1868  — 1908

Susanna Carson Rijnhart

Pioneer doctor, explorer, and founder of the Disciples of Christ Mission to Tibet.

Born in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, Susanna Carson was dedicated to missions at age 11, when her father, a Methodist school inspector, registered her for medical school. She graduated from Toronto Women’s Medical College in 1888, in its second class. In 1894 she married Petrus Rijnhart, who had joined the China Inland Mission (CIM) in 1890. Stationed in Lanchow (Lanzhou), Kansu (Gansu) Province, the last Chinese city on the Silk Road before central Asia, Susanna and her husband were influenced by Annie Royale Taylor, the “lone wolf of Tibet,” and Cecil Polhill-Turner of the Cambridge Seven. In 1893 the CIM summarily dismissed Petrus Rijnhart, claiming that he was an imposter.

Supported by the Disciples of Christ in Toronto, the Rijnharts traveled six months to Tsinghai (Qinghai) Province, or Outer Tibet. At a Buddhist monastery they became friends with a Living Buddha and witnessed a battle between Tibetans and Muslims. After four years on the border of Tibet, they set out with their infant son and enough food for a year to walk to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. During the nightmarish journey the baby died and Petrus, seeking help from some nomads, disappeared. Two months later Susanna stumbled into Tatsienlu (Kangding), Szechwan (Sichuan). Recuperating in Toronto, she wrote With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, a testament to her husband’s “burning ambition to be of service in evangelizing Tibet-whether by his life or his death, he said, did not matter.” In 1902 she returned to Tatsienlu with a few Disciples of Christ missionaries, where she married James Moyes of the CIM. When her health failed, they returned to Chatham in 1907. She died there a year later, perhaps of complications from childbirth.


This article 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.


Accounts of Rijnhart’s life are ultimately based on her autobiography; With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple: Narrative of Four Years Residence on the Tibetan Border, and of a Journey into the Far Interior (1901, reprinted 1911). Other sources include biographical files in United Church Archives, 11 Soho Street, Toronto, and Univ. of Western Ontario Library, London, Ont. Petrus Rijnhart’s relations with the CIM are discussed in A. J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, vol. 7, It Is Not Death to Die! (1989). Susanna Rijnhart appears in accounts of exploration in Tibet, e.g., Peter Hopkirk, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa (1982).

About the Author

Alvyn Austina

Research Associate, Joint Center for Asia Pacific Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada