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 age.
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. It 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 that 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 tongues.
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 enlightening letters.
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 in private.
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 to Turkistan. 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 God.'"
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 Mather's method.
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 Urumchi.
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.