Peter Mattson (original Swedish spelling Mattson) was born in Lindenas, Dalarna, Sweden. When he was eleven, he emigrated with his family to the United States, settling with his family on a farm in Alexandria Minnesota. In 1888, he “knelt by a haystack and promised the Lord that he would give half his income to missions or become a missionary.” Not without some tears, his mother was thrilled that her first-born son could become a missionary.
After early education in rural Minnesota, in 1888 he entered “Skogsbergh’s School” in Minneapolis; the next year, he began studies at “Risberg’s School” (the Swedish Department of the Chicago Theological Seminary). He was ordained to the ministry and commissioned as a Covenant missionary to China in 1890. Matson traveled to China in October, 1890, in the company of an older missionary who had been commissioned with him, the Rev. Karl P. Wallen, and Karl’s wife, Mia.
Finding a place to work in China
Arriving in Shanghai, Peter Mattson went immediately to the headquarters of the China Inland Mission (CIIM), where he was warmly welcomed by the China Superintend, John Stevenson, who invited him to stay at the CIM mission home. Of his feelings at the time, he wrote: “I was all alone, nobody knew of my coming. I did not even have a letter of introduction. Fortunately, I had my certificate of ordination and, of course, my passport.”
Not only he was a newcomer, but he represented a new mission of which nobody had heard. He had had some correspondence with Eric Folke, of the CIM, also a Swede, who had invited Matson to work with him. Folke was not in Shanghai at the time, however, so Stevenson suggested that Matson commence Mandarin studies with Frederick William Baller, the head of the CIM men’s language training school in Anqing and one of the most accomplished Mandarin speakers among missionaries in China. Matson was also advised to shave the front part of his and change into Chinese dress, like CIM missionaries, which he did.
Matson made quick progress, receiving Baller’s warm commendation. Later, he was noted for his excellent pronunciation, and taught the language to many Covenant missionaries who came after him. A week later, Matson joined Baller and the Wallens on a river journey to Anqing for four months of initial language study. In March, 1891, he received a letter from the mission headquarters in Chicago, in which he learned that the original plan for them to work in Shanxi was being replaced by one involving work near or with the Swedish Covenant Mission in Wuchang.
Matson, having studied at the CIM language school, thought he should inform J. Hudson Taylor of this change of plans, so he traveled to Shanghai, where he and Taylor conferred about the matter. Taylor encouraged Matson in this new venture, and laid hands on him in prayer that God would prosper the new work. In November of that year, Matson went with a Mr. Gulston of the CIM on an exploratory journey to Fancheng, the twin city of Siangyang, just across the Han River. They sold books and Gospels by the hundreds along the way, as they did afterwards wherever they went. Matson also visited the nearby towns of Icheng and Kingmen. He dressed as a Chinese, which made his foreign identity less obvious and decreased the amount of hostility directed at other missionaries, who usually wore Western clothes.
Finally, after consultation with both Howard Taylor, J. Hudson Taylor’s son, and with Taylor himself, Matson and the American Covenant Mission received permission to take over the lease on recently abandoned buildings that had previously been used by CIM missionaries. Eventually, in May 1892, an agreement was reached with the Norwegian Lutherans that they would concentrate upon the area north of Fancheng, and the Mission Covenant on the south, with both missions working in Fancheng.
Early years in Fancheng
At first, Matson was the only foreigner in that part of Hubei. He spent the mornings with his language teacher and the afternoons in the city, selling Gospels and tracts, and engaging in street preaching. In the summer of that year, he was mobbed, brutally stoned, and left for dead by angry Chinese, who believed a rumor that a recent cholera epidemic was caused by his poisoning of their wells. It took him several days to recover, but he was not deterred from going out into the city daily after that.
He married Kristina (Christina) Svensson, a Swedish Covenant missionary in Hankou on May 18, 1893. She moved to Fancheng, where they were soon joined by the Wallens and their two young children, and John Sjoquist. Their house was rebuilt and occupied in the summer of 1893. The next year, Swedish Covenant missionaries who were their good friends were murdered by a mob elsewhere in Hubei. The Matsons’ firstborn died in 1894 as a result of the heat and unsanitary conditions; another infant died in 1899. All this was too much for Christine, who became a semi-invalid until her death in 1922. Their daughter Esther was born in 1897.
The mission bought a building in 1894. They used the front as a street chapel and the back rooms as a school. It took a while, but gradually fear and suspicion were allayed by the missionaries’ kind and friendly lives, and gradually Chinese began to come to them. Matson preferred an indirect form of evangelism: waiting for Chinese to come to him and ask about his faith, and then gladly telling them. They did not baptize their first convert until 1894. Significant numbers were beginning to attend meetings and request baptism by 1897.
His overall mission strategy called for “evangelism, education, and benevolence” that would “slowly spread the Gospel and the savor of Christ throughout an entire culture. It was the doctrine of the leaven rather than of the bugle blast.” (Lundbom, 17) “Evangelism consisted of preaching, witnessing to people one on one, and … ‘women’s work,’ i.e., work specifically among women.” (Lundbom, 17) This was conducted by missionary women, since men were not allowed by custom to minister to women, and involved “[p]resenting them with the gospel message; enrolling them in study groups and catechumen classes; teaching them to read; organizing them into women’s societies, and instructing them on how to care for babies and small children.” (Lundbom, 17)
“Benevolence consisted largely of medical work in hospitals and dispensaries, although it included caring for the ever-present poor and refugees displaced by war or civil unrest, and in the last years at Nanchang included the opening of an orphanage. Education took place in primary and secondary schools for boys and girls; in a theological seminary for young men; and in Bible teaching for women carried on in homes by Bible women and by missionaries in Bible schools for young women.” (Lundbom, 17-18) Such an approach was common among Protestant missionaries in China.
In 1894 money became very scarce, so in 1895 Matson and his wife returned to the United States with borrowed funds to tell Covenant churches about the needs and opportunities for mission work in China. They were met with encouraging interest, and returned with new enthusiasm to China in 1896.
Rising anti-foreign feelings burst out in the murderous Boxer Rebellion in the summer of 1900, when all missionaries were ordered to flee to the coast. The Matsons spent a few weeks in Nagasaki, Japan, and the winter in Shanghai. When they left Fancheng, the church had forty members.
Before returning to their mission station, the Matsons and other missionaries visited Kuling, which was becoming a favorite summer rest and refreshment location for Western missionaries. Matson bought a house there and visited Kuling in the summers, when an annual conference for missionaries was held.
When the Matsons returned in September, 1901, they found that the mission property had not been damaged, and – even more importantly – that “nearly all of the Christians had weathered the storm.” (Lundbom 20). In February, 1902, they moved into their new premises in Siangyang, across the Han River. This property had been purchased and became the center of the Covenant Mission for the rest of the Mission’s time of operation in China. The mission compound was surrounded by a wall, which enclosed a chapel, residence for missionaries, dispensary, school, and auxiliary buildings.
At a conference of Scandinavian missionaries in 1904, Peter Matson was elected president of their association. He delivered an address on “How to Open a Station in a New Place,” in which he talked about “what translation of the Bible to use, hymnbooks, catechumens, requirements for baptism, church discipline, women’s work, and medical work.” (Lundbom, 26)
The work grows and expands to other places, despite much trouble
In 1905, Joel Johnson began an inquirers’ group in Icheng, and in 1907 or 1908 Matson baptized a few people who had attended that class, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. He continued to supervise the work there until it was taken over by two resident missionaries. In 1906, evangelism and church planting began in Kingmen. Matson was on hand for the dedication of a new church building in 1909. He preached a sermon on Luke 2:10: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” (Lundbom, 32)
Matson’s daughter Esther had gone to the United States for further schooling, intending to be a missionary. She came back to China in 1922, but after her mother Christine’s death that same year, Esther suffered a total breakdown and had to go back to America.
The revolution of 1911 brought violence that necessitated another evacuation, but when Matson and the others returned six months later, the property was again found to be in good condition.
The great anti-Christian Movement of 1926-1927 brought much more danger and damage. The consuls ordered nationals to seek safety of coastal cities again, returning in September, 1927. This time, they found that robbers and bandits had occupied mission property, forcing the missionaries to seek shelter with local Christians. Fighting among warlords caused immense disruption, but Matson continued to conduct Bible conferences for the Chinese co-workers. On several occasions he had to stand firm and insist that soldiers leave buildings they had occupied.
Revivals broke out among missionaries and their Chinese believers on several occasions, but spiritual opposition came along with the work of God’s Spirit. After one revival in the area, a disastrous flood destroyed mission property in Fancheng in what Matson described as “a terrible setback following the wake of revival.” (Lundbom, 48)
When three missionaries were kidnapped and held for ransom by Communists in 1931, Matson took an active part in seeking their release, spending two months in Hankou “arranging for the purchase and shipment of medicine” which was being demanded in return for the missionaries. (Lundbom, 89) He himself accompanied the Chinese coolies who carried the medical supplies only to Laokhow, and could not go the last 125 miles through treacherous territory.
The brutal Japanese invasion inflicted more damage and death than anything else before it, especially when airplanes bombed towns and killed civilians indiscriminately. Matson and his second wife Edla, whom he had married in 1924, left China for the last time in June, 1939. Though he was 72 years old at the time, Matson soon engaged in “speaking wherever he could for the evangelism of China.” Sensing that his time of serving God on earth was done, he submitted his resignation to the mission a few days before he died, on May 30, 1943.
As evidenced by his lifelong dedication to missionary work in China; his acquisition of fluency in Mandarin; his tireless itineration by horseback, preaching, teaching, and leadership of other missionaries; his personal sufferings, including the death of two children, the disability and then and then death of his first wife, and the breakdown of his daughter Esther; his perseverance amidst revolution, war, chaos, and danger; and his multi-faceted mission strategy, Peter Matson stands out as an example of the best of the thousands of Western missionaries who sought the spiritual and physical welfare of the Chinese people whom they so dearly loved, and for whom they gladly gave all they had.
- Jack R. Lundbom, On the Road to Siangyang: Covenant Mission in Mainland China 1890-1949. Studies in Chinese Christianity, G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin, eds. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.
- In addition to letters and official reports, Peter Matson’s book, Our China Mission (Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1934) served as a major resource for Lundbom’s volume.