Born in Fleetwood, England, the son of an Irish nurse and a railway employee, Mather followed his father into railway service. In 1903 he was converted through the ministry of J. H. Doddrell of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and became a Sunday school teacher and local preacher. When his ordination was delayed, he heard the call of the China Inland Mission (CIM) and vowed to go to China after he had financed his sisters’ education. In 1910 he sailed to Shanghai, then moved upriver to Anking (Anqing) language school and afterward to Ningkwo (Ningguo) in Anhwei (Anhui) Province.
Greatly influenced by Roland Allen’s book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? he volunteered to join George Hunter in Urumchi (Uruinqi), Chinese Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), arriving there in 1914. Until 1926 the two itinerated in Outer Mongolia, developing a ministry among the Mongol tribes as well as the Chinese traders and border settlers. Following intensive medical studies while on furlough in 1927, Mather concentrated on medical work and on translations, grammars, and dictionaries of Mongolian languages, but was increasingly caught up in hostilities in China, being falsely accused of political intrigue. He died of fever during the siege of Urumchi and was buried there.
Percy Cunningham Mather was born on December 9th, 1882 at Fleetwood, a fishing port north of Liverpool, England. He spent his youth by the sea, where he developed a love of adventure and risk. He delighted in music, and played the violin and other instruments.
He placed his trust in Christ in 1903, and entered the China Inland Mission in 1909. He received two years of theological training at the Glasgow Bible Institute, after which he departed England for China on September 10th, 1910. Arriving in Shanghai on October 24th of the same year, he immediately began Chinese language studies at Anqing, Anhui province. During this time, while taking a fellow Finnish student to the hospital in Wuhan for an emergency operation, he encountered heavy rains, and contracted malaria. Though his life was preserved, from this time on he was often afflicted with the disease.
In May of 1911, after he had passed the first level of language study (the CIM required completion of six levels), he was assigned to Ningguofu (now Xuancheng, or Xuanzhou city) to begin missionary work. Here aside from his musical talents, his knowledge of medicine was also very useful. He was self taught in medicine, for he had brought a number of medical books with him to China because of his interest in the subject. In a land that was lacking in medical care and medicines, the knowledge he had acquired from medical books enabled him to treat patients and to write out the prescriptions. Many people were healed by him.
In 1913, he was greatly influenced by reading Missionary Methods - St. Paul’s or Ours?, by the Anglican missionary Roland Allen. In the early days of missionary work in China, the Western missionaries focused on setting up mission stations, then staying on to run the station. Mather now believed that missionaries should remain in one place for only a while, and then move on when the work was on its feet, leaving things in the hands of Chinese, while the missionaries went elsewhere to open a new field. Actually, this approach was in keeping with the principles and ideals of the China Inland Mission.
In the same year, Mather read the diary of another CIM missionary, the Rev. George W. Hunter, and then integrated St. Paul’s methods with those of Hunter’s work in Xinjiang. Moved by Hunter’s ten years of solitary soldiering in Xinjiang, Mather decided to go join him there. He wrote two letters, one to CIM General Director Dixon E. Hoste, asking to be re-assigned to Xinjiang, and the second to George Hunter requesting that he be accepted as a colleague.
Mathew gained his wish. At the beginning of January, 1914, he set out from Ningguofu with only a little luggage and his violin. After walking for 25 miles, he took a boat to Wuhu, then up the Yangzi River to Hankou, where he boarded a train to Henan, whence he traveled to Xi’an by horse cart; traversing Lanzhou he entered Xinjiang, finally reaching Mr. Hunter at Hami. On the 11th of May, the two men left Hami, arriving at Dihua (now Urumchi) only at the end of May. In all, he traveled for a full five months. We learn something of the difficulties of the journey from entries in his diary:
February 2: After setting out form Xi’an, he traveled with Dr. George Edwin King who had been assigned to Lanzhou. Food and lodgings along the way were terrible.
February 22: They encountered a fierce blizzard, and could travel only 10 miles. The weather was cold, the mountain road hard going.
March 22: Going through Ganzhou (now Zhangye city), and seeing the awful situation there, he felt deeply that the northwest was truly the region most in need of the Gospel. He wrote: “I want to go to the neediest place, the place where the work is hardest.”
April 5: At Suzhou (now Jiuquan city), he took his stand on a street, playing his violin. After five minutes, a crowd of two or three hundred had gathered. For a full two hours, he preached right there on the street, sold Christian books, and distributed Gospel tracts.
After arriving in Xinjiang in May of 1914, Percy Mather worked with Mr. Hunter to spread the Gospel in the great Northwest. Their relationship increasingly resembled that of father and son. After a year in Dihua, he wrote a letter to CIM headquarters in Shanghai describing the situation in Xinjiang:
“In this city, there are many Turkic Mohammedans (Hui) and Chinese Mohammedans (Tongans), especially in the southern district. Eight out of ten are Muslims. Their religious leaders are strongly opposed to the Gospel, and despise us. On the other hand, most of the Tongan people are more receptive. Sometimes a group of them, sitting together on the street and chatting away, when they see us, immediately call out, ‘Come, come, come, please sit down and share the Gospel with us.’ While asking for God to guide us, we happily share the Word with them.”
When Mather arrived in Xinjiang, it was in the early years of the Republic of China. At the time, the population of the province stood at 2,000,000, of whom 96% were Hui, and evangelism among these people was quite difficult. Officials were very conservative and ignorant, and promoted Islam; the people worshiped idols, were enmeshed in superstition, their hearts were numb, and addiction to opium was quite widespread. From his letters, we can see that, even in his first year, Mather had an understanding of the heart of the people, including their customs, and knew when it was the right time to seize the opportunity to talk about the Gospel with the Hui and the Tongan folk. He was also quite aware of the way the Muslim religious leaders disdained the message of Christianity. Although it was quite hard to communicate the Gospel under such inhospitable conditions, he persevered with unremitting labors and unflagging zeal.
At the end of May, 1918, Mather took his Mongolian servant with him to Muliho (now Mulei Autonomous County of Kazak), east of Dihua, to visit two Christians. His servant could speak Mandarin, the Hui and Kazak languages, and used to help him interpret when he went to outlying districts. Arriving in Muliho, they received a warm welcome from the two believers, who had invited three apprentices in their shop to join them for dinner and worship. In this vast region where there were so few people people, Christians were even fewer. These two Christians became the rare witnesses of Jesus Christ in that vast region.
On the return trip they went through Santai, where an old lama invited Mather to visit him. As a result, Mather visited every yurt in the village, passing out tracts and dispensing medicines free of charge, preaching to all the lamas through an interpreter. On the next day they called upon the palace of the Mongol prince, and were given a friendly reception. When the prince inquired about Mather’s work, the missionary gave him tracts in Mongolian, Manchurian, and Tibetan to read, and told him that he had come to preach the Gospel.
In 1918, after the October Revolution in Russia, a large number of White Russians refugees entered Xinjiang. Western missionaries had strict limits placed upon them, to the extent that they could not go out to do evangelistic work. Under these conditions, Mather’s linguistic abilities shone forth, as he undertook translation work. After several of years of hard work, he completed three volumes: A Mongolian-English Dictionary; a Mongolian Textbook; and a Manchurian Grammar and Dictionary as language study aids for later missionaries, thus preparing the way for them to enter into their work more quickly.
In a letter sent from Tacheng (Chuguchak) on November 6, 1931, we can discern Mather’s burden for translation work: “This is hard labor, but I have already completed a Manchurian grammar, a Manchurian dictionary, a handbook of Manchurian and Mongolian proverbs, a Tartar dictionary and a Kalmuk dictionary. I am convinced that the day will come when this translation work will redound to the glory of God, leading to the salvation of souls and the wider propagation of the Gospel!… I am experienced at learning foreign languages; if there were no dictionary or grammar it would be difficult indeed!
After sixteen years of service in China, in September of 1926 Mather returned to England for two years, where he enjoyed seeing his family again; he also shared his experiences in many different places. He always carried in his heart the needs of the minority people in the Northwest of China, especially those with various diseases of the eye. Accordingly, he hoped to find an opportunity to study ophthalmology in order to be able to treat those people who had eye diseases. Recognizing his particular situation, the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital accepted him as a special student, allowing him to attend classes and engage in clinical work with the other students. Not only so, but Mather’s way of life deeply moved a noted eye surgeon, who recommended him for studies in dentistry and orthopedics as well.
Most of the missionary travels of Mather and Hunter were in North Xinjiang, where the nomadic, Kazak and Mongolians were concentrated. Transportation and communications were especially primitive; it took 54 days to journey from Dihua to Kashi (Qeshqer); 18 days to Yili (Ily) in the north. They often traveled together, going as far as the towns and villages on the border between China and Russia, and to the mountain dwellings of the Kazaks and the Mongolians. In June of 1929, they took two Hui servants, riding on horses westward from Dihua, skirting the Tian Shan mountains, to preach the Gospel to the Kazaks and the Mongolians in the mountain, going all the way to Yi’ning (I-Ning), one thousand miles away from Dihua. On the way, they endured hunger and illness, relying entirely on faith and God’s miraculous guidance for a safe and successful journey.
In July of 1930 Mathew went by himself to Tacheng (Chuguchak), on the northwest border of Xinjiang, treating the sick and preaching along the way. He sold portions of the Scripture to Han Chinese, Russians, Tartars, Sachs, Kazaks, Tongans, Arabs, Tibetans, Manchus, and Mongol-Kalmuks, while investigating carefully the varying responses of each people to the Gospel. He did not leave Tacheng to return to Dihua until November 1931. He learned the different languages in the process of sharing the Gospel to each group; his school was his mission field. When he was unable to find a teacher of Mongolian, he heard that a certain prison held a convict fluent in both Chinese and Mongolian. Receiving permission from the prison warden, he went daily to the prison to study Mongolian with that man, and this way acquired that langauge.
George Hunter brought six new missionaries on September 13, 1932: Dr. Emil Fischbacher, Raymond H. Joyce, George F. Holmes, William J. Drew, Otto F. Schoerner, and Aubrey F. Parsons. In order to provide a warm welcome to these fresh reinforcements, Mather prepared all sorts of necessary items for daily life, and gave his own lodgings over to them, moving into Hunter’s house to live. War was raging, the peasants were scattered, supplies almost exhausted, food was scarce. Mather and his servant often risked extremely cold weather (20 degrees below zero) to go into the surrounding regions to find food and other necessary supplies. Not only did he carry the responsibility of the lives of 13 people besides himself, but also entered into the work of treating wounded soldiers.
In January, 1933, when the rebellion of a Hui military army, let by Ma Zhongying, was at its height, Mather, Hunter, and six other missionaries, under the supervision of Dr. Emil Fischbacher, turned all their attention to caring for critically wounded soldiers. After many months of exhausting labor, both Mather and Fischbacher succumbed to infections from fatal wounds and died on May 24th and 27th, respectively.
Seventy-year-old George Hunter led the funeral service, with singing by a Russian Baptist choir. At the graveside ceremony, moved by the sound of music, a Muslim said, with great feeling, “Mr. Mather is worth ten men. No matter where he went, city or country village or mountain area, nowhere was there anyone who did not know and respect him.” Aubrey Parsons also expressed her heartfelt gratitude: “Although we knew each other for only a very brief time, Mr. Mather made a very deep impression upon me. Regardless of the circumstances, he always stretched out his hand to help others. His generosity really touched all people.”
In his own profound grief, George Hunter wrote a report to CIM headquarters: “Every time I think about this great loss, I am filled with inexpressible sadness! Our brother not only mastered several languages, he was beloved by all the peoples of Xinjiang. But his passing was not in the least in vain, for I make bold to say that he is a grain of wheat fallen into the ground, which will bear much fruit! Not only have I myself seen it, but others can bear similar testimony! … His life motto could have been ‘to serve others’ - whether it was the Hui people in their sufferings, of a little child stricken with illness, or a woman in distress - Mr. Mather always immediately extended a helping hand.”
From Hunter’s report we learn that after the deaths of Percy Mather and Emil Fischbacher, the provincial governor Jin Shu’ren and Sheng Shicai, the chief of the Post Office, officials of all ranks, along with Chinese and Russian Christians, all expressed their sincere and affectionate condolences. The government also erected a memorial to these two Western missionaries near the radio station.
The shorter story is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- China’s Millions, North American edition, published by China Inland Mission. 1919. pp. 39-41; 1932, p. 23; 1933, pp.101-102, 127, 137
- China’s Millions, London edition. 1910, p.p. 138, 148; 1911, pp.8,121; 1914, pp.115,130,144,188; 1915, p.176; 1918, p.33; 1926, pp.181-183; 1929, pp. 13, 136-138; 1930, pp. 53-54; 1931, pp. 24, 237; 1932, pp. 24-25; 1933, pp. 136,144-145.
- Cable, Mildred and French, Francesca, The Making of A Pioneer: Percy Mather of Central Asia, 1936.
- The Register of CIM Missionaries and Associates.
- The China Mission Year Book, 1916.
- CIM List of Missionaries and Their Stations, 1910, 1931.
- Directory of Protestant Missions in China, 1924, 1927.