1882  — 1933

Percy Cunningham Mather

An expert in Mongolian languages and tireless servant for the Gospel in China.

Percy Mather was born December 9, 1882, in Fleetwood, Lancashire, England, not far from Liverpool. His father worked for the railroad and his mother was an Irish nurse. He also worked for the railroad at first.

“In his childhood, little Percy was adventuresome and always looked at the world with rapt interest. He had a passion for music, playing the violin and harmonica. He had natural musical intelligence included perfect pitch” (Wong 277).

In 1903, when he was 21, he made a commitment to Jesus Christ as his Savior. For a while, he ministered as a preacher in local meetings, but he soon sensed God’s leading to become a foreign missionary. “When his ordination was delayed, he heard the call of the China Inland Mission and vowed to go to China after he had financed his sisters’ education” (Jackson). He applied to the CIM in 1908. Its leaders advised him to receive more biblical education, so he enrolled in the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow. He graduated from the Institute in September, 1920, and sailed for China, arriving in Shanghai on October 24.

Mather then traveled to Anqing, Anhui, where he began Chinese language studies with other men in the CIM. While there, he contracted malaria. A heavy dose of quinine relieved the symptoms, but the disease never left him. “Despite moving later to the healthier climate of northwest China, Mather remained subject to attacks of fever for the remainder of his life” (Wong 278).

Service in Ningguoshi, Anhui

After passing the first level of Chinese language examinations, Mather was assigned to Ninguoshi. There, he used his musical ability to attract people to listen to the gospel. Though lacking in formal medical training, he knew enough to treat simple ailments. Soon, he acquired the sobriquet of the “cure-all doctor.” “One day … a Christian woman came to him with her little boy, who was suffering from a fever of 105 degrees. The boy’s body was completely swollen, and Mather believed the cause to be blood poisoning. After researching his medical books, he found no answer to the problem and so decided to make a strong solution of disinfectant. He washed a sore on the boy’s body and dressed it with some ointment. The following day, the boy was well” (Wong 278).

He reveled in the opportunities to share the gospel in rural villages. One day, after trekking for 25 miles while distributing tracts and preaching, he wrote in his diary, “I was tired and sore, yet happy” (Wong 279).

In 1913, he read Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, by Roland Allen. Some of Allen’s ideas greatly influenced him. For example, he decided to insist that people call him “Mister,” instead of “Pastor.” He thought that only men chosen to pastor a local church should be called “Pastor.” He also came to believe that missionaries should leave a place after a church has been planted and turned over to local Christians to lead.

During the same time period, he was avidly reading articles by CIM worker George W. Hunter, whose itinerant ministry of evangelism and church planting in remote areas of northwest Xinjiang deeply attracted him. Hunter’s methods seemed to accord with Roland Allen’s principles. Mather soon wrote to Dixon Hoste, Director of the CIM, and to Hunter, asking to be transferred to Xinjian to work with Hunter. Their long association began in 1914. In time, Hunter became like a father to Mather as they “boldly crisscrossed Xinjiang to preach the gospel for many years” (Wong 281).

Urumqi

After a long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous journey in the company of other missionaries, Percy Mather reached Urumqi, where he quickly entered into the work of evangelism and church planting. He had become proficient enough in the language within one year to preach well enough to hold the attention of a crowd of Chinese Muslims. He had also acquired an “understanding of the local people, along with their social customs and habits,” allowing him to find what he called “contact points” when conversing with them and to overcome objections to his message (Wong 285).

Even though the Muslims were resistant to the gospel, and few of them responded, “Mather’s passion and enthusiasm did not fade away” (Wong 286). A new provincial governor named Yang made things harder for them by imposing a strict and harsh rule on the people and by causing inflation by printing paper money at will. Furthermore, on several occasions, when someone showed an interest in becoming a Christian, he would be threatened or prevented by his superiors or neighbors. Opium addiction was endemic.

In September, 1917, Mather wrote home saying, “Satan seems to have all his own way in this province. The people are in a most ignorant and depraved condition… Newspapers are not allowed to enter the province and everybody is kept in the dark… A new magistrate has recently taken office. He has been very zealous at putting down gambling, … However, we find he seems just as zealous in supporting idolatry… “Sin, vice, ignorance, and superstition abound, but praise God, grace much more abounds, and the gospel alone is the power to save these sin-stricken souls. We are out practically every day street-preaching and get good attention, but opium seems to have seared the conscience of the people” (Wong 287-288).

In May 1918, Mather and a Mongolian servant, who could speak Chinese, Turki, and Kazakh, went on an evangelistic journey. Mathew preached and sold gospel books along way. He also gave simple medical treatment to people who came to him, thus gaining more of a hearing. Once, they took a wrong turn in the road and mistakenly entered into open country. In the providence of God, however, they came upon an encampment of Kazakhs, where he shared some gospel books with a Mullah. “Had we not taken the wrong road, we would have missed these people; so the wrong road proved the right road after all” (Wong 289).

In the village of Mori, they found two Christian brothers who had believed the gospel some time previously. For three days, they enjoyed rich fellowship with these brave, cheerful witnesses of Christ. On the way back to Urumqi, they met an old mullah who had invited them to meet Baidan, a local prince. They accepted his offer and were warmly received by the prince, who was happy to hear that he was visiting the sick and giving them medicines. When they departed, Baidan said he hoped they could come again.

When they returned to Urumqi, Mather wrote, “There are many thousands of Mongols in this province, without God, without hope, and without a preacher” (Wong 291).

During the next few years, 1918-1921, civil war in Russia compounded the already chronically tense and difficult situation in Xinjiang. The governor sealed the borders of the province, making travel westwards impossible for the missionaries. They were able to take evangelistic journeys to the north and northeastern parts of the province, however.

Also, during these years, when their travel was necessarily limited, Mathew sensed that God had laid a new burden on his heart: to do translation work and to write. He began work on three major books: the Mongolian- English Dictionary, the Mongolian Text Book, and the Manchurian Grammar and Dictionary. Future missionaries could save a great deal of time and trouble by using these tools to learn the languages of the people.

Furlough

After sixteen years away from home, Percy Mathew was finally able to leave for furlough in September 1926. During the two years in England, he enjoyed being with his mother, brother, and sister (their father having died earlier). “Domestic joys were bliss to him in this old, familiar setting,” even as he engaged in the task of telling others about the work of the China Inland Mission.

One thing set him apart from some other spokesmen for foreign missions, however: “many times when speaking, he was heard to say, ‘I will never do anything to help a man or woman go to the mission field. It is far too heavy a burden for me to lay on anyone. If they go, the Lord must call them and open the way for them as He did for me’” (Wong 294).

Aware of the critical medical needs among Mongolians, he took advantage of this time to gain medical training. He was given permission to attend training at the Manchester Royal Hospital, and received training at the Ancoats dental hospital and the orthopedic department of the Ancoats hospital.

When it was time for him to return to China, he wrote, “I am not going back because I long to go. It would have been much easier to remain with my loved home friends. I am not going back because I love the Chinese and Central Asian people. You may wonder why I do it. Simply this: I believe it to be the will of God for me, and I delight to do ‘Thy will, O my God!’” (Wong 295).

Return to China via India

Because of the civil war raging in China at the time, when Mathew returned to China in the late summer of 1928, they went through India to China, passing through some magnificent scenery on the way.

He had brought with him a complete set of ophthalmic instruments. When the Mongols heard of this, they came to him “in bands to seek treatment. On one Sunday alone, after the worship service, Mather tended to about 80 patients” (Wong 297).

Mathew tried to visit Christians in isolated places as often as possible to strengthen and encourage them. His diary records these in some detail. We read of him and his Mongol servant riding for 23 miles before breakfast in a village. “Fed the horses and then went on the street and preached and sold books to the people – Chinese, Tongan, Turki, Kazakh, and Mongol. Found the people quite friendly and ready to buy books” (Wong 298).

They visited the two Christian brothers in Mori. “On May 14 the magistrate sent word for me to come and see him. When he saw me, he said, ‘Oh I know you. I’ve seen you in Urumqi.’ I had a friendly chat with him and gave him a pocket New Testament. Then I called to see the officer in charge of the Mongol troops. I know him quite well, as he has lived several years in Urumqi. I gave some medicines to some of the sick soldiers and to the officer’s little daughter. Afterward, I went on the street, preached, and sold books” (Wong 299).

On one occasion, while they were in the high mountains on a trip, their servant got sick and they had to interrupt their journey. Their supplies ran so low they had hardly anything to eat. Their servant boy was discouraged, but Mathew trusted God to supply their wants. “Today, while gathering fuel, a text of Scripture came strongly to my mind: ‘Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?’ I had to stop and laugh when I thought of it, yet not a laugh of doubt, but of faith. The text seemed a direct challenge to God” (Wong 301). Within an hour, an English servant with Indian servants rode to their little encampment. Learning that they had no food, he invited them to a meal – served on a little camp table! (Wong 301).

At the end of that trip, he wrote: “The long delay [caused by their servant’s illness] brought us into close contact with Mongols and Kazakhs; gave us an opportunity for preaching the gospel to many who had never heard before, and who may never hear it again; strengthened our faith in God, and in His word; and proved to us that God CAN provide a table in the wilderness” (Wong 302).

Gospel Center in Tacheng

Meanwhile, he was still working on the Manchurian dictionary and grammar book with the help of a Russian. When the Russian had to move to Tacheng, near the Xinjiang – Siberian border, Mathew decided to go there also to complete his writing projects. In Tacheng, he was welcome by a wealthy Siberian who took him into his spacious home and treated him like family.

From this base, “he could do much of the work of the ministry. In fact, his residence operated like a gospel center. He was able to focus on the translation work while also engaging in medical duties, preaching, and selling portions of Scriptures to various people, including the Chinese, Russians, Tartars, Sachs, Kazaks, Tongans, Manchus, and Mongol-Kalmak. Among people groups, his influence was far-reaching. He made contacts with Arabs, Tibetans, and Nonghai, to whom he sold portions of the Bible and gospel tracts (Wong 303).

At the conclusion of his two-year stay there, he recorded his reflections on the different ethnic groups and their various responses to the gospel. Among Muslims, medicine proved to be a great opener of doors. He had many Russian friends who receive him as a brother.

Most importantly, he had completed a Manchu grammar book, a Manchu dictionary, a small book of Manchu and Mongol proverbs, a Tartar dictionary, and a Kalmak Dictionary. After he had completed this mammoth undertaking, he wrote:

I trust it [the translation work] will prove to the glory of God, the salvation of souls, and the furtherance of the gospel. I felt a very great urge to do this work … and had it not been accomplished this year, I do not know when it would have been achieved. I know what it is to struggle at a strange language without dictionary or grammar, and I trust that those, whom we believe God will send, may not need to go through the same experience!” (Wong 307).

Final Period in Urumqi

Upon his return to Urumqi, Mather found that the political situation had deteriorated greatly. A new governor suppressed freedoms even more than the previous one had, with the result that several of the Muslim peoples revolted. Mather and Hunter had early on “adopted the principle of never taking part in political discussions or expressing their private opinions on public matters” (Wong 308). Mather’s heart grew heavy as he saw old friends being arrested, imprisoned, and executed. Hunter had gone to Shanghai just before the revolts and it wasn’t clear when he would return. Mather’s Mongolian servant Nimgir became more and more tense.

Meanwhile, Mather’s health was deteriorating. His mind was alert, but his body was “worn and wearing” from all his travels and labors. Things got worse for him when the governor accused him or “using religious literature as a cover for revolutionary propaganda,” an accusation which he vigorously denied, of course (Wong 309).

The conditions of chaos and rebellion led him to urge CIM leaders not to send more missionaries to the area, but his letter did not reach headquarters in time, so Hunter and six others arrived in November 1932. Mather did all he could to accommodate them. Though the weather was frightfully cold – minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit – Mather and Nimgir “drove out into the country, risking their lives to buy supplies” (Wong 311).

In January 1933, Muslim forces besieged Urumqi. Fighting continued for five months, filling the hospitals with wounded people. Mather and the other missionaries were “requisitioned for the Red Cross. Amidst the turmoil of the situation and the work they had to do, the missionaries labored tirelessly day and night, trying to save the wounded” (Wong 311). Finally, Mather succumbed to typhoid fever. He died on May 24, 1933.

Character and Legacy

Several Muslims who had been converted partly through his ministry sang in the choir at his funeral. A Turki Muslim said, “It did not matter where one went in the city, or in the country, or through the mountain passes, Mr. Mathew was well known and respected. He was worth ten men” (Wong 212).

Aubrey Parsons expressed the sentiments of the new missionaries when he spoke:

A better man one could not have met, and the grace and Christian character he showed on all occasions pointed him out as a man who know his Lord intimately. Although we have only known him for a very short time, yet his life and testimony have made a great impression on us. On all occasions, he was ready to give a helping hand to those in need, and his thoughtfulness was very much appreciated by everybody. It could truly be said that he gave his life for the people here. (Wong 212)

George Hunter, now 70 years old, was grief-stricken. In his report to CIM headquarters in Shanghai, he wrote, “I cannot tell you how much I feel this great loss. Our brother was well-equipped with languages and beloved by all the various tribes in Xinjiang. He has not died in vain. I, for one, can say that he is a [grain] of wheat that has fallen to the earth, and died, and borne much fruit in my life, not to speak of many others” (Wong 312).

The Russian and Chinese officials donated a plot of ground for his grave.

Sik Pui Wong, the author of the book on which this story is based, penned a summary: “Percy Mather’s entire life was one of service for others. Be it Muslim in trouble, a child in pain, or a woman in distress, he was ready to meet the need. Very often, his own needs for food and rest were ignored as he focused on loving God and others. One wonders whether he might have known that the perpetual pressure he laid upon himself to continue working and ministering would contribute to the shortening of his life” (Wong 313).

Most interestingly, he also left a musical legacy. “On and off for 19 years, Mather played familiar hymn tunes by fiddle or flute for the people of Urumqi.” Towards the end, when his strength was ebbing away, “his fiddle sounded across the compound with one hymn and one hymn only. It flowed with the words from his heart – ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide’” (Wong 313).

Finally, though Mather was never able to live completely among the Mongolians as he had wished, his books became tools that equipped the missionaries who followed him to fulfill his dream and to bear lasting gospel fruit among Mongolians.

Sources

Jackson, E.M., “Mathew, Percy Cunningham,” in Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, 441.

Wong, Sik Pui, Sacrificial Love: Portraits of CIM Missionaries in Gansu & Xinjiang. Translated by Greta Y. Wong. Hong Kong: OMF, 2020.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.