In 1898, two independent missionaries, Petrus and Susie Carson Rjinhart, entered Tibet hoping to get permission to preach and do medical work in Lhasa. For years they had concentrated on preaching the gospel to Tibetan Buddhist monks, making frequent visits to monasteries in the region around Kumbum, in what is today Qinghai Province. This was a time of fierce conflict between the Tibetans and the Muslims, with thousands slaughtered during a Muslim rebellion, and to protect the two missionaries an abbot invited them to live within the safety of his monastery walls. This afforded an excellent opportunity for personal evangelism, while Susie Rijnhart used her skills as a doctor to treat those wounded in the fighting.
After a series of battles between Tibetans and Hui Muslims in 1895, the Dutchman Petrus Rijnhart had both astonished and angered the Chinese and Tibetans when he went to the Muslim headquarters to treat their wounded. His wife later wrote:
It had been understood that because we had helped the Chinese and Tibetan soldiers, therefore we shared their hatred of their enemies and could not possibly have a kind thought for them. When they saw that the missionary was just as kind and tender to the Muslims as to themselves, they were utterly amazed. The law of Christian kindness impelling love and mercy even for one’s enemies was vividly brought to their attention.
In 1898, the intrepid couple, with their little son, Charlie, set out on an epic months-long journey towards Lhasa. It turned out to be a disaster, with two of the three tasting death. Their first port of call was the monastery town of Tangar (now Huangyuan in Qinghai). From there they pressed on, despite many warnings to turn back, but soon
Anything that could go wrong did go wrong! They were faced with incredibly bad weather, bad trails, the suspicions of religious leaders who did not know them and had no reason to accord them the respect they had had in Kumbum or Tangar. Their guides deserted them and then, to add misery upon misery, their one-year-old son, carried on the father’s back, died suddenly. They had the sad task of burying him under rocks along the trail.
Another account states: ‘After a harrowing journey across the deserts and mountains of northern Tibet, their little party was stunned by the death of the Rijnharts’ infant son, turned back by hostile officials, and harassed by Tibetan bandits in whose territory Petrus Rijnhart disappeared.’
The Rijnharts had been paralysed with grief at the loss of their beloved son and had resolved to turn back towards the south. A gang of robbers trailed them, looking for an opportunity to strike, and when the missionaries noticed them, Petrus decided to walk back and talk to them, hoping that such a direct approach would show them he was not afraid, and not worth robbing. Nothing is known about what happened next, except that he never returned. It is presumed the gang murdered him. Susie waited patiently for her husband for days, before finally accepting that he was probably dead.
China’s Book of Martyrs. Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. Used by permission.