Eleanor (1871-1895) & Elizabeth (1873-1895) Saunders

Brave and bold sisters, martyred for their faith, who were pastoral and educational workers in Kucheng, Sichuan.

Eleanor (Nellie) and Elizabeth (Topsy) were sisters who had become interested in the needs of women and children in China through hearing J. Hudson Taylor speak when he visited Melbourne in 1889. Nellie was training to be a professional pianist, and Topsy was preparing to be a private tutor. When they sailed from Sydney on October 13, 1893, Nellie was twenty-two and Topsy was only twenty. Both had been accepted by the Church Missionary Association (CMA), the semi-autonomous branch of the Church Missionary Society in Australia, and both had received some theological and medical training before they departed.

After landing in Shanghai, they went to Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian (Fukien) Province, where they met up with Robert and Louisa Stewart, who were to be their mentors and guardians for a while. In Fuzhou they saw “many orphan children especially girls, women with bound and misshapen feet and, by the river, the so-called ‘baby-towers’ where unwanted girls were discarded and washed away” (5).

From Fuzhou they travelled to the remote city of Kucheng, where the CMS had established a presence. They were thrilled by the mountainous terrain and lovely scenery, but were also “immediately struck by the press of people, high level of noise, crowded narrow lanes, carts drawn by animals, … laundry poles hanging out windows, blind and disabled beggars on the streets, and smells – both fragrant and unsanitary” (6).

The CMS compound contained the two-story residence of the Stewarts, a baby orphanage, and two “bungalows” for missionaries who came to rest in a cooler place from their mission stations. Robert Stewart supervised the various ministries of the station, while Louisa oversaw educational work in the region. She was also one of the “sweetest” women Nellie had ever met, and the best Chinese speaker among them.

The sisters immediately donned Chinese dress and began to learn the local dialect. After gaining some proficiency, they started teaching in Chinese. Nellie taught boys who would become teachers, women on Sundays, a day school on Saturday afternoons, and she visited villages each week. Topsy taught women’s classes and at a girls’ and boys’ school, ran a little dispensary, and was constantly with Chinese women, visiting them and being visited by them.

Unlike many missionaries, they got to know their coolies, who eventually warmed to them. They found the people in the villages generally very friendly. Their accommodations were very basic, however, offering little privacy. More serious was the assumption of many men that, since they were unaccompanied and single, they were “loose” women and open to sexual advances. To protect themselves, they always traveled with a male pastoral assistant or at least two porters.

It was hard for most of the women to accept a message of unconditional love, even when it was given by Chinese Christians traveling with the sisters. It took time for them to adjust to being cared for by the missionaries. To identify with the people, the sisters lived very simply, as did all the other missionaries.

When Japan invaded Korea and Taiwan in 1895, troops were drawn away to defend the coastal areas. At the same time, militant anti-imperial groups, precursors to the later Boxer movement, began to arm, organize, and use force to advance their cause against the government. Foreigners called them Vegetarians because of their diet. The Chinese officials could do little to oppose them.

The missionaries used to go to their summer quarters on Hua Shan, higher up and cooler than Kucheng. On August 1, 1895, a band of Vegetarians surrounded and attacked the house in which they were staying. Within thirty minutes, eleven women and children had been brutally murdered, including the Saunders sisters.

Though many criticized the mission for sending women into the interior, the courage and faith of the martyrs stirred greater interest in missions and brought in more recruits. Local Christians were also strengthened in their faith and dedication to the gospel. Eventually, Kucheng became a vital center of Christianity in the province. In death, the women continued to speak.

The rich harvest of faith seen in the lives of the surviving Stewart children is beautifully told in the Robert and Linda Banks, Children of the Massacre: The Extra-Ordinary Story of the Stewart Family in Hong Kong and West China. In Studies in Chinese Christianity, edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021.

G. Wright Doyle


Banks, Linda and Robert. Through the Valley of the Shadow: Australian Women in War-Torn China. In Studies in Chinese Christianity, edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

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