John Abraham Otte was born on August 11, 1861, to working-class parents in Vlissenden (Flushing), the Netherlands. At the age of five, he and his family moved to the United States and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. John’s weak voice, ruined from childhood illness, and lack of interest in theology caused him to choose medical school at the University of Michigan after graduation from Hope College (Holland, MI) in 1883. It was in medical school that Otte first heard of the idea of becoming a medical missionary. By this time, he was a fervent Christian who had played an important role in a revival at the University of Michigan that was the precursor to the nationwide Student Volunteer Movement. Otte approached the Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination about receiving support to go to China (most American Christian denominations had a board that decided whether or not to sponsor applicants for long-term missions). The RCA Board liked his idea, but because they did not have the resources for him, they rejected his proposal. Instead, Otte took the suggestion of a visiting minister named Mr. Van’t Lindenhout to go to the Netherlands for a year of study in diseases of the eye at the University of Amsterdam in Utrecht. This would prepare him to meet a common need in China and would prove useful in ministry.
While studying in the Netherlands in 1886, Dr. Otte met a little girl who changed his life forever. She gave Otte two Dutch half-pennies and told him to build a hospital in China with them. Encouraged and motivated, Otte returned to the U.S. once his year of study concluded and approached the RCA Board again. Although they did request that he raise more funds, they agreed to send Otte. Newly married to Frances Phelps (daughter of Philip Phelps, Hope College’s first president) and with more financial support, Otte set out for China with his bride in1887 and arrived in January 1888.
Otte wanted to build a hospital, and he did so quickly and efficiently. In the town of Sio-Khe in Fujian (Fukien) province he established Neerbosch Hospital, named after an orphanage founded in the Netherlands. Otte completed this project within his year in China but not without resistance from the locals. The Chinese considered the area on which he planned to build the hospital sacred ground, and many tried to sabotage his efforts. With persistence, however, Otte succeeded, and from the first night of its opening, Chinese flooded the hospital and began to learn what the foreign doctor could offer them. From tumor removal surgeries to eye surgeries to amputations, Otte quickly began to deliver relief to a long suffering group of people, and thus establish his ministry.
Within a couple of years, Otte received requests to build a hospital in Xiamen ( then called Amoy), the area in which the RCA first settled for mission work. He set his sight on the island of Kulangyu, across a small body of water from Amoy Island. This time, Otte met resistance not from the locals, but from foreign settlers. Many feared the close proximity to foreign diseases, while others feared the rise in property costs. Soon enough, Otte’s efforts overcame their protests as well, and he completed Hope Hospital in 1896. A a women’s hospital, subsequently renamed Wilhelmina Hospital, was later constructed alongside it. These names came from Hope College, Dr. and Mrs. Otte’s alma mater, and from the queen of the Netherlands, a generous benefactor of the institution. After a while, these hospitals served both the native and foreign populations.
Each day was full of medical mission work. In addition, Otte initially served as the head of ministry in the hospital. As the number of Chinese Christians grew, he handed that position over to them; but he did not cease to make house calls and perform operations, always speaking the truth of salvation to his patients as he interacted with them. Person-to-person interaction was balanced with the time Otte took to write reports to numerous mission and RCA journals. He included counts of patients, stories of both ordinary and miraculous healings, and petitions for prayer in these reports, and sent them every few days to different recipients. Without these reports of his experiences, much of the detail about Otte’s work and mission would not be known today.
Ironically, returning to the U.S. on furlough did not offer much rest. While his family stayed in one place, Otte traveled on speaking tours both in the U.S. and in the Netherlands to gather funding from supporters. He shared stories of conversion, inspiration, and hope that excited his listeners about the work in China. Otte always brought the two Dutch half-pennies, which he had encased in gold and strung on a chain as a meaningful token for himself and for his audiences. From this excitement came donations and volunteers for the field. Hope and Neerbosch hospitals eventually became self-sufficient ( only the missionary doctors received financial support from the Board, and the Netherlanders insisted on supporting Wilhelmina Hospital), but additional financial contributions helped, and prayer support was always necessary. During his first furlough, the RCA ordained Otte so that he might actively participate in the leadership meetings of the Chinese Church.
In April 1910 Otte took a house call for a man dangerously ill with pneumonic plague. Within a few days, Otte began to display signs of the illness, eventually becoming bedridden with chills and aching joints. He weakened further, and on April 14, 1910, aged 49, Otte died. His wife, who was back in the United States with the children for their schooling, received notice as quickly as his colleagues could send it, and his friends buried him in Chinese soil. Two pastors conducted the service in both English and Chinese, and the local residents established a memorial next to his hospitals with inscriptions in English, Chinese, Dutch, and Latin. Chinese and foreigners alike gathered for the funeral, a living testimony to his desire to work among both peoples.
- Gerald F. De Jong, The Reformed Church in China, 1842-1951, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992
- Frances Phelps Otte, The Life of Dr. J.A. Otte, 1934
- Otte, John A. (1861-1910) Papers, 1883-2008, Archives and Special Collections, Hope College, Holland, MI.
- H.M. Van Nes, Beams of Light Upon the Field of the World (Dr. J.A. Otte)
- A.L. Warnshuis, A Brief Sketch of the Life and Work of Dr. J.A. Otte, 1911