand games, word games, number games, and to be tricked! Things always seemed exciting when Cora was there. For seven years in her retirement she was a favorite teacher at a Nebraska Bible camp. And at home in St. Anthony Park she organized and led the children’s club, Operation Andrew for a number of years.
On January 28, 2000, Cora slept away. The lives she touched are spread throughout the world and can not be numbered.
- Oral history of Cora Martinson, conducted by Jane Koons as part of the Midwest China Oral History and Archives Collection. The entire collection is in the archives located at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.