Reaching Tibetans (2/5)

Reaching Tibetans (2/5)

Section 2: Tibet: Initial Stages of Missional Outreach, Tibet: Attempts to reach Lhasa

Tibet: Initial Stages of Missional Outreach

The earliest Christian presence in Tibet was by a Jesuit missionary named Father Antonio de Andrade. In 1624, Andrade and another missionary named Manuel Marques, set out for Tibet. They finally stumbled upon Tsaparang, the capital city of in the Kingdom of Guge, after an arduous journey.[1] They were the first Europeans to have crossed the Himalayas and reached Tibet. A month after arriving, Andrade decided to return to mission headquarters and seek formal permission and the resources needed to start a church in Tsaparang as a result of the King receiving him favorably.

In 1625, Father Antonio de Andrade returned to Tsaparang, again with Marques and two new missionaries. The first Catholic Church was founded in Tibet on April 12, 1626 upon the successful request to King of Tsaparang.[2]  The church was built next to the palace and as a result had excellent protection from any harm. Though the number of Christians was small they had royal support. Unfortunately, the high hopes of the mission were not to be realized. In 1630, a revolution broke out between the Kingdom of Guge and Ladakh which started a war that lasted 18 years. Due to the king’s sympathy to the newfound religion the monks rebelled against the king. The attacking army from Ladakh and the rebellion from within resulted collapse of the kingdom and the king fleeing to Leh. The four hundred Christians that existed some were enslaved and the others were sent with the king and missionaries into exile.

After the failure of the Andrade mission, the Jesuits were largely disinterested in the Tibetan work until their rival the Capuchins sent their first expedition from Rome to Lhasa in 1704, reaching Lhasa in 1707.[3] It took them three years to reach Lhasa. After arriving, Fr. Francis Mary began treating people medically in Lhasa and his fame grew and spread far and wide. Vannini states, “the Tibetans were astonished that he would treat people high and low, alike, without charging anything, not even the cost of the medicine he administered. He did it solely out of love for his God and his brethren in God. This made a great impression.”[4] Nonetheless, the Capuchin mission was short lived. A jurisdictional fight was inevitable between the two groups due to the territorial divisions created by the pontifical administration established earlier in 1622 called the Sacred Congregation de Progaganda Fide.[5] In 1716, Father Ippolito Desideri reached Lhasa in hopes of establishing a new mission station in Tibet. Upon the Capuchins hearing of Desideri’s arrival they immediately told him of their territorial claim under the Progaganda Fide, although the Jesuits also claimed the region.[6]  The Capuchins petitioned Rome for Desideri’s expulsion from Lhasa and in 1721 it was granted. This coupled with the attack by neighboring warlords on the city of Lhasa led to the assassination of the king and forced Desideri to flee the city and the mission failed.

One would wonder how successful these missions would have been if it weren’t for the infighting among the missions and the political instability caused by the neighboring warlords. Would these early churches have been more successful if there was unity among the Jesuits and Capuchins? How successful would the church have been if it had more time to grow and take root?

Tibet: Bible Translation and Attempts to Reach Lhasa

During the 19th century and 20th centuries, Tibetan authorities did not allow any foreign missionaries to establish stations in central Tibet. The majority of missionary outreach attempts up to this point in Tibet were short lived; none of which lasted longer than five years.

Probably the most important development in missions to the Tibetans was the translation of the Bible, which started in 1858. Rev. A.W. Heyde and Rev. E. Pagel attempted to reach into the interior of Tibet but were expelled to Leh. They providently met Tempu Gergan, a former lama, who helped Heyde and Pagell learn the language and begin the translation of the Tibetan Bible. Heyde and Pagell continued translation work in Leh with the help of Dr. H.A. Jaeschke. The translation process proved difficult early due to the numerous dialects and different levels of the language used between the Lamas and the villagers in Tibet.[7] They eventually chose the high level language used in the monasteries and known broadly throughout Tibet but this proved to be ineffective in reaching the majority of people. Tempu died before the finishing of the translation but Sonam Gergan (Tempu’s son) accepted faith in Christ and devoted himself to the finishing of the translation.  His devotion is represented in some of his writings when he said, “If His messengers are not allowed to go to my people, I will devote myself to translating the Bible so that it can have legs and go into Tibet.”[8]

There were several attempts that missionaries made in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first of which is Annie Taylor, who distributed gospel note cards written in Tibetan. She visited the third most important monastery at the time in Kumbum and did evangelistic work there. Then, in 1893, she made the historic attempt to reach Lhasa but was turned away at Nagchu, just three days from Lhasa.[9] Another attempt to reach Lhasa, yet more tragic, was that of Peter and Susie Rijnhart. After spending some time in Lusar (1895) and Tankar (1896) doing medical work they set out for Lhasa in 1898. Their small child Charles died on the journey and, after losing their horses, Peter separated from the group to seek help but was never seen again. After losing her entire family Susie made her way out of Tibet barely surviving.[10] Another missionary family, the Sheltons, was active in the Eastern region among the Kham from 1903-1922. Albert and Flora Shelton lived in Tibet with their children and were very active in medical work in the area. While travelling through the mountains in 1922 Albert was shot dead by Tibetan robbers and his family returned to the states ending the mission.[11] Finally, there was the work of Robert Ekvall. After school in America, he returned to China where he was born as a missionary to Western Tibet and lived among the Amdo Tibetans. Between 1926 and 1935, he and his wife Martha took trips visiting the nomadic tribes of the region. He writes, “We wore Tibetan clothes and attempted to live as much like the natives as possible -moving when they moved and sharing the routine of nomadic life with them.”[12] The Ekvalls set up several mission stations in the region. In 1940, a breakthrough happened among the Tibetan robbers that they were living among. The death of his wife and his testimony that he was now with Jesus prompted a breakthrough among the Tibetans he was living with.”[13] Robert Ekvall stated that two-thirds of the village was Christian by the time he left. Unfortunately war was brewing yet again but this time not only with one village but instead with the entire nation of Tibet by their Chinese neighbors.

During the 19th and 20th centuries it was clear that Christian missionaries began contextualizing their missional efforts. The Bible translation was finished in the Tibetan language giving the missionaries an opportunity to distribute God’s word for the first time. The missionaries wore cultural dress and learned the local language. The missionaries were still setting up mission stations but more concentration began to be given to fight paternalism by the mission boards and more focus was given in promoting local leadership within the Church. The ensuing war between Tibet and China would inevitably squander any attempts of a lasting Tibetan Christian church during the 19th and 20th centuries.


[1] Wessels, S.J., Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 1603–1721 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1924), 62.

[2] Wessels, 71.

[3] Vannini, Fulgentius, The Bell of Lhasa (New Delhi: Stylish Printing Press, 1976), 41-42.

[4] Ibid, 63.

[5] Desideri, Ippolito, translated by Michael J. Sweet. Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri S.J. (Boston: Wisdom Publications), 19.

[6] Desideri, 38.

[7] Maberly, Allan, God Spoke Tibetan (Rockwall: Evangel Bible Translators, 2001), 79.

[8] Maberly, 84.

[9] Miller, Luree, On the Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1984).

[10] Rijnhart, Susie. With the Tibetans in tent and temple: narrative of four years’ residence on the Tibetan border, and of a journey into the far interior (New York: F.H. Revell Co., 1901).

[11] Shelton, Albert Leroy. Pioneering in Tibet: a Personal Record of Life and Experience in Mission Fields. New York: Fleming H. Revel Company, 1921.

[12] Ekvall, Robert, Cultural Relations on the Kansu-Tibetan Border (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 2.

[13] Oral history interview of Robert B. Ekvall by Rob Shuster (Billy Graham Center Archives, Collection 92: Tape 1) https://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/092.htm#602

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