Excitement and gratitude—as well as a bit of unease—filled my heart when I was appointed as a missionary in 1992. I remember being surrounded at the commissioning service by many caring friends and relatives, including my parents. Mom and Dad were deeply concerned. Who could blame them? Africa seemed only a distant, shadowy place full of disease and turmoil. Soon, more than sixty-five hundred miles would separate them from their only grandchildren. What on earth could I be thinking?
I knew God had called me and my husband to serve him as missionaries. God knew I needed encouragement. A few days later, it came in the form of a handwritten letter from my great aunt. Amid expressions of support, she imparted the nearly forgotten piece of our heritage—a fact no one had ever shared with me before—that I was not the only missionary from our family. I could hardly believe what I was reading.
“When I was a teenager and beyond, we had a cousin, Miss Paneuma Barton, a second cousin to your great grandmother, who went to China as a young woman with the Foreign Mission Board . . .”
I had never even met Paneuma Barton, although I was a teenager at the time of her death at age ninety-one in 1975. But here I was now on the verge of leaving for the mission field, learning all I could about this kindred spirit who had known the same burning desire to serve God overseas. Her legacy helped me grow in confidence and gave me three important principles that have stayed with me:
- Obey the Master, even when opposed.
- Embrace God’s purposes, even if the unexpected happens.
- Abide in God’s presence; he’s never in a hurry.
“God is faithful. Even at our lowest, even when we don’t see it, he uses us for his purposes.”
Obey the Master
Born in 1884 in Greenville County, South Carolina, Paneuma Barton was the daughter of a farming couple, James Henry and Sallie Barton. She attended school in Traveler’s Rest and Tigerville, including North Greenville High School (now North Greenville University). The family attended a local Baptist church where young Paneuma often heard and read missionary stories about Lottie Moon and numerous others, all of which stoked a passion for missions in her young heart.
“Since a mere child, my heart has throbbed with the desire to be a missionary,” she wrote in one of her journals. When she surrendered her life to Christ at age fifteen, the pursuit of the mission task became a focus and ultimately a commitment during her two years at Greenville Women’s College (now merged with Furman University) between 1908–1910. Paneuma continued education at the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Kentucky and taught at a mountain mission school. Yet, her heart was set on China.
But there were concerns about safety in this vast Asian country. In the summer of 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, 239 missionaries and over 2,000 Chinese Christians were martyred in China as a result of a revolution to rid the country of Western influence, particularly Christians.
In addition to the persecution of Christians, leaders in China changed often, creating continuous instability. The Japanese increased domination in the country, causing even more concern, especially in 1915. And to top it off, the European War escalated (later known as World War I).
No doubt all this information was forefront in the minds of Paneuma’s parents when thinking about their thirty-one-year-old single daughter going to China. They raised her to be God-fearing, but would God require that much sacrifice of one of their own? In a letter dated April 12, 1915, to Dr. Ray, general secretary of the FMB, Paneuma wrote, “I have been trying to overcome some opposition to my going. I did not want to go out against the will of my people, yet I dare not disobey my Master.”
Eventually, her parents relented because she exclaimed, “Now they realize that where God wants me is the best place after all!”
Even in opposition, she pressed forward, obeying Jesus and leaving her parents in his merciful hands.
Embrace His Purposes
On July 15, 1915, Paneuma was appointed as a Southern Baptist missionary to Canton (Guangzhou), China to teach in the Pooi To Women’s School. She set sail and arrived in her new home in October, excited to serve.
“. . . we on this side rejoice that he has given us such a place as China in which to give [the gospel] message. . . . We hear of wars and rumors of wars the world over and China has her share. The situation has been quite serious . . . no one can tell what the next day may bring in China. . . . It’s only through him we are able to stand. . . . Surely this change through which China is passing and which is shaking her from center to circumference will result in her salvation. Will not the incoming tide, however far away it may be, bring a blessing to her shores? How much she needs our most loyal support just now!”
June 1917 brought an unexpected turn of events for the South China mission. A young missionary woman, Pansy Greene Anderson, died in childbirth after delivering twins, one twin surviving and one passing with her mother. The widower, Park Harris Anderson, faced being the sole parent of five young children. He penned, “Mrs. Anderson’s going has put before me difficulties mountain high. I need say nothing of the sorrow of my own heart, or the loneliness which overwhelms me. My problems are in connection with my children.”
Anderson did not want to give up his children to remain a missionary, but he didn’t want to quit missionary work either. He continued, “But in all of my perplexity, one thing is clear, the Lord has a will concerning me, and his way is best.”
The mission women pitched in to help during the crisis as Anderson was pressured to consider possible adoption of his children so that he could remain a teacher at the Baptist seminary in Canton. Missionary Valeria Page Greene, Anderson’s mother-in-law, and Paneuma were among the many who helped with the children.
A little over a year later, Paneuma sent a request to Dr. Ray for a female missionary to help her start an evangelistic training center for women in Canton. Her discipleship of women and girls thrived and brought her great joy. But along with the request to Dr. Ray, she also informed him: “Mr. Anderson and I are to be married in the early fall.”
Her future groom also wrote to him: “[Miss Barton] knew my wife, has had splendid opportunities of knowing my children, and has considered most seriously the responsibilities she is undertaking. She is doing it with a consciousness of our love for each other and with unlimited faith in the happiness of our union.”
On September 24, 1918, Paneuma and Park married in China. Instantly, Paneuma became the stepmother of five children while continuing women’s ministry. Reported in the 1920 Southern Baptist Convention minutes, Paneuma was the principal of the new Woman’s Missionary Training School in Canton connected to the seminary, her dream becoming a reality for Chinese Christian women to “be ready instruments for the Master’s use.”
In the meantime, there was still turbulence in China. Paneuma’s first furlough was in 1922, coming home with a large, young family and needing rest.
Over the next years in China after furlough, she had her hands full. Paneuma gave birth to a baby boy in Canton in 1924, continued to raise six children, discipled Chinese women, witnessed the Communist Party rise, supported her husband as president of the seminary, and experienced the stressful climate of revolution in China. The Andersons took an extended furlough between 1926–1930 to be closer to her aging parents and for Park to teach at Mercer University.
They returned to a country in turmoil in 1930 and lived under increased Japanese occupation, civil war, worldwide political tensions and economic depression, and ever-present worry over their Chinese friends. Had God’s purposes for her life been thwarted by circumstances?
She continued to embrace his purposes.
Abide in Him
It is not documented what happened to Paneuma’s health, but in 1934 it was reported that they arrived in California for medical furlough so Anderson could care for his wife as well as his elderly mother. They resigned in 1936 due to Paneuma’s health as their South China mission disagreed about whether to stay in China during the war and Japanese occupation. In many letters written by Park, he mentioned that his wife spent much time in prayer in her “affliction and they are closer to the Lord than before.”
Park and Paneuma were reappointed in 1937 and urged by Dr. Maddry, the FMB general secretary at the time, to go back to China and take a new post in Shanghai as soon as possible. She responded, “The need seems urgent, I know. But in my sickness, I have learned some things. One is that God is not in a hurry. In this rushing age, what the Bible says about quietness, rest, abiding in him, and peace, seems like a paradox. But . . . God is not in a hurry. . . . I am merely urging you and [my husband] not to rush ahead of the Lord.”
With World War II intensifying even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Andersons sailed to Honolulu with their youngest child (the others were adults) to wait out the unrest in China and to open FMB ministry in Hawaii. They arrived on October 4, 1937, with great eagerness before eventually moving to Shanghai.
But even on the island, Paneuma’s health did not improve. After eight months there, due to the evacuation of all but two FMB missionaries in China due to the war and another medical furlough, the Andersons had to resign at last.
Was It All in Vain?
Some may question if Paneuma’s missionary career was successful. She went out as a single missionary to the Chinese women of South China, but God took her through unexpected twists and turns of instant motherhood, a stressful era of wars and revolution, and poor health.
Through God’s help, however, she obeyed her Master. Paneuma founded a training school and discipled women to make disciples. She raised her child and stepchildren to follow Christ. Three became preachers, the twin (Theresa Anderson) became an FMB missionary for thirty-five years in the Philippines, and two worked with youth in their churches. She mobilized her husband’s students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for missionary service.
Most importantly, Paneuma took the time to abide in Christ in the continued years of illness—an intercessory prayer warrior for, as she wrote, her “dear Chinese behind the bamboo curtain, some of whom suffer beyond words.”
I never read one complaint in her or her husband’s letters about their circumstances. Instead, what stands out were humble and grateful hearts, a love for the Chinese people, and lives dedicated to serve our Lord wherever he placed them.
In her words, “God is faithful.” Even at our lowest, even when we don’t see it, he uses us for his purposes, just like he used a woman from the hills of South Carolina who obeyed and rested in God.