Obituary: Leslie Lyall

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The Independent Online
On 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People's Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Square), in Peking. An onslaught began against the Christian Church in China. All foreign missionaries were regarded as agents of imperialist powers, and one of the very last to be expelled in March 1951 was Leslie Lyall.

As with his contemporaries Eric Liddell and Gladys Aylward, Lyall's true contribution to the history of the Chinese Church can only be measured by his influence on individual lives. For Lyall, that influence was mutual, for he himself was profoundly inspired by the teachings of the leaders of the Christian church in China, like Yang Shao-T'ang and Nee Duo-Sheng, above all by their prophetic warning in the 1930s that the way of spiritual maturity inevitably lies through suffering. Working alongside such figures, he will be remembered as one of those who prepared the Chinese churches to survive the terrible events that lay ahead - a "fiery ordeal" that put Chinese Christianity closer to the world of the New Testament.

Leslie Lyall was born in Chester in 1905, the son of a Scottish evangelist. He spent his early years travelling to India, America, and Australia in a whirlwind of revivalist meetings, breathing an atmosphere of dramatic conversions, crises, remarkable answers to prayer. But, by the time he was five, his father was dead and he was separated from his mother for many months. It was a severe trauma, and his life was to be marked by depression as well as extraordinary faith, and the constant anguish of separations as well as a pioneering courage.

His mother married again - to Arthur Watts, the founder of Kingsmead School, Hoylake. The school became like a base-camp to Lyall for at least half a century. From Kingsmead, he went on to St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and then to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he led the Christian Union with J.B. Phillips, who was later famous for his paraphrase of the New Testament. In 1928, Lyall played a vital role in establishing the Inter- Varsity Fellowship (now UCCF), which had a powerful effect on Christianity in the universities and colleges of Britain.

In 1929, the China Inland Mission, founded more than 60 years earlier by Hudson Taylor, appealed for 200 new workers, and Lyall answered the call. He arrived in a China that was riven by civil war. The forces of Chiang Kai-shek were pitted against the Communist armies of Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung. It was in this increasingly unstable environment that he lived and worked for more than 20 years.

After a brief spell teaching missionary children at Cheefoo, he was sent to the Shansi province. During this period, he met Kathleen Judd, granddaughter of one of Hudson Taylor's closest colleagues. Her love, shrewdness and insight into people was second only to his faith in God as the source of his strength. One example of this combined courage was Lyall's reaction to hearing that the invading Japanese had commandeered a chapel and turned it into a brothel with Korean prostitutes. After praying with his wife, Lyall cycled out and demanded to see the commanding officer. With the help of an interpreter, he protested so forcefully that the officer reassured him that the chapel would be returned immediately.

Leslie Lyall always kept hope alive even when circumstances were extremely adverse, and in spite of his own temperament, which tended towards pessimism. When the Communist forces crossed the Yellow River, threatening the Japanese forces around Manchuria and Peking, it looked as if further work would become impossible. He had already faced the near-death of his first daughter from disease, and the birth of his second had taken place with bombs exploding all around and shrapnel littering the floor. Now he wrote: "For a few days I was in the depth of despondency. And yet, faced with possible evacuation, we were still planting seeds in the Kiangchow garden and the spring blossoms were in bloom. Somehow, there was a strong hope."

The Second World War years were spent in the town of Anshun, centre of the opium trade. Spiralling inflation saw them selling carpets, Lyall's dressing-gown, anything to make ends meet. But the little church there grew steadily until the enforced evacuation of all missionaries by the British authorities.

By 1947 the Lyalls were back, working in both Peking and Shanghai. The days of Christian missions were already numbered and many Westerners had already fled, but, as the chaos increased, Kathie ran a soup kitchen for student refugees from their home and Leslie often preached to huge crowds of them in the Temple of Heaven. The Lyalls were expelled finally in 1951. The student movement dispersed and went underground.

Lyall wrote many books about the Church in China. The titles of these works - Come Wind, Come Weather (1960), Urgent Harvest (1963), A Passion for the Impossible (1965) - spoke of his own intense yearnings and prayers for the Chinese brothers and sisters who had welcomed him into their own families. He never forgot them.

In the province of Shansi, he had sowed seeds in his Kiangchow garden at a time of apparent hopelessness. Forty years later, he began to receive news from China. In the Wenchow province alone, he heard that out of 400,000 in the prefecture, there were 50,000 Christians - a proportion of 1 in 8. There were about 500 meeting-places. By 1981, he heard of one area where 90 per cent of the people were Christians. In his last years friends brought news that many of his students were now elders leading the churches.

Murray Watts

Leslie Lyall, missionary and writer: born Chester 14 November 1905; married 1936 Kathleen Judd (one son, three daughters); died Pembury, Kent 14 February 1996.