Mildred Cable grew up in Guildford, England, with her three brothers and two sisters. Her upbringing was strict; she was constantly warned about the judgment of God, and she had trouble sleeping at night, afraid that she would wake up in hell. One night, she had a dream about Jesus playing with her and some other children, and she began to recognize God’s love and his fatherhood. Mildred was able to attend a children’s mission meeting, where she accepted Christ at the age of twelve. She continued attending the weekly children’s meetings, and when she was fifteen, Mildred met Emily Whitchurch of the China Inland Mission (CIM). Mildred realized God was calling her to serve in China. However, her parents were sending her to the academically rigorous Guildford High School and had other ideas for their daughter. They tried various methods to discourage and distract her, but Mildred got in touch with CIM while still in school, and when she graduated, she spent six months at their training home.
Mildred moved to London, where she studied science and was trained as a pharmacist. On Friday evenings, she attended a Bible school. In 1900, she was ready to move on to China and was planning to marry a young man who also intended to be a missionary. After the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, however, the young man told Mildred that he no longer planned to head to China, and she could choose to stay in Britain and marry him or go to China alone. Although Mildred was bitterly disappointed, she was not willing to give up China, and she set sail without him in the fall of 1901. Upon reaching China, Mildred was able to begin language study on the coast until it was safe to move inland.
After a year, Mildred met Eva French, who became her senior missionary. This partnership lasted for the remainder of their time in China. Eva took Mildred to the Huozhou area to work with the church community and encourage the women there. Eva and Mildred loved village work. They spent their days sharing the Christian message with women who were illiterate and rarely left their homes. Although Eva and Mildred were happy with the work they were doing, the two women often asked themselves what it was that the church in China needed most at the present. They determined that the church really did not have enough educated Christian women, both to serve as Bible women and evangelists, and to be Christian wives and mothers. Interest in Christianity was growing, and China needed more women to help spread the gospel. Mildred and Eva wanted to train Chinese women to be evangelists and take their place. They also needed to teach more women to read so that they could do the work of the church.
In 1904, Mildred and Eva opened a girls’ school in Huozhou with twenty-four students. Within a year, they had seventy women and girls attending. Mildred designed a curriculum that taught literacy, Christianity, science, and Chinese classics, while also making it possible for the students to keep in touch with their family lives. (School holidays were timed to allow the students to help with the crops and wheat harvest at home). Other topics covered included foot-binding and the value of child life (referencing female infanticide). Mildred also encouraged her students to think for themselves, urging them to explore the world around them. Mildred’s own academic background at Guildford High School spurred her to teach medieval history and democracy, which she thought appropriate, considering the current political turmoil in China.
In 1908, Mildred and Eva returned to Britain, where they met up with Eva’s sister, Francesca, who decided to join them in China. The three women became known as “The Trio” and worked together for the rest of their lives. While they were home on furlough, they prayed that God would provide money to expand their school. Although they never asked for donations, they received enough money in gifts to build a new church building for 600 people and to grow their school to eighty-six pupils. In 1910, the Trio opened their compound to the public and held a six-day mission for Christian women from all over the surrounding area. A total of 500 women attended, a remarkable turnout in a culture where women stayed in their homes and did not venture out. At the end of the six days, 250 women stood up to share what they had learned.
Their school grew to 100, and their first class of teachers graduated in 1913. In 1922, the CIM held a conference in Shanghai, where Mildred was asked to be involved in committee work, discussions, and giving papers. She spoke of the importance of training Christian leaders. Mildred also contributed an article on the work done in women’s Bible schools to the Chinese Recorder. In her article, Mildred argued that women had spiritual gifts for building the church which should be recognized. She saw that the patriarchal culture in China made Chinese men hesitant to acknowledge the gifts of Chinese women, and Mildred wanted to change that.
Mildred’s school produced Bible women and teachers, and, over a period of twenty years, she and her fellow teachers taught an estimated 1,000 girls. By 1923, 130 of Mildred’s graduates were teachers themselves, educating an additional 5,000 students. She was reaching a multitude of women with her efforts, and Huozhou had become the center for Christian women’s work. The Governor of Shanxi, however, decided to open 70 new provincial schools for girls in 1923, and he called on Mildred’s student teachers and all of her secondary school students to staff his schools. Mildred was left without teachers or students for her schools. The Trio took it as a sign that it was time for them to move on to something else. Their work over the previous twenty years had led to the emergence of Christian women as significant leaders in China, and their educational policies had placed their schools at the forefront of Chinese education.
When the Trio asked themselves what China needed next, they felt led to leave their settled mission station for areas which were more remote and unevangelized. They were inspired by a report they heard on the absence of Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from Gansu province to Xinjiang province. On June 11, 1923, the Trio set out for Gansu. When they arrived in Zhangye, their first destination, they had been traveling for nine months and had covered 800 miles.
The small church in Zhangye was delighted at the arrival of the women. Their pastor rejoiced over what he saw as God’s answer to their prayer for experienced women missionaries. The Trio, who had only planned to stay a short time, became frustrated by these expectations. The pastor, however, convinced them to stay for the summer and promised to send a team from the church out into the surrounding areas with them in the fall and winter. The Trio began conducting a Bible school in Zhangye for both men and women. By the end of the summer, 50 men and women were baptized, doubling the size of the congregation. That autumn, the Trio and their helpers traveled to neighboring towns where they participated in fairs. Farmers would attend the fairs to purchase necessities, and while they were there, they would stop into the tent to listen to the gospel message and often buy Christian literature. When the fairs ended, the Trio traveled to villages to hold teaching missions. Many of those who gathered for instruction were illiterate, and teaching them to read became a priority. 523 people learned to read in their Bible studies over the next three years. The Trio also trained these men and women to become evangelists so that they could move on to a new area, assured that the gospel would continue to spread in the area they had left.
By the end of 1924, the Trio had moved up the Silk Road and settled in Jiuquan for the winter. Jiuquan was the last town in China before the start of the Gobi desert, so travelers had to stop there to collect and/or replenish supplies. The Trio brought with them a group of men and women, students from the Bible school in Zhangye. Mildred continued teaching these men and women and sent them out in the afternoons to preach on the streets or visit women in their homes. Mildred made her students go through the Bible thoroughly and insisted they attempt to find answers to their questions themselves. She also encouraged her students to read books. Mildred’s teaching ensured that her students were grounded in the word of God and that they understood it on more than a superficial level. Most of the students returned to Zhangye in the spring, but a few stayed to help the Trio.
The Trio began a children’s service in the evenings. Adults became intrigued by the children’s music and began attending the services, staying for the brief message. The children taught their parents the hymns, prayers, and texts that they learned, and the Trio became well-known in the town among both adults (many of whom they had never actually met) and children.
At the end of the summer, the Trio set out on a two month journey to visit all the towns in Gansu between Jiuquan and the border. During their journey, they talked to other travelers and visited inns, sharing the Gospel with everyone they met and scouting the whole area. Mildred was always strategizing about the best plans for the future. Since evangelism was their goal, they took their time, stopping at places that were not directly on their route so that they could reach more people with their message. They stayed for a period of time in Dunhuang, a crossroads town where India, China, and Tibet had met over the centuries. In Dunhuang, Muslims were taking over the commerce, as the Chinese were experiencing the harmful effects of the prevalence of opium.
The Trio returned to Jiuquan for the winter and to continue their Bible school. The next summer, they followed the Silk Road northwest across the Gobi desert to ÃœrÃ¼mqi. Because of the heat of the summer, they traveled at night, when it was cooler. The road offered only primitive inns for them to sleep, and clean water was scarce. The Trio communicated the Gospel with everyone they met in the inns. They would gather around the campfires in the courtyard, sharing food and talking. At the border between Gansu and Xinjiang, they had to wait for several days to receive permission from officials in ÃœrÃ¼mqi to continue. They spent their time preaching and singing to the other people also waiting to cross the border. When they finally received permission to cross, the Trio continued on to Hami, covering 150 miles in 6 days. As the three women traveled, they accepted any invitations into people’s homes, taking advantage of every opportunity they had to present the Christian message. Once the Trio arrived at ÃœrÃ¼mqi, they were greeted by two male missionaries and granted a meeting with the Governor. From ÃœrÃ¼mqi, the women traveled another 700 miles to the Russian border, and from there, they returned to London for a furlough.
While in Britain, Mildred visited churches, speaking about China. She addressed the CIM Annual General meeting that summer, urging more people to go to the central Asia trade routes where they could meet people from countries that were closed to missionaries. She also wrote a letter to the readers of China’s Millions which contained the following words:
We need scarcely remind you that many incidents which are romantic and faith-inspiring when viewed from a distance, are wrought out in circumstances when loyalty is tested to the uttermost, and guidance sought through the cross-lights which but accentuate the confusion of the dimly-discerned way – when the servant of God has no light, and must stay his heart upon Jehovah. (Griffiths, 224)
The Trio left Britain to return to China in March of 1928. Getting back was difficult, as China was in the midst of civil war. They did not arrive in Gansu until November; they had been traveling for eight months. While they were gone, the civil war in China had forced almost all of the missionaries to evacuate to the coast, fearing a repeat of the Boxer massacres. 200,000 people had been murdered, and the situation was only getting worse. The compound had taken in several children from the streets, one of whom was a seven year old deaf-mute named Topsy. The Trio ended up adopting her and eventually taking her home to Britain.
In the following months, the Trio took another journey to the borders of Tibet and Mongolia to spread the gospel to new areas. They found that many cities along the Silk Road had their gates locked and guarded against the encroaching Muslim forces, and they were delayed several times along their journey. Everywhere they went, crowds gathered to listen to them talk. When traveling in Muslim areas, the Trio conformed to Muslim food restrictions, so as not to put any barriers between them and those they were trying to reach. When they arrived in ÃœrÃ¼mqi, they visited the homes of officials and their wives, something they would not have been allowed to do as men. They organized a women’s mission, and the numbers of women in the church grew steadily. In February, the Trio set off on their return journey to Jiuquan. On their way, they stopped for a month in Turfan, an area absent of Christian witness, where they visited homes and held public meetings. When they reached the border again, they found positive changes had been implemented by a new Commandant, who wanted to buy a Bible. They had already sold all of their Bibles, so Mildred gave him her own personal copy of the Scriptures. In their sixteen months away, the Trio had visited 2,700 homes, conducted 665 meetings, and sold 40,000 copies of Scripture.
The Trio stayed in Jiuquan over the winter, where they witnessed the charity of the new Christian community in the town. The Christians helped the poor and needy and spoke out against injustice and ill-treatment. In the spring, the missionaries headed up to the Mongolian border again, where they saw many people they had met on their previous journey and were able to see their seeds beginning to take root.
That summer, war overran Jiuquan, and many civilians were executed. The Trio decided to leave, and that autumn they returned to Dunhuang. There, they found that the crowds were eager to welcome them, even after their absence of five years. They used a Muslim inn to hold services and were surprised at the crowds that attended. A new church was emerging there, as a number of people had read and believed the Scriptures that the Trio had left with them five years before. Soon, however, the Muslim army arrived in Dunhuang and the city surrendered immediately. Islamic forces now controlled 600 miles of the Silk Road. The Muslim general summoned the Trio to his army headquarters in Ansi, 80 miles away, and asked them to bring medical supplies. They treated the general’s wounds daily, but feared they would be held captive by the general, who was unpredictable and brutal. When the general’s wounds had healed, the three women decided to try to return to Dunhuang, and eventually obtained permission to leave. Before they departed, however, Mildred courageously handed the general a copy of the New Testament and the Ten Commandments and asked him to reflect on his own life.
Once back in Dunhuang, the Trio began preparing to flee, although they knew the guards had orders not to allow them to leave. In April, they packed what they needed and set off as if they were going on a local visit, concealing their extra food and leaving their house looking occupied. They discovered that the guards on the outskirts of town had gone off for the day and took it as a sign from God. They hurried across the desert. When they were accosted by two soldiers who asked for their permits, Mildred showed them her irrelevant Chinese Central Government passport. The illiterate guards waved them through, and the missionaries continued on their hazardous journey. The roads were empty and inns abandoned; the Trio had to live off the supplies they had brought with them. During their trip, Mildred was kicked by a donkey and severely injured. Eventually, the Trio reached ÃœrÃ¼mqi safely. It was clear to them that the political situation was worsening and that war was inevitable, so they prepared for their journey home. They trained their successors, and left for Britain.
After three years in Britain, the Trio returned to ÃœrÃ¼mqi in 1935. They had to wait all winter to obtain permits to travel down the Silk Road, but once they finally got started, they received a warm welcome everywhere they went. War had ravaged the countryside, however, and homes and villages had been destroyed. They baptized more people in Dunhuang, and when they reached Jiuquan, they stayed for six months. Typhus had wiped out a large number of the population, but the Trio resumed the children’s classes, the Bible study, and the literacy classes. Their time was limited, however, as Mildred was struggling with asthma and Communist pressure was growing. In August 1936, foreigners were ordered to leave, and the Trio finally reached home again in 1937.
Mildred spent her time building up the Bible Society’s women’s support groups and speaking at mission meetings. During the Second World War, she worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service. In 1943, Mildred and Francesca produced a book on the Gobi desert which is still recommended in guidebooks today. They received the Livingstone Medal and the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal for their travels. Mildred lectured to the Royal Geographical Society and was invited to tea at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth. Mildred and Francesca wrote a number of books together, with Mildred assembling the main material and Francesca doing the editorial work. In 1952, after a bout with shingles, Mildred died at the age of 74.
Mildred brought her own individual gifts to her partnership with the French sisters, who referred to Mildred as “our star.” She was the writer and communicator in the group, and the one to plan, analyze, and set goals. By the time the Trio left China, they had traveled the Silk Road five times, and were widely known among the Muslims as “the Teachers of Righteousness.” They had made Jesus known among the main trade route, and the literature they distributed in several languages was carried throughout Asia. Through their repeated visits, they built friendships and gained respect, so that they were warmly thought of along the Silk Road.
Article by Martha Stockment
“The Gobi Desert” by Mildred Cable