1882 - 1933
The Making of a Pioneer is the title of a biography of Percy
Mather. What is a pioneer? We hear this word used rather loosely these
days. The Oxford Dictionary gives us
this definition: "Pioneer-a foot soldier
with spade and pickax who goes ahead to prepare the road for the advance of the
army." This, in a very concise way,
gives us a picture of Percy Mather.
Percy Mather was a companion of George Hunter. Together they opened a vast area to the
Gospel. Percy was born on December
9, 1882, in England.
The Mather home in Fleetwood was on the sea, and Percy was very
fascinated by the life of a sailor. As a
growing lad, he watched intently the small fishing vessels as they would go and
come and often would go to sea with the fishermen and others who came in and
out of the snug little bay area where he was born. He was an adventurer from a very early
He grew up in a Christian home. He loved and was loved in a very wonderful
way by his family. His formal education
ended when he was 13 years old and just out of the elementary grades. His first real job was that of a telegraph
messenger. Later he worked for a
railroad company in a station office. These
were not challenging jobs; and in due
time he felt led of the Lord to foreign missions (particularly to China) and applied
to the China Inland Mission for missionary service.
Feeling unprepared for service, he entered the Bible Training
Institute in Glasgow, where he studied diligently and made
very good grades. Following his
training, he was accepted by the CIM and sailed for China in 1910. He was sent to language
school and did very well in the acquisition of the Chinese language.
George Hunter, his mentor and later companion in the work,
had little respect for single lady missionaries-not so with Percy. "The work is
hard and rough, and it's bad enough for us men, but the missionary women go
through it all cheerfully and without murmur."
He had a very real respect for the women missionaries.
In these early years of experience in China, he came under the influence of a
book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours, by Roland Allen that had a profound influence on his ministry
and is still very pertinent today. It was during these early years in China that he learned of the ministry of
George Hunter, a true pioneer missionary in Chinese Turkistan. He read everything published about this most
remarkable man that he could and began to feel he should join hands with
him. This he did, dedicating himself to
a life of celibacy and of serving the Lord in a very remote and difficult
place. Many years later while on his
one-and-only furlough, he said, "Mother, I would never do any woman the wrong
of taking her as wife into such conditions as exist in Central Asia."
On another occasion, he said, "I feel I must be where the need is the
greatest and the work the hardest."
After meeting Mr. Hunter, there
developed a father to son relationship between them that was unbroken through
their many years of labor together.
Hunter had already been in China 25 years before Mather joined
him. After many weeks of trekking across
China, Percy, with a fellow missionary as a traveling
companion, arrived in Urumchi, the capital of that large province that was a
crossroads of humanity. People from
every province as well as from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Mongolia and many other places met in this
large town. It was a real babel of
One of his first tasks was to build a simple house in the
same compound as that of Mr. Hunter. He
adjusted very quickly and completely to the life of that cosmopolitan
town. Percy was faithful in corresponding
with his family, and much of what we learn of his ministry comes from those very
There were seasons of the year when it was almost impossible
to travel abroad because of the heavy rains and very difficult roads. During those months Hunter and Mather worked
diligently on translation work, getting the Word of God into a number of the
different languages of that part of China.
Percy became particularly burdened for the Mongolians-a very
friendly, open people-and spent much time with them. Although he had no real medical training, he was
able to minister to many people by helping to alleviate their physical
problems. There was an unusually high
incidence of eye disease, and he was able to help many of these people find
relief. Because of this, he was greatly
loved and appreciated by the common people.
There was quite a community of Mongols near Urumchi, and he
often spent considerable time with these simple, friendly people. Hunter and Mather also spent time traveling hundreds
of miles from village to village and oasis to oasis preaching, selling
Scripture portions, and distributing Gospel tracts. One of their main ministries seemed to be through
literature. People who would not stand
in a crowd to listen to their preaching would accept the literature and read it
Percy's love for the primitive people took him constantly to
their quarters and to the mountain encampments further afield. In one letter, he said, "I long for the time
when I may be able to speak their language freely." Both he and Mr. Hunter spent many hours studying
the various languages of that part of the world and were able to communicate
the great eternal truths of the Gospel to almost everyone they encountered.
On several occasions the three single ladies (Mildred Cabel,
Francisca French, and Francisca's sister Evangeline), who were real pioneers and
the authors of Percy's biography, were welcomed and housed with Mr. Hunter and
Percy. Their little house was built where
they could stay during seasons when it was very difficult to travel by
cart. These women were very intrepid
pioneers who traveled back and forth between the oases of the Gobi Desert, often camping and ministering to
some very violent criminal-type rebels.
They were used of the Lord in a remarkable way.
While in the city and in their own compound, Mr. Hunter and
Percy lived very simply. For breakfast they
had porridge. Lunch consisted of a broth
made from a piece of mutton and whatever vegetables might be available. That same piece of meat was then roasted for
their evening meal.
After being 16 years in China (12 of them in Turkistan), Perry became very homesick to see
his family. His father had died in the
interim, but his mother and siblings were still at Fleetwood. He longed to see them again but would not
leave unless there was someone to replace him.
Mr. Ridley offered and was accepted to do so. At that time, the three single ladies
communicated that they also would be passing through Urumchi on their way to England for a furlough. So it was that the two men gave them a royal
welcome. Mr. Hunter had traveled 18 days
to meet them and escort them back to the compound. It had been 12 years since Hunter and Mather
had seen these fellow missionaries, and it was a joy to welcome them. The ladies and Percy traveled by train from
the Russian border to Europe. The hotel in which
they stayed was a modern one by their standards; but Percy had not seen a
train, bus, tramcar, or taxi for 12 years.
It was through the railway carriage window that he first saw an airplane. The unlimited hot water which flowed through
the bathhouse taps, the gay aspect of the hotel dining room, and the electric
lights overwhelmed these who had spent so many years in Central Asia.
Percy desired to spend all of his time with family while in
Fleetwood, but the demands for his speaking and telling of the ministry in Central Asia necessitated some public
ministry. Then the time came to return
He said on one occasion, "I'm not going back because I want to
go. I'm not going back because of the
needs of the people. Travel and adventure
has lost all fascination for me, and my pleasure would be to stay in my own
country. I'm going back because I
believe it to be the will of God for me, and ‘I delight to do Thy will, O my
During the time he was in England, he was able to take a course in
ophthalmology at the Royal Eye Hospital, and this experience greatly helped
him when he returned to the field. While
in England, he was at the headquarters of the
British and Foreign Bible Society, which subsequently printed much of the material
he and Mr. Hunter had translated.
In May, 1928, Percy Mather braced himself to leave home and
loved ones once more to face the arid life which held none of the amenities for
which his heart craved. Percy, along
with the three women who were returning to China, traveled by train to Marseilles and then by ship to Bombay.
During this trip a medical problem arose for Percy, and he became very
weak. He had a bout of malaria, but the
profound weakness was hardly accounted for by that disease. He said very little but kept going. The three ladies proceeded by sea to China while Percy chose to go
overland. He was traveling with some
other Europeans; and when they reached the Chinese border, he was met and
escorted by Mr. Hunter back to Urumchi.
Mather was eager to get on with his translation work, one
task of which was the Mongol dictionary that he spent a great deal of time in
preparing. He was at the same time
working on a Manchurian dictionary and grammar.
The informant for the latter had moved away. Mather followed him to the Russian border,
where he stayed for a number of weeks working with the informant to complete
that task. He was also working at this
time on a Kalmuk dictionary. The authors
of The Making of a Pioneer speak of
"In his quiet, unassuming way, Mather
showed himself a pioneer in the bold work of rethinking missions. He never wrote about it. He never attended conferences. He did not even discourse on the
subject. He merely did it. He felt no
necessity to rent a preaching hall or even to institute a Sunday service, but
there was no suggestion of the method which expresses itself in the term ‘I am
opening a mission station.' He was just
a man, moving among men so guilelessly that he prepared for himself no shelter
behind which to organize a life unlike that of other people around him."
Since Mr. Hunter had to travel to Shanghai on mission business and Percy had
now completed the translation tasks, he returned from the Siberian border to
There was much civil unrest at this time, and rebel armies
were going back and forth across that vast territory. Percy felt the strain of this and longed for
the wise counsel of Mr. Hunter, who was being detained in Shanghai by a similar rebellion. In this dark time of unrest, Percy was able
to fall back upon some beautiful hymns that had been his favorites over the
years. He was a musician in many
regards, and his violin attracted wide attention as he used it prior to a
street meeting and in his encampments out in the hinterland. His favorite songs were "Stand Up, Stand Up
for Jesus" and "Jerusalem the Golden." "These two hymns," Percy would say,
"represent to me the two sides of Christian life: its warfare and its reward." During these days of uncertainty, another
hymn, "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide," became meaningful to him; and
he often sang it softly as he played his violin.
The three ladies who had become so much a part of their
itineration were leaving again for England.
How Percy would have loved to return to Fleetwood and to his home, but
his task was not yet finished.
Since all correspondence was being censored severely, he
could write nothing to warn Mr. Hunter not to return; but he gave a letter to
the ladies and asked that it be posted in Europe. However, that letter reached Mr.
Hunter too late. He had already left Peking to return to Turkistan with six new recruits. Those were very difficult days because of the
turmoil and a lack of fuel and provisions.
Percy became very ill and had to take to his bed for some
days at a time. He continued to weaken;
and on the 24th of May, 1933, Percy Mather died at the age of 51. A small plot of ground was given to Mr.
Hunter as a burial place, and that is where Percy was interred. The last picture that we see of this intrepid
pair-Mr. Hunter the elder and Percy Mather the younger-shows a white-haired
veteran and a simple-hearted Mongolian servant building a small wall about the
plot that looks toward the hills and mountains-the camping grounds of the
Mongols. Percy Mather was a man who gave
himself to the cause of Jesus Christ in a most inhospitable place: Chinese Turkistan.
The story is not quite finished. An independent missionary in this very area
of China reports that Urumchi is now a large modern
city but is still steeped in many false religions-Islam, Buddhism, some Hinduism,
and a great deal of animism. He was asked
if he could locate the grave of Percy Mather.
He had not heard of either Hunter or Mather, and it took some time for
him to find the place where Mather is buried. Hunter outlived Percy by 13 years. Those last years for him were fraught with
much difficulty. He was imprisoned for a
period of time and forced to leave Urumchi.
He finally died and was buried in one of the other provinces of China.
It is a blessing to know that there is still a voice
proclaiming the Messiah in that corner of His vineyard.