It was 1898 and missionary Dr. Susanna Carson Rijnhart hunkered down to avoid detection on a rocky hillside in Tibet. Surrounded by moonscape terrain in the shadow of the Himalayas, she struggled against her fears as she kept a tight grip on a revolver. But for God, she was terribly alone.
Her year-old baby, Charlie, had died a month earlier along another Tibetan mountain trail. Only days later, well-armed bandits raided the Rijnhart party, which included Susie, her husband, Petrus, and two guides. After the skirmish, the guides quit and left for home.
Though determined to press on, the couple needed guidance and supplies. Petrus hoped herders camped nearby might help, but getting to their campsite required crossing a rushing river. He decided to risk it, telling Susie to stay behind. Assuring her that he wouldn’t be gone for long, he gave her his large handgun for protection, while taking her smaller weapon for himself.
In her 1901 book, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, Susie described her last moments with Petrus. He “started away cheerfully, telling me not to be afraid, but to use his big revolver … if anyone went to harm me. He said he would return before dark, if possible; but if not, he would call out when near me, so that I would not be frightened. When a few steps away he turned to wave his hand and said ‘ta-ta.’ Then he followed a little path … until out of sight, and I never saw him again.”
A Heart for Missions
Susie was born into a Methodist family in Chatham, Ontario, in 1868. Her father, a superintendent of schools, valued education and encouraged her to pursue a medical degree. She graduated from Women’s Medical College in 1888 and practiced medicine with her sister Jennie for six years. But Susie had another ambition: She felt a missionary calling at age 11 and that ember was still burning.
In 1894 Petrus Rijnhart, a Dutch evangelist, was in Ontario after a brief stint evangelizing in China. He left Asia after a falling-out with his sponsors, the nondenominational China Inland Mission. A charismatic speaker, Petrus was soon raising money for a return to the field. No agency could stop him. As Susie later wrote, "Christ does not tell His disciples to wait, but to go!" The two met and married in 1894. They soon had passage booked on a ship that was bound for China.
Before taking their first step, the couple had counted the cost, as Jesus had instructed. They knew that following the Lord’s calling cost many of Christ’s followers everything they had, including their lives. Yet they were undeterred. Theirs would be an epic Gospel adventure as they traveled 7,000 miles to Lhasa, the spiritual center of Tibet and home of the revered Dalai Lamas.
Susie wrote, “We knew that if ever the Gospel were proclaimed in Lhasa, someone would have to be the first to undertake the journey, to meet the difficulties, to preach the first sermon and perhaps never return to tell the tale—who knew? Pioneer work in mission fields has from the days of the apostles down to the present entailed its martyrdoms as well as yielded its glorious results … could it be possible that all Tibet should be Christianized, that witness of the Christ should be borne in the very stronghold of Buddhism without some suffering, some persecution, nay without tears and blood?”
The Work Begins
Months later they docked in Shanghai, along with the supplies purchased with the money Petrus raised. “Our stores were contained in thirteen large … boxes, and consisted of clothing, culinary utensils … medicines, dental and surgical instruments … copies of the Scriptures in Tibetan,” Susie wrote.
The Rijnharts set out on a 2,000-mile, six-month journey to Outer Tibet, an area claimed by China. They made their way up river by boats, then acquired a mule cart and joined a large caravan. By traveling with a group, they sought protection from robbers who ranged across the mountains preying on easy targets. Home for the couple became a tent, and meals were cooked over campfires. Making an effort to acclimate quickly to the culture, Susie and Petrus were soon wearing Chinese clothes. They also began speaking Chinese—her to learn and him to renew his fluency in the language.
The two settled near one of Central Asia's largest Buddhist lamaseries, or monasteries, along the China-Tibet border. Susie’s medical skills soon endeared her to locals, including the lamasery’s monks. Mina Fuyek, abbot at the Buddhist lamasery, became a fast friend, opening the way for the couple to teach regular Bible classes, popular with the children. “Some of the lamas said the Christian doctrine was too good to be true; others inquired why, if the doctrine were true, the Christians had waited ‘so many moons’ before sending them the glad tidings,” Susie wrote.
But soon after the Rijnharts arrived, a Muslim rebellion swept across the region. Brutal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists ended with over 100,000 deaths. Working near battle lines, Susie and Petrus narrowly escaped injury several times.
After the fighting among the factions stopped, Susie surprised the Chinese and Tibetans by providing care for Muslims. “When they saw that the missionary was just as kind and tender to the Mohammedans as to themselves, they were utterly amazed. The law of Christian kindness impelling love and mercy even for one's enemies was vividly brought to their attention, and some, as they pondered the lesson, thought again of the colored Bible picture … of the Good Samaritan.”
Three years later, Dr. Susie and Petrus felt ready to move on to Lhasa. “Not a single missionary was laboring in the Lhasa district, and yet there was the Master's command: ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature,’” wrote Susie. Unable to obtain official passports, the couple gathered supplies with help from friends, found loyal Chinese guides and set off for the heart of Tibet.
Days of Sorrow and Struggle
Life quickly became more complicated during the trek. Though little Charlie was a complete joy, traveling with a baby by horse and on foot is challenging. Then, the child was suddenly gone. His parents buried him in an unmarked grave, using one of the supply boxes as a coffin.
Heartbroken, the Rijnharts pushed on. A few weeks later they were ambushed and then Petrus disappeared. Susie later recalled how she sat “alone with God,” holding the revolver in her lap.
After a few days, Susie began the long walk back to China, relying on her faith, her knowledge of the culture and her wits to acquire horses and guides. She negotiated assistance from nomads and villagers who felt disdain for the Chinese and disregard for Westerners, especially women. Tribal chieftains coerced guides to provide assistance. Two wicked and treacherous men accepted the job with the intent to rape and rob her. She spent a cold night in a swamp as her guides sat around the fire tossing out threats of violence and rape.
Two months after losing Petrus, Susie walked into the missionary compound in Tachienlu, China. Her hair had turned white. She never knew for certain what happened to her husband.
So what was the result of all this sacrifice? No one touched through the work of Susie and Petrus was known to have converted to Christianity. Yet, God influenced many lives through the Rijnharts' outreach. No one but God knows the real result of their efforts.
In 1900, Susie arrived back in Canada. Though in poor health, she gave speeches about her time on the mission field and wrote her book about Tibet. Widely read by missionary groups, Susie's book spurred new mission efforts.
In 1902, Susie returned to China with several associates to start a hospital. While there, she married another missionary in 1905, returning home again because of health issues. She died at the age of 40 in 1908, leaving behind a two-month-old baby.
In the face of tragedy and sacrifice, Susie had lived according to her faith, heeding the Lord’s call to spread the Gospel.
Though the story of Dr. Susanna Rijnhart is filled with sadness, it is also compelling. She faced life as an all-in, no-fear Christian. When her Lord called her to tell the world about Jesus, she embraced the adventure, the risk, the trials and the bewildering foreignness of the most distant spot on earth.
No one may have converted in Susie’s knowing, but the Lord knows how many called upon His name. Her time was short, but she has influenced generations of missionaries. She gave her life, but as the apostle Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” Philippians 1:21 NIV.