Nanking and the Presbyterian Helpers | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Nanking and the Presbyterian Helpers

May 14, 2013

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” ---Fred Rogers

Ginling College refugees in gymnasium

It has been called the great forgotten tragedy of the Twentieth Century. In December 1937, invading Japanese forces entered the Chinese city of Nanking and wreaked havoc for nearly two months in an event now known as the Rape of Nanking. Historians estimate that 260,000 to 350,000 Chinese civilians perished during the invasion.

One YMCA missionary, George Fitch, wrote in a letter on Christmas Eve 1937, “What I am about to relate is anything but a pleasant story, in fact it is so very unpleasant that I cannot recommend anyone without a strong stomach to read it. For it is a story of such crime and horror as to be almost unbelievable….” Mr. Fitch’s letter on the Rape of Nanking is now preserved at the Presbyterian Historical Society as part of the H. Maxcy Smith and Margaret J. Smith Papers (RG 464). Mr. Fitch begins his 13-page account of the Japanese invasion on December 10th. “On that day, Nanking was still the beautiful city we were so proud of, with law and order still prevailing. Today it is a city laid waste, ravaged, completely looted, much of it burned.” (Letter by George Fitch, December 25, 1937, H. Maxcy Smith and Margaret J. Smith Papers, 1893-1945, RG 464, box 1, folder 8)

Often in such circumstances, however, there are ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary courage and risk their lives to save others. The story behind the Nanking Safety Zone and Ginling College is an inspirational story during a dark episode in modern warfare. American and British missionaries, including Presbyterians, created the Safety Zone as a haven for Chinese civilians during the Japanese invasion. Historians estimate that the Safety Zone established by missionaries sheltered 200,000 - 300,000 people.

Presbyterian missionary Wilson Plumer Mills was the man who first presented the idea of a safety zone to local missionaries in November 1937.  Mills borrowed the idea from a French priest who created one in Shanghai. Originally from South Carolina and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Mills began his missionary service for the YMCA in 1912. From 1932 to 1949, he served with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions, mostly in Nanking. The Chinese would honor Mr. Mills with the Decoration of the Blue Jade, the highest honor given by its government, for his work in Nanking during the Japanese invasion and occupation. The Safety Zone was operated by a group of Americans and Europeans known as the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. Ironically, John Rabe, the leader of the Nazi Party in Nanking, served as the head of the Committee and was called by local Chinese the “living Buddha of Nanking”.

The Committee placed Ginling College at the center of the Safety Zone. American mission boards, including the PCUSA’s Board of Foreign Missions, founded Ginling in 1912 as a women’s college. As part of its founding charter, three people from the PCUSA’s Board of Foreign Missions served on the Board of Control of Ginling College. By 1928 Ginling had 97 students, 22 faculty members, and a full administrative staff.

Ginling College, June 1938


It is not clear how many civilians found temporary refuge in Ginling College during the Japanese invasion. Iris Chang, in her book The Rape of Nanking, states that 1,000 people alone were living in the attic of the College’s Science Hall. The first refugees to enter were those who lost their homes to Japanese aerial bombardment in early December. Chang reports that the American Embassy gave Ginling College a nine-foot American flag to lay down on its front lawn to avoid aerial assault. When the Japanese eventually captured the city, Chinese refugees flooded the college. Minnie Vautier, a 51-year-old missionary from rural Illinois who served as the acting head of the college, awoke on December 15, 1937, to find more than 3,000 refugees, many of them women, camped on the lawn. Many more spent the next few months of winter sleeping on the campus lawn, porch, steps, and inside classrooms.

Ginling College Watchtower


By February 1938, a new Japanese government was installed and life returned to a certain degree of normalcy in Nanking. Eventually, the Japanese overtook Ginling College, but displaced Chinese civilians continued to live there. The Presbyterian Historical Society has preserved a collection of materials related to Ginling College. The collection’s scope ranges from 1916-1979 and includes annual reports, brochures and interviews. Part of the society’s collection also includes photographs taken during the Nanking occupation. One picture of the front lawn of the college from June 1938 shows a quiet summer day. However, other pictures depict more realistically the turmoil that was occurring. One photograph dated 1937 shows refugees living in crowded quarters in the College gymnasium. Another photograph from June 1938 shows refugees waiting around a makeshift hot water stove built on the outside of a college building. The photographs of Ginling College and letters of the Nanking invasion in our collection serve as a stark reminder of the devastation of war and the heroism capable by each individual.

--By David Koch, Reference Archivist