This article looks at a few key events in the life of Victor Plymire, a pioneer missionary to Tibet in the early 20th century. My prayer is that this brief glimpse into his life will enlarge your view of God so that your faith would be strengthened and you might pursue God with renewed determination. Additionally, I hope that you would see the tremendous value of history and biography for the Christian life and the Church universal.
Responding to the Call: Christ as Supreme
Victor Plymire was born January 10, 1881 in Loganville, Pennsylvania. After coming to Christ at the age of fifteen he spent some years in school before beginning a career in electrical work (Papers). In one of his letters Plymire describes his initial call to the ministry in Pennsylvania: "Previous to entering the ministry I was engaged in electrical work. It was when I had climbed well toward the top in my line and receiving the highest wage then paid for such work that God called me to labor with Him" (Miscellaneous; 1930-1950).
It would be easy to gloss over something as seemingly ordinary as this. It was not a radical call to leave family, friends and country (that would come later) and Plymire was young and single at the time, making a career move a much simpler proposition than if he were responsible for a family. This incident, however, provides insight into the supreme place God had in Plymire's life. He exchanged a well paying job for the unfamiliar setting of pastoral work out of obedience to God's call.
On February 4, 1908, after three years in pastoral ministry, Plymire once again responded to God's call as he left the port of Seattle for Northwest China (Papers). As with his initial call to the ministry, his acceptance of the missionary call demonstrated a supreme loyalty to God. He was willing to leave family and friends and risk even his own life in obedience to God.
No matter our vocation we are all called to obey the first commandment and to love the Lord with all our heart, strength, soul and mind. Plymire is one of many that can serve as a model for us in this area. May we be encouraged by his example to lead lives of complete submission to Christ.
Hardship and Tragedy: Perseverance through Suffering
Plymire's life was filled with hardship and tragedy. The journey from America to Asia was long and uncomfortable, living conditions in China and Tibet were anything but amenable and resistance to the gospel was often hostile. Nothing was easy. The following timeline highlights some of the difficulties Plymire faced during his missionary career.
- In 1908 he began work in China and Tibet. Here is an excerpt from one of Plymire's letters about the early work (Papers):
" I was able to gain an entrance to one of the larger lamaseries in Eastern Tibet Here I was able to sell some three thousand portions of the Word of God. The lamas were wild indeed and only God kept them from stoning us. One extended trip was made among the Tibetans On this trip the Tibetans wanted to kill us again but again the Lord was our preserver (Miscellaneous; 1930-1950).
- In 1912, a few years after reaching China, Plymire accompanied a sick missionary back to the US.
- Made the long journey back to Tibet in 1914 (Papers).
- Saw his first conversion in 1924, nearly fourteen years after arriving (Papers).
- In January of 1927 his wife and son died of smallpox, yet he did not abandon his plan to take the gospel into all of Tibet (Papers).
- From May 18, 1927 February 26, 1928 he covered over two thousand miles from Northeast Tibet to Calcutta preaching the gospel (Papers). The journey was arduous and filled with tragedy. Here are a few of Plymire's own descriptions:
"some of us had gone for twenty seven hours without anything to drink. When we found water it was covered with mosquitoes and a green scum. Well I just could not help myself. I got on my hands and knees and had a drink to quench that awful thirst" (Johnson, Ethel; 1908-1944).
"Many times we would hear the rumbling of these terrible avalanches coming from a tremendous height. Every eye was straining to see where it was, then the terrible strain of standing still, waiting to see where it would go. It was terrible as we never knew when we would be caught by one and swept away Again God proved his faithfulness in keeping us" (Johnson, Ethel; 1908-1944).
"I arrived in Shanghai on May 11, just one year, less a few days, after leaving my station in Tangar. Many thousands have heard the gospel for the first time Time alone will reveal the results of this trip into those unknown parts. Yes already there is a little fruit for my old faithful yak driver accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior (Johnson, Ethel; 1908-1944).
- Had a heart attack in 1930 prompting a return to the US (Papers).
- Returned to Tibet in 1932 (Papers).
- In 1943 his second wife had a heart attack forcing her and the kids to return to the US (Papers).
- Nearly two years later, in 1945, Plymire was reunited with his family in the US (Papers).
- Returned to Tibet in 1947 (Papers).
- In 1949, civil war in China forced the Plymire's out of Tibet permanently (Papers).
It is remarkable that Victor Plymire persevered amidst such circumstances. He made the long journey between North America and Asia close to ten times. He experienced great loss including the death of family and close friends and his life was threatened on numerous occasions.
History provides us with many more lives whose faith is worthy of our imitation. As followers of Christ we have been called to lead holy lives, set apart from the world; yet we face relentless opposition our world is full of distractions, Satan is looking to ruin us and our own hearts are full of deceit. Let us first look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, but also look to the lives of Christians who persevered over a lifetime in order that we may live each day for Christ and Christ alone.
Johnson, Ethel; 1908-1944. Folder 22, Box 1, Collection 341, Papers of Victor Guy Plymire. Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois.
Miscellaneous; 1930 - 1950; N.D. Folder 6, Box 1, Collection 341, Papers of Victor Guy Plymire. Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois.
Papers of Victor Guy Plymire - Collection 341. (n.d.). In Billy Graham Center Archives. Retrieved October 11, 2012, from http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/341.htm#4
For Further Reading
High Adventure in Tibet by David V. Plymire
Mark Totman is an expat with over a decade of experience living in China. He enjoys writing on a wide range of China-related subjects including language, culture and history, particularly as these subjects facilitate greater understanding of the Chinese context and encourage beneficial lives of cross-cultural service. View Full Bio