Landrum Holmes made his way home with a heavy heart. As a missionary in Chefoo, China he was used to hardship and difficulties. But this time something weighed even heavier than usual. As he opened the door and greeted his wife he began to tell her of the death of a fellow missionary.
“If I thought I should die and leave you alone,” he said, “leave you to go all that long way back by yourself, I should find it hard to say ‘Thy will be done.'” His brave wife’s quick and encouraging reply was, “Landrum, I would not go back; I would stay here and work.” His face shone with deep joy. “If you feel that way,” said he, “I shall have no further anxiety about the matter.”
Not long after that in 1861 that word came to the young missionaries that the brutal army of the Taiping Rebellion was on its way to destroy their city. Landrum Holmes and an Epsicopal missionary went out to try to persuade the army to not invade. The city awaited with fear, but no attack ever came. The army didn’t come, but the missionaries didn’t return either. Eight days after that, their two bodies were found covered with burns and wounds miles away.
Sallie Holmes was faced with the very decision that she and her husband had discussed. She was 25 and a widow in a strange country. Her husband had given his life on the mission field. What would be her response? This was not the first tragedy to come to her on the field. Only a month and half before Landrum’s death, they had lost their young daughter, Annie. Shortly after her husband’s death Sallie found out she was pregnant again. She gave birth on the mission field, this time to a boy that she named Landrum after his father.
Urged by her family to come home, Sallie remained true to her word and decided to stay. Before leaving the field in 1881 she only returned home once, in 1867 for her son’s health. She worked more than 20 years in China after losing a daughter, a husband, and while raising a child as a single mother.
Much of her ministry was spent in what was called “country work,” visiting hundreds of small towns and villages to share the Gospel and teach. One estimate says that in the first six months of 1876 Sallie visited 118 villages. One biographer of another missionary at the time said Holmes covered “as many as four hundred villages in a year.”
The work that she did had long lasting effects beyond her time there. After she served on the field for 11 years, the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention brought help to the field. One of the young missionaries was also a single woman and Charlotte Diggs Moon was quickly taken under the wing of the veteran missionary and shared in the work on the field. She labored alongside Holmes and another female missionary as they traveled the country sharing the Gospel. After Sallie left China for good, the letters from Lottie Moon speak of the fields that went untouched since she left. After being influenced by Holmes Lottie Moon has since inspired thousands of missionaries who went on the field after her.
In 1878 Sallie Holmes was faced with another decision. She was in poor health already, and her only son would soon be leaving the field to attend school in the United States. She had already given up so much in her time in China, and the thought of her son leaving pressed down heavy on her. Nevertheless she decided to stay. The May 1878 minutes of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC record that her peers were worried about her.
“Mrs. Holmes, though not very strong, is as well as she generally is in the spring. Yesterday she and I visited seven different villages, teaching the people the way of life. Landrum is expecting to leave for America. He is a good boy, and very intellectual. His going away will be a sore trial to his mother. She had thought that she would go and remain with him until he should be through college; but the pressing claims of the work have decided otherwise.”
Holmes served in a time when she was often the first white woman that the people she went to had ever seen. No matter what the difficulties were Holmes always found a way to press on and forward. She had made up her mind to stay and do the work. Years after her retirement, she sent an unfinished letter to the Mission Board. The letter was actually one that had been started by her husband some 25 years before and spoke of the challenges that laid before him and his young wife on the mission field. In the unfinished letter Landrum Holmes had written that he trusted God with his work.
“The whole movement is in the hands of God, and, so far as I can see, all that we can at present have to do with it is to stand still and see his work.”
Sallie Holmes was willing to do the work. Her decision to stay led her to influence the missionaries who came after her, who, in turn, influence millions still today. Her faithful witness and work provided a standard that still stands as an example to us today. Sallie Holmes passed away December 10, 1914.
I tell the story of Sallie Holmes in greater detail in my book “Forgotten Faithful: Lesson’s from the Hidden Heroes of Church History.” The book includes short biographies of other Baptist leaders like MT Rankin, Eric A. Mayes, Robert Beddoe, and many others.