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Abram La Rue, first Seventh-day Adventist missionary to China

From China Division Reporter, March 1938, Vol. 8, No. 3 page 1.

La Rue, Abraham (1822–1903)

By Michael W. Campbell

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Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., is professor of church history and systematic theology at Southwestern Adventist University. An ordained minister, he pastored in Colorado and Kansas. He is assistant editor of The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Review and Herald, 2013) and currently is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Seventh-day Adventism. He also taught at the Adventist International institute for Advanced Studies (2013-18) and recently wrote the Pocket Dictionary for Understanding Adventism (Pacific Press, 2020).

Abram La Rue (亞伯蘭拉路; Pinyin yà bó lán lā lù) was a mariner, gold prospector, and tireless “colporteur and ship missionary”1 who traveled the world and pioneered the Adventist work into Asia.

Early Life and Conversion to Adventism

Abram La Rue was born in New Jersey on November 25, 1822.2 His parents, Joseph L. Rue (b. 1792) and Mary (b. 1797) were farmers.3 He was the only member of a rather large family of French origin known to survive.4 He was a seaman who traveled the world until about fifty years old.5 At age 11 he witnessed the 1833 meteor shower “which he so often referred to as a sure token of the near coming of the Lord.”6

He traveled to Idaho and California where he mined for gold. He amassed a “considerable fortune” that was ultimately lost by fire and “bad investments.” After this he went to the Hawaiian Islands at the invitation of an old friend where he became a Christian.7 He afterward returned to California where he went up into the mountains and made a land claim.8 Up in the mountains he lived as a shepherd and woodcutter. After his conversion he joined the Dunkard Church.9 He lived a solitary life in the mountains doing his own cooking and taking care of his needs. An Adventist, Ruel Stickney, who owned a large sheep farm near Abram La Rue, left some tracts with a Dunkard preacher by the name of Mr. Studebaker. This preacher wanted nothing to do with Adventism. His wife became interested in these tracts that her husband wanted to get rid of; so, she gave them to La Rue, who in turn studied them and accepted the Adventist message.10 The earliest documented indication of his newfound interactions with Adventism appears on May 6, 1873.11

Mountain Ministry

La Rue after his conversion sold his farm to Ruel Stickney and became the caretaker of his farm freeing him up so that he could more easily spend time distributing literature. The particular region was made up of immigrants from Switzerland and the Carolinas. They “greatly ridiculed” his attempts to share his faith. Some asked if the man who they perceived as lonely might take up smoking. Instead, he responded by pulling out his Bible and telling them: “This is my company.”12 He continued as a mountain evangelist for the next eight years.

During the summer of 1876 several new families moved into the region where he lived including a teacher and his family by the name of W. C. Grainger (1844-1896). He shared with them some evangelistic literature that eventually was tacked to the wall of their cabin. That winter the two families became interested in the literature and began Bible studies. William Healey (1847-1932), a young minister, heard about their interest and held evangelistic meetings. As a result a small church was organized in Christine, California, which brought great happiness to Abram La Rue. After the death of Mr. Studebaker, Abram La Rue had the pleasure of bringing the minister’s widow, son, and daughter also into the Adventist message.13

About 1883 he went at the encouragement of W. C. Grainger, now president of Healdsburg College, to take “a course in Bible study.”14 Mrs. Grainger made him a special birthday cake to celebrate his 60th birthday while in school.15 With “perfectly white” hair he stood out in contrast with his youthful classmates as he shared his desire to become a missionary.16 Church leaders, recognizing his age and the challenge of learning a foreign language, encouraged him to not travel so far and settle in one of the south Pacific Islands.

Missionary Across the Pacific

Abram La Rue “went to Hong Kong as a self-supporting missionary.”17 Adventist leader J. L. Shaw later remarked that it might “seem strange” that the “work in China” was started “by a man too old to learn the language and too old to be a mission pioneer.”18 In 1883 he wrote to church leaders expressing a desire to be a missionary to China. Church leaders responded telling him that they didn’t have money to send him. Instead, the Foreign Mission Board urged him to locate on “one of the islands in the Pacific.”19

Undeterred, Abram La Rue first traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1884, where he began selling books on ships and supplemented his income by selling imported dried fruits and health foods.20 He stayed in a rented room at the rear of a church. The next summer another young man, Henry Scott, from Healdsburg College, joined him. They established a “free reading-room and [book] depository at 189 Nuuanu Avenue.”21 By the time S. N. Haskell visited them, they had already led thirteen people to accept the Adventist message, and they were baptized. After pleading with church leaders, William Healey answered the call of the Foreign Mission Board to organize these early believers into the very first Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hawaii. Afterward he returned for a short time to San Francisco where he made his case to the Foreign Mission Board to serve in Asia.

As Abram La Rue obtained a fresh supply of literature and distributed literature in the port, a friendly sea captain of a ship where he had formerly been a seaman told him: “We are leaving in a few days for Hong Kong. Come along.” On March 21, 1888, he left with them on board the ship Velocity from San Francisco and arrived in Hong Kong on May 3, 1888.22 As they traveled he befriended the crew and led one sailor, a Mr. Olson from Sweden, to God. When they arrived Mr. Olson left the ship to assist his new teacher in sharing their faith. They founded a room on Arsenal Street near the harbor. “Publications sell well,” he noted in a report sent soon after their arrival.23 He felt that by serving on the island of Hong Kong he technically fulfilled the stipulation of the Foreign Mission Board to serve on an island and that the strategic significance of Hong Kong made it particularly influential for sharing Adventist literature. Abram La Rue was reported, when asked about his experiences with the Foreign Mission Board, that: “I have just kept within the borders of my commission.”24 Three months after arrival he noted that conditions were “unhealthful” as they were in the midst of a cholera outbreak.25

His primary work was to reach people who passed through the port, especially those who spoke the English language, “doing ship-missionary work.” In a letter written soon after his arrival in Hong Kong he wrote: “I suppose that Hong Kong is one of the hardest places in the world in which to accomplish anything with the third angel’s message. But the ship work here is very important. The seed is being sown all over the Orient, and the Lord will take good care of the results. It will certainly be a savor of life unto life or of death unto death.”26

He continued his missionary ship work for the final years of his life.27 His work was primarily for Europeans. This did not mean he did not try to reach the local Chinese. He befriended a Chinese gentleman, Mo Wen Chang, who was a translator for the colonial court and who stopped each day to have worship at the Adventist mission.28 He went on to translate the first Adventist tracts for La Rue. Now La Rue had literature that he could share in the Chinese language despite his faith and his inability to learn the Chinese language.29 The first was called “The Judgment” of which he had 2,500 copies printed in 1891.30 He also printed two small tracts written by Ellen G. White. The first was a “little tract” titled “The Love of God,” and the second came from the chapter “The Sinner’s Need of Christ” from Ellen G. White’s Steps to Christ. These tracts were the first Seventh-day Adventist publications in Chinese.31

Abraham La Rue made occasional trips, mostly across Asia, but in one instance traveled all the way to the Holy Land. Other trips brought him to Sarawak (north Borneo), Singapore, Shanghai, and Japan distributing literature to every vessel he could find. “He was a man of great energy and ceaseless activity, to which was added a rare gift in meeting people and making sales. Hundreds of our books have thus been scattered in these parts.”32 During an 1889 trip to Japan, La Rue stayed with some Seventh Day Baptist missionaries.33 Encouraged by the work that they were doing, he urged that missionaries were needed in Japan right away. This was a common refrain as La Rue repeatedly called for other missionaries to join him as he saw many new opportunities for spreading the Adventist message. Ever a visionary, by 1894 he arranged to translate the tract “The Sinner’s Need of Christ” into the Japanese language (the very first Adventist publication translated into Japanese), sending it with a friendly ship officer.34 Such urgent appeals sparked a resonate chord in his old friend, W. C. Grainger, who accepted the challenge to go to Japan. Similarly, “[o]n Palau Island, in the mid-Pacific, was a man who had accepted the advent faith through literature sent and missionary correspondence carried on.”35 The work of Abram La Rue across Asia was beginning to bear fruit.

Yet as he aged, he realized that due to his failing health and age soon someone needed to carry on his own work in Hong Kong. In 1901 he wrote: “I am very sorry that I have to give up the ship work, but I am so nearly worn out that I am obliged to do it.”36 In response, at the “great missionary” 1901 General Conference session, J. N. and Emma Anderson, with Ida Thompson, arrived in Hong Kong on Feb. 2, 1902, just in time to baptize seven people on March 1, 1902—individuals La Rue had prepared for baptism.37 J. N. Anderson noted that as “an old man” he was “still hale and heart and fully of zeal in the cause of the Lord. While here he has been selling books, health foods, and fruits, and conducting a small mission in his home.”38 His home, located at 3 Arsenal Street, was subsequently turned into an outreach center. Even in the last few months of his life, he took pride that he had sold 18 additional books along with other tracts and papers.39

Death and Legacy

Abram La Rue died on April 26, 1903, in Hong Kong, from pneumonia arising from complications related to malaria and typhoid.40

J. E. Fulton after his death recalled that “Brother La Rue never was known as a great preacher or a great administrator or a great leader in any other sense other than that he was a great follower of the Master, but he left his influence in the hearts of men.” He was furthermore remembered “as gentle and tender as a father to all who came to him and never failed to speak a word for the Master.”41 Most people who knew him well referred to him simply as “Father La Rue.”42 As a person he was remembered as a diminutive person: “of short stature, white-haired, and rather frail-looking” yet extremely persistent by asking people if they were ready to meet Jesus. “The Lord is coming very soon,” he was remembered as urging, “suppose He should come tonight. Are you prepared?”43 J. N. Anderson, who followed in his footsteps as the first official Adventist missionary to China, described him as “sociable and affectionate” who possessed “a warm, genial, enthusiastic spirit.” He was furthermore a man “of deep and profound convictions.”44 John Oss, another later missionary to China, described him as “a man with an indomitable will and a vision that ever burned brightly.”45 He told his friends that after he passed, he wanted “every cent” to be “invested in the cause.” “His belief in the soon coming of Christ was strong, and to the last he cherished the hope that he might live until Jesus comes.”46

Abram La Rue’s grave is located in the Protestant Cemetery (today Hong Kong Cemetery) in Happy Valley.47 On the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival to Hong Kong, church members erected the Hong Kong “Pioneer Memorial Church” to commemorate his sacrificial life.48

Sources

Anderson, Emma. With Our Missionaries in China. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1920.

Anderson, J. N. “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary]. ARH, July 7, 1903.

___________. “First Baptism in China: A Memorable Day.” The Missionary Magazine, May 1902.

Campbell, Michael W., “Adventist Growth and Change in Asia: Locations Change, but the Mission Remains the Same.” ARH, February 28, 2018.

McCulloch-Carr, May. “A Faithful Missionary.” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914.

Hanley, Mary Carr and Ruth Wheeler, Pastor La Rue: The Pioneer. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1937.

Lantry, Eileen E. Dark Night, Brilliant Star. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2012.

“Missionary Work in China.” ARH, February 5, 1889.

Nagel, Florence. “Abram La Rue (1822-1903).” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.chinesesdahistory.org/abram-la-rue.

Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing, 1996. S.v., “Abram La Rue.”

Young, Wiliam J. “An Experience.” ARH, September 14, 1905.

Notes

  1. William A. Spicer, Our Story of Missions for Colleges & Academies (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1921), 337.

  2. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  3. 1850 United States Federal Census, Year: 1850; Census Place: West Windsor, Mercer, New Jersey; Roll: 454; Page: 46b [Ancestry.com accessed 4/13/21].

  4. https://www.houseofnames.com/la+rue-family-crest [accessed 4/13/21].

  5. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9.

  6. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  7. Ibid.

  8. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. See list of receipts, ARH, May 6, 1873, 168. See also earliest subscription in The Signs of the Times, June 24, 1875, 264.

  12. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9; Mary Carr Hanley and Ruth Wheeler, Pastor La Rue: The Pioneer. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1937, 43.

  13. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9.

  14. Ibid.

  15. John Oss, “A Seaman Becomes a Missionary: The Story of Abram La Rue,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 7, 1935, 12.

  16. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9. See also: “Twenty Years Ago,” Union Conference Record, August 15, 1903, 8.

  17. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 9.

  18. John L. Shaw, “Beginnings of Mission Work in Other Lands—No. 2: Including Malaysia, China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines,” ARH, August 7, 1919, 2, 19.

  19. John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  20. John L. Shaw, “Beginnings of Mission Work in Other Lands—No. 2: Including Malaysia, China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines,” ARH, August 7, 1919, 2, 19. A report in The Signs of the Times noted that L. A. Scott and A. La Rue expected to go to Honolulu in May (March 13, 1884, 171). A. La Rue arrived in Honolulu from San Francisco on the ship W. H. Dimond on Aug. 28, 1884. See: Hawaii, U.S., Arriving and Departing Passenger Lists, 1843-1898; Hawaii State Archives; Kekauluohi Building, Iolani Palace Grounds, 364 S. King Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813; Series: Series 82 [Ancestry.com accessed 4/14/21].

  21. “The East and West Greet Each Other,” ARH, December 9, 1884, 776.

  22. John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  23. “China,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, November 1888, 172.

  24. John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  25. “Hongkong, China,” Signs of the Times, August 31, 1888, 538.

  26. This letter is quote in John Oss, “A Seaman Becomes a Missionary,” part 3, The Youth’s Instructor, May 21, 1935, 7.

  27. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  28. John Oss, “A Seaman Becomes a Missionary,” part 3, The Youth’s Instructor, May 21, 1935, 7.

  29. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  30. See a note of receipt of a copy of this tract in Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, February 1, 1892, 48.

  31. See note The Bible Echo, Aug. 6, 1894, 248.

  32. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  33. John Oss, “A Seaman Becomes a Missionary,” part 2, The Youth’s Instructor, May 14, 1935, 7.

  34. “A Letter from Hong Kong,” The Bible Echo, August 20, 1894, 262.

  35. John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  36. Ibid.

  37. J. N. Anderson, “First Baptism in China: A Memorable Day,” The Missionary Magazine, May 1902, 198-199; see also: John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  38. J. N. Anderson, “China,” Australasian Signs of the Times, February 23, 1903, 6.

  39. “A Faithful Warrior Fallen,” Bible Training School, August 1903, 43.

  40. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23; see also U.S., Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974, National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.; NAI Number: 1227673; Record Group Title: General Records of the Department of State; Record Group Number: Record Group 59; Series Number: Publication A1 849; Box Number: 25; Box Description [Ancestry.com accessed 4/13/21].

  41. May McCulloch-Carr, “A Faithful Missionary,” The Youth’s Instructor, May 12, 1914, 10.

  42. John Oss, “A Seaman Becomes a Missionary,” part 3, The Youth’s Instructor, May 21, 1935, 7.

  43. A. C. Tidbury, “A Personal Testimony,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 4.

  44. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  45. John Oss, “The Forerunner of a Great Movement,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 2.

  46. J. N. Anderson, “An Aged Pioneer Fallen” [obituary], ARH, July 7, 1903, 23.

  47. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/97912409/abram-la_rue [accessed 4/13/21].

  48. A. L. Ham, “Hongkong Pioneer Memorial Church,” The China Division Reporter, March 1938, 7.

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Campbell, Michael W. "La Rue, Abraham (1822–1903)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. May 04, 2021. Accessed September 21, 2021. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=7CJP.

Campbell, Michael W. "La Rue, Abraham (1822–1903)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. May 04, 2021. Date of access September 21, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=7CJP.

Campbell, Michael W. (2021, May 04). La Rue, Abraham (1822–1903). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved September 21, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=7CJP.