Bertha Smith, a missionary in Asia for decades, was an integral part of a spiritual awakening that spread throughout China in the 1920s.
By Susie Hawkins
There are thousands of Christian women who have served their generation and lived out their faith and calling over the past 2,000 years. Studying a few of these women will help all believers recognize their contributions and appreciate their witness for Christ.
Miss Bertha Smith was one of those women. She was an integral part of a spiritual awakening that spread throughout China in the latter 1920s. Called the “Shantung Revival,” this movement had a powerful effect not only on the Chinese but also on missionaries and mission fields across the world. Smith was one of the primary catalysts for this movement and a lifelong advocate for personal and corporate revival. After serving with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) in China and Taiwan for over thirty years, she returned home and established a Bible conference and prayer ministry that flourished until her death in 1988.Bertha Smith was an integral part of a spiritual awakening that spread throughout China in the 1920s. Click To Tweet
Smith (affectionately called “Miss Bertha”) was a native of South Carolina. She came to Christ at an early age, demonstrating a keen interest in spiritual matters. After college, she enrolled in the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky. She was eventually appointed to the mission field and in 1917 sailed for China. After a year of language school, she was assigned to the mission post in Shantung province on the northeast coast. Upon arriving, Smith found the local missionaries dispirited and discouraged, according to her own testimony. The native churches were spiritually immature, apathetic, and had little motivation to change. The missionaries’ hearts were hungry, even desperate, for a real move of God’s Spirit in their own lives, as well as among the Chinese Christians. Little did they know changes were coming in ways they would never have expected.
During her formative years, Smith had attended mission conferences where she heard outstanding preachers and teachers such as Dr. R.A. Torrey, Dr. Charles Trumbull, and Ruth Paxton. The doctrinal education she received framed her understanding of the “Spirit-filled” life and what it meant for a Christian to “live in victory.” She was well-prepared for the spiritual awakening coming to the small missionary compound in Shantung. Numerous books and accounts have been written of those amazing years. And Smith recorded her own version of events in her book How the Spirit Filled My Life. It’s the story of how God poured out His Spirit on the missionaries in healing, restoration, and spiritual power.
It all began when fellow missionary, Ola Culpepper (wife of Dr. Charles Culpepper), asked for prayer for God to heal her eyes from a terribly painful condition. They anointed her with oil, according to James 5:14-16, and immediately felt the power of God in the room. After more prayer, Ola took off her glasses and set them aside, declaring that her pain was gone and her eyes felt normal. According to her testimony, she never put her glasses on again.
Afterward, numerous convictions of the Spirit came upon the missionaries, and a season of genuine repentance and prayer swept across the mission. Soon the Holy Spirit began to move in great power across Shantung among churches and other mission groups. Reports began to pour in as thousands came to Christ during those years, much to the missionaries’ joy. The spiritual changes took root in Shantung, due in great part to Smith’s, and the other missionaries’, vigorous teaching on the Spirit-filled life.
A message to share
However, in 1949, the Communist dictatorship suddenly expelled all missionaries. With her customary pluck and determination, Smith followed the Lord’s leading and sailed for Formosa (now Taiwan). While there, she served the remainder of her missionary career with great success. At that time, the Foreign Mission Board required all missionaries to retire at age 70. But Smith was still full of physical and spiritual energy and had zero interest in retirement. Having been blessed with good health, she believed she still had an important ministry to fulfill. She felt the Lord saying to her, “Go home and tell.” The message she delivered was the story of revival and how it was available to all who would seek God in brokenness and repentance. She established the Peniel Prayer Center in Cowpens, South Carolina, which would serve as a conference center for prayer and revival meetings.
Invitations for her to speak in churches and at conferences poured in. She traveled extensively during those years, telling the story of prayer, repentance, and the Shantung Revival. Even during her final years when she had ceased travel, Smith kept a full schedule exhorting and teaching (and occasionally scolding) preachers and missionaries who attended her meetings. She was a formidable woman with strong opinions and did not hesitate to share them freely. Her faithful service earned her great respect from her Southern Baptist family, and they recognized her astounding accomplishments, especially as a single woman.
A legacy to remember
Smith died at the ripe age of 99. When she left China in 1950, there were only five million believers in that massive country. However, at her death, thirty-eight years later, there were approximately sixty million believers in China. Without a doubt, Smith sowing the seeds of revival and the gospel along with her co-laborers brought about a large part of that harvest.When Bertha Smith left in 1950, there were 5 million Christians in China. At her death, 38 years later, there were approximately 60 million, due in part to the gospel seeds she sowed during her decades of ministry there. Click To Tweet
Spiritual leaders of her day had the utmost respect for Smith and her ability to communicate biblical truth, as well as live it out. She authored three books, all with the theme of revival, evangelism, and living in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Her teaching influenced a generation of powerful preachers and leaders, such as Dr. Adrian Rogers, Dr. Charles Stanley, and Jack Taylor. Smith’s heart’s desire was for God to bring revival to the Southern Baptist Convention. And her life message was the challenge for believers to commit to prayer and walking in the power of the Spirit. Her life was a testimony of how God could use one woman to make a significant difference in His kingdom.
(On a personal note, Smith traveled with us on my first trip to Israel in 1978. She was stern and intimidating, and I avoided her as much as I could. However, I soon found out that the preachers on our trip were just as scared of her as I was. I ended up sitting next to her one day on the bus, having a very pleasant conversation, thanks to her kindness.)
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Susie lives in Dallas and has been actively involved in ministry as a pastor’s wife, teacher, and volunteer. A noted author, Susie holds a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership and a Master of Arts in Theology from Criswell College.