Gerhard Jacobson, the third child of his parents John Albert and Anna Louise Jacobson, immigrants from Sweden, was born in Chicago, Illinois. As a boy, he was called George by his mother and some others. Later, his nickname was Gay. Gerhard grew up in a home suffused by Swedish Lutheran piety, with regular family Bible reading and prayers and church attendance on Sundays. The family also went to special evangelistic meetings. During one of those, when he was seventeen, God spoke to Gerhard through the preacher, who challenged all the young people to give their lives entirely to Christ. He went forward, confessed his sins, asked for forgiveness, and left the meeting a changed man.
He wanted to serve God. His father, who was ailing, hoped that Gerhard would go to business school and then take over his brush-making shop, but Gerhard told him that since hearing missionaries from China who had been in their home, “I haven’t felt content to spend the rest of my life here in America. I feel God wants me to be a pastor or missionary” (Jacobson 28).
Meanwhile, he and his sister Anna were working with the Christian Endeavor group in their church, which was growing rapidly partly because of their effective ministry. Seeing the need for further training, Gerhard enrolled to study at Moody Bible Institute to prepare for service as a minister of the Word of God and prayer.
Alma’s parents were German-Swiss Mennonites living as farmers in Ohio. She was the second of four children. Her father died when she was only four. After a tent revival in which she was born again, Alma’s mother’s church merged with a nearby Christian and Missionary Alliance church. In 1900, Alma and her siblings began to attend that church also. During another revival meeting, she too was given new life through the Holy Spirit, as were her brother and sister.
Alma enrolled at Wooster College for a short teacher’s course, after which she began teaching “at one of the little red schoolhouses not far from home.” A good friend invited Alma’s mother to serve as hostess for a mission to the Jews in Chicago, so the family moved to the city.
There, she met Gerhard. In 1914, Gerhard got up the courage to invite Anna to the Valentine’s Day banquet. She accepted, and they had a wonderful time. On the way home, Alma told Gerhard, “I am going to be a missionary to China. I am not interested in a serious friendship with anyone who does not have the same goal in life as mine” (Jacobson 30). That night, she prayed for God to guide their relationship. She did not know that, at the same time, he was praying, “Lord, You know for a long, long time I have been asking You for a consecrated missionary-minded wife. Please let Alma love me if You have chosen us for each other” (Jacobson 30-31).
Shortly thereafter, Alma told him that the Hebrew Mission was looking for a young man to help clean up and to minister to the boys. Gerhard needed a job, so he accepted. Their relationship developed into a courtship, which culminated in a simple ceremony followed by a banquet with family.
Early Years in China
In February 1918, after being commissioned by their church, they sailed to China as members of the Grace Mission, a small mission society founded by the Rev. and Mrs. Alexander Kennedy, missionaries to China, in 1880. They had planted a large church in the city of Dongxi, as well as a number of outstations.
They landed in Shanghai, whence they proceeded by boat up the Yangzi River to Hangzhou, and then on the Grand Canal to Dongxi, accompanied by Alexander Kennedy. Doris, their new baby, was in her mother’s arms when they were warmly greeted by Chinese Christians -a foretaste of the close and affectionate relationships they would enjoy with Chinese believers in decades to come.
The Kennedys took them into their home, where everything was done in Chinese style. They soon changed into Chinese clothes. Immediately, they began full-time language study under a Mr. Wang. A few weeks later, Rev. Kennedy took Gerhard on an extensive evangelistic tour in the surrounding countryside, where they encountered “often-heard slanderous remarks flung at them by” non-Christians. Kennedy explained that this hostility came from the history of the Opium Wars and then the harsh indemnity imposed by foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion.
The Chinese also believed that their gods and ancestors were angry at Christianity, as “evidenced” by the many natural disasters that had been occurring. Thus, Gerhard was introduced to the fierce spiritual conflict that would rage around him and sometimes affect him and his family in the years to come.
The next summer, they set out with the Kennedys to Mokanshan to escape the terrible heat of summer. A few weeks later, tragedy struck. First, the Kennedys’ son died from eating poisonous berries. Then, in September, Alexander Kennedy died of illness.
In 1918, they began formal language study at the Nanking (Nanjing) Language School. When they had completed the language course, they returned to Dongxi. The next year, Alma’s mother, Sarah Amstutz, came to stay with them and help with the children; she was accompanied by Miss Gertrude Bjork. Meanwhile, Gerhard and Alma were becoming restless under the domineering leadership of Mrs. Kennedy, who would not give them opportunities to preach and teach the Chinese.
Two years after arriving in China, they received an invitation from the Wuchang headquarters of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), asking them to help with their ministry in Anhui, which they gladly accepted. Mrs. Kennedy surprised them by graciously blessing them on their new venture and by presenting them with a gift of money that had been collected from several sources for gospel work in Anhui.
Datong lies on the Yangzi River. The CMA missionary residence there was the largest in the province of Anhui. The complex included the church building, a school, and residences for teachers, the evangelist Pastor Hu’s family, the Bible woman and others. The Jacobsons’ house was in the back, with a broad front lawn, a garden, fruit trees, and many flowers. It was a large, two-story brick (or stone) structure in Western style, with a high front porch on both levels. CMA missionaries from the interior often used it as a stopover place.
They had been preaching to attentive audiences for two years when a breakthrough came. One Sunday evening, after Gerhard had invited people to come forward for physical healing (a strong emphasis of the CMA), a man sitting in the back rose and said, “What can your foreign Jesus do for me, an opium devil for more than thirty years?” (Jacobson 73).
Gerhard beckoned him to the front of the worship room. He gave them man a choice of either medical treatment by CMA doctors in another town or residence in the mission compound for a couple of months while others prayed for him. He chose the latter. His faith grew stronger each day; the struggle was intense, but after less than two months he had been fully delivered of his addiction and had made a profession of faith in Christ.
Civil war between southern and northern armies was raging at the time, accompanied by terrible famines, leading some to cannibalism. During a CMA mission conference, Gerhard and another missionary, Harold Van Dyke, sensed God’s leading to survey the spiritual needs of the unevangelized southern part of Anhui Province. After this trip, Gerhard decided to settle in the city of Taiping with his Chinese co-worker, Pastor Sen, who was later replaced by a Pastor Hu.
From the beginning, they encountered murderous rage. Because the citizens had suffered greatly under the Taiping Rebellion, which they considered to be a Christian movement (though it was not), they had sworn that no foreigner would ever dwell in their city. Angry mobs threatened their lives. Women tried to cover their house in manure. They were falsely accused of dealing in opium. Merchants would not sell them food.
Through it all, Gerhard, convinced that God had led them there, would not give up. He trusted God to protect them and provide for them, and his faith found vindication many times. During one harrowing three-day siege, he escaped to another town, only to be summoned back by the news that the local magistrate was willing to let them exchange their property for another. The official had been made aware of the treaties that allowed foreigners to live in China, but wanted a way to save face. Later, Gerhard discovered that a man who had once received a gospel tract from missionaries had sent 200 men to guard their house during the three-day ordeal; he need not have escaped.
One night, a desperate fear gripped his heart and he almost decided to leave Taiping, but the promise of God’s presence in Joshua 1:9 renewed his faith. The next morning, Alma arrived with their daughter Doris and the Bible woman. She had sensed God’s leading to join her husband. Their coming not only brought new confidence and peace to his mind, but opened doors for ministry to women.
Gerhard’s persistence finally paid off when the magistrate found yet another, larger place for them to live and officially approved their purchase of it. After an elaborate ceremony and feasts, an old Christian and his wife told Gerhard that they had been praying for fifteen years for a missionary to come to Taiping and preach the gospel to its people.
After several years, the leaders of the mission told Gerhard that they were assigning him and Alma to Datong. At first, he didn’t want to leave Taiping, where they had finally established a church after so many hardships. Through a dream, however, he heard Christ calling him to lay down his own agenda and plans and accept the leading of God. More specifically, they were to serve a thirty-year-old church in the town of Qingyang. Since the congregation was well established, Gerhard and Pastor Sha decided to focus on ministry in the outstations.
As the civil war between Communists and Nationalists affected more and more parts of the country, Gerhard and Alma decided to send their girls to the Shanghai American School. They rented a house where Alma stayed with the children, while Gerhard remained in Qingyang. Later, Alma joined Gerhard in a rural town called Qimen. At this point, the Japanese were invading China from the north, while the Communists were wreaking havoc in the countryside. The situation became so dangerous that the local magistrate urged the Jacobsons to leave immediately for their safety. When they looked back at the city the next morning, it was in flames. They had once again lost everything.
They resettled in Datong, but the Communists advanced closer and closer. John and Betty Stam were murdered and other missionaries had been captured or killed, so they had to leave again, this time for Jigong. After returning to the United States on furlough, they took up residence in the Chinese part of Shanghai, living in a three-story building with other missionaries. Then the Japanese attacked Shanghai and bombed the mission premises. Alma and the girls went to Hong Kong until it would be safe for them to return to Shanghai. When they did, they joined Gerhard in an apartment in the French Quarter.
Then a brand-new opportunity was given to Gerhard: to become the manager of Shanghai’s Christian radio station XMHD. During the next six months, he made many changes, and the station become quite popular. “Famous American radio pulpiteers sent their messages to XMHD. Chinese and missionary evangelists and Bible teachers poured out their hearts in Spirit-anointed messages in Russian, English, Finnish, French and German. The response in monetary gifts and conversions was overwhelming” (Jacobson 158).
The Japanese then attacked Shanghai at noon when the crowds were heaviest. “Broken, bleeding Shanghai. Millions without hope. Death, turmoil, chaos on every side. Surely this was the time to present the One who could bind up the brokenhearted and give hope to the hopeless” (158). Gerhard decided to rent the top floor of the Sun Company for special evangelistic services. A Chinese evangelist presented the good news with great power, drawing crowds to the event. The crowd that came soon grew beyond the capacity of the meeting room, and people jammed into all the rooms in the radio station building, eager to hear a message of hope.
When Hitler expelled Jews from Germany, Japanese-ruled China was the only place that received them. Thousands arrived by ship in Shanghai. Once again, Gerhard and Alma found themselves sharing the love of Christ with Jews in practical ways, opening the mission premises to these refugees. They opened a meeting room for Jews on Sichuan Road. Alma played the organ and German hymnbooks were passed around. A Jewish Christian exhorted his fellow Jews to turn to Christ. When the Christian wife of one man died, Gerhard conducted the funeral, after which he found that the widower had wanted to trust in Christ for many years, but couldn’t overcome the opposition of family and friends. Because of the love they had visibly extended to these refugees, Gerhard was able to led him to a full commitment to Christ.
As war with Japan seemed imminent, the Jacobsons decided that Alma should take their daughter Evelyn back to the United States, where Bette and Doris were studying at Wheaton College and Winifrid was working to earn money to attend Bible school. Their ship left Shanghai on November 18, 1940. After living in the Chicago area for a year, they all moved to Nyack, New York, where all four daughters enrolled in the Alliance Bible College.
The Japanese began bombing foreign areas in Shanghai on December 8, 1941. Though their Chinese friends urged Gerhard to escape and promised to help him get to safety, he decided to remain at his post, so he could continue broadcasting on the radio and manage funds for C&MA missionaries in Free China. It seemed that he would be arrested and detained right away, but a Japanese officer who had known Gerhard before vouched for his character, and he was allowed to remain free for a while.
After a year, however, he and all other American and British nationals were interned by the Japanese in an old warehouse. Conditions were harsh but not terrible, though Gerhard came close to dying from cholera during an epidemic that swept through the crowded camp. He later learned that prayer was being offered for him at the exact time that he had seemed to be about to die.
Finally, in December, 1943, Gerhard and Alma were reunited when he was one of the prisoners repatriated in a prisoner exchange. Prayerfully, they committed their beloved Chinese Christian friends into the hands of Almighty God.
Last Years at Home
Ill health prevented Gerhard from returning to China after the war, so he and Alma moved to Pandora, Ohio, “to make a home for Sarah Amstutz (Alma’s mother) and their two missionary daughters, Doris and Winnifred… . Winnie sailed for China in the fall of 1947 and Doris went to the Philippines in 1948” (Jacobson 193). When China fell to the Communists in 1949, she was transferred to the Philippines, where she joined Doris.
For the next ten years, “Gerhard served as an evangelist for the West Central District of the Alliance while Alma finished her required years with the Foreign Department in deputational work” (Jacobson 193). Gerhard experienced his first “tic” attack in 1949. The deterioration of the tri-facial nerve, one of the most painful conditions, continued throughout the rest of his life, causing immense distress. They moved to Florida in 1954 for the sake of his health.
A year after they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Alma suffered a massive stroke, dying without regaining consciousness. Her death hit Gerhard really hard, for “she had been the ‘rock’ in the family, the one who cared for them all, the one who heard God speak directly to her – a woman of faith and prayer” (Jacobson 194). After God spoke to him through two dreams, however, “his life took on great spiritual strength and vitality” (Jacobson 194).
A few years later, Gerhard was diagnosed with cancer. Doris took a leave of absence from the Philippines to be with him. One day, he said to her, “We suffered much with the loss of our things, five times – under communists, bandits, and the Japanese. Both Alma and I were at death’s door several times. Our little son is buried in Wuhu. But we found many who became part of the Pearl, the Church in China” (Jacobson 195). He died in a coma August 10, 1972.
Gerhard and Alma Jacobson left an enduring legacy: the churches they founded or helped to grow, the thousands of Chinese who heard the gospel from them, the Jews who received tangible expressions of the love of God through them, people of many nations who listened to the radio broadcasts from Shanghai, and several children who became faithful Christians, including two who served as foreign missionaries. Most of all, they set an example of followers of Christ who obeyed the leading of God to forsake everything and follow Jesus, even to the end.
G. Wright Doyle
Jacobson, S. Winifred. The Pearl and the Dragon: The Story of Gerhard and Alma Jacobson. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1997.