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James Gilmour: A Mission Journey in Mongolia

by Charles D. Michael

James GilmourIt was on February 22, 1870, that James Gilmour set sail from Liverpool on the steamer Dronied for the scene of his labours as a missionary to the Mongolians, under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. For twenty years he toiled amongst the people to whom he was sent—not a long time, perhaps, for a man to accomplish the work of his life; but in those twenty years James Gilmour did valiant service for God and man, and he has left behind him a noble record.

He received part of his training at Cheshunt College, under the Rev. H. R. Reynolds, D.D. In referring to his one-time student's work in Mongolia, Dr. Reynolds alludes to a special feature of it which was very characteristic of the devoted missionary's energy and enthusiasm. He tells how carefully Gilmour equipped himself for the work by "preparing himself by familiarity with the people, their ideas, their language and religion, for those almost historic bursts into the great desert and across the caravan routes to the huge fairs and the renowned temples, to the living lamas and famous shrines of the nomadic Mongols, incessantly acting the part of travelling Hakim, itinerant book-vendor, and fiery preacher of the Gospel of Christ."

For a time Gilmour's home was at Peking; and he wrote as follows of one of his earliest ventures from Peking into the midst of the Mongols. Brief and unaffected as his words are, they yet show the spirit of the man, and testify at the same time to the hardships and difficulties that faced him at the very outset of his career.

"Eager to see some more of the country, and in the hope that I might be able to talk to him on the way, I hired a Mongol to carry my bedding and books, and made a descent on a village thirty miles away. The general cold of the winter was aggravated by a snowstorm which overtook us at the little market town, and I have no words to tell you how the cold felt that day as I paraded that one street. I sold a fair number of books, though my hands were too much benumbed almost to be able to hand the books out. I made some attempt at preaching, but the muscles were also benumbed.   That was a cold day!

"I was turned out of two respectable inns at Bull Town because I was a foot-traveller—had no cart or animal, that is—and had to put up in a tramps' tavern because I came as a tramp."

In a private letter he thus writes of what he had to endure:—

"I had a good time in Mongolia; but it is so cold! Some of the days I spent in the markets were so very cold that my muscles seemed benumbed, and speech even was difficult. I met with some spiritual response, though, and with that I can stand cold. Eh! man, I have got thin. I am feeding up at present. I left my medicines, books, etc., at Bull Town, and walked home, a donkey carrying my baggage, a distance of about three hundred miles, in seven and a half days, or about forty miles a day, and my feet were really very bad.

"At night I used to draw a woollen thread through the blisters. In the morning I 'hirpled' a little, but it was soon all right. I walked, not because I had not money to ride, but to get at the Mongol who was with me."

The following is an account, in the missionary's own words, of one of his memorable journeys—perhaps, in some respects, the most memorable of those "almost historic bursts into the great desert" referred to by Dr. Reynolds. The journey was undertaken in mid­winter, and involved exposure to dangers and hardships of no common kind. It illustrates in a very striking way his absolute devotion to duty and his almost pathetic disregard of his own personal comfort or convenience, while at the same time it affords a rare example of his zeal and enthusiasm as a bearer of the Master's message to perishing men:—

"On this occasion, partly owing to the shortness of the time at my disposal, which made it hardly worthwhile to set up an establishment, and partly owing to the peculiar season of the year, which would have made it difficult to find pasture for the travelling cattle, I determined to go on foot, without medicine, in a strictly spiritual capacity, and not seeking so much to make fresh acquaintances, or open up new ground, as to visit familiar localities, and see how far former evangelistic attempts had produced any effect. In addition there were some individual Mongols who have been taught a good deal about Christianity, and on whom I wished once more, while there was still opportunity, to press the claims of Christ.

"Five cold days in a mule-litter brought me to Kalgan, and another day in a cart took me up over the pass and landed me in a Chinese inn on the Mongolian plain. This inn has no separate rooms; the guests all share the ample platform of the kitchen, and sleep on straw mats laid over the brickwork, which is heated by flues leading from fires on which their meals are cooked. The Chinese innkeeper was an old friend of mine, and he permitted me to share his room with him. From this as a centre, I was able to make expeditions to four Mongolian settlements.

"My first visit was made to a lama whom I have known for years, and who has been instructed in Christianity by others both before and since I made his acquaintance. He is a man of influence, wealth and leisure, and, though a priest, has a wife and child. I spent almost a whole day with him, and hardly know what to think about him. He seems to admit that there must be a God of the universe, and admits that Christ may be a revelation of Him, but in the same sense as Buddha was. From one part of his conversation I was almost led to believe that he had been praying to Jesus, but I could get him to make no such admission. I fear that the inquiring spirit of former years has given place to a spirit of indifference. He has everything he wants, he has little or no care, seemingly; he is content to let things drift, and keeps his mind easy. If he were only waked up he might do much for his countrymen.

"My second visit was to a temple and cluster of tents, where I found some old acquaintances; was politely received, but nothing more.

"My third visit was to another cluster of tents where I was at once hailed as the doctor, and, nolens volens, compelled to examine and prescribe for a number of diseases. Some cures accomplished years before explained the enthusiasm of the friends there, but for spiritual results I looked in vain.

"My next expedition was to a place some miles—say eight—away. Some years ago, in stormy weather, Mrs. Gilmour and I, soaked out of our tent, had found shelter in the mud-house of a Mongol, who refused to take anything for the use of his building, remarking that we would be going and coming that way afterwards, and then we might give him a present of some foreign article or other. I had sent him a few things, but had never since personally visited him, and when I reached the settlement I was grieved to find that the old man was dead. His son, a lad of twenty-three, had succeeded to his estate and his small official dignity and emoluments, and received me in a most remarkably friendly way. He was just starting for home, but on seeing me gave up all idea of going away and, insisting on my staying in his tent for the night, spent the remainder of the day with me.

"Next day, slinging on one side a postman's brown bag containing my kit and provisions, on the other an angler's waterproof bag, with books, etc., and carrying from a stick over my shoulder a Chinaman's sheep-skin coat, I left my landlord drinking the two ounces of hot Chinese whisky which formed the invariable introduction to his breakfast, turned my face northwards, and started for a twenty-three miles' walk to the settlement which, for some summers in succession, has furnished me with men and oxen for my annual journeys.

"Now, the Mongols are familiar with Russians, who, as tea-agents, reside in Kalgan; they have seen many passing foreign travellers on horses, camels, and in carts; they have seen missionary journeys performed on donkeys and in ox-carts; but I think that that morning for the first time had they seen a foreigner, with all his belongings hung about him, tramping the country after the manner of their own begging lamas.

"There were few people to meet on the road, but those I did meet asked the customary questions in tones of great surprise, received my answer with evident incredulity, and for the most part rode away, muttering to themselves, You eldib eem, which may be translated to mean, 'Strange affair.' My feet, through want of practice, I suppose, now showed symptoms of thinking this style of travelling as strange as the Mongols did, and were badly blistered long before the journey was over.

"An occasional rest and a bite of snow varied the painful monotony of the few last long miles; the river was reached at last, and crossing it, I was now in front of the cluster of huts I had come to visit, and on looking up, I was agreeably astonished to find that the first man to come out to meet me was the mandarin of the district. He was soon joined by others; and, rescued from the dogs, I was escorted to his tent, seated before the fire, and supplied with a cup and full teapot. I had intended to drink tea in his tent only for form's sake; but his tea was good, the snow seemed only to have increased my thirst, the man himself was sincerely friendly; under the circumstances my stoicism broke down, and the mandarin's teapot was soon all but empty.

"Meanwhile his tent had been filling with friends and neighbours, to whom the news of my arrival had spread; and in a little while I had round me a representative from nearly every family in the village. Among the others came my two servants, the priest and the layman who had driven my ox-carts for me. Escorted by these, I went to another tent, rested there awhile, and then moved into a mud-built house. The priest I had come to visit was busy lighting a fire which would do nothing but smoke; and the room was soon full. Finding him alone I told him I had come to speak to him and my other friends about the salvation of their souls, and was pressing him to accept Christ, when a layman I knew entered.

"Without waiting for me to say anything, the priest related the drift of our conversation to the layman, who, tongs in hand, was trying to make the fire blaze. Blaze it would not, but sent forth an increasing volume of smoke; and the layman, invisible to us in the dense cloud, though only about two yards away, spoke up and said that for months he had been a scholar of Jesus; and that if the priest would join him they would become Christians together. Whether the priest would join him or not, his mind was made up, he would trust the Saviour.

"By this time the cloud of smoke had settled down lower still. I was lying flat on the platform, and the two men were crouching on the floor—I could just see dimly the bottom of their skin coats—but the place was beautiful to me as the gate of Heaven, and the words of the confession of Christ, from out the cloud of smoke, were inspiriting to me as if they had been spoken by an angel from out of a cloud of glory.

"But neighbours came in, duty called the blackman (layman) away, the evening meal had to be prepared and eaten, and it was not till late at night that I had an opportunity for a private talk with him who had confessed Christ; and even then it was not private, because we were within earshot of a family of people in their beds.

"Of all the countries I have visited, Mongolia is the most sparsely peopled, and yet it is, of all the places I have seen, the most difficult in which to get private conversation with any one. Everybody, even half-grown children, seems to think he has a perfect right to intrude on any and all conversation. Bar the door and deny admittance, and you would be suspected of hatching a plot. Take a man away for a stroll that you may talk to him in quiet, and you would be suspected of some dangerous enchantment.

Remembering that one must always have some definite message or business to perform when he travels, and hoping to be able to do something with the same blackman, I had purposely left in the Chinese inn some presents which I could not well carry with me, and after a day's rest the blackman and I started to bring them. That gave us a twenty-three miles' private conversation and a good answer to all who demanded 'Where are you going?' 'What to do?' He gave me the history of the origin and growth of his belief in Christ. I taught him much he did not know, and at a lonely place we sat down and lifted our voices to heaven in prayer.

"It was the pleasantest walk I ever had in Mongolia, and at the same time the most painful. It was evident I could not walk back the next day, so, acting on my follower's advice, by a great effort I walked into the inn as if my feet were all right. We bargained for a cart, and, the Chinaman not suspecting the state of my feet, we got it at a reasonable rate. Mongols and Chinese joined in explaining to me how much time and labour I would have saved if I had hired a cart at first, taking everything with me, and not returned to the inn at all. From their point of view they were right; but the blackman and I looked at the thing from a different standpoint. We had accomplished our purpose, and felt that we could afford to let our neighbours plume themselves on their supposed superior wisdom.

"Another day's rest at this place gave me what I much wanted—an opportunity for a long quiet talk with the mandarin of the small tribe. I was particularly anxious to explain to him the true nature of Christianity, because the Mongol who professes Christianity lives under his jurisdiction, and I felt sure that a right understanding of the case might be of service in protecting the professor from troubles likely to come to him through men misunderstanding his case. The mandarin came. On my last visit I had been the means of curing him of a troublesome complaint over which he had spent much time and money; in addition, I had brought him a present from England. He was perfectly friendly, and exceedingly attentive, and at the close of the conversation asked some questions which I thought evinced that he had somewhat entered into the spirit of the conversation. He is a man of few words, but from what he said I hope he feels something of the truth of Christianity.

"My next expedition was to a mandarin of wealth and rank, whose encampment occupies a commanding site on a mountain-side overlooking a large lake. I found him at home, and as he knows well the main doctrines of Christianity, my main mission to him at this time was to try and rouse him to earnestness of thought and action in regard to his personal relation to Christ. We spent a great part of the afternoon in earnest talking, and I was much pleased with the manner in which he, from time to time, explained to another mandarin who was there as guest, doctrines and facts which were alluded to in our conversation. Next morning he started on a journey in connection with the business of his office, and I returned to my friendly quarters, where I had left my belongings.

"I felt it laid upon me to visit two lamas at a temple some seventy miles from where I was, and started next day. I reached the temple in three days and found that both the lamas I had come to see were dead. So, as far as they were concerned, I was too late. Both on the road, however, and at the temple itself, I had good opportunities for preaching and teaching. I met some interesting men, and not only in tents where I was entertained as guest, but sometimes out in the open desert stray travellers would meet me, dismount from their horses, and give me an occasion for Christian conversation. Five days completed this round, and after another day's rest I started back for Kalgan, escorted for ten miles by him who had professed Christ. We walked slowly, as we had much to say. Arrived at the parting place we sat down and prayed together. I then left, and the last I saw of the poor fellow, there he was, sitting in the same place still. I reached Kalgan without adventure, and returned to Peking on March 21, having been away just over a month."

That is James Gilmour's own record of what was in reality a most remarkable and hazardous journey. Those who read of it can hardly imagine the difficulties and dangers that it involved. The spirit that animated the brave missionary is that which alone can enable men and women to "endure hardness, as good soldiers of Christ Jesus" in the battle against heathenism in wild and desolate places. It is the spirit of self-sacrifice and self-effacement, which, filling men's minds and hearts, makes it possible for them to dare and do anything for the joy of adding even one to the number of those who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scarcely a word is said, it will be noticed, of hardships endured, of pain bravely borne, of toil and weariness, of the physical discomforts and the many disappointments of that month of lonely travel. Yet that all these things had to be faced is evident from the entries relating to this journey in his private diary, where references to blistered feet, and the dangers of the way are frequent. One extract from this diary will suffice to prove this. On the day of his return to Peking he wrote thus:—

"March 21.—Left Pei Kuan at 4 a.m. Dark and snow. Terrible march over slipping stones. Nan Kou at 7 a.m. No donkey on such a snowy day. Stiff march. Shatto at 11.35. Terrible march to Shing Ho at 3 p.m. Terrible march to Tê Sheng Mên. Home at 6.10. Prayer meeting. Thanks be unto God for all His mercies."

"If by any means I might save some." That seems to have been the one thought and hope which inspired James Gilmour in all his efforts for the spread of the Gospel. No more devoted servant of God ever lived, nor one who was readier at all times to spend and be spent for the Master whom he loved and served.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Missionary Heroes: Stories of Heroism on the Mission Field edited by Charles D. Michael. London: S. W. Partridge, [1905?].

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