Both Peter and Valborg came from pious Christian homes, with several relatives who had been pastors, lay preachers, or overseas missionaries.
Peter Torjesen was born on November 28, 1892, in Kristiansland, Norway, the son of a chimney sweep. Both of his parents were pious Christians, who read the Bible to them and prayed with them twice a day. He was brought up in the church, where he became a true believer when he was around eleven or twelve years old. After that, he said, “Sunday school became a time of worship for me.”
At the age of seventeen, Peter heard Ludvig Hope, a Norwegian missions advocate, speak about all the places in China that had never heard of Jesus Christ. After the sermon, when the offering was taken, he put all the money in his wallet into the plate. Then he found a piece of paper and wrote on it, “And my life.” The rest of his days were lived out of that simple but total commitment to follow Christ to China, even unto death if necessary.
He and some other newly converted boys started a club for reading the Bible, prayer, and ministry to other boys. He studied at a business college, then worked as a bookkeeper, cashier, clerk, and secretary for a local firm in Norwegian, English, and German for two and one half years. In 1911, after attending a three-week Bible class lad by a man from the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church in the United States, he departed for America to continue his preparations to serve as a missionary in China, to which he believed God had called him. Before he left Norway, however, he had become interested in Valborg, who was also intent upon becoming a missionary.
Valborg’s father was a ship captain and a devout believer. When she was only six years old, her father perished at sea, leaving her mother to bring up the children. She rented the upstairs apartment in their small home, and also started a knitting business in her home. Valborg served as the delivery girl. She later worked in a store, and then underwent training to be a nurse.
Meanwhile, Peter studied theology and Bible in Rushford. Minnesota at what would become Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After three years, he graduated and went to Moody Bible Institute for further training. In 1916 he matriculated at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, but left for Norway when he learned that he had been drafted into the army. During his military service he and Valborg became further acquainted. When his term in the army was completed, he applied to the Norwegian Mission in China, which had been founded when Hudson Taylor had visited Norway.
Starting Missionary Service in China
In 1918 he left Norway for China. On the way, he traveled in the United States, where he became ordained by the Evangelical Free Church in Brooklyn, New York. Immediately after he arrived in China, he began studying Chinese at the CIM language school. Two years in school were followed by more study with a Chinese language tutor.
After Valborg finished her nursing course, she spent a year at Indremisjonen’s Bible school in Oslo. In 1920 she sent to London for four months of training with the CIM, and then, at the end of the year, she sailed for China. She began Chinese language study at the CIM school for women in Yangzhou, Jiangsu. CIM rules called for engaged couples to wait until their full two years of language school were completed before they could marry, so that the wife would also be able to function as a Christian missionary among the Chinese.
In 1921, during a famine in southern Shanxi, Peter was asked by the Chinese government to help build roads in the stricken area. He worked with the Red Cross in that capacity.
After he had been in China for three years, Peter asked to be sent “to the hardest place, where there was no church and no one else wanted to go.” He was sent to Hequ. Arriving in November, 1921, he began holding meetings in his home and speaking in other places. By March, 1922, there were three baptized converts. Living simply, he developed relationships with the people around him.
Peter and Valborg were married on January 17, 1923, exactly two years after she had arrived in China. Their honeymoon was spent traveling to Hequ, where they set up housekeeping together. For the first time, women began attending church services. When they had questions, Valborg would urge them to wait until they had returned home, and ask their husbands, thus encouraging dialogue about spiritual matters between spouses, something almost unheard of among Chinese.
They often received visitors in their home. Valborg began tending to the sick, and later started an elementary school for both boys and girls from the village. While Peter spoke with men about Christ in the market, Valborg visited women in their homes.
When summer came, they joined other foreigners at Sommerly, a deserted place high up in the mountains. Their first child, Edvard, was born in February, 1924. When he was about two, he began to accompany Valborg on her visits to women in the village and in surrounding areas. Kari was born in August, 1925, while the family was at Sommerly. Peter came down with typhoid fever in 1926 and nearly died, but some Swedish missionaries nursed him back to health.
First Furlough and Second Term of Service
Like thousands of other missionaries and foreigners, the Torjesens were ordered to safety on the coast during the civil war and Anti-Christian Movement violence in 1927. They were due for furlough anyway, so they spent the next year in Norway.
They returned to China and Hequ in 1928. Thousands of demobilized soldiers, along with countless demoralized civilian men, took to banditry, making life dangerous for Chinese and foreigners alike. More than once, the Torjesens barely escaped capture, robbery, and worse. Once, Peter crossed over a ravine to negotiate with bandits while his family prayed fervently. He returned barefoot, since the bandit chief had wanted his shoes, but they were otherwise unmolested. On another occasion, all the adults gathered for prayer when bandits approached their village. Some of the children also went to another building and knelt down to pray. Later, they learned that the bandits had fled when they saw men dressed in white with shining swords on the roofs of the houses where the missionaries were staying.
Life at Home
Their daughter remembers a home filled with love, joy, and peace, though marked also by strict discipline. Peter rose daily at five AM for prayer and Bible study. At other times, however, he and his wife would walk around the house or sit in a chair praying in the presence of the children, who were allowed to play around them but not speak to them. The whole family read the Bible and prayed after breakfast. At noon they prayed through the entire list of the 1,300 CIM missionaries. Individual Bible reading and prayer took place with each child at bedtime. To maintain a separate family life, they acquired a building for church meetings.
Fellow CIM missionaries Martin Jensen and Ragnild Syvertsen joined them to help with men’s and women’s ministry, respectively. Thora Johansen arrived in Hequ a year later.
Sometimes, to get the attention of crowds who were busy shopping in the market, Peter would stand up and say in a loud voice, “Do you know I am one of eight brothers at home and we are all alive today?” Since the Chinese considered having many sons a sign of divine favor, they would stop and listen to him. He possessed a great sense of humor and would often play practical jokes. His light-hearted attitude cheered others up in the midst of their demanding life and work routine.
Valborg continued her work at the clinic as a way of expressing the love of Christ for the Chinese. According to the policy of CIM, both she and Peter were full-time missionaries. She focused on evangelizing and teaching women, but also preached to men.
Like most other CIM families, the Torjesens made the very hard decision to send their children away to school after the early years of education at home. When he was eight years old, Edvard went back to Norway, where he stayed with relatives and attended a local school. Later, Kari was sent to the Norwegian Missionary School in Changsha. No one seemed to think that the parents, who were both fully engaged in ministry, could give their children a proper education. This CIM practice differed from that of other missionaries (like L. Nelson Bell and his wife), who home-schooled their children much longer. Everyone felt the loss of separation, and Peter entertained some doubts about the decision to be separated from Edvard so early in the boy’s life, but all trusted God to make things work out for good.
At home, they planted flowers and vegetables and raised chickens and goats for eggs, milk, and cheese. The children played with their Chinese neighbors and learned Chinese fairy tales from the kind woman who helped with housework and child care. Summer vacations were spent at the seaside resort of Beidahe - eleven days away by mule, cart, bus, and train - where they enjoyed swimming in cool water and hearing the teaching of Bible expositors like Donald Gray Barnhouse. Their daughter Kari, author of their biography, writes that they “lived in many different worlds. In Hequ there was the world of our secure home, and the world beyond with over 100,000 people in the county who needed to hear the gospel. But … there was harmony between our worlds. This came from the overarching unity of having a single focus as a family. We were in Hequ to show by life and by proclamation how Christ can transform human beings.”
Famine and Revival
The great famine of 1929-1931 brought immense suffering, causing death for perhaps five or ten million people and disease for countless others. Women and girls were the first to be sold as wives or concubines for men in other parts of China. In this prolonged crisis, Christians stood out in contrast their pagan neighbors. The missionaries fed as many as they could, but did not have adequate resources for everyone.
In 1934, spiritual revivals swept China, fueled in their region by the power preaching of a man named Chang, who spoke at length and in detail about sin. Previously the missionaries had “emphasized Jesus’ work of redemption and invited people to come to faith in Christ. But many who came never saw themselves as sinners. Many of the Christians too confessed sin, that they had never before seen as sin. It gave them a new vision of grace.” In the wake of such preaching by Chang and also by foreign evangelists, the Holy Spirit came upon large numbers of people, convicting Chinese of sin and then bringing a new sense of God’s love and mercy. All this was part of the great work of revival all over China in the years before the Japanese invasion of 1937 and afterwards, in which men like John Sung, Watchman Nee, Wang Ming-dao and members of the Bethel Band, as well as foreign missionaries, were used by God to cause many to turn to Christ for salvation and thousands of Christians to renounce sin and re-dedicate their lives to God.
Second Furlough, Third Term of Service
The Torjesens returned to Norway in the spring of 1936 for a furlough that lasted eighteen months. During that time, they re-connected with family and friends, spoke in churches, and lived a life of chosen poverty before their more prosperous neighbors and relatives.
They sailed for China on August 6, 1937. When their ship docked at Genoa, Italy, they were informed that their home mission board had telegraphed all missionaries en route to China informing them of the ferocious Japanese invasion, and granting permission to them to return home to avoid danger. Hours of discussion and prayer led to their decision to continue their journey to the mission field. When they stopped in Manila, however, news of the rapid advance of the Japanese prompted half of the missionaries to disembark. The others were taken to Hong Kong instead of Shanghai. On the train to Hankou, the Torjesens saw wounded Chinese soldiers preparing to cross the Yangzi River. Once in Hankou, they saw Japanese airplanes attacking ships on the river and heard bombs exploding. Soon they were taking shelter in the CIM mission home from planes which had turned to bomb the city itself.
Shanxi was gripped by war, making life for the children there too dangerous, so they were re-directed to the Norwegian Missionary Society school in Hunan. Their mother stayed with them.
For a while, Peter remained too, and ministered to thousands of refugees from Hunan in their own dialect. In January, 1938, he set off for Hequ, Shanxi, finally reaching it after travelling through war zones. There he was met by scores of Chinese Christian friends. He wrote, “It is good to find that among our missionaries as well as other missions, most have chosen to stay at their posts instead of evacuating. They have chosen to stay to suffer with the people. I am so grateful to be back here.”
Peter tried to bring comfort to wounded soldiers and destitute refugees, many of whom were now eager to know about the Christian God. The believers had dug a bomb shelter under the main church building, where a hundred people could take refuge during Japanese bombing attacks. At one time they had more than 1,000 refugees gathered at the station. With the air raids and land assaults came typhus and typhoid epidemics. Peter had thought of joining his family at Chefoo (Yantai)for the usual summer vacation, but the leaders of the Chinese church begged him to remain with them, which he did.
As the war came to Hunan, the Norwegian school and all women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong. Housed for one year at the Christian Buddhist Mission on Dao Feng Shan, they were still taught in Norwegian. By the summer of 1939, however, since all other students had left, Valborg decided that they would move to Chefoo (Yantai), so that the children could attend the CIM school there. Though Chefoo was in Japanese territory, it was safe, at least for a while. The family enjoyed a lovely two-month summer vacation in a cottage overlooking the sea, but as autumn approached Peter had to return to Hequ and Valborg decided that he needed her by his side. The younger children found it hard to switch from Norwegian to English, and even harder to separate from their parents. One by one, however, they trusted in God to take care of them and to be a Father to them.
Kari writes: “As they talked of Hequ as the place God had called them to, we knew deep inside that we could not ask them to ignore that call.”
Final Days in Hequ
Anti-British feeling among the Japanese had made it impossible for English-speaking missionaries to work in Shanxi. Peter wrote, “The responsibility seems to rest more on us Norwegians and Swedes than earlier now that the way is closed for the others, and we are the only ones who can get permits to go inland.” A Japanese official who had read the plays of Ibsen gladly gave them a pass all the way to Hequ, but at the end of the train line they had great difficulty finding anyone willing to take through the lines to the Chinese side. Finally an old man with two donkeys helped them. They were greeted with great joy and love by the Christians as they entered the town.
When Valborg came into Hequ with Peter, she was struck by the eerie silence of the streets. Almost all businesses had closed down, as people had fled to the countryside or to Inner Mongolia to escape the Japanese. Indiscriminate bombing had destroyed many of the buildings, feeding Chinese soldiers was too much of a burden, and disease ravaged the population. Their own mud-brick house was almost a shambles, but they had little time or energy to repair it.
At the same time, the ravages and suffering of war had opened people’s hearts to the gospel as never before. Peter would take them from Genesis to the New Testament, slowly showing them our fall into sin and need of a Savior, and finally telling the story of the coming of Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and giving the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Hundreds crowded into the gospel hall to hear preaching by him and Chinese workers, while many more were reached in the surrounding countryside. Valborg started daily classes for men and women; more came on Sundays, when there was less danger of bombing.
Unbeknownst to them, World War II had started, so that, on December 14, 1939, when they put out the Norwegian flag flat on the ground as usual they did not know that they were making themselves a target. Japanese airplanes launched a furious attack, dropping more than 250 bombs on the already-shattered city. A direct hit demolished their little house. A beam fell on Peter’s head, killing him instantly.
Still in shock, Valborg sought for a place to bury the frozen corpse of her husband, but the Chinese were afraid of upsetting the departed spirits by allowing him to be placed in their cemetery. Finally, an older gentleman gave them a spot on his property. The funeral was conducted by two Norwegian missionaries who had hurried by mule to Valborg’s side, and attended by faithful Chinese Christians, who wept openly with grief for their beloved pastor. Over the entrance to the funeral tent hung a silk banner which read, “He gave his life to save the people.” Messages from the Christians written on white were hung around the tent.
A Norwegian CIM missionary who had known Peter’s ministry in Hequ for twenty years said, “He had climbed every hill and valley” in the region. He could “eat bitterness,” the Chinese affirmed. “What they meant was that he would willingly ‘eat’ the bitterness others were ‘eating’ around him, sharing their sorrow and empathizing with them.” She continued, “He never spared himself to bring the happy message of the Cross to the most hidden or forgotten village. His wish was that ‘The Cross will be seen where the idol once stood.’”
The banner from his children, who had felt the pain of separation, read, “IT WAS FOR JESUS’ SAKE.” At the time of their parting after the end of the previous summer, two of them had had a sense that they would never see their father. Meanwhile, their mother had taken refuge in a cave up against the Great Wall, where Communist soldiers would visit her to comfort her and express their admiration for a man who would die for a greater cause. They also seemed very receptive to her message about Jesus and the hope Christians have. When the Germans invaded Norway, the Communist commander, General He Lung, sent a personal letter to her expressing sympathy.
Back in Hequ, the Christians re-grouped, raised the necessary funds, and rebuilt the church building. Seeing the maturity of the believers, Valborg felt that she and Thora could leave. An 80-year-old man from the congregation offered to accompany her on what he knew would be a long and dangerous. At a crucial juncture, a former member of her Sunday school class, now a Chinese officer, kindly supplied a pass. Later, a sympathetic Japanese general came to her aid and gave her a pass through Japanese-held territory. After three weeks, she was finally reunited with her children at Chefoo, where they spent a happy summer together.
Eager to return to Hequ, Valborg went to Beijing, where she was granted a pass by the occupying Japanese. The fighting became so intense in Shanxi, however, that no missionaries were allowed to go there, so she went back to Chefoo, where she was given a position as hostess for the CIM mission home. That way, she had means of support and constant access to her children.
After Pearl Harbor
On December 8, 1941, everything changed. Japan had declared war on Britain and the United States, and Norway, now occupied by Germany, was also now considered an enemy nation. Japanese soldiers now stood guard over the dorms and classrooms. Soon they began taking over one building of the school after another. On November 5, 1942, 200 hundred students, faculty, and staff were marched off to a prison camp along with. The school continued to operate almost as usual in their new premises until they were transported to Weixian prison camp at Qingdao, where they became part of a group of 1,400 foreign prisoners.
While in the prison camp, Valborg and Kari slept in a nine-by-twelve room; the boys Hakon and Torje stayed with other Chefoo students in the boys’ dormitory. Valborg started the Service Committee, which was organized to meet specific needs of individuals in the camp, and served on the Women’s Auxiliary Committee, whose members visited “the sick and the lonely, helped overworked mothers with mending and organized a nursery ‘for wee children’s car.’”
Liberation and Beyond
U.S. paratroopers liberated the camp on August, 17, 1945. Eventually, they sailed to North America so that they could be reunited with Edvard and his new wife, who lived in Toronto. Kari decided to remain in the United States for further education. Valborg returned to Norway with Torje. There, she spoke in many Norwegian churches about their experiences in China and also ran the CIM Mission Home, which had a capacity for thirty guests.
In 1949, still hoping to return to China, she took Torje to the United States so he could enroll at Wheaton College. Meanwhile, though the CIM had decided that its workers could remain in China under the new Communist regime, it later became obvious that they would not be welcome there. By this time, Kari had started graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where Hakon was also enrolled, so Valborg and Kari rented an apartment together in Minneapolis.
Always the dedicated missionary, she not only spoke in churches about missions, but also accepted an invitation from Chinese Christians at the university to help them start a Bible study for the growing number of Chinese students. To accommodate the groups that would come to her, she and Kari moved into a house in 1950.
Valborg received a call from the CIM – now called the Overseas Missionary Fellowship – to help with the refugees who had fled from mainland China to Taiwan. By that time, her son Edvard and his wife, having gone to China to work among Mongolians, had also moved to Taiwan, where they served with OMF among Mongolian refugees. Within three years, Valborg had helped to start three new churches.
After her sojourn in Taiwan, Valborg settled in Minneapolis, where she continued her ministry with Chinese students. By 1965, she was ready to retire, and wanted to go back to Norway for her final years. Though aging and infirm, one observer said that “She does not need outside stimulation. She is living her own inner life with God.” She died on December 12, 1970.
Peter Torjesen’s “motto for China,” written down in 1918, was Philippians 1:20: “According to my earnest expectation and my hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.”
- Kari Torjesen Malcolm, We Signed Away Our Lives: How One Family Gave Everything for the Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.