Hannah Ronning, Missionary to China

I recently discussed a book that continues to inspire me, China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2013) that deals with the life and work of Reverend Halvor Ronning (1862-1950) and his family. I discussed some aspects of his life recently, and now wish to discuss his wife, Hannah Ronning, who is a great example of Christian love and of a Westerner falling in love with China.

She was born in 1871 as Hannah Rorem to Anna and Torgrim Rorem, immigrants from Norway who settled in the prairielands of Iowa. Hannah grew up as a restless soul who loved to ride horses and explore the outdoors. One night during a fierce Midwestern thunderstorm, she was exhilarated with the beauty of the raging lighting and went outside to see it more fully, standing beneath a large maple tree with her arms outspread as she soaked in the beauty and wonder. She nearly took in much more. Her brother Tom saw her and yelled to call her back to safety, but it was too late. An instant later a blast of lightning struck and a ball of fire came rolling right toward her. The next thing she knew she was rolling in the grass, covered with wet leaves but unharmed. She had been struck by lightning, it appeared, but had survived. Her father sobbed, the first time she had heard him cry.

As she came out of her daze, she felt regret for her irresponsible actions and felt a need to pray, asking God to forgive her and help her find herself. As she prayed out loud, she didn’t realize her father had entered her room and was listening. She broke into tears. “Oh, Papa, I don’t understand myself.” He comforted her with these words: “It’s all right, Hannah…. It’s all right now.” This sent a flood of comforting warmth into her soul.

A week later, her father would die from influenza. His last words to his wife, Anna, were these: “Do not worry, Anna. I have prayed to God that all my children will come to Jesus and be saved and He told me that my prayers would be answered … so you see it’s all right …” With this loss, restless Hannah turned more fully to God. She gave herself to the Lord, not knowing how she could be useful to Him and where He might take her, but she was ready and willing to do His will. (p. 152)

Two months later, a handsome missionary came to town. Halvor Ronning and his sister Thea were preparing to go to China. Hannah felt her prayer was answered. She would go with them to China as Thea’s companion, fall in love with Halvor, and in China become his companion and wife. It’s not quite the way we do missions, but it worked for them.

God bless Hannah for going to China. There she would rescue girls from the tragedy of foot binding, where feet are deliberately broken and distorted to make feet appear dainty–supposedly essential for a woman to have any prospects in marriage in that era. She would be a pioneer in bringing education to women. She would rescue numerous abandoned female babies that otherwise would have been eaten by dogs. She started an orphanage, loved and taught, rescued and blessed, raised her own children, and sacrifice so much of her life to serve that God who she had given herself to. For this, for nine years of love and service, her life would be in danger as one of the foreign devils driven out by the secret society of the Boxers.

Though driven out of China, after a brief visit to Norway and then to her family in the US, she could could not stay in a setting of such comfort when there were so many suffering people in China who needed her love. China was in her blood and she yearned to return. They came back at the first opportunity, in 1901, right after the anti-foreigner violence died down. Their work prospered, and by 1903 they have 240 children in their school. What they founded then is now the largest high school in Hubei province with over 4,000 students and a museum named in honor of Reverent Ronning.

They had come at time of great change in China. Revolution was in the air and Dr. Sun Yat Sen and other leaders were inspiring many with a vision of a new China. They had also come just in time for a terrible famine in Hubei Province where they lived. This famine would take a great toll on Hannah, who was recovering from a serious illness she contracted on this second visit. With proper nutrition, her recovery might have been complete. Unfortunately, she grew weaker and died at the age of 36.

Famine is ugly. Few of us modern folks have any idea of how desperate human society can become when people are starving. Few of us are properly prepared for the hardships that can strike when there is famine in the land. Reading that the Ronnings experienced during a time of famine motivated me to beef up my food storage and better prepare for troubled times in the future. It was an ugly drought, not even recognized in the capital, with thousands of refugees from the hardest-hit areas crowding into Fancheng, the city where Hannah and Halvor had created a mission.

Anti-foreign sentiment readily returned as mystical rainmakers marched through the countryside proclaiming that rain would not come again until foreign blood was spilt.

Hannah and Halvor were sickened to think that after all the progress they had made, they would still be blamed for natural catastrophes. They were moved to almost unbearable fear and despair. The potatoes and tomatoes that Halvor brought from America thrived, but the missionaries had barely enough food to feed the mission workers and students. They began storing rice and river water in barrels. At the beginning of the drought, Halvor and Himle [a missionary doctor] had gone into the streets to distribute relief, they were mobbed and forced to run for their lives. It was not long before the refugees gathered in front of the mission. They huddled in dreadful, trembling hordes against the walls, banging on the gates with wooden bowls, begging for food. The missionaries knew they were endangering their own lives but felt they had no choice. They cooked some of their precious fruit and vegetables with rice and potatoes in large cauldrons and distributed what they could to the starving people. Hannah made sure that all the mission children had adequate food, but her own food turned to ashes in her mouth. Halvor appealed to the civil mandarin, who sent some rice, but there was never enough to ease the hunger.

One old man collapsed at the mission gate. Halvor and Himle carried him into the already-overflowing hospital. After he sipped some warm broth, incoherent words began to tumble out of him. Halvor later wrote:

His name is Lin. His eyes were wild and haunted and his body so emaciated that he could hardly walk. He was a farmer and the only survivor of a family of fourteen that had started from a town 100 miles north. He talked in a whisper because he had not the strength to speak louder: “They fell by the roadside until there was only five of us left. I could not bear to see my children suffer anymore, out of mercy I smothered three of them in the snow. Some others saw me and they dug them out and carried them away. My wife screamed because they knew they would eat them. I tried to drag them back but it was hopeless. When they were gone my wife made a hole in the ice and drowned the baby. Then she went in the water herself, begging me to cover the hole so no one would find them.” When he finished the terrible story Hannah was in tears. I comforted Old Lin as best I could. He looked at me with half-crazed eyes, and said, “What kind of people are you that will weep for strangers?” I told him that we were children of God just like he was. He has since grown stronger and helps us in the vegetable garden. Food is the most urgent problem in China. Famines and floods have been the scourge of China for centuries. Cities crumble but somehow the people go on. Untold millions have died of starvation and no government has taken steps to prevent it. There must be a way even if it means revolution!
(p. 189-190)

They would have some relief as a foreign gunboat brought food for the mission to distribute, but crowds rushed onto the dock and fought to take the supplies. Neighbor fought against neighbor, even mother against child, in the crazed struggle for food. Eventually rain came again and the famine ended.

Today famine is a distant memory in China, though many of the older generation have experienced it. When faced with famine, the norms of civilization can be shattered. Some have experience the horror of a community that begins turning to cannibalism to survive, though this is a topic we don’t discuss. I pray that China will be spared from its long history of famines in the past. The prosperity it now enjoys is remarkable, and numerous measures have been taken by the government to reduce that risk. May that horror not return, but may each of us, in whatever land we are in, diligently prepare for the possibility of famine or even temporary disruptions to our food supply. It can happen in so many ways: wars, disease, earthquake, hurricane, a trucker strike, cyber attacks on the supply chain or other forms of economic chaos. The convenience of modern grocery stores stocked with food is the result of many cogs in complex economic machinery working in unison. When some vital part breaks down, the shelves can become empty overnight. Please be prepared. Don’t let the years of comfort you may have experienced create the illusion that this will persist forever and that someone else will be there to take care of you if problems arise. Hunger is an ugly thing.

Though she survived the famine, Hannah became ill shortly after it ended, apparently due to inadequate nutrition. Her husband, Halvor, took her to a mountain retreat and she was on her way to recovery when news came that their son Chester was ill with diphtheria. Halvor wanted to keep her there longer but she insisted on returning immediately to care for her son. When she saw him struggling for breath, she had Doctor Himle perform an emergency tracheotomy.

Her son was still delirious with fever. The doctor said there was nothing more to be done, but she disagreed and with incredibly renewed energy spent the next ten days caring for him day and night, bringing him back to health. Chester Ronning would later become Canada’s ambassador to China and would have close personal relationships with some key people in Chinese history. His mother had brought a dying son back to life, but at a terrible price. She had a relapse and on Feb. 9, 1907, died at the age of 36.

Alice Landahl, a missionary who married the Carl Landahl, the husband of Halvor’s sister Thea before she died, wrote an article giving some details about Hannah’s last words.

Just before she died, she spoke to us with a clear strong voice to tell us how God had revealed himself to her in such a merciful and wonderful way that she was fully resigned to his will, and all anxiety for herself and her own left her fully. I will never forget her last, touching words: “I am so glad you have all come,” she told us with a weak smile. “I want to tell you what an unusual experience that God has given me. It is wonderful! There are no words to describe it. I have like Paul been in Seventh Heaven and seen unutterable things. I saw Jesus in all his glory and he came so near to me. I just rejoiced in His nearness. I couldn’t believe that such a poor human being as myself could contain such grace and holiness. O my dears! God has been so good to me. He fills me with joy and peace–it is so blessed and sweet to rest in Him. When they prayed and anointed me, the Lord did such a remarkable thing for me. He came right to me and His love poured over my whole being. I could feel it go right through me. All my pain left. Since then I have rested so sweetly. I have endured pain. I know what it is to suffer. But the Lord took it away in the blink of an eye.

“Oh I am so fortunate! And I love all of you so much. I have never loved the Chinese like I do now. When we come nearer to God we learn to love. The nearer we come to God, the nearer we come to each other. There is no difference, We are all one in Christ.” (p. 207)

Inspiring words from a remarkable woman. I look forward to meeting Hannah someday and learning more of what she experienced in China.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

1 thought on “Hannah Ronning, Missionary to China

  1. I'm about halfway through James Bradley's "The China Mirage" which in part explores the ways in which most of the Missionaries to China never actually tried to get to know the people there. It sounds like Hannah Ronning actually did.

    As a side note, I hadn't realized before that the opium trade was Britons response to the fact that China was selling them Tea but not buying anything. I am wondering if that is part of the reason it was included in the Word of Wisdom.


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