Being Filled with the Spirit in China — A Testimony of a Missionary Housewife

Letter from Ola Lane Culpepper to  Dr. C.E. Maddry, November 20, 1933, Hwanghsien, Shantung, China

Background: This letter was written in response to a resolution, on recommendation by the Far East Committee, of the Foreign Mission Board on Oct 11, 1933, to request an accounting of the revival in light of accusations made by Rev. G. L. Winstead, of Gainesboro, TN, and T.L. Blalock of the China Direct Mission (formerly of Gospel Mission) that the NCM missionaries had adopted Pentacostalism and abandoned the historic Baptist faith. Note in this response that though phenomenon appearing to be Pentecostal or like later Charismatic movements were present, the emphasis on repentance of sin, a crisis moment, and Spirit-filling following by service in evangelism and “victory over sin” are thoroughly Keswick and thus right at the center of global evangelicalism of the time.

Hwanghsien, Sung. [Shantung abbreviated?]
Nov 20 – ‘33

Dear Dr. C. E. Maddry,
Richmond, Va.,

Your letter came two days ago and I shall try to answer today. I am not sure whether Mr. Culpepper can write today or not. He had been sick several days with influenza and he got up and went to class too soon causing a relapse. He is better but still in bed and is weak of course. But he will write as soon as he is able. Our little girl Mary has typhoid fever. She has been very ill but the change for the better has come. She has been sick so much this year. In the summer she had amoebic dysentery, and I suppose her run down physical condition made her an easy prey to the typhoid. There is a great deal of it around. Dr. Bryan and Miss Wright are so good to us. My letter will be written between her calls, but I hope the content will not be too disconnected.

In reply to your letter, I’ve felt after much prayer that I can only tell you my experience, and I am asking the Lord to help me write so you can understand. Letters are so unsatisfactory. But I’ve felt from the very first letter we had from you a warmness from your heart and that you are really leaning on  the Lord. I know if I could talk with you, that you would understand.

People have some misunderstanding about the spiritual life of missionaries.  I really felt that when I surrendered to come to China that I was fully surrendered to the Lord.  I believe many people hold that view.  I found out when I got here that I needed much in a spiritual way.  I really didn’t know what I needed nor how to get it. I have heard a missionary say this, “we either grow spiritually or we go back, on the foreign field.” I’m sure that is true. Our very souls are tried by this cold, ungodly atmosphere of heathenism and the lack of the work of the Holy Spirit, like we feel it at home. But I was really very, very, much in need spiritually and when I tried to work here where, we must have much of God’s power flowing through us or we see nothing happen, then I realized how empty I had always been as a Christian.  A longing came into my heart to know my Lord better, I can’t tell you what a longing. I knew I didn’t have any victory over sin in my life. I saw the children of God’s own chosen ones giving their lives to this world and I realized I lacked as a mother the power to instill within my children the holy fear of God.  I saw that as a wife I hindered my husband by my often nagging & discontent about the little rubs of life. I talked with unsaved people about their souls & they were not saved.  I could lead meetings, organize societies, teach classes, etc. etc. but when it came to bearing the real fruit, I was fruitless and I knew it. As I said before I longed for something more & felt perfectly helpless to know how to lay hold of the Lord for it. I started reading my Bible through more rapidly than once a year as my custom had been. I knew it was full of the teaching that we are to be radiant Christians, full of praise & victory, my hunger grew for I did not have those things. I was happy when things were running smoothly & unhappy in the clouds. I started rising an hour earlier for prayer & Bible study. Oh, I just plead with the Lord to give me light.

Then Mr. Larson came. He had been re-filled with the Spirit about two months before that. I wasn’t the only hungry one here. Many had been crying to the Lord for blessing and He heard our cry. During those days, I suddenly felt led to pray that if there was anything in the way, that God would show me. Almost immediately He showed me many sins I must make right.  I had wronged a High School mate & He plainly showed me that I must write her although I knew she didn’t know what I had done. There were several things I had to do and they were severe blows to my pride. But the Lord as clearly guided me and …[damage to letter]…  anyone ever is when it came to actually looking in on my heart it nearly killed me. Oh, I knew Jesus had saved me, but He was showing me that it must be only a truly cleansed vessel that He could use.  In His strength I humbled myself, as He led. One evening after the service a few of the Chinese brothers & sisters & and few of us missionaries came here to our house to pray. When we knelt down I knew I was saved and I knew the Holy Spirit had been in my heart every day since. But I know He was not there in the fullness and I firmly believed that when I fully surrendered & trusted Him that He would rule & reign supreme in my heart. But many questions came to my mind to make me fear.  They had been there often before. But I just said, “Lord you have told us to be filled” and all these questions I surrender to You. I haven’t words to express to you what happened in my soul then.  But a joy filled me that seemed would hurt my very body. Jesus was more real to me than anyone in the room. The work of the Spirit is to glorify Jesus & I really met my Lord that night in a way I did not dream could be. This joy that filled my soul just rolled over me in waves & waves. When a great sorrow came into our home five years ago it was my very soul that was grieved but my sorrow expressed itself through my tears [referring to death of their daughter]. When this joy came into my soul it expressed itself through laughter. I had never heard a Pentecostal preach in my life. I had never heard of anyone being as happy in the Lord that he laughed. I didn’t know anyone ever had, but since then I’ve found out that scores have all thro’ the years & since then I’ve seen in the Bible “Our mouths were filled with laughter”, and Abraham laughed when God was renewing His covenant with him. I knew all that was happening, but I was utterly lost in the ocean of God’s love.  A spirit of intercession came over me as I had never known. My heart seemed melted in love to God and every person that I knew. I had been struck many times with the multiplied verses in God’s word telling us to praise Him. I did praise, partly because I wanted to and partly because I was commanded to. But that night I would have died if I couldn’t have praise Him. The praise just poured out of my heart. I felt I could never praise Him enough. I did not speak in tongues as some have. I had felt as bitter against that all my life, but the Lord had taken all the bitterness out of my heart.

The very first soul I dealt with after this I won to the Lord. I’ve seen the Spirit working through very simple words of mine as I had never seen it before. Yet I’ve not seen it anything like I want to and long to. Our home, which had always been considered a happy, congenial one, is really a little heaven now. When Charlie and I fall into the temptation of unpleasant words or attitudes we are almost immediately convicted and we go down on our knees together, realizing we have sinned against Him, and seek His forgiveness. I can’t tell you what a change has been wrought in my heart & by His grace it is being worked out in my life.

Perhaps the question comes to your mind as to whether or not we believe we have reached sinless perfection. No not at all. I know no one in our mission believes that. In fact we have only began to realize how sinful & deceitful our hearts are. Only by constantly abiding in Him am I delivered from the power of sin & I often fall. Neither do I believe I’ve had all the blessing there is for me. I believe there are undreamed of heights and depths.

My experience is similar to dozens of others here at Hwanghsien, and this is a new place spiritually. People of the C.I.M Mission, the Presbyterian missions &others have been here and they have said they never felt the Spirit more. If these experiences were of the flesh or of the Devil I don’t see how after two years we would still be seeing such a marvelous work of the Spirit in transforming lives. Isn’t that the test after all—souls saved & lives changed?

Please don’t think that I feel I’m a great power. I’m very little and I know it. I fully realize that I can do nothing, only Jesus in me can. If there are other questions you wish to ask I would be glad to try to answer them. I’ve written you this out of my heart and I am sure you realize that.

After all Charlie, with help, got his letter off first. I’ve only had a few seconds at a time & have used four days. We have wondered if Charlie has typhoid too, but Dr. Bryan thinks it is “flu”. Mary is gradually improving. Her temp. only went as high as 103 2/5° today. I praise the Lord for His continual goodness to us.

Most sincerely
Yours in Him.

Ola Lane Culpepper

P S.  I can’t feel that this is contrary to Baptist belief. I think I’m as much a Baptist as ever, and long to see Baptist work go forward.

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  1. When Mrs. Culpepper said, “I did not speak in tongues as some have”, did she mean that there were some FMB missionaries who did speak in tongues? Where there FMB missionaries who spoke in tongues at during the Shantung Revival?

    • JP,

      That is a great question! Actually, from the records I have investigated, only one of the FMB missionaries reported to have spoken in tongues, Miss Bonnie Ray. She was brought before the Board, satisfied their inquiry, and she continued as a missionary of the FMB until her retirement. For the most part, the missionaries, many of whom would serve as an impetus for the conservative resurgence in the SBC decades later (like Berth Smith, and Charles Culpepper), they adopted a position on the speaking in tongues similar to Chinese revivalists like Wang Mingdao and John Sung.

      Wang Mingdao rejected the practice (after having experienced it through the influence of a Pentecostal friend) because he felt that the time when he truly received power from on high was his re-dedication experience when he went through an intense time of confession and repentance followed by the joy of the Holy Spirit. John Sung, who is regarded to have led 100,000 Chinese men and women all over China to Christ through his ministry, often confronted Pentecostal and tongues-speaking groups for emphasizing their experiences over the true sign of the Holy Spirit–love. Still, after a few years, he was surprised to find himself speaking in tongues during prayer. He never emphasized the practice and continued to oppose (in the sense of pointing them to a better path) those who emphasized spiritual experiences like tongues, and visions. Sung, though, found that he had the gift of healing. He would pray for the sick and many would be healed. He continued this healing ministry as long as he had health, which failed him, he dying at the age of 44. But both Wang and Sung never forbade the speaking in tongues, but encouraged, as with Scripture, that believers seek the higher gifts.

      The FMB missionaries expressed the exact same policy. They never forbade the practice, and made a point of that (because being good biblicists, they read the Bible which told them not to).

  2. Dear Brother thank you so much for your thoughtful reply.

    Do you have any reports of how Miss Bonnie Ray defended speaking in tongues to the Board? She surely would have been let go by the conservative resurgence (Criswellian dispensationalist) SBC establishment of today. In this audio file of Dr. Culpepper’s very dramatic testimony of being filled with the Spirit in the Shantung Revival http://media.sermonindex.net/0/SID0499.mp3 (around 10:30 min.)
    he states that he did not speak in tongues due to the fear that he would have been asked to leave by his SBC denomination. That fear must have come from an actual previous event in FMB history.

    In this recording Dr. Culpepper mentions that the NCM saw over 3,000 baptisms in one year and that such growth was previously unseen. Do you have any stats that tract the growth of the churches resulting from the Shantung Revival?
    I have done research on Dr. T.P Crawford’s Gospel Mission Movement in Shantung and John L. Nevius’ Church Planting Movement Shantung.

    • JP,

      I’ve done significant archival research on the Shandong Revival as part of my dissertation on the same subject (which, after a couple of years of research and writing, I hope to complete in a few weeks). I will be heading to Nashville in two weeks to do more research at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives on the very question about Bonnie Ray. The archivists who have been helping me at Nashville and the IMB archivist in Richmond don’t think I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for, that is, exactly how things went down with Bonnie Ray. I only know of her situation through the correspondence of Charles Culpepper and Wiley Glass with Board leadership.

      The issue about speaking in tongues was not so much about speaking in tongues as it was about Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism was on the rise in Southern churches, particularly in Tennessee, near where the Rev. Winstead pastored (hence the worried accusation). In Shandong, there were only a couple of Pentecostal missionaries, one being Rev. and Mrs. Kelley. But there were numerous Chinese groups practicing a form of Pentecostalism throughout the province, particularly where Missionary Blalock was serving. If the FMB missionaries, as was worried, were promoting Pentecostalism instead of the historic Baptist faith, on principle, they should resign and solicit funds from Pentecostal churches. The FMB was is dire financial straits at the time and it would be deceptive for the missionaries to continue on the Board’s dime if they were really working for someone else. Furthermore, there were some real theological issues with Pentecostalism of the time.

      Regarding the growth of churches, I have some data that I have gleaned from the Minutes of the Annual Meetings of the North China Mission, but it is inconclusive. Too much data is missing and it is sparsely reported. I can tell you that in 1919, there were approx. 11,000 Christians associated with Baptist work, and in 1937, it increased to 18,000, though those numbers were likely incomplete due to the invasion of the Japanese into the province that same year.

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