1873  — 1917

Alphonso Argento

Protestant missionary and martyr

Alphonso Argento was born in Italy in 1873. Despite coming from the heartland of Catholicism, he is remembered as a great Protestant missionary and martyr. At the age of 18, he was led to Christ through the influence of the Waldensian Church. After reading China’s Millions, the monthly magazine of the CIM, he became deeply burdened for missionary work in China. He dedicated his life to serving God in the Orient and applied to join the CIM. At the interview, when he was warned of the risk, he boldly declared: “I am not afraid even to die for Christ and the Gospel… I was led to take this step after having known Christ’s promise, ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Argento was already fluent in English, French, and German. On arriving in China in 1896, he soon learned Chinese. In 1899, he established the first mission station at Guangshan (previously called Guangzhou) in the southeast of Henan Province. During a church service in the evening of July 1900, a large crowd of people armed with swords and knives rushed into the chapel. As the would-be assassins pressed forward to kill Argento, someone knocked the lamp over and the building was plunged into complete darkness. The Italian crawled into a corner and hid under some rubble as the Boxers, who presumed he had escaped, plundered everything they could find. Finally, Argento was discovered after he had managed to crawl upstairs and hide. He later described what ensued:

With a rush they got hold of me and dragged me from under the table and onto the pile of wood [with which they planned to burn the building down]. Others took up the benches and struck me with them… They poured kerosene on my clothes and set them on fire. Friendly neighbors, however, quickly quenched the flames, tearing off the burning part of the garment… I was lying with my face to the ground. The rioters, seeing these neighbors wanted to save me, got hold of a pole and began to strike me on the head and all over my body. I tried to protect my head with my hands, but had not reached the doorsteps when a very heavy blow inflicted on my head caused me to lose consciousness.

Some of the ruffians dragged his body outside into the street, where they wanted to decapitate him, but others who sympathized with the missionary convinced them that he was already dead. Argento came to two days later. The local magistrate was afraid that he would die within his jurisdiction and ordered that the Italian should be carried by stretcher into a town 140 miles (225 kilometers) to the north. All along the route people came to stare at the half-naked missionary, who was covered in terrible bruises and caked in blood, and they urged the stretcher-bearers to put him out of his misery. At one place, Argento said later, “they thought I was dead, for I did not move or make a sound, although they pinched me, pulled my hair, and knocked me about – an ordeal which lasted an hour long.” At Xi Xian, he was treated like an animal, left outside in the rain all night.

Only 21 July, after two weeks of such misery, he was carried all the way back to Guangshan, where the ordeal had begun. The locals were astonished to see him alive, but they still had the audacity to mock his God. A large crowd gathered around, saying, “God has brought you back safely, has he? Your God cannot save you. Jesus is dead; he is not in this world. He cannot give real help. Our god of war is much stronger; he protects us, and he has sent the Boxers to pull down your house and kill you.”

Argento later recalled how wicked men “spat in my face, and threw mud and melon peel at me, and did what they liked. Some pinched me, others pulled my [hair], and others expressed themselves in the most vile way. All the time I did not answer a word. Some of the Christians came to see me, but had to run for their lives.”

The cowardly magistrate, again afraid that people would kill the missionary in his jurisdiction, ordered that Argento’s journey should recommence, though now in a sedan chair. This time, they went westwards to Xinyang. A group of thirty armed Boxers pursued them, determined to kill Argento once and for all. By obeying the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit, he managed to evade them. He was eventually delivered to safety on 31 July.

The people of Guangshan thought they had finally seen the last of the stubborn missionary, but after a year of recuperating in Europe he came back, to the amazement of everyone in the town. Here was a man who had learned to overcome fear and intimidation. In 1901 he wrote:

It was the greatest joy I have ever experienced in my life to see the Christians again, and hear what the Lord has been doing in my absence, how they had been keeping close to Jesus and to one another; and how, though subject to the fiery test, they like pure gold, far from consuming, shone more brightly and were a living witness for Jesus, as well as a rebuke to their accusers. It seemed to us all like a dream that I was back in Guangshan. Many of the people could not believe that I was the same person they had killed.

For the next seven years the Italian continued to serve the Lord boldly in Guangshan, and the church grew steadily. In 1905, Argento married a Miss Bjorgum of the Norwegian Mission, and together they reared two fine boys. His head injuries continued to cause him a lot of pain, but he carried on regardless. Finally, in 1908, his deteriorating health obliged him to leave China, after a fruitful ministry that had resulted in 385 baptisms. When he arrived back in Europe, doctors found he

…was suffering from severe pains in his head, and in spite of the best surgical skill, he gradually became blind. Latterly he lost his memory, and the use of…his limbs. His interest in the work in China never flagged, and in a letter at the end of May [1917] he wrote, “I will use my strength in prayer and in intercession for China.”

Finally, on 3 July 1917 in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, Alphonso Argento was released from the pain of this life and went to be with Jesus. He was 44 years old. The CIM paid this tribute to him:

He was a man of great zeal and energy and of entire devotion to the Lord, and the work at Guangshan owed much to his intercessions during the years in which he was laid aside. The church there has prospered greatly in recent years, and there are now nearly 800 communicants. There are 29 outstations in the surrounding district, with three paid evangelists and 26 voluntary helpers. The central church has seating accommodation for 1,400, and at the time of the annual meetings it is crowded out.

In Guangshan County, where evil men once said, “Jesus is dead; he is not in this world. He cannot give real help,” there are today some 120,000 Christians – following the example of the beloved pioneer missionary Alphonso Argento.

Argento also authored a book titled The Roman Theology and the Bible.


Paul Hattaway, Henan: The Galilee of China, Piquant Editions, 2009, 45-47. Used by permission.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.