Otto Schoerner was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, August 20, 1906, the son of German immigrants who ran a bakery in Butler, Pennsylvania in the 1920s. From childhood, he attended the youth fellowship of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, studied the Bible under the revered Charles Troutman, and accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. Sadly, his father was killed in an automobile accident early in his life. After that Otto continued the bakery and worked hard with his family.
Troutman became a sort of spiritual father to Schoerner. Aside from instruction in Sunday School, he guided him in the reading of biblical commentaries and missionary biographies. He greatly enjoyed the Bible study group which Mrs. Troutman, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, conducted in their home with her husband. Over a period of several years, he completed the entire Scofield Bible study curriculum; he also attended church retreats and spiritual conferences of all sorts. In this kind of environment and through constant seeking after God, he experienced continuous spiritual growth.
In 1927, he handed over management of the bakery to his mother and younger brother and entered Moody Bible Institute’s course on medical missions in order to prepare himself for missionary work. Majoring in both Greek and music, he graduated in April, 1931. Three events made the greatest impact upon him while in seminary: In 1929, when the China Inland Mission issued a call for 200 new workers, he accepted this challenge. Second, when he read The Faithful Steward by Borden of Yale, he was deeply moved, and resolved to go to the Northwest of China to preach the Gospel to Muslims. Third, he attended a weekly prayer meeting for missions held in the home of a missionary couple who had served in China. It was at this prayer gathering that he met Katie H. Dodd, a graduate of Wheaton College, and graduated with him in 1931.
On the first of October that same year, Schoerner boarded a ship at Vancouver, Canada, sailing to China. After arriving in Shanghai on October 22nd, he proceeded immediately to the Anhui CIM language school. After six months, he completed the first section of the Chinese curriculum. Along with five other young workers he was assigned to Dihua, Xinjiang (Current Urumchi). The other members of this group were Dr. Emil Fischbacher, Raymond H. Joyce, George F. Holmes, and William J. Drew from England, and Aubrey Parsons, an Australian.
The superintendent of CIM work in Xinjiang was a senior missionary George W. Hunter, who hurried to meet them and take them to Xinjiang. But because of the chaos of war, travel and communications were interrupted, so Hunter, Fischbacher and others went to Beijing to try to find out a way for Xinjiang, while Schoerner and others waited in Shanghai for further instructions. During this interval, Katie Dodd, who had arrived in China five days before Schoerner and had been assigned to work in Yingshang, Anhui, came to Shanghai on business. When they parted they had each other’s address, later keeping in touch in a Christian “romance.”
The missionaries finally decided to go to Xinjiang by car through Inner Mongolia. Emil Fischbacher and his group purchased two Ford trucks in Tianjin, leaving for Beijing on August 25th. On September 13, the group set out from Zhangjiakou, went through the Great Wall into Inner Mongolia, and headed towards Xinjiang. On the trip they divided up the work among them. Schoerner, the former baker, was happy to be responsible for feeding all seven men.
Many miles, much hardship, and 57 days later, they finally arrive in Dihua, right in the middle of a rebellion by the Hui (Muslim) populace. More than twenty packages which they had mailed home fell victim to disrupted travel routes and interrupted postal service and were lost.
Intensified fighting meant that all the missionaries were immediately plunged into the hospital to care for the rapidly-multiplied numbers of wounded soldiers. Schoerner had studied some medicine in seminary, so he became Fischbacher’s assistant right away, helping with both minor and major operations. As a result of their immersion in this ministry, both Fischbacher and Percy C. Mather, who had served in Xinjiang for twenty years with Rev. Hunter, contracted typhus fever from patients and died on the 24th and 27th of May, respectively.
When order had been restored, Schoerner and Raymond H. Joyce were assigned to Kucheng (now Qitai County) about 150 miles east of Dihua, a town in the Gobi desert—-the whole area is a barren land except a few oases and sources of water. These scattered nomadic tribes had never heard the Gospel. In April of 1934, the pair rented a few rooms in the compound of some Han people and settled in. They used the opportunity of doing medical work to preach to both Han and minority people. Seeing patients two hours each morning, in three months they had served over 300 who came to them for treatment, barely able to keep up with the demand for help. Activity only increased in the summer, so that they quickly became familiar and known in the entire region. Seeing that the time was ripe, they began Sunday services in their parlor. Simple songs and easily-understood messages made the Gospel plain to their hearers. Schoerner’s little organ attracted many women and youth to the meetings. During the course of everyday life, many people, including Han, Tungans and Turki people, eagerly engaged them in conversation about their message.
When summer came, they bought horses and carts, and rode one or the other into the countryside to preach to farmers and students in Fuyuan (today’s Beiting), Santai and other places. Later they penetrated mountainous regions into pasturelands in Tianshan, where they evangelized Turki, Kazak, Nogai, and Mongolian people. They took their medical equipment and treated the nomadic herdsmen, while preaching and distributing tracts. At last they went as far as Muleiho (today’s Kazak autonomous county). Although most of the people were friendly they did not dare to believe in Christ; the two missionaries were not discouraged, but did all they could to sow Gospel seed.
In 1935, Schoerner and Joyce began to hold Sunday services on major streets in the city. A businessman from Shanxi, Mr. Wen, helped them with open-air meetings and gave his testimony. On the Christmas of the same year, more than ten believers gathered to bear witness to God’s grace, telling how God had changed them and was making them new creatures, bringing great comfort to the missionary pair. They used the farmers’ inactivity during the Spring Festival (New Year) to take the Gospel to villages. In the winter of that year, they had passed the tests for all six levels of the CIM language curriculum, so they immediately began studying other (minority) languages, so they could preach in them as well as in Mandarin. Several years of hard work produced a group of converts who studied the Bible with them and held firmly to the faith.
In 1937, after the “July Seventh Incident”, the political situation in Xinjiang became tense, so the activities of the missionaries began to be restricted by local authority. They had to obtained permission from the police before leaving or entering Chitai County. Under this situation, the CIM headquarters in Shanghai sent a telegraph requiring them to return to coastal cities before fall. So the Schoerner and Joyce made preparations to leave, said farewell to the believers, and gathered in Dihua with the other missionaries. Just as they were getting ready to depart, the political situation got even worse, and the eastward route was completely shut down, so they had no other recourse than to take the road west toward India. On June 18th they set out from Dihua, in spite of the hot wave, and traversed the old path across the Tian Shan mountains, reaching Kashi of Xinjiang after a 1,000-mile trek in 40 days. They waited there for another 20 days, along with three Swedish missionaries. Then the six of them joined a caravan of more than 20 mules and horses, and a guard of three soldiers, finally entering India in the middle of August.
Schoerner never forgot this trip, for they traversed the “roof of the world,” where the borders of China, Russia, Afghanistan, and India intersect. In the Himalayas, amidst the peaks of Mt. Everest and others, they crossed many a snow-covered mountain,finally reaching Hunza in India at the end of September. High on a frosty iceberg, the six men could not refrain from singing the “Gloria” in thanks for coming to a free country. They continued southward to the port of Calcutta, where they boarded a ship that took them past Malaysia and Singapore to Hong Kong; they transferred to another vessel headed for Shanghai, which they reached on November 20th after a journey that took six months.
After a correspondence lasting six years, the relationship between Otto and Schoerner and Katie Dodd had blossomed and matured, so when he arrived in Shanghai they decided to get married. The English newspaper announced their wedding with the headline, “A young man undertakes a six-month journey to fetch his bride.” The ceremony took place on November 25th, with the bride’s father, Dr. Albert B. Dodd, officiating. The couple went to Qingdao in Shandong for their honeymoon. Katie had been born there in 1908, her parents being Presbyterian missionaries who over the course of their career served in Jinan, Qingdao and Tengxian in Shandong Province.
On January 1st, 1939, the newlyweds returned to the States for furlough and to see family and friends. Because of the Second World War, travel across the Pacific was affected, so that they did not leave Vancouver, Canada, until March, 1940, arriving in Shanghai on April 8th.
The war with Japan was on, so the China Inland Mission tried to transfer its workers from the coastal regions to free areas inland. The Schoerners were accordingly assigned to Guide (now Shangqiu) in Henan, to assist the evangelistic work of 80-90 American Southern Baptist missionaries. In January, 1941, they escorted newly-arrived missionaries Mr.& Mrs. Melvin Suttie to Shenqiu mission station, then returned to Huangchuan, traveling in a convoy of 13 jinrick-shaws filled with luggage. They encountered muddy roads and dry dusty tracks; the way was hard going enough, in addition, there was the dangerous-filled turmoil and chaos of war. Towards the end of March, they reached Zhengyang Pass (now Zhengyang county) where they were kindly received by Lutheran missionaries Mr. & Mrs. Vincent Crossett. Here they separated, with the two couples headed off for Shenqiu and for Huangchuan.
They reached Huangchuan after a very long and trying journey, to be welcomed by Miss Grace C. Davey. The mission station at the time was under the supervision of Miss Davey, with Miss E.J.M. Lundie and Miss. E. Marion G. Powell as co-workers. The Schoerners began to assist the local Presbyterian church, going out to nearby villages to do evangelism. James Albert Schoerner was born to them on September 18, 1941 at the Swedish Lutheran hospital. Pearl Harbor was attacked that same year on December 7th.
Japanese forces attacked and occupied Huangchuan at the beginning of 1943. Otto Schoerner pushed his bicycle, his wife rode a single-wheeled barrow with her baby in her arms, and they fled north, reaching CIM’s headquarters in North Henan. It happened to be a time that the Principal of the Henan Bible Institute was made Deputy Director of CIM in Henan, and Schoerner was asked to take his place, so he and his family moved to Zhoujiakou (now Zhoukoushi), where the Bible Institute was located. On the way of their flight, on May 9th , their daughter Anna Marjorie was born.
Not long afterwards, because of the encroaching warfare, the CIM sent Schoerner to Lanzhou to take the position of Field Secretary for Gansu Province, in which position he took care of the travel documents for missionaries and remitted funds to them. Shortly thereafter, he became financial administrator for Borden Memorial Hospital, handling all accounts and procuring needed medical supplies. Mrs. Schoerner ran the mission home, providing hospitality for CIM workers as they came and went. She also supervised the educational outreach of the leprosy wing of the hospital. As Han Chinese, Muslims, and Tibetans received medical care and Christian teaching, the number of believers continually increased.
World War II ended on August 15th, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Japan. On the same day, the Schoerners’ second son, Stephen William, was born. In June of 1947, the family of five left for furlough, and Otto took this opportunity to do further studies at Wheaton College.
On September 21, 1948, they arrived back in Shanghai. The oldest, James, entered the CIM mission school in Guling, Jiangxi. Mrs. Schoerner and Anna boarded a plane for Lanzhou; and Otto, with a large load of supplies took a boat up the Yangzi River to Chungqing, where he transferred his things to a truck. Going through Chengdu in Sichuan, he headed for Lanzhou. At this time, China’s civil war had already reached its conclusion, and many missionaries left because of the uncertain conditions. Peng Dehuai’s People’s Liberation Army troops entered Lanzhou in August, 1949. On October 20th of the same year, the Schoerners’ fourth child, Charles Benjamin, was born at the hospital, and Anna Marjorie entered first grade at the Guling School.
The military first took control of Lanzhou, then set up a new provincial government. Then the government began to take charge of schools and hospitals. At the time, Schoerner was Director of the Borden Memorial Hospital, with responsibility for all its affairs. Gradually, as the new rulers interfered more and more, his work became increasingly difficult. The hospital was required to offer medical care only, and prohibited from preaching the Gospel. The staff were compelled to participate in various social activities and to attend political education classes. When the Korean War started, the Anti-American atmosphere became stronger and stronger. The Schoerners becamepersonae non gratae, and were finally forced to leave China.
In June, 1951, the six Schoerners boarded a truck, then a train, and after three days arrived in Hong Kong. After passing through Europe, they docked in New York on July 7th. In time Schoerner returned to work for 31 years at his alma mater, Moody Bible Institute, retiring in March, 1990. At the end of 1993, the Schoerners entered a retirement center in Carol Stream, Illinois, near Chicago. On his 90th birthday August 20th, 1996, his family and friends asked Otto to write his autobiography. He did not want to disappoint them, and Serving Christ was published in 1997.
- Schoerner, Otto F., Serving Christ, 1997.
- China’s Millions, China Inland Mission, North American Edition. p. 155, 160, 173-174, 1931; p. 30, 94, 125, 1932; p. 38-39, 101-102, 1933; p. 148-149, 1934; p. 68-70, 1935; p. 108, 1936; p. 169, 1937; p. 20-24, 170, 1939; p. 62, 1940; p. 121-122, 1942; p. 166, 1943; p. 61, 1944; p. 175, 1945; p. 114, 1947; p. 78, 1949; p. 95, 148, 158, 1950.
- China’s Millions, London Edition. p. 20-21, 1939; p. 76, 87, 1951.
- The Register of CIM Missionaries and Associates.
- Broomhall, Marshall, To What Purpose?, China Inland Mission, 1934.
- CIM List of Missionaries and Their Stations, July 1935, 1940, 1945.
- Directory of Protestant Missions in China, 1927.
- Stauffer, Milton T., The Christian Occupation of China (1918-1921). Shanghai, 1922.
- Autobiography. http://www.schoerner.org