On a bitterly cold December morning in 1932, in the frontier city of Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), which lies about two hundred kilometers northwest of Peking, a young protestant missionary couple passed through the chaotic city streets and gates. In two horse-drawn carts, they joined a caravan of camels and carts wending its way up the mountains to the Inner Mongolian plateau. They were answering a calling, specifically a calling to serve in Mongolia, and serve they would – not returning home until late 1945.

The couple were Joseph Payne (c. 1909–1955) from England and Wilhelmina (1908–1993) from Switzerland. The story of their time in Inner Mongolia (the Chinese-held part of Mongolia) is told in Joseph’s I Beheld the Mountains, published in England in 1948, and in an updated edition in the United States in 1969. The latter includes material written by Wilhelmina, covering their time in Inner Mongolia, but also touching on before and afterward. It is the second edition which I have read and am reviewing here.

The book opens with Wilhelmina (“Mina”) in a chapel in the Swiss Alps as a young woman listening to a missionary speaker: “Are you willing to go – to the regions beyond? I want you for the mission field.” Although reserved – “too shy to say good morning to the next-door neighbor” – she felt the calling to go forth into the mission field. It was while undertaking Bible studies and midwifery training in London that she set her heart upon Mongolia.

One of her fellow students at the Elim Bible College was Joseph Payne, a young man from the border of Scotland. “At the very first sight it seemed as if we had known each other for years. I told him of my call to Mongolia.” A mutual affection grew and he accepted her calling. They would go together, if anyone would have them. Two missionary societies refused them, saying they were too young. However, they had a fortuitous encounter with a Mrs. Wyn, a missionary home from Inner Mongolia on furlough because of her husband’s ill health. She was happy to find a replacement couple: “The little mud hut is still there, and some of our furniture is in it. Here I give you the key to possess the place. Go, now, and carry on the work.”

Joseph and Wilhelmina married and set off for the Far East. Their first eighteen months were spent in Gashatay, Inner Mongolia, at a mission station of sprawling whitewashed mudbrick buildings, which lay between a Chinese village and a Mongolian one. This was a borderland separating two peoples, two languages, and two distinct ways of life: to the south were Chinese settlers who had turned pasture into fields of grain, and to the north were semi-nomadic Mongolians herding their animals across the grasslands and living in yurts.

During their time in Gashatay, the Paynes were “brought face-to-face with the immensity of the task” before them. It was there that they “beheld the mountains” of the title of the book:

Slowly they appeared upon our horizon, coming out of the mists of the future, a black, ugly, mocking range, challenging to our faith. Disease, Dirt, Demonolatry, Illiteracy, Ignorance, Loneliness, Strange and Repulsive Customs, Banditry, and scores of other difficulties, slowly but surely asserting themselves upon our vision. This was the real Mongolia to us, not the flat rolling plains which our natural eyes looked upon, but a land of mountains. “We beheld the mountains” and trembled.

Alas, much of the book is taken up with such broad damning brushstrokes of these “mountains.” It was a brutal place and time, but still, it would have been nice to have included more local color in terms of culture, details of the people’s daily life, the seasonal rhythms of festivals and farming, and some explanations of the “mountains.” Too many things are dismissed with a mention of Satan – fine as occasional short-hand, and to be expected in an evangelical memoir, but sometimes the pages scream out for a more nuanced and detailed telling. Take this passage on religion, for example:

For centuries, as far back as the historian has recorded for us, Satan has held undisputed sway over the people. He is praised, lauded sacrificed to. Great festivals are organised in his honour, when Devil priests, dressed in the most grotesque and hideous costumes, sometimes dance themselves into a frenzy.

While noting that Chinese settlers and the Mongolians have different beliefs, Joseph says “the main principle is the same: both Chinese and Mongols are worshippers of demons.”

After eighteen months, they built their own mission in the town of Shang Tu (Shangdu), about 150 kilometers northwest of Kalgan. The word “town” doesn’t do justice to the solitude and remoteness of the posting:

Our nearest missionary neighbour is nearly 100 miles away. It is sometimes twelve months before we see another European. The first time our little one-year-old Susy saw another European she screamed with fear for days and refused to go near this person. With the Mongols and Chinese, however, she was perfectly friendly.

They tried to get to Peking once a year for provisions and timed the visit for an annual missionary conference. The location, poverty, and work seem to have been overwhelming – both Paynes admit sometimes feeling despair, and I suspect doubts whether the suffering was in vain were more common than feelings of accomplishment.

Disease was a constant threat. Despite the dry, cool climate and the sparse population, Inner Mongolia was far from healthy:

In the summer of 1936 an epidemic of scarlet fever broke out in our town, which has a population of 8,000. Within a few weeks it was estimated that at least 500 little children had passed away. … Typhoid, typhus, cholera, smallpox an diphtheria are prevalent and take a heavy toll of human lives.

The author had been in Mongolia two years and considered himself “toughened to sights that normally shock the uninitiated” when he had a chance visit a prison and be shown otherwise. The visit to the prison (neither the name nor location is given) started with the usual tea drinking pleasantries with the official in charge of the prison, whose head was swathed in bandages and face blotched with patches of iodine. “A few days ago there had been an insurrection at the goal and the Governor had received a severe mauling before being rescued.”

The author was led through a series of bolted doors and found himself in a courtyard surrounded by high walls, then into a building, and small rooms, from which came the sickening stench of unwashed men and human waste. We get some good descriptions before the narrative takes a religious turn.

Reading I Beheld the Mountains has fascinating nuggets but it’s frustrating in the lack of details – you’re often left scratching your head as to the where, when, who, what, and why. The narrative is episodic and not structured chronologically, and is often prone to veer off into generalities and religious testimony. And when things are so black and white, there is no need for nuance. The book is strongest when the authors stick to descriptions of their experiences, which were remarkable. In one of the best chapters, Joseph describes a bandit attack on their town. Once the shout went up that a large group of mounted bandits were coming, the town’s inhabitants began fleeing. However, the missionary couple decided to stay.

We were expecting our first baby any day, our nearest medical help was nearly four days’ journey away, and anxiety was tearing at our hearts. By now the refugees were streaming past us in an ever-growing number. Sweating and cursing men with faces set with determination and drawn in anxiety were furiously lashing their beasts into greater effort. Springless carts drawn by oxen, bearing terror-stricken women with their screaming children, rumbled clumsily by on their wooden wheels. Small boys did their part and struggled gamely along with belongings tied up in a dirty blue cloth and slung over their shoulders. Lastly, bringing up a pathetic rear, came poor women, too poor to own carts or animals, shouting at their screaming children to hurry faster, hobbling painfully by on their crippled bound feet. Some would stumble and fall, while scores of them, too discouraged and weary to go farther, turned into our mission and implored us to help them.

A little later horsemen appeared on the horizon, and some refugees came streaming back; the town was surrounded and there was no escape. The sounds of rifle fire and the rat-a-tat of machine guns were unanswered by defenders, and the bandits came in. Two armed men kicked open the Payne’s door, and one of them asked, “Is this a Jesus house? … Are you a Jesus man?” He placed his hand on Joseph Payne’s shoulder and with “tenderness he said, ‘Do not be afraid, I will see that you are not molested. I will protect you, for you are good people, you preach the way of righteousness.’”

All that morning, throughout the afternoon and well into early evening the terrible work went on. Young men were murdered in cold blood, women were ravished, old people were thrown alive down the wells. Homesteads and farms were looted and put to the torch. … But in the midst of all the sorrow, destruction, carnage the “Jesus House” stood unscathed. It was a “city of refuge” for all that sought its shelter that bloody day were safe.

He adds that “Four weeks afterwards, a beautiful little girl was born to us.” Sadly, though, we already know the fate awaiting her. In Wilhelmina’s added material, which makes up the first quarter of the book, she movingly describes the last days of their daughter’s life. The short chapter, just three and a quarter pages opens thus:

It was now the end of summer. The oxcart was packed, and Joe, Suzy, and I were leaving on  a six-weeks trip. Alongside the oxcart walked Chau Chung Kung, our Chinese helper. Beautiful sunshine. The prairies alive with wildflowers innumerable. The whole of nature making a last brilliant show of beauty, as if in defiance of the fate which she knows most surely come.

The travelling was hard and less than hygienic, and not long after returning home Suzy, then two and a half years old, became very ill; she had a dangerously high fever, and when blue spots appeared on her abdomen, they knew she had typhus. They sent out for help. A Norwegian missionary doctor came as fast as he could on a bicycle. “It took him six days, traveling all day and even far into the night, before he finally reached us.” He said her only hope was a hospital in Kalgan. She died on the journey there.

The region of Inner Mongolia the Paynes were in came under Japanese control in 1937. As Western relations with Japan deteriorated, the missionaries’ situation became more difficult, though I Beheld the Mountains does not give any background to the dramatic political tussles that were being played out during their time in Inner Mongolia.

Several months before the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the British consul advised the missionaries to leave. They decided to stay on and continue serving and striving to save the local people. On December 8, the Japanese placed them under house-arrest to await evacuation. Far away, negotiations between the combatant nations regarding an exchange of detained citizens dragged on. However, in the summer of 1942 it was agreed that an Italian liner, the Conte Verde, would take stranded foreigners from Shanghai to Mozambique, then a colony of neutral Portugal, where a swap of interned citizens would take place.

The Payne family made the arduous overland journey to Shanghai, only to learn that their ship had sailed the day before; they would spend the rest of the war in an internment camp. Survival was tough enough for healthy young adults, but the Paynes had three children to look after; two young sons, Joseph (“Rolf”) and Eric, and a new addition. “While we were semi-interned, Margaret was born – two months prematurely.” The girl came close to dying but the greatest long-term toll was on Joseph Payne’s health; he would never fully recover. The family was evacuated after the war to England, from where they moved to Switzerland, and finally on to the United States. Joseph served as a pastor for the Faith Assembly of God in Hartfort, Connecticut from 1951 to 1955. He died from a heart attack on November 12, 1955, at the age 46.

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I Beheld the Mountains was recommended to me by a reader of my Taiwan in 100 Books, who wrote to me with some Taiwan book suggestions, and also mentioned one on Inner Mongolia which he thought was a possible candidate for reissuing. “I thoroughly enjoyed I Beheld the Mountains and think it would be of interest still today.” Both editions of the book are currently out of print, which is a pity, though some reasonably priced second-hand copies are available. The reader had met the great-grandson Chris Payne, a photographer, and it is he I first contacted, and from him was put in touch with Phoebe Payne, widow of Joseph Rudolf Payne (1937–2008) who was musician and musicologist of great renown.She graciously sent me a copy of the book, and I was happy to learn that the other two Payne children – Eric and Margaret – were still alive.

I would like to see the title reissued, but this would best be done by a Christian publisher. The original book was aimed for a church audience back home and this remains its target readership today. For the general reader interested in Mongolian history and culture, there isn’t enough, and what is there, is overly critical. Ideally, the book should be expanded from its current 140-odd pages with new information, both personal and general.

Some of the vagueness of the text can be explained by concerns for local believers in Inner Mongolia – and even non-Christians who had interacted with them – suffering persecution; when the first edition came out in 1948 the Communists were winning the Chinese Civil War, and when the second edition came out in 1969, China was three years into the bloody insanity of the Cultural Revolution. Although religious freedom remains elusive in China, I think sufficient time has passed for this particular story to be told in full.

Another edition would be a lot of work, which points toward a family member taking it on or an academic with knowledge of modern-day Shangdu, or perhaps a missionary with experience in Mongolia (what used to be called Outer Mongolia). The Paynes’ mission was under the auspices of the Assemblies of God, a grouping of Pentecostal churches headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. Missionary activity in China today is severely restricted, but when communism fell in the independent country of Mongolia, the country proved fertile ground, especially for evangelicals such as the Pentecosts, and the Assemblies of God have had an active presence there since the 1990s.

A challenging project but a rewarding one, and certainly an afternoon picnic compared to the Paynes’ sacrifices and service.