The missionary adventures of Clarence C. Crisler
After Ellen White’s death in 1915, C. C. Crisler was, like most of her staff, looking for a job. His opportunity came at the 1915 Annual Council, where he worked temporarily as a stenographer. After a report on the great missionary activities taking place, A. G. Daniells, church president, called on Crisler to go as a missionary to China.
Presumably, Crisler talked over this invitation with his wife, Minnie (1874-1963), and daughter Beatrice. They soon accepted a call to the
Asiatic Division. Within a few weeks Clarence Crisler was on a “tour” through eastern Asia with a group of new missionaries and church leaders. He left aboard the ship China on November 2, 1916. His family followed him the following March.1
Making of a Missionary
Crisler arrived in time to participate in the formation of the Asiatic Division Conference, a pivotal meeting that placed missions into unions as part of a world church division. He was also elected as secretary, tasked with literature development.2 Naturally, he helped to coordinate not only publishing initiatives but work related to the medical and education field as well.
With the eruption of World War I, the church was forced to reallocate resources into places of comparative safety. As a result the church poured a significant amount of funds and
the placement of missionaries into Asia. This “golden age” of Adventist missions was a crucial time to develop new materials.
Crisler was driven to share, in these lands, the good news about Christ’s soon return.3 He secured books, maps, and other resources, and went to work learning the language. The Chinese people, he wrote, “are among the most lovable of all peoples on earth.”4 The great challenge was how to reach so many people, a work that could be done only through divine intervention. Crisler believed a key to the success of the work was training, and empowering local leaders who would, over time, become the most effective means of reaching their own people.
Life on the Edge
Life in China during his tenure was, at times, far from peaceful. Some will remember the Boxer Rebellion, when many Christians were killed. Crisler recognized that the mandate of their mission outweighed the cost.
The most dramatic story of “life on the edge” was during severe persecution in Hunan, China. As warlords from the north battled Communist factions, this was truly a “time of stress.” Crisler was thankful for dedicated workers loyal “to the fundamentals of our faith.” Because of tensions in that region, he had been unable to visit the workers for many years. An opportunity opened for them to meet February 17-22, 1927.
According to Crisler’s personal account, the day before the meeting several who were formerly a part of their group trapped believers inside a church to kill them. Members escaped one by one by crawling away on the rooftop. Although the mission compound was closed by officials, a storm prevented their enemies from following them to a mud hut outside the city. Crisler described it as one of the best meetings they ever had, culminating with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the mud floor. After their escape, some went into hiding, and a few even died. It was the beginning of one of the most severe persecutions the church had faced up to that point.5
Such stories were not unusual from Crisler, who on several occasions reported being chased and shot at by bandits, and who recognized just how dangerous life was when he wrote the obituaries of other missionaries and church workers.6 “Many have been persecuted and imprisoned,” he related.7
Church members were shocked to learn that Crisler had died on his way to help establish the Adventist message in Tibet. He wasn’t well when he left, and while attempts were made for an airplane to retrieve him from a remote village in northwest China, it did not arrive in time. He died of pneumonia.8 The borrowed airplane transported his family and mission leaders to his funeral.9
His tremendous example of commitment and sacrifice served as inspiration for many future missionaries. One group of students, upon hearing of his death, committed their lives to active evangelism. Crisler’s deep love for the Chinese people made him one of the most influential missionaries in that land.10
I recently went to see if I could find Crisleer’s grave in northwest China. I found his remains, hidden for many years, on the side of a hill, awaiting the call of the Life-giver. While gathered around his tomb, a small group of us knelt in prayer, asking God to help us be faithful until He comes again. n
1 See note in Review and Herald, Mar. 22, 1917, p. 24.
2 “Asiatic Division Conference: Summary of Proceedings of the First Session, Shanghai, April 5-24, 1917,” Review and Herald, June 21, 1917, pp. 16, 17. See also Crisler’s personal reflections: C. C. Crisler, “Asiatic Division Conference Session Notes—
No. 2,” Review and Herald, June 14, 1917, pp. 11, 12.
3 C. C. Crisler, “Asiatic Division Conference Session Notes—
No. 2,” Review and Herald, June 14, 1917, pp. 11, 12.
4 C. C. Crisler, “Advance Returns From China,” Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1930, pp. 12, 13.
5 This account is based upon C. C. Crisler, “Our Faithful Chinese Workers in Hunan,” Review and Herald, May 12, 1927, pp. 9, 10.
6 Note of letter by C. C. Crisler quoted by H. W. Miller, M.D., “Delivered From Bandits,” Review and Herald, Jan. 31, 1935, p. 24.
7 Cf. “Our Fallen Coworkers,” Review and Herald, June 11, 1931, p. 21.
8 Frederick Lee, “A Challenge to the Remnant Church,” Review and Herald, Apr. 23, 1936, p. 1; M. E. Kern, “Death of C. C. Crisler,” Review and Herald, Apr. 9, 1936, p. 24.
9 A note on a photograph from the funeral at the Ellen G. White Estate observes that the airplane used was from General Chang. Published reports in the Review and Herald discreetly refer to Miller securing a plane from “a friend.”
10 For a detailed study, see Michael W. Campbell, “Power, Print, and Martyrdom: C. C. Crisler and the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Missions in China, 1916-1936,” Ching Feng: A Journal on Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture 13, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 177-195.
Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of historical/theological studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines.