In 1887 the famous missionary Lottie Moon was struggling on the mission field in China. She knew that the harvest was great and she was doing her best to reap the harvest. But she also knew that more workers were needed. In that year Moon wrote a letter requesting funds for help on the field. That Christmas an offering was taken that eventually bore her name and continues to make a lasting impact on the work of Southern Baptists around that world.
But that wasn’t the only big event in world missions that year. Across the world in the small town of Cowpens, SC a baby girl was born to John and Frances Smith. Olive Bertha Smith was born the same year of Lottie Moon’s letter and would go on to make her own impact on the people of China and world missions.
Bertha grew up in a busy house, the fifth of eight children. Her family was in church often and she was saved at the age of 16 after struggling with the call of God for some time. She came to understand that she must go to the cross to be saved, and came forward at a public invitation.
“I was on the front seat, having gone forward at the first verse. I knew that I would go; there was no use to wait. It was but a step to where the pastor stood. I took it, gave him my hand to signify that I trusted in Christ’s death to save me. By the time I took the second step, which was back to my seat, my years of burden of sin had rolled away, and the joy of the Lord filled my soul.”
She attended college to become a teacher and worked as teacher for one year before feeling the call to missions. She enrolled in the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky, graduating in 1916.
On July 3 19, 1917 she was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC as a missionary to China, and arrived in the Shantung Province on September 4th the same year. She had been in China less than a year when tragedy struck her family at home when her father died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
Bertha had been content to be single and never have children but the sight of other missionary families pushed her devotion to the limit. In desperation she called to God for help.
“After leaving the last mission home before reaching my station, I traveled for two days along a lonely road. Realizing what I was going back to, and that this was for life, I wept most of the first day. By the next day I knew that something had to be done…. Calling upon a nearby peak to be my witness, I made a covenant with the Lord: Lord, I want to enter into an agreement with you today. You called me to China and You gave me grace to follow in coming. I am here to win souls for You. The only thing that will take the place of my own children will be spiritual children. If You will take from my heart this pain, I will be willing to go through with just as much inconvenience, self-denial, and pain to see children born into the family of God, as is necessary for a mother to endure for children to be born in the flesh!
In desperation I was calling upon the mighty God for help in facing the difficulties and accepting the compensations of His service, and I was not disappointed.
From that moment forward there were no more tears, for the Lord met my every heart need. I became content with my lot and began to study the Bible and books on soul-winning with a new interest. Prayer became more definite for individuals, and every opportunity to speak for the Lord was seized. The transaction has lasted until this day, and many, many times I have praised the Lord for the privilege of being a single woman with the other person’s soul need having first place in my heart.”
After two years of language study she took over the local girls boarding school teaching Bible and English. Her home was always open to the students for Bible studies.
After returning from furlough in in 1925 she witnessed the roots of the Shantung Revival through the work of many missionaries in the region, including her baptist colleague CL Culpepper and his wife. Thousands of Chinese were converted to Christ during this revival and the effects are still felt in the region today. The Shantung Revival was compared to the Welsh Revivial and others through history by EM Dodd, former SBC President. The revival began with the healing of Ola Culpepper after prayer from Marie Monsen a Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran missionary with the China Inland Mission. The revival had a focus on being filled with the spirit and prayer that shaped the rest of Bertha Smith’s ministry in China and even the rest of her life.
Reports began to come that SBC missionaries were giving in to “pentecostal excess.” In 1935, the Executive Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, Charles E.Maddry, visited North China Mission to see for himself the work God was doing there. His report spoke of the great work God was doing in China.
“A glorious revival is sweeping Northern and Interior China, such as we have not seen in America in a hundred years. We have seen it and felt its power. It is a revival of fire and burning. Sin is being burned out of broken lives and men and women are being absolutely made over. The power of Christ has come to grips with the power of Satan and it is a fearful conflict. Satan has held sway and dominion over China for unnumbered and weary centuries. His kingdom is suddenly being challenged and broken by the power of a risen and enthroned Christ.”
In 1937 Japan invaded China and many missionaries were hampered in their work. Upon her return from furlough in 1940 Bertha was held in prison for 6 months by the Japanese. She recounted that during this time she regularly sent half of her missionary salary back to her mother and sister to help them as they struggled in the Great Depression.
Through all the difficulties she faced she continually kept her focus on God and trusted Him through every hard work in her life. When asked by Chinese co-workers why the God they trusted permitted bombs to fall on the mission grounds she responded by pointing them to God.
“Why did God, in whom we were trusting, permit those bombs to drop here on our mission grounds?” I had known the Lord since before they were born and could answer, “We never ask ‘Why’ about anything that God permits. He knew that we were here and He knew that we were trusting Him. We may not understand in this life, but this is not evil. The Lord permitted this for some purpose. He, the mighty God, does not have to explain Himself to human beings – at least not now.”
After being expelled from China by the communists Bertha Smith became the first FMB appointed missionary to Taiwan, where she remained for a decade until she became 70 years old.
At that time the FMB automatically retired missionaries at 70 years of age, and by that time Bertha had been on the field for almost 42 years. She recounts that she was still working 15 hour days and “felt that I was just then qualified from experience for missionary work.”
Even though she retired her work was far from over as she spent her retirement traveling across the world spreading the good news of Jesus. She spoke extensively at churches across America and visited Australia, Burma, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Nigeria, the Philippines, South America, and Zimbabwe. She also authored several books recounting her time on the field. In 1973 she dedicated the Peniel Prayer Center in her hometown, a prayer retreat for Christians from across the world.
When she retired from the FMB the number of believers in China was estimated to be 5 million, but by her death that number had grown to over 50 million. After her retirement she continued to serve in active work for another 29 years, always laboring to serve the Lord wherever she went.
Bertha Smith passed away on June 12, 1988 at the age of 99 years old. She was a woman of prayer and one of Southern Baptist’s most influential missionaries.