Isobel Kuhn, missionary to China and Thailand, died on 20 March 1957. This article was commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her death.
Isobel Kuhn is best known as an inspirational writer on mission. She was born in Toronto on 17 December 1901. Her parents, Sam and Alice Millar, were Christians, but when she was a student at the University of British Columbia a professor sneered at her for blindly accepting her parents’ faith. Henceforth she determined to question everything for herself.
She threw herself into student life and was soon one of the most popular students in the university – vivacious, attractive, a wonderful dancer and a leading light in the Dramatic Society. But none of this satisfied her, and in By searching she tells the story of her conversion and subsequent call to missionary service.
Isobel enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. As well as Bible training, the students were expected to take part in evangelism such as open air work (when they were often pelted with rotten fruit), slum visitation and prison ministry. To survive she worked long hours as a waitress and learned many lessons about ‘living by faith’.
When Isobel volunteered to serve with the China Inland Mission she was initially rejected. One referee held a personal grudge against her and gave a negative character reference. This painful episode was used to form her character and inculcate greater humility.
The delay also gave her the opportunity to serve in a girls’ evangelistic mission in Vancouver – invaluable preparation for the mission field. Many of the young women she reached became persevering prayer supporters of her ministry among the Lisu people.
Isobel sailed for China in 1928 and commenced language training. After one year she married John Kuhn, also serving with the CIM, who had arrived in China some time before her.
Many missionary biographies gloss over personal difficulties, but one of Isobel Kuhn’s most endearing characteristics was her transparent honesty. She freely admitted that she and John were both strong-willed, and that ‘Science has never discovered what happens when the Irresistible Force collides with the Immovable Object. Whatever would happen if they married each other?’
John and Isobel resolved to make ‘God first’ their motto throughout marriage. Isobel’s autobiographical work Vistas recounts vividly and amusingly some of the conflicts they went through and which were used to refine their characters.
The gospel to the Lisu
Between 1929 and 1934 John and Isobel served in Chengchiang, and then Tali, in Yunnan province, South West China. In 1934 they moved into the mountains of North West Yunnan to work among the animistic Lisu people.
The opening chapter of Nests above the abyss is a polemic against the myth of ‘happy heathendom’, depicting vividly the fear and hopelessness of animism, the dire effects on family life and the degradation suffered by women.
Western missionaries have sometimes been accused of patronising unevangelised peoples, but one of the most striking characteristics of Isobel’s writing is her transparent affection for and understanding of the Lisu people. She tells many stories of individuals that bring their personalities to life.
Her accounts of gospel advance among the Lisu document the way God uses intercessory prayer to further his purposes. After one significant meeting, at which a tribal leader renounced a long-standing feud, Isobel recorded the exact time, knowing there must have been definite prayer support.
Months later an elderly prayer supporter wrote asking what had happened on that date and at that time. This lady had experienced such a heavy burden to intercede for the Three Clans village that she had phoned two friends. The three of them deferred their household chores and spent the morning interceding for the quarrelling clans.
Isobel commented, ‘Now these prayer-warriors were not seemingly of the earth’s mighty ones. Mrs K was delicate, had a heart condition. Mrs W was expecting a serious operation, and Mrs J was going blind. All three were … too frail physically to cross the small town and gather in one place, but each in her own kitchen was joined to the others in spirit’.
Climb or die
By 1950 conflict between communists and nationalists made the situation of CIM personnel untenable. Isobel and six-year-old Daniel escaped over the border to Burma and returned to America – where they were reunited with daughter Kathryn who was by now at college.
John was asked to survey the needs for evangelistic work among the tribes of northern Thailand. He wrote to his wife appealing to her to join him – ‘The field is before us. The door is still open. The government is friendly. The tribes are approachable. The time may be short.
‘Missionaries have been in Thailand over a hundred years and yet have not been able to reach beyond the Thai people to the aborigines of the mountains. If we don’t pioneer, they may never be reached’.
Isobel was initially appalled. ‘At fifty years of age, must she go pioneering again, climb up rough trails, learn another tongue? Already she had worked on the Chinese and Lisu languages. Now must she study Thai too?’ But the Lord convicted her. ‘To choose ease rather than effort is to choose slow decay’. Or, as Amy Carmichael had said so memorably, ‘Climb or die!’
John and Isobel’s years of experience among the Lisu perfectly equipped them for their new role. They had the heartbreak of leaving their two children – again – and John took up post as superintendent of the tribal work in northern Thailand.
Isobel created a wonderful home-base for missionaries at Chiengmai – giving hospitality to numerous missionaries, accompanying female missionaries to their new posts and helping them settle in, and (having grappled with the Thai language) engaging in evangelism whenever she could.
They served here from 1951 to 1954. Seemingly at the peak of her usefulness, Isobel was then diagnosed with breast cancer and had to return to the United States for medical treatment. She insisted that her husband complete his current term of ministry in Thailand, so they were separated from November 1954 to September 1955.
As Isobel battled with cancer for the final two years of her life, she managed to write five books – Ascent to the tribes; By searching; Green leaf in drought; In the arena; and Vistas – each of which would inspire many to pray and work for mission.
For a while, Isobel was able to enjoy the company of her daughter. But then Kathryn herself left for missionary service in Thailand, knowing that she was unlikely to see her mother alive again. Isobel rented a small home in Wheaton, and set up home with eleven year old Danny. In September 1955 John joined her. By spring 1956 it was clear that she did not have long to live.
Turning over the helm
As 1956 wore on, Isobel suffered greatly but managed to complete By searching, continued to pray for and correspond with many of the Lisu people, and contributed regular articles to a periodical for Chinese Christian refugees.
She was overjoyed to learn that her daughter, in far-off Asia, was to marry a fellow-missionary. With John and Danny, she celebrated her fifty-fifth birthday and Christmas, and managed to write a final prayer letter – signing off, ‘There is rest in turning the helm over to him’.
She lived to see Kathryn and Dan’s wedding photos. But then (her husband wrote) ‘Isobel slipped away from us in a series of surrenders’. First, she had to surrender writing, which she did ‘uncomplainingly’. Then she lost all strength for her regular times of intercession for the Lisu; ‘quietly, serenely, she surrendered the Lisu prayer time’.
Thirdly, she had to surrender her son. ‘Only mother and son were together on that last afternoon as they took leave of each other’. Finally, she surrendered life itself. ‘We had read and prayed. Then, suddenly, the end was near. Quietly, patiently, with the sense of his presence so near, she crossed the “last defile”.’ She was fifty-five years old.
Isobel Kuhn’s life was relatively short, but it was hugely significant. The ministry she and her husband exercised among the Lisu left a lasting legacy. Like the great pioneer missionary J. O. Fraser, they had always insisted on encouraging indigenous church leadership, and discouraging reliance on overseas funding.
This meant that when missionaries were expelled from China, the church in Lisuland endured. Isobel herself pioneered the ‘Rainy Season Bible School’ – a wonderfully flexible way of training Lisu Christians during the rainy season, the only time when they were free.
Her writing has inspired many people, not only to commitment to mission, but even more fundamentally to consecration of the whole of life to the Lord.
Isobel Kuhn, By searching (Authentic Lifestyle).
Isobel Kuhn, Omnibus (for young people and including By searching, Nests above the abyss, In the arena; Authentic Lifestyle).
Irene Howat, Lights in Lisuland (Christian Focus)