Cynthia Miller was the first-born of fourteen children. Her father struggled on a small farm to provide for his family. When a tornado destroyed the schoolhouse Miller had been attending, her father sold his farm and moved to the plains so his children could receive an education. Miller obtained two years of consistent schooling there before her mother decided she needed help with her growing brood of children. Miller began to stay home and assist her mother, attending school no more than three or four months a year. When Miller’s father quarreled with the principal, he withdrew his other children from the public school and Miller began teaching her siblings at home. Some of her father’s friends learned of her home school and added their children to Miller’s pupils. Eventually, Miller was teaching a class of thirty-two students out of her family’s home.
Miller committed her life to Christ at the age of fourteen. She remembered the specifics of her conversion clearly: She was sitting with her mother, waiting for her father to come in from the fields for dinner, when her mother began singing a gospel song based on Psalm 8: “When I can read my titles clear to mansions in the skies, I’ll bid farewell to every fear, and wipe my weeping eyes.” The song made Miller sob, and she ran outside, kneeling and crying to God for salvation. She immediately felt a sense of forgiveness, joy, and peace.
After struggling with asthma and her school full of siblings and neighbors, Miller began to consider the life of a missionary. She wrestled with the decision for days, and finally decided to “just have it out with the Lord, that he knew how ignorant, poor, and physically unfit she was and that she had not even the spiritual power to lead one of her Sunday School class to Christ.” She prayed that if God wanted her as a missionary, he must enable her to win souls in Sunday school, cure her asthma, and provide a way for her to obtain education. In time, God answered all of her prayers. When Miller told her parents of her decision to be a missionary, her father opposed her, but her mother cried with joy. Having never been allowed by her anti-mission husband to give anything for missions, she could finally give her daughter to the work.
Poverty slowed Miller’s educational progress. Shortly after her sense of leading to become a foreign missionary, she met a nursing school graduate and became convinced that nursing afforded her the best way to earn money for further education. When she applied to the Galveston Nurse Training School in Texas, she was turned down because she did not have a high school diploma. Undeterred, she approached her pastor with her problem. He, in turn, wrote to the wife of another pastor who had established a nurses’ training school in an effort to relate social ethics to Christian discipleship. Miller was able to enroll in their school, which allowed her to complete eighteen months of clinical and educational training. After this period of schooling, Miller was finally admitted to the Galveston Nurse Training School, where she eventually graduated as valedictorian of her class. After graduation, Miller began a private nursing practice to earn money for theological study. When three of her sisters came to Texas to attend college, however, Miller paid for their tuition, delaying her ability to fund the theological study she desired.
In the fall of 1904, Miller finally began her theological training at the Women’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville. After studying there for only one year, she received her appointment to China. The mission field desperately needed nurses, and Miller’s nursing credentials gained her a quick appointment in 1905. She was assigned to help a physician in Laichow and was immediately pressed into her nursing duties, which hindered her from Chinese language study. Miller became frustrated that the demanding study requirements took time away from her evangelistic work. She also discovered that learning the Chinese language was incredibly difficult; after two years, she still could not be understood, even though she studied with a Bible woman two afternoons a week.
Miller soon found that folk medicine thrived in China. When the parents of a mute girl brought her their child to examine, claiming she had been taken possession of by a devil, Miller was unconvinced. After her medical knowledge failed to cure the child, a Chinese evangelist suggested that she sing the song “Jesus Loves Me.” While Miller bathed the girl, she sang the song, and the child sat up and spoke, fully recovered. The Chinese evangelist concluded it was clearly a case of demon possession where the demon departed upon hearing the name of Jesus. Miller was mystified, saying “I didn’t know what to say but I had a very strange feeling. I knew it was something I had never seen before.” She pondered whether devils did sometimes take possession of people in such a way. Despite her skepticism, she could not explain the incident by modern Western science.
Miller felt inadequately prepared for the medical work, especially while her supervising physician was on furlough. She thought about extending her first furlough in 1913 to take clinical training at Dallas Medical School, but she decided evangelism, not nursing, was her calling. Although she considered medical and educational work as part of the wider evangelistic task, she lamented the lack of emphasis on soul winning and devoted the remainder of her career to women’s evangelism.
In 1918, Miller left her station as a nurse in the North China Mission. The mission urged her to help in a mission school, but Miller’s passion lay in evangelistic work. She decided that she could combine her desire to evangelize with the mission’s desire for educational assistance, and she solicited funds for a new women’s training school. Miller supervised the construction of the school, which opened in the early 1920s. Miller insisted that the school provide literacy to poor women so they could read their Bibles and offer them training in domestic skills so they could create stable Christian homes and bring up Christian children. Afraid that Western science and “higher learning” would “Americanize” the women, Miller rejected introducing such classes.
Miller possessed a strong social conscience, and upon her discovery that young married women and widows could not attend her school, she began an industrial department for anyone unable to pay board. This program allowed women to work half a day and attend school the other half of the day. Without job training, the poor widows had few options other than selling themselves to a man or committing suicide. Miller funded this industrial school out of her own salary for the first two years. She foresaw that the industrial school would become self-supporting once it was adequately equipped, and it would enable widows to earn their own living and prevent slave traders from preying on them. Later, she proposed expanding the school by purchasing knitting and sewing machines, adding equipment to make soap, and building dormitories for women. By November 1923, Miller had her facility in operation.
Miller’s school in Shandong Province received numerous applications from young women, which made Miller rejoice. She described one young man who was so anxious for his wife to be able to read that he brought her to the school as he left for Manchuria. He thanked the teacher for taking his “stupid stick to try to teach her something”; meanwhile, his wife thanked the teacher for offering such modern opportunities for women. Miller’s school also received a number of widows. Miller reported one incident where a widow’s former father-in-law was planning to sell her and his three granddaughters. Miller took them in and taught the mother nursing. After this experience, she asked Baptists to consider establishing a home for such abused women “where they can be given a chance not only in this life, but for the life to come.” Miller used her own salary to educate a number of children and abused women.
Miller also devoted a large portion of her time to evangelism. She assisted another missionary couple who conducted American-style tent revivals. While men gathered in the tent for the revival, Miller and her Bible woman went house-to-house to share the gospel. When the missionary couple moved on to the next village, Miller would stay behind to do follow-up work with the converts. During these journeys, she would reside in a tent where she cooked on a small oil stove, drank unclean water, and slept with her Bible woman. Although Miller’s life was Spartan, she wrote in a letter that she would not trade places with anyone in America because this life provided her the greatest joy she had experienced since arriving in China.
Miller worked amid the Shandong Revival of the 1930s and was critical of the excesses of Pentecostalism she encountered. She witnessed a young convert refuse medical help for a frozen, gangrenous foot because she “trusted the Lord to heal it.” Miller insisted on applying “some of the Lord’s good medicine for frozen feet” and put the student to bed for a week, requiring her to study scriptural passages intended to provide a more balanced view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Miller recounted that the student “came out of that sick-room a greatly changed girl.” This event confirmed for Miller the need for missionaries to guide Chinese in the study of Scripture lest they “be led astray into doing foolish things by Satan.” She quickly began Bible study classes for those “saved and revived” in the Shandong revivals to neutralize what she considered to be the harmful effects of the excesses of Pentecostalism.
On the other extreme, Miller also denounced modernism. She saw the threat of missionaries who were not well-grounded in the “good old Baptist doctrine of the Bible.” These missionaries omitted the necessity of the atonement for sin, the requirement of a new birth, and belief in the supernatural, replacing these with the social gospel. She believed the best antidote to heresy in schools was a principal who believed in the “infallible Word of God.” Miller admonished the Foreign Mission Board not to allow Chinese Baptist churches to accept women who proclaimed faith in Christ while continuing to worship ancestors.
Throughout her time in China, Miller struggled with a low salary and inadequate funding for projects from the mission board. She responded by using her own money to help finance her work. She turned over her Christmas gifts from friends and family in 1931 to support the entire salary of one Chinese teacher at her school and the partial salary of another. When civil war damaged her school buildings at Laichow in 1932 and the board had no emergency funds, she withdrew her retirement annuity to repair the facilities. She made additional repairs from her savings in 1936, and she continued to pay the salary of a Chinese teacher. She also paid tuition for two of her former students to attend school in Hwanghsien, providing support through a no-interest loan to be paid back at the rate of one-third their salaries after graduation. Miller helped establish the careers of many Chinese Baptist leaders during the eighteen years that she provided loans to students.
Miller’s generosity led to financial troubles of her own. The Chinese bank where Miller kept her small personal savings account and her mission funds failed in 1911. She paid back the funds with her own salary and contributions from her sister. By 1933, however, her sister no longer worked and was caring for their eighty-three-year-old mother. Miller began sending part of her salary to them in addition to contributions sent to another sister and a niece in college. She even sent funds to reduce the debts of her sponsoring mission agency. When the Foreign Mission Board substantially cut appropriations for her work, Miller wrote a furious letter complaining that the reductions meant she would have to subsidize her schools while Baptists in the South lived in luxury. She canceled contributions toward the board’s debts and was even forced to eliminate contributions to her niece’s college tuition. Her salary in 1935 was $768 per year, only $168 more than her predecessors had received half a century earlier.
Miller experienced conflict with the Foreign Mission Board over their rules prohibiting private solicitation of funds. She did not consider herself to be an effective speaker, but she strove mightily to present China work in an exciting way. Miller so persuasively conveyed the needs of Chinese women during a 1922 furlough that a woman removed her $400 diamond ring and gave it to Miller for her embroidery school. The same woman later sent $4,000 more for the project. Miller also mobilized relatives, friends, and Women’s Missionary Union women to market linen handkerchiefs made by Chinese women at her school.
Financial shortages in 1933 compelled the mission to combine her women’s school with a girls’ institution, and Miller was forced to fire teachers, combine recitations, teach classes herself, and pay half the school’s budget out of her own salary in order to keep the schools open. One end of the girl’s dormitory caved in, requiring her to move the girls into the women’s school. She repaired tiles and buildings with her own money. Although she was exhausted by her work and anguished by the financial depression, Miller would not return to Alabama until help arrived to take over for her. At last, her niece, whose way Miller had paid through college, was ready to replace her, and Miller was able to retire.
- Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950.