How one Montgomery County Missionary Shifted the Course of History

In the early 1900s, Flora K. Heebner traveled to China to spread Christianity and heal the sick.



Flora Heebner with her students.

If doing a good deed for someone requires first kicking in their front door and hooking their kids on drugs, does it still count as a good deed?

If asked, Flora K. Heebner of Montgomery County would likely have said yes.

But Heebner might not have understood the geopolitical events that, in 1904, enabled her to join several thousand Christian missionaries who flooded into China to teach, heal the (often drug-addicted) sick, and spread the Gospel. Due in part to their efforts, China’s Christian population has been forecast to grow to 247 million by 2047. That would make China the world’s most Christian nation.

Even so, those 247 million Christians will constitute no more than 20 percent of a country whose government remains unenthusiastic about their presence—and still periodically cracks down on Christian churches. Since Heebner and other missionaries left in the 1940s, China has maintained a grudge about the 19th-century Opium Wars, a loss that forced the country to admit the do-gooders in the first place. That is also part of Heebner’s legacy.

“It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China,” writes Washington-based international-affairs journalist Sebastien Roblin. “While Americans are routinely assured they are exceptional and the greatest country on earth by their politicians, Chinese schools teach students that their country was humiliated by greedy and technologically superior Western imperialists.”

Born in Worcester Township, Heebner was one of Henry and Susanna (Krauss) Heebner’s six children. They were Schwenkfelders, a denomination of Anabaptists who emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia in the 1730s. The group remained small; today, only five Schwenkfelder congregations exist, all in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Among other contributions, the Schwenkfelders are credited for bringing the spice saffron to America.

Flora Heebner’s early education was at Stump Hall, the local public school from which she graduated in 1891. That fall, she entered the West Chester State Normal School (now West Chester University) but left before graduation to teach and study at the Perkiomen School, a Schwenkfelder institution in Pennsburg. She graduated in 1896, then taught in the public schools for three years and, in 1899, entered Oberlin College.

Becoming a missionary first occurred to Heebner at West Chester, where she was impressed by several women professors with such experience. Then, she thought of India. Oberlin, however, had sent a number of missionaries to China, including 13 who were among 45 massacred in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion.

By the time Heebner graduated from Oberlin in 1903, she’d forgotten about India. Instead, she joined volunteers heading to Shanxi province in northern China to restore the mission burned during the massacre. The Schwenkfelders’ first foreign missionary was sent off with a ceremony that celebrated “the grandeur of a life dedicated to making [Christ] known in pagan lands.”

China had never asked the West for missionaries—or for anything else. During the 17th century, the Qing dynasty had preferred isolation. Foreigners were forbidden to enter the country, with one exception: Canton, where the British gave its East India Company a monopoly on the China trade. Through Canton, the English developed insatiable appetites for Chinese porcelain and, in particular, tea. However, the Chinese would accept payment only in silver, of which the English had little.

The English also had little that the Chinese wanted to buy, so they soon had a serious balance-of-payments problem. Starting in the mid-1700s, the British began selling opium grown in India to Chinese merchants, who paid for it in silver. Opium, an addictive drug now refined into heroin, was illegal in England. The Chinese used it in traditional medicine, though recreational use was illegal and rare. When the British began bringing in tons of the stuff, however, a recreational market soon developed. American ships joined the drug running in the early 1800s.

In 1839, alarmed by millions of opium addicts, China’s emperor banned its use, arrested 1,700 dealers, and destroyed crates of the drug seized from ships in Chinese harbors. The Westerners demanded compensation. When it was refused, they declared war to force “free trade” on the Chinese.

To end the First Opium War, the Qing ultimately gave up Hong Kong to the British and agreed to establish five other ports where traders could sell anything they wanted. A Second Opium War in the 1850s opened the Chinese interior to merchants—and missionaries.

Heebner and two others—the Rev. and Mrs. Paul Corbin—arrived at Taigu in June 1905, after a long overland journey by mule litter. They were met by the Atwoods, the only survivors of the 1900 massacre, who declared the newcomers’ arrival “the brightest day for us in 1905.”

The new arrivals found quarters outside the city’s south gate, where locals presumed that Heebner must be Corbin’s second wife. Only after the missionaries acquired the resources for separate housing did this impression dissipate.

All mission buildings had been razed. Eighty of the 120 Chinese church members were dead, and the rest were hesitant to return to the “Jesus Church.” In addition, rainfall had been poor for five years, and Christians were blamed as the cause. The population of the province had fallen 50 percent since 1894, a phenomenon the Westerners blamed on opium eating, tuberculosis, poor maternal care and infanticide, but also cultural practices of which they disapproved—like acupuncture and foot-binding.           

In her letters, Heebner confessed that she found the Chinese to be “on the whole not an attractive people,” though the converted were “warm hearted and so appreciative.” The unconverted and disinterested were “ignorant” and “stupid.”

Heebner didn’t speak Chinese, so her first assignment was, within one year, to learn to read and write the Gospel of John in Chinese. She seems to have mastered this.

The missionaries were few, so their strategy was to equip Chinese converts with basic Christian concepts, then send them out to convert others—pyramid marketing of a sort. Heebner called them “Bible women” and “Bible men.”

Converting the Chinese was not easy, but Heebner’s letters to the home churches and other supporters always mentioned progress—though often small. Optimism kept the donations flowing, and that paid for rebuilding the mission and a school.

The mission itself was not a hospital, but it had a dispensary for minor medical needs. Though the Westerners tried to limit the treatments offered, Heebner wrote in 1912 that the facility had treated 6,000 people in the previous year. “Most of them who stay on our compound for treatment are those who are trying to rid themselves of the opium habit,” reported Heebner, explaining that the patients also received daily Bible lessons. “Over 80 percent of the men of leadership in the church have come to us in this way.”

Over time, the Shanxi mission esta- blished kindergartens for boys and girls, the first girls’ school in Taigu, and a school for married women. It also managed relief efforts during a 1921 famine and opened a number of opium refuges.

Heebner returned to Pennsylvania every five to 10 years on yearlong furloughs, during which she traveled, spoke and raised money. Her appearance in Worcester in July 1910 “kindled in us a flaming consecration,” reported the Schwenkfeldian newspaper. Then, it was back to Shanxi, a two-month journey each way.

Japan invaded China in 1937, and the Westerners gradually began to leave. Heebner’s schools moved west to avoid the Japanese, and she transferred other duties to Chinese hands. By the spring of 1942, after the mission board’s “suggestion” that she return to America, Heebner had packed and unpacked twice, preferring to continue teaching and preaching.

Finally, in June, the suggestion became an order, and Heebner headed home for Worcester. Her good deed was done

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