Dorothy Jean Bidlake was born on July 11, 1899 in Seattle, Washington, USA, to godly Christian parents. From childhood she received biblical instruction from her parents and took part in the fellowship activities of her church. In the fall of 1911, Dr. Norman B. Harrison became pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Under the dual influences of home and church, Dorothy’s spiritual growth was rapid. Her parents’ faith and conduct left a profound impression upon her. At the same time, the teaching of the church was pure and its spiritual life potent, providing her with a very strong training in doctrine. She came to know Christ at the age of twelve and was baptized then. At the time, many young people were devoting themselves to foreign missions, and Dorothy was greatly influenced by this movement.
In her late teens, Dorothy dedicated her life to God, and resolved to enter foreign missions. In order to equip herself, she first entered the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), then went to Chicago for further training. During this time, she expressed her intentions under the title of “The Lord needs us”:
“When we submit to God’s leading, the Holy Spirit makes us willing to do the work which the Lord has especially assigned to us, and to present ourselves as a living sacrifice to His will. Regardless of where the Lord leads me, I only want to rely on Him with all my heart: This is true submission.
“God’s command is to ‘Go’; His promise is, ‘I am with you always.’ Therefore, what else do we want? God needs us: What a blessing this is! Actually, we need Him at every moment of the day; all our lives we need Him! At this time, the Lord Jesus has entrusted us with the Great Commission. The wounds caused by the thorns on His head; the scars in His hands – these liberated us from sin. He has given us the Holy Spirit, and will lead us into glory. How can we let Him down?
“For the past thirty years, my grandparents have been prayer supports of the China Inland Mission and have subscribed to its magazine China Millions; my parents have for the past ten years greatly emphasized mission work. Four years ago, my family hosted a CIM missionary; every word and action of this devoted, godly guest impressed me deeply. In my heart I thought that if I were privileged to be called to be a missionary, I would certainly choose the CIM.
“Then, two years ago, when I entered BIOLA, one day, when I was reading about the destiny of those who do not know God in Dr. R. A. Torrey’s What the Bible Teaches, the call of God came clearly to me. At that time my health was not good, and I was very weak, so I said to God, ‘If my health recovers and God gives me a robust constitution, I shall respond to this call.’
“I still remember that it was on a Saturday that I offered this prayer. To my surprise, on the next Monday I received in the mail an application form from the CIM. To this day, I have no doubt about the call of God on my life. The vision is clear: To go to China to preach the Gospel. My only motive: To turn many souls to the Lord Jesus.”
Dorothy Bidlake was accepted by the CIM and left for China, arriving Shanghai in September, 1923, departing thence immediately for beginning Chinese language training at the CIM school in Yangzhou. Upon graduation, she was assigned to the Northwest – Lanzhou in Gansu. In this province, aside from Han Chinese, there were many Tibetans, Mongolians, and more than two million Muslims.
On July 26th, 1924, in Didao (now Lintao), about fifty miles south of Lanzhou, the 2nd Gansu Province united summer retreat was held for missionaries at the Alliance Mission headquarters. Altogether, there were 53 missionaries from 17 different stations present, representing the CIM, Alliance, and Scandinavian societies. More than 40 Chinese believers also came from different locations. This meeting opened Dorothy’s eyes, and helped her understand the scope of mission work in the Northwest.
After more than a year of study, in the spring of 1925 she was assigned, along with Miss Hilda E. Levermore as her co-worker, to Fuqiang (now Gangu), in the southeast of Gansu, about 22 miles west of Qinzhou (now Tianshui) . In the summer, they would go in twos or threes to nearby villages to do open-air preaching on street corners. They would usually begin with singing to attract people, and after a crowd had gathered, start to preach. In the winter, the ground was frozen, so outside evangelism was not possible. When they arrived at a place, they would first pitch a tent, then begin to beat drums to attract people to come and listen. Aside from meetings in the morning and evenings, they sometimes held special gatherings for women.
1925 was a most exciting year of Dorothy Bidlake’s ministry, but it was also a year of great instability for China. Not only was there endemic and widespread fighting, but in every place one unhappy even after another occurred, such as the May 30th Incident in Shanghai, the massacre in Hankou, and the massacre in Shaji in Guangzhou. As a result of strikes, boycotts, student boycotts of class, the simmering anti-imperialist movement boiled over. At the same time, the Anti-Christian Movement became part of this mix, and many missionaries in various locations were threatened.
Dorothy Bidlake’s letters at this time refer to the “Christian General” Feng Yuxiang, who had been made the military governor of Gansu in 1925, as well as governor of the frontier defense in the Northwest. He was opposed by corrupt bureaucrats and generals, but “these orderly, disciplined “Christian soldiers” have been blessed with protection and have not only not failed, but have gained one victory after another. … in the space of a few days, 30,000 of Feng’s soldiers have swarmed into the city without incident or crime, so much unlike other armies!”
At that time, the gentry and elders of the city and nearby villages organized the Red Cross to come to the aid of refugees. For several days, they put up the national flag and the banner of the Red Cross above the church entrance, so that women and children could more easily find refuge in the church. In this way, more than 200 women and children did gain protection within the church walls, and were able also to hear the Gospel. “Feng’s troops continued their eastward advance to Qinzhou, … Singing with a loud voice and marching in ranks, this Christian army made its way into Qinzhou.”
After the “Nanjing Incident” of 1927, the land was filled with chaos and violence. During the months of March and April, European and American embassies ordered their citizens to evacuate. The missionaries in Gansu gathered in Lanzhou, under the leadership of Dr. George E. King, Director of the Borden Hospital. The fifty adults and children boarded eight wooden rafts supported by inflated goatskins, floated down the Yellow River to Baotou, then transferred to a train to Tianjin. On the way, when the rafts struck obstacles one by one, Dr. King got into the water to free them up. When the last boat had been rescued, he had already spent himself; he lost his footing and drowned, to the grief of all in the group.
After an arduous journey, they reached Shanghai. Because the political situation was still unstable, Dorothy Bidlake returned to America on furlough to recover in body and mind. In Seattle, she tirelessly visited churches to give her testimony, sharing with American Christians her experiences as a missionary. In March of 1929, she returned to China, having been assigned to a newly-opened station in Liangdang (now Liangdang county), 80 miles southeast from Fuquiang.
In April, 1929, along with Mr. and Mrs. George A. Bell and their two children, Mr. Albert L. Keeble, Miss Irene Reynolds, Miss Ruth Nowack, a second-generation missionary who had been born in China, and Miss Hilda E. Levermore, she boarded a train from Shanghai for Kaifeng, in Henan. They transferred to another train for Henanfu (now Luoyang), and then Shanzhou (now Sanmenxia), finally reaching Lingbao, whence, there being no more railroad service toward the west, they set out by road.
From Ruth Nowack ‘s notes, we can understand the great difficulty of this journey, and cannot help but admire these missionaries, who, for the sake of the Lord Jesus, regardless of the difficulties, took the Gospel to the far borders of China:
“… The door and windows (of the railway car) were all taken off; the so-called seats’ were the baggage upon which we sat. The floor was covered with two inches of dust, the sides were extremely dirty.”
At Lingbao, they had to take an oxcart on their westward journey. On the way,
“The northwestern wind strikes you head-on, the sand storm rolls in, causing you to cough constantly. If you open your mouth to speak, it is immediately filled with sand. All you can do is close your eyes, stretch out, quietly lie on the cart, and let it bump toward the west … When we reach our evening’s stop, we can’t keep ourselves from laughing, for we are all covered from head to foot in dust, just like the clay Bodhisattva in the Buddhist temple on the side of the road!“So, we immediately got a bowl to wash our faces, but were surprised to find that because of the drought we were only able to put an inch and a half of water into the bowl, and then had to share that tiny amount of water with another person! We thought we could just lie down and sleep, and entered into sweet dreams! Who would have thought that outside the inn cattle would be grazing all night next to our window, and that the neighborhood dogs would be entering looking for something to eat, the rats on the rooftop would be galloping everywhere. At two AM the voice of the stablemen rang out, this being the time for them to feed the animals to prepare for the day’s journey at daylight.”
In this way they traveled for six days, finally reaching Xi’an, where they received a warm welcome from the missionaries stationed there. After a brief rest, they continued their trek west to Fengxiang in Shaanxi, where they met a group of missionaries, three men and two women, who halted there. The road forward was mountainous, and there were many bandits on the way. So, after they had rented enough mules and carts, the five men mounted, the women and children shared five carts, plus a mule for the baggage, and formed themselves into a caravan. They marched along the mountain trail – it was very dangerous, for it quite easy to lose one’s footing and fall from steep cliffs. Three times the carts overturned, once into the channel; we were repeatedly scared out of wits. Happily, neither man nor beast suffered harm. Five days later, they reached their destination, Qinzhou, after a journey of five weeks.
They dispersed to their assigned stations after reaching Qinzhou. Because of famine brought on by the drought, a variety of diseases were rampant. Dorothy Bidlake was infected with a deadly typhus fever while tending to the refugees. Despite the most strenuous efforts of the local hospital’s medical missionaries, there was finally no way to save her, and she died on June 8th, 1929, not yet thirty years old.
In the course of their years of service together, Dorothy and the older Miss Levermore had become like sisters. Miss Levermore stayed at her bedside all during Dorothy’s illness, caring tenderly for her. This was her evaluation of Dorothy:
“She possessed a cheerful, friendly, helpful disposition; often at prayer; Jesus and His cross were the center of her life. The goal of her ministry, and the burden of her prayers was always the victory and influence of the Cross. She knew that the famine would spawn a relentless series of communicable diseases, but when she returned from furlough, she willingly and joyfully headed towards Gansu to help with the opening of a new mission station. Never doubting the will of God, she ran with endurance the race set before her.”
At the moment she was dying, Dorothy Bidlake said to Miss Levermore: ”This is the way of the Cross”; and again, “The altar is all ready; now it is time for the sacrifice.” She truly presented herself as a living sacrifice to God.