George McConnell was born in Carrickfergus in 1864. He had seven brothers and three sisters. He was educated at the Model School on the Belfast Road. The family lived in various parts of Carrick, including Bessfield and Bridewell.
George attended St Nicholas’ church, where he was confirmed in the Christian faith. After leaving school he became a tailor. But work was scarce in Carrick, so he decided to move to Scotland in the early 1880s.
At first he lived in Glasgow, where he served as a home missionary in his local church. With employment still proving difficult, he went to live in Dundee where there was a flourishing jute industry that provided work opportunities for qualified tailors.
George soon obtained a job and set up home in the west of Dundee, near the small town of Lochee. Passionate about his faith, he joined Dudhope Free Church, where he worked tirelessly for the Lord and became, again, a home missionary.
Marriage and China
During an outreach mission he met a young lady called Isabella (Bella) Gray, from Lochee. A dedicated Sunday school teacher, Bella shared George’s devotion to the Christian faith. A strong bond of friendship and affection developed between these two kindred spirits.
Towards the end of the decade, George and Bella responded to Hudson Taylor’s appeal for 1000 people to go to China and serve with the China Inland Mission (CIM). George’s great adventure began in January 1890 when he sailed to China aboard the SS Chusan.
After his missionary training he was stationed in Shansi Province (modern Shanxi) in northern China. He served first in Sih-Chau in 1891 and then in nearby Kih-Chau from 1892–94.
Bella undertook missionary training in Scotland before going to China in 1892. George and Bella served together in Kih-Chau and were married in Tientsin in December 1894. After their marriage, they were stationed in Ho-tsin (modern Hejin), where George and his fellow worker Albert Lutley had opened a mission station the previous year.
George’s work included church planting, outreach and drug rehabilitation. He and Albert also established an ‘opium refuge’ in Ho-tsin, where they helped many Chinese people overcome drug addiction.
George shared the gospel energetically and helped to bring many to faith. Here is an extract from a letter he wrote in November 1893: ‘Mr Lutley and I are here (Ho-tsin) for a few months. We have opened an opium refuge, and one of our native Christians is looking after it. We daily go to the villages, and are having much blessing. We have never had such good receptions before.
‘We generally take a small harmonette with us; I play. We sit down in a good place. The music draws crowds, and then we tell them of Jesus. There are daily fairs held in the villages; we go from one to another, staying the night here and there. I have never seen the people so willing to hear the gospel and buy books.
‘Where we have not had time to stay, the people cry after us to come back again. We have met many interesting cases. How it would rejoice your heart to see it all … You would be very pleased to hear of our first baptisms at Kih-chau in August — six men and two women were received’.
George loved his work, but it was not all plain sailing. In China the summers were very hot and the winters very harsh. And George found the language extremely difficult. He shared with a colleague: ‘At one time I felt like giving up and going home, with regard to the language’. But a fellow missionary urged him to ‘plod on and it will come’; and eventually, as George wrote, ‘so it has’.
At times the people could be unresponsive. ‘We have talked and told of Jesus, but few seem to take it in’. However, George persevered and, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, he kept preaching the good news. Slowly but surely, more and more people broke off opium smoking, destroyed their idols and accepted Christ.
Greatly encouraged, George wrote: ‘I have been almost three years in China. They have been blessed years, and not one thing has failed of all that our Father has promised’.
Bella’s life was a roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs. Before going to China, she had lost most of her family: her parents, three sisters and two brothers. Her older brother John and herself were the only surviving members (Bella was the youngest of seven children born to James and Elizabeth Gray).
Then came a period of joy and fulfilment travelling to China and marrying George there. But after five months, she received the crushing news of the death of her beloved brother. A few months later, in August 1895, her daughter Mary was born, but she died just 11 months later.
Although only 37 years old, Bella had now suffered no fewer than nine bereavements. She had lost every single member of her family. George and Bella were heartbroken at losing their adorable little girl and it was little wonder that Bella’s health broke down.
In 1897 the couple left China and returned to Scotland on a furlough that was to last about 16 months. Later that year, they were thrilled at the birth of their son Kenneth in Lochee.
Bella’s health improved greatly. She and George had found happiness again and they enjoyed the rest of their holiday. Refreshed and reinvigorated, they returned to China with Kenneth in early 1898 and resumed their missionary work in Ho-tsin, with renewed zeal and enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, the usual pattern was soon to recur. Bella’s health broke down again and for a time she was seriously ill. But again she rallied and her letters were full of gratitude to God for the success that was attending their efforts.
Bella was not physically robust, but her faith was strong. The great work in which she and George were engaged was dear to her and, to the surprise of many, she stood its many trials and difficulties well.
At that time an ominous development was taking place in China. A secret society was formed known as the ‘Society of righteous and harmonious fists’. They came to be called ‘the Boxers’ and were a fanatical group of terrorists, dedicated to ridding China of foreigners.
Meanwhile, George and Bella’s work continued to bear much fruit. Large crowds were attending services and three more out-stations were opened in Shansi. There was also a deepening interest in the gospel among the upper classes.
In June 1900, George and Bella decided to spend the summer in the hills near San-Heo, not far from Kih-Chau. They were accompanied by two young English missionaries, Annie King from Gloucestershire and Elizabeth Burton from Cheshire.
They were enjoying a pleasant, peaceful holiday, until news arrived about Boxer violence in the province. So the party decided to return to Ho-tsin and cross the border into the neighbouring Shensi Province, where it would be safer.
They were joined by two fellow missionaries, John Young from Scotland and his American wife Alice (nee Troyer) from Indiana.
Then the group heard about disturbances and disorder in Ho-tsin, with reports of maltreatment and persecution of foreigners by Boxers. So they agreed not to enter the town and instead headed south towards the Yellow River.
As they approached it, a band of mounted soldiers overtook them. They told George, the party leader, that they had been sent by the provincial governor to escort them to safety.
The soldiers advised them to take a quiet road to a place called Ts’ing-kia-uan, where a ferry boat would be provided for them.
George agreed to this, but when the group arrived they realised they had been deceived. The soldiers then revealed their true intentions. They were actually Boxers. They told the missionaries that, unless they stopped worshipping God and preaching against idolatry, they would kill them.
George and his fellow missionaries all refused to deny the Lord, even though they knew this would cost them their lives. George and Bella’s little son Kenneth was heard to say to the Boxers in Chinese, ‘Papa does not allow you to kill little Kennie’.
But those cruel men ignored the child’s plea. They brutally murdered the whole party of eight people — six missionaries, the child and a native servant.
At first one would think this a waste of many young lives. However, these missionaries did not die in vain. They helped to establish Christ’s church in China.
Altogether, 58 missionaries of the CIM and 21 of their children lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion. But the sacrifice of these brave people inspired many others to go to China, to strengthen and extend God’s kingdom in that vast country.
So, all these brave martyrs made a mighty contribution towards laying the foundation for the church in modern China — a church which today is thriving and expanding rapidly.
The author is a member of West Presbyterian Church, Bangor, and an elder in its kirk session