1870  — 1955

William Christie

Pioneer Missionary to Tibetans

“Despite Christie’s relative obscurity, his reputation as a man of God, and his thorough knowledge of all things Tibetan, meant that other missionaries of his era did not hesitate in referring to him as the ‘Apostle to Tibet’” (Hattaway 90-91).

William Christie was born in Turriff, Scotland. When he was 19, he emigrated to the United States. A trained stonemason, he quickly became well known as a skilled worker in New York and earned a large amount of money. In October, 1891, he attended a missionary convention at the Gospel Tabernacle. He wrote later:

I was impressed by the spiritual warmth there … I was soon convinced of the need of complete surrender to Christ … At the altar I made the surrender and sought for, and received, the Holy Spirit. The results were an increase in my love for the Word of God, delight in prayer, and witnessing to others for Christ.
At the October 1891 convention, I was present on Missionary Sunday. As the opening hymn was sung, I was suddenly thrilled from head to foot with a great emotion. Accompanying this came a deep desire to give my life for missionary work … I prayed earnestly for the next two months for guidance as to what to do. As a result, I was led to give up my trade as a stone setter …
I was greatly moved by an appeal made by Dr. A. B. Simpson for volunteers for Tibet. After several days of prayer and thought, I told him of my desire to go to Tibet … Looking back on the 58 years and more since then, I have every reason to believe that my call was of God (Hattaway 91).

Although he was just 21, Christie was already wealthy because of his lucrative profession. After accepting the call to God’s service, he turned his money over to the CMA treasurer, who applied it to his support on the field. Christie was able to live off the proceeds for years to come.

The CMA paired Christie together with William W. Simpson, who hailed from the hills of Tennessee. Before they sailed for the Orient in March 1892, Christie wrote: “By the grace of God I will spend and be spent for my Savior and the salvation of those who are sitting in awful darkness and sin and misery.”

After their ship docked in Shanghai, the new recruits met up with Hudson Taylor, who warmly welcomed them. It was when the veteran missionary statesman heard that Christie and Simpson had Tibet in their sights that he uttered his famous quote: “To make converts in Tibet is similar to going into a cave and trying to rob a lioness of her cubs.”

After a long period of studying Chinese, Christie and Simpson were assigned to the northern Tibet border, in the Amdo region. Christie traveled extensively throughout the area, sowing the seed of God’s Word among hundreds of untouched Tibetan villages. This report from 1907 summarized one of his typical years: “I was away from home 166 days out of the year, and 69 full days were spent in the saddle. I rode 1,700 miles [2, 754 km] in the year.”

“Stretched to the Limit”

Immediately, Christie and his missionary associates ran into trouble. On one occasion, a mob of Tibetans stormed the gate of the mission at Baonan (now Jishishan), intent on murder, but Christie used his brilliant linguistic skills to bargain with them, order the missionaries inside to safety, and summon help. In the end, he was able to persuade one Tibetan man in whose home he had stayed years before to invoke the Tibetan code of hospitality and save his life. Other equally dangerous encounters marked his missionary career.

After years as a single man, Christie was thrilled when Jessie MacBeth arrived to join the mission as a medical worker. The two fell in love and, after a delay caused by the Boxer Rebellion, were married in Shanghai on June 17, 1901.

Jessie immediately began tending sick and injured Tibetans. Before long, however, her skills also found a warm welcome among missionaries, many of whom were frequently ill in a region without hospitals or doctors. One wrote of her:

The God-sent nurse came like an angel from heaven … With scanty medical supplies, inadequate equipment and limited technical knowledge, but with unbounded faith and unfailing courage, Mrs. Christie performed daring operations which, by the blessing of God, turned out to be life-saving miracles. Day by day her hands were immersed in strong antiseptic solution, until her wedding ring crumbled from her finger (Hattaway 97).

Their first son, Robert, was born within a year and a second son, William, was born December 1903. William was born with cerebral palsy, which affected his body and speech, but his mind was brilliant and he served God as a missionary in the Philippines under the CMA until his death.

One day, the Christies found a girl with severe eye injuries who had been abandoned by her parents. Jessie nursed her back to health, and she was formally adopted by the Christies so that her family could later have no further claim on her. A third son, Peter, was born at Choni in 1901. He later contracted polio virus during a visit to America, causing both his legs to be totally paralyzed.

Pressed to the limit, the Christies requested furlough several times, but were ordered to stay. Later a daughter, Hazel, was born without complications.

The entire family went on furlough to the United States in 1908, stopping in Scotland on their return trip to China, so both sets of parents could meet them and their children.

Ministry at Choni

The prince who ruled Choni did not want missionaries to live there, but he finally gave permission for them to purchase a house that everyone thought was haunted. Indeed, after they moved in, they discovered a skeleton on the premises. They prayed against demonic influences and established a healthy and happy home there, one that served as a base for their work among Tibetans throughout the area for many years. Years later, Christie described their work at Choni:

Christ and His salvation were proclaimed to prince, priests and people. In the town and monastery, as well as in the surrounding villages, the gospel reached all classes. A number accepted Christ, many being won by personal dealings in the guest room, and baptisms were held publicly in the Tao River. Full Tibetans, half Tibetans and Chinese were immersed before great crowds. A church was organized and regular services were held…
Excellent work was done among the children of the town, and even those of the prince’s family attended the Sunday school. Mrs. Christie conducted a school with the equivalent of eight grades, and added a knitting class for girls … Many of the girls were converted and married pastors, evangelists and other Christians. They are mothers and grandmothers in today’s churches.
Promising boys were sent to the boarding school at Lintao. Upon graduation they entered the Bible Training School to become pastors and evangelists. One was called as pastor of the Choni church, which developed into a self-supporting congregation with an effective witness for Christ throughout the town and surrounding area … And such was the power of the gospel in the one-time citadel of Satan (100-101).

Because of the potential for church growth, Christie appealed for more missionaries to come. He added, “In sending out missionaries for work among the Tibetans, candidates with a strong constitution should be chosen, as work in Tibet is more strenuous than in most places. Missionaries that are afraid to expose themselves to hardship and even danger should not be sent” (102).

Buying a monastery

Through an unusual turn of events, in 1907 Christie was able to purchase, for a very low price, an old Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Luba, just five miles from Lintan. The property included “the buildings, fields, forests and grazing lands of the Luba Monastery,” which became a base for gospel missions. Christie later reported: “Blessing came to the local Tibetan and half-Tibetan community. The sick were healed, demons were cast out, and Tibetan homes were cleaned of every vestige of Idolatry. Salvation flowed into the village of Luba. Idols were burned, idol scrolls were destroyed, and the rubbish of charms and shrines was tossed into the Tao River, carrying away the wreckage and becoming the waters of baptism for those who publicly confessed their Lord” (104).

Nearly twenty-five years after he had retired from the field, Christie wrote:

The work at this center has been much blessed of God. A national pastor continues to serve the congregation and witness for Christ in all the surrounding territory. Here the Lord has manifested His grace and power in healing the sick and casting out demons … The former Buddhist monastery was truly transformed. Now it possessed a Christian church, an evangelistic commission and spiritual power. Little Luba has become the springboard for missionary advance into Tibet” (105).

Power encounters

Christie was not a Pentecostal missionary, but he trusted the God of the Bible and he saw that the pages of God’s Word were bursting with accounts of the miraculous. In order to meet the deepest needs of the people he was called to reach, Christie realized he needed to pray against the demonic strongholds that held Tibetan men and women captive; otherwise, his witness would be of little effect.

Many incidents of demonic deliverance caused the gospel to advance as stunned eyewitnesses told others what they had seen and heard. Tibetans were well aware of the power of the lamas and sorcerers to place curses on people, but nobody had ever heard of a power that could set demonized people free. As a result, the Name of Jesus Christ became greatly revered throughout parts of Amdo.

The Christies continued to serve God wholeheartedly as they brought up their four children in Amdo, even though numerous attacks and threats were made on their lives.

In 1918, during their third furlough, the Christies made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their four children with friends in Montana so they could further their education, while William and Jessie returned to Tibet alone for another term of service. After boarding their ship to the Orient, the couple sat down and wept openly for some time. Their call had cost them everything they had, but with tears in their eyes they rededicated themselves to the Lord and his service.

Jessie returned to the United States to be with her children in 1920, while William soldiered on alone in Tibet. When he finally left the area for the final time in 1924, many believers wept openly as the “Apostle to Tibet” rode off after nearly 33 years of sterling missionary service in one of the most difficult places on earth.

After being reunited with his family, Christie continued to serve with the CMA, and for the next 20 years he preached nearly every weekend. He finally retired at the age of 77, and went to be with the Lord in January 1955 at the age of 84.


Today [2020] it is estimated that between 300 and 400 Choni Tibetans continue to trust in the Living God, with an even higher number of Han Chinese believers living in the town and surrounding districts. More Tibetans have probably been won to Christ at Choni than at any other Evangelical base in the Tibetan world.

Man Ying, the little girl rescued by the Christies from the side of the road, became one of the precious living stones of the Luba church, which was still flourishing in 1987.


Taken, by permission and with omissions and some editing, from Hattaway, Paul. Tibet: The Roof of the World. Vol. 4 in The China Chronicles: Inside the Greatest Christian Revival in History. London: SPCK, 2020, 90-108.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

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