William Upchurch: Baptist missionary to China

Motor-cycle scrambler, chemist, musician, shopkeeper, missionary, pacifist, soldier, minister and centenarian, in China William Upchurch saw and recorded at first hand the Xi'an coup of 1936 and crossed paths with the American radical journalist Agnes Smedley, whom he met as she was marching to the front. He also spent time with General Peng Dehuai of the Long March who was later imprisoned by Mao, and had dealings with many Chinese preachers including the local Pastor Sun, whose long beard, as he described it in his memoir, A Prevailing Wind (2007), consisted of six two-foot-long hairs, one of which came away in his hand as he was being arrested by Red soldiers.

William Samuel Upchurch was born in 1907 in the small market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, the first of four children to survive. His father, William Septimus Upchurch, was a lay preacher, remover and antique dealer, of liberal, pacifist and socialist sympathies that sometimes made life difficult for him in an essentially conventional town. William junior decided to become a missionary having read the biographies of various others, most of them martyred and some of them eaten. "Delicious reading!" as he recorded. He attended Spurgeon's mission college, played pranks and almost got himself drowned, his entire life being littered with a series of near-drownings.

Having qualified, he went to China where he was to spend the period from 1935 to 1952 working for the Baptist Missionary Society. Knowing little of China at first but learning Mandarin, he roared through Beijing on his motorbike, often with a girl on the pillion. Later he suspected that the BMS regarded him as "a picaresque rogue" given to "extramural activities", and he soon found himself posted well out of sight and trouble, to the remote "gospel village" of Fuyincun, near the Tibetan border.

His subsequent travels in China were extensive, ranging over the whole territory, including parts occupied by the Japanese, where he witnessed the torturing of Chinese and Koreans, eventually escaping down the Burma Road back into Free China. It was his experience of Japanese occupation that led him to abandon his pacifist principles in 1941 and enlist.

He did so at Chungking, being immediately made Liaison Officer for Intelligence, very soon being promoted to Captain and eventually to Major. He instructed Chinese recruits in sabotage, then asked to be transferred to India for proper training in explosives. At the end of the war he was put in charge of Japanese prisoners in Burma but not before returning home to fall in love and marry. Then he was off again.

He returned to China in 1947, this time with his pregnant wife, arriving in Shanghai along with, as he put it, "a tidal wave of Western missionaries". The mission was in Xichang, a beautiful if forlorn area. Following the Communist victory, life became progressively more difficult. The accusation meetings started and, eventually, Upchurch himself was to face one that he survived with the help of friendly testimony. For all that, he felt considerable sympathy with the Liberation Army's early aims, a sympathy he was later to carry back to England.

On his return he was offered the post of Emergency Administration Officer in Malaya. This meant fighting corruption and working across four languages, often under attack by insurgents, his job being to create safe areas. He grew to love Malaya and once his contract was up he returned, this time in charge of audio-visual development for the Malayan Christian Council. He moved to Kuala Lumpur and saw in independence, returning to England in 1959.

Unemployed for a while, he became a postman in Hitchin before taking on a church in Sheffield. Shifting to London after that was difficult. London Calvinists of a stricter and more limited temperament found him hard to take. He retired in 1972 to the house his father had built in Hitchin.

Upchurch played the piano, organ, violin, accordion and cello at various times and occasionally taught these instruments. His love of words and word play led him down endless labyrinthine paths that made his sermons entertaining and, sometimes, delightfully puzzling.

George Szirtes

William Samuel Upchurch, missionary: born Hitchin, Hertfordshire 3 May 1907; married 1945 Winifred Meakin (one son, two daughters); died Hitchin 16 April 2008.