Lives from a Black Tin Box
In searching what happened to her great-grandparents - BMS missionaries killed in China's Boxer Rebellion - Prudence Bell completes their story. By Dr Ronald Clements
On 17 October, eight years ago, Prudence Bell, with her husband, Stuart, stood in a dry field of dead maize above the city of Xinzhou in north China. At the centre of the field lay the scattered stones of a memorial.
The Dixon family
On one of these granite blocks she traced out the names of her great-grandparents, Herbert and Elizabeth Dixon, missionaries of the Baptist Missionary Society (now called BMS World Mission).
Beneath were the names of six other British missionaries; Adam and Clara McCurrach, Tom and Fanny Underwood, Sydney Ennals and Bessie Renaut, and elsewhere a tribute to the 40 Chinese Christians from the Xinzhou area who had also lost their lives in the tragedy of China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
Some weeks later Prudence, a local magistrate from Aberystwyth, returned to Wales determined to discover the story behind the deaths of her great-grandparents. Her journey to Xinzhou, she reflected, had been ‘remarkably organised by God’. She had arrived as an incredible answer to the outrageous prayer of the Xinzhou Christians, arriving on a day which her driver, a Chinese non-Christian, had been moved to declare ‘a miracle’.
There had been too many ‘coincidences’ and memorable meetings with the Xinzhou Christians to simply leave Herbert and Elizabeth’s story lying in disarray in that field.
Slowly, Prudence began to piece together the events that had shaped their lives from the documents in an old black tin box that her great aunt had left to the family. There was a large collection of letters addressed to family members, including several to her grandfather, Benjamin Dixon, whom she had known well as a child. There were a few sepia photographs and a small card which sadly revealed that Herbert had spent part of his childhood in a London orphanage.
But the prized possession was a hand written diary – Herbert’s last thoughts as he, Elizabeth and his six colleagues fled the belligerent Boxers and hid in caves dug into the sandy loess hills west of Xinzhou. ‘God knows all about it and we trust him to save us – but are willing to die if that be God’s will’, Herbert had written. In a final note to his children he had added, ‘Mother and I are in great danger of being killed … but God has led us hitherto. If we live you shall hear all about it: if we die we shall meet later in heaven’.
The story of how Herbert’s diary was carried across China and arrived in the hands of Prudence’s great-aunt, Mary, Herbert and Elizabeth’s only daughter, proved to be another story in itself. Invited to talk about her visit to Xinzhou by BBC Radio Wales on one of their popular Sunday programmes, it became clear that there was impetus to find a publisher.
In September this year Lives from a Black Tin Box was published by Authentic Media; a book that ranges from the chapels, kitchens and schools of St David’s, Elizabeth’s home town, through the somewhat sobering corridors of a Victorian hospital, to the shores of the Congo River, with its blue crabs and crocodiles, and on to a broken memorial in a quiet field in north China.
However, a book that ended with the tragic death of its main characters, while heroic and challenging, did not seem complete. Herbert and Elizabeth had been pioneer missionaries in Xinzhou and, alongside a group of Chinese evangelists, had overseen the significant growth of churches in the city and the surrounding villages. Herbert had used his medical skills to good effect and Elizabeth had started a school for girls who had their feet unbound. Their deaths viewed at a distance seemed futile.
It was left to Prudence’s own story of her visit to Xinzhou to complete Lives from a Black Tin Box and bring a sense of purpose to her great-grandparents’ deaths. Amongst Herbert’s letters was a quote from a prayer his great-grandmother had prayed:
It is our heart’s desire and prayer that our children may be praising God on earth when we are gone to praise him in heaven … let those who shall come after us do thee more and better service in their day, than we have done in ours, and be unto thee for a name and a praise.
It was this prayer that had sealed Herbert’s determination to join the Baptist Missionary Society and was as relevant to Prudence’s own faith and role as a minister’s wife, as it had been to her great-grandfather.
In Xinzhou, as she met the present members of the city’s church, she had discovered herself a part of God’s purposes for that church. ‘I cannot help but feel that God’s will was done,’ she said, ‘that he was pleased at the completion of a greater plan of which I was privileged to be part.’
Lives from a Black Tin Box by Prudence Bell and Ronald Clements is available through Christian books shops, online and in Kindle format.