Dora Yu is one of the earliest preachers to have cut financial support from the West and completely “lived by faith.” She founded the Bible Study and Prayer House, which later became Jiangwan Bible School in Shanghai, as well as winter and summer Bible Study classes, and trained many qualified preachers for the Chinese church. The results of her spiritual fruit played an important role in the twentieth century Chinese church revival movement. In one of her revival meetings in Fuzhou, Watchman Nee, hearing her messages, became a reborn Christian and fully dedicated himself to serve God.
Dora Yu was a native of Zhejiang whose paternal grandfather, a devout disciple of Confucius and Mencius, was a rich, prestigious squire. Her father, originally a surgeon, served in the army of Qing Dynasty as a military doctor until he was taken captive by the Taiping Rebellions wherein he stayed to heal the sick. After the demise of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, her father abandoned medicine and entered a seminary in Hangzhou, subsequently becoming a pastor of the Presbyterian Church, established by the American missionaries.. Dora Yu later recalled, “Thank God, for it was His doing that I was born and brought up in a Christian household.” Her father’s love had a great impact on her life, fostering her charitable and humble character. She was kindhearted, especially towards the elderly, and had a heart for the weak and poor. She was solemn and plain, humble and honest, and despite being derided as unsophisticated, she felt that she was simply a fragile earthen vessel, believing that God would fill her with the Holy Spirit and give her great power.
Dora Yu was born in 1873 at the American Presbyterian Mission compound while her father was still a preacher in training. When she was two and a half years old, her father was sent to a village near Hangzhou as a pastor, but he was shortly transferred back to church ministry within Hangzhou. When Dora was five years old, she began to study at the Presbyterian Day School for Children with her elder sister. From that time on, she began learning to pray and approach God with a simple faith. Some time later whilst giving her testimony, she recalled, “ever since I can remember, I prayed every day to God, rarely forgetting. For me, Christ was a really personal God. My sister was often afraid of the dark at night, but I said to myself, ‘Since Jesus is with me, why be afraid?’”
In 1888, when Dora was fifteen years old, she left home to attend medical school in Suzhou, during which time she was known as Yu Lingzhi. Within two years time, her parents died of illness. While at medical school, she also experienced the pain of spiritual struggle. During events that transpired in 1895, she felt a strong sense of conviction, saying, “…I feel in my soul this horrible feeling that I couldn’t tell others; I believe that I am one convicted by God, that I seem to be standing at the edge of hell and may be pushed in at any time.” Whether day or night, when she was alone, she wept loudly, pleading for God’s mercy, but the feeling of guilt lingered. This feeling troubled her for more than two weeks, causing her extreme pain, to the point of near spiritual collapse. Finally, after thorough repentance, her soul was completely opened to God, “until one night after two weeks, just before the lights were put out, God suddenly opened the heavens to me and I was filled with the love of God Himself.” She cried out to the Lord, saying, “Oh Lord, is this your love? It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced! …at that time, although I didn’t hear God tell me that he had already forgiven all of my sins, I still felt his love fill my heart in that way. Those old feelings of conviction and fear suddenly disappeared without a trace.” So she knelt on the ground and, giving thanks to the Lord, was unable to utter anything else but to say, “Human words cannot express the joy and gratitude that fill my heart.” The next day, she writes, “it seems that the face of the whole world has changed; even the sun shines more brightly.” For the next year and a half , she lived in a state of heavenly joy.
Dora Yu studied at medical school for eight years, after which in 1896 she and another female student Shi Fumei became the first female graduates of the school of medicine. She was 23 years old. After graduating, she stayed at the Suzhou (Soochow) Women’s Medical School, working in women and children’s health services and sometimes being invited to preach at a girls’ school run by the American Methodist Episcopal mission.
In 1892, Dora Yu became engaged, but due to her temperament and faith and for the sake of her ministry, the engagement was annulled and thereafter she never married. She was assiduous in her faith, lived strictly, and pursued a godly, holy Christian life.
Dora Yu was one of China’s first cross-cultural missionaries. As early as October of 1897, she accompanied Mrs. Josephine P. Campbell of the American Southern Methodist Episcopal Church’s “Women Overseas Evangelism” as a missionary to Korea. During Yu’s time in medical school, Mrs. Campbell tended profoundly to the spirituality and livelihood of Dora Yu, and the two became like mother and daughter. In Seoul, she and Mrs. Campbell practiced medicine and preached the gospel to the local women, working fruitfully. In April of 1899, for health reasons, Dora Yu returned to China for medical treatment, eventually being healed of her illness through prayer. In January of 1900, she returned to Seoul in order to continue her educational, medical and evangelical work as a missionary . Due to the increase in church attendance, she and Mrs. Campbell’s daily workload increased threefold. Dora Yu helped Mrs. Campbell to found Barwha Girls’ School and in spring of 1901, they established the Louisa Walker Chapel, where Dora served as the primary preacher for a year and a half. Enduring such taxing labor took its toll on her body, and at the urging of the Holy Spirit, she was led to return to China in October of 1903.
At that time, the Chinese church was experiencing wave after wave of revival. After returning, Dora Yu spent the first four years working only in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang in revival evangelism. In 1904, Dora Yu gave up practicing medicine and devoted herself to full-time ministry, becoming the first twentieth-century missionary in the Chinese church to cut funding from the West and live as a evangelist relying completely on faith. After a Spirit-filled experience in winter of 1907, she threw herself into the tides of revival. She called the year of 1908 the new phase of her calling from God as her travelled for evangelism throughout the southern provinces. In May of 1909, she published one of the earliest hymn books of the Chinese church, entitled A Hymn Book for Revival and Evangelistic Meetings. In the late 1910s, the situation of the revival movement developed such that it is often said that “the North had Ding Limei and the South had Dora Yu.”
Dora Yu was a messenger of God’s work of revival, well aware of the importance of spiritual gifts, but her focus on “the life of God” surpassed her focus on “God’s gifts.” She said, “We must use the various gifts of the Holy Spirit to serve God, but if a gift isn’t under the control of the life of love of Jesus Christ, it can become a dangerous thing. Many people overemphasize spiritual gifts, causing the loss of the function of their work as being service to God, like a ship run aground.”
Dora Yu’s abilities in preaching and service were born of a desire to pursue union with Him who is the head, that is, Christ. Her goal was to live continually in the presence of God, so that, as she wrote, God would “purify my thoughts and words,” so as to maintain “consistency between my life before God and my life before people.” In prayer she asked God to: “1) keep me living in the heavenly realm; 2) keep me dead to sin and alive in God; 3) give me a spirit of obedience and childlike compliance with God’s will; 4) possess my life and prompt me to take into account the needs of others; 5) soak me with his love, so that I might be like God in my love towards others; 6) help me see the things of this world from God’s point of view and always watchfully await the return of the Lord of glory.” Dora Yu often guided believers in the perspective that a Christian should not only deal with past sins committed, but should daily overcome everyday sins. Although she was a powerful evangelist, she would humbly and honestly say, “although I am still very naive in many ways, and ignorant as well, yet God has nonetheless used my feeble witness to bless His people.”
In 1909, Dora Yu saw the growing needs of the church and, by her own fundraising, founded in Shanghai the “Bible Study and Prayer House,” a Bible school which was characterized by a curriculum built on the foundation of the Bible and prayer. The school was finished in 1916 and was officially renamed the Jiangwan Bible School. In 1923, to meet the needs of worship gatherings, “Bethlehem Hall” was completed within the school campus, at which the famed revivalist evangelist, Jonathan Goforth, presented and delivered a speech in person. In addition, Dora Yu also started Bible Study classes in the summer and winter. Dora Yu’s education and training in ministry increased the strength of many churches, but also prepared many leaders for the Chinese church, especially considering the general lack of qualified female preachers. In December of 1910, she participated in the first conference of the national evangelism association held in Hankou, making the keynote speech on women’s work.
Dora Yu continued to be invited to lead revivals in various regions of the country: in Suzhou in 1911 and in Ningbo in 1912 and 1913. In 1919, Dora Yu and a well known female missionary Ruth Paxon joined the China Domestic Mission. Their common pursuits and ministry knit them close together. In 1920, Dora Yu went to Fuzhou for two months to start revivals there and was met with great success. It was at these revival meetings that Watchman Nee’s mother Lin Heping (Peace Lin) was born again. Shortly thereafter, a seventeen year old Watchman Nee also heard Dora Yu’s messages, resulting in his dedicating his life completely to Christ and attending her Bible school in Shanghai. It could be said that without Dora Yu, there would be no Watchman Nee. In addition to Nee’s mother, Dora Yu also had a spiritual impact on brothers Wang Zai and Wang Zhi and many young people. In 1924, an American missionary, Mrs. Henry Woods, set up a multi-church joint committee of church leaders to launch a “Global Revival Prayer Movement,” in which Dora Yu was one of the only Chinese participants. During the great Shanghai church revival of 1925, Dora Yu and Wang Zai worked together, stirring up revival in churches that had been lukewarm for many years; hundreds of people in the revival meetings burst into tears and repented. Furthermore, more than 50 young believers decided to devote their lives to mission work, including Chinese and foreign ministers and church leaders, such as Ji Zhiwen (Andrew Gih), Zhou Zhiyu, Lan Ruxi, Shi Meiyu (Mary Stone), Jennie V. Hughes, Zhao Shiguang and others.
In 1927, Dora Yu was invited to England to attend the famous Keswick Convention and serve as the main speaker. Since the Keswick Convention was committed to the pursuit of a Christian life of holiness and sanctification, to the promotion of a global missionary movement, and the restoration of the unity of the Body of Christ, it was regarded as a symbol of the universal church’s pursuit of the highest spiritual life. Dora Yu appealed to the congregation to be wary of the dangers of liberal theology, also calling on the Western church to stop sending missionaries preaching liberal theology to China. Her speech was published in the prestigious English church journal China’s Missions and The Christian. Through long-term cooperation in ministry, she also established a close relationship with the China Inland Mission (CIM). Dora Yu left England in 1929 and returned to Shanghai via the United States.
Many years of travel and toil overworked Dora Yu such that in her later years she was unable to bear much work. In the spring of 1931, when the torch was passed from her hand to China’s new generation of missionaries, Dora Yu was finally freed from many years of disease, finding permanent rest in Shanghai. Through her faith, though she died, she still speaks (cf. Hebrews 11:4). At Dora Yu’s memorial service, Hu Yunlin, a female evangelist of the ‘thirties and ‘forties, moved by Dora Yu’s life and story, dedicated her whole life to the Lord.
- Wu Xiuliang, Yu Cidu: A Twentieth Century Chinese Church Revival Pioneer. Pishon Publishing House, 2001.
- Yu, Dora, God’s Dealings With Dora Yu. A Chinese Messenger of the Cross. Shanghai: Mission Book Co., 1916.