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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 213–224 

Thank God for Tears: Diaries of Susie Baltzer Kiehn

Larry Warkentin

When Susanna Baltzer was born in 1890, her family was already well established in the French Creek community near Hillsboro, Kansas. Her parents, Peter Baltzer (born 1846) and Susanna Unruh (born 1852), had married in Poland in 1872 and shortly thereafter emigrated directly to Kansas. Thus they were without the South Russian experience that characterized so many of their Mennonite neighbors. This unique history gave them a distinct Low German dialect and a view of church life that was not directly shaped by the emergence of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) denomination in Russia. For a time the Baltzer family related to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB) Church but eventually joined the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church.

The future seemed to rise before me like mountains.

Susie’s diary, written in English, begins in the spring of 1918. She was twenty-eight years old and well-experienced in gardening, sewing, cooking, canning, butchering, cleaning, and doing laundry, all of which would serve her well in China. Her diary does not reveal how and when she made the decision to become a missionary. Perhaps she was influenced by the preaching of H. D. Wiebe whose ministry she mentions, and certainly she had the example of her older sister Sarah who was already in China.


The Peter Baltzer clan included nine children born between 1875 and 1895. Sarah was the oldest and began a life of Christian service on {214} November 5, 1902, when, according to Susie’s diary, “she went to the East into Sprunger Orphanage.” East, in Susie’s mind, is Berne, Indiana, where Sarah worked. The Light and Hope Orphanage was operated by Brother and Sister Sprunger and was the source of considerable interest in foreign missions. It was here that Sarah sensed her call to China. Others associated with the Sprunger Orphanage who appear in Susie’s China diary include Nellie (Schmidt) Bartel (wife of H. C. Bartel), Mary Schmidt (sister of Nellie), John J. Schmidt, Anna Nyffenegger (Swiss born member of the Christian Missionary Alliance), and Bertha Maier (Christian Missionary Alliance). Some of these also prepared for missionary ministry at the same training institute as did Susie.

It is likely that Susie had already made her decision to serve in China by the time her diary begins in January 1918. The first entries find her at Fort Wayne Bible Training School, a missionary training institute with fewer than eighty students. The school opened in 1903 with Rev. D. Y. Schultz as superintendent. It was later absorbed into Taylor University. Susie participates in the “mission” in Fort Wayne and in organized “home visitations.”

She returned to French Creek after graduation and again participated in the necessary but often menial tasks of farm life. The Hillsboro community was threatened by a flu epidemic and, in January 1919, church services were canceled to avoid spreading the disease. On January 13 her brother, John P. Baltzer “brought a letter from Sarah,” and on January 14 “in the morning, Sam Quiring died of the flu.” It was not until February 2 that “there was for the first time Sunday School.”

Another concern swirling around her plans for missionary service was the involvement of the United States in the first World War. Her thirty year-old brother, Benjamin, had been conscripted into the military in April 1918. This was cause for double concern for a German speaking family of historical pacifist conviction. Refusing to serve could appear to show sympathy to the Germans, and it certainly would be seen as cowardice by patriotic Americans. Ben declared his conviction and was held at Fort Leavenworth with other conscientious objectors (COs). The draft laws made very limited provision for those who refused to participate in the war effort.

Upon hearing news of Benjamin’s situation Susie wrote that she could not eat but “communed with my Lord. He gave me 2 Tim. 2:13 and Isa. 54:7-10. These were real comfort to my heart. And He assured me He would make it all right with Brother.”

By January 12, 1919, the diary records that “Mary and I made up a biography for Benj.” This was likely an opportunity for the draftee to {215} prove that his objection to military service was based on a long-standing conviction and not a sudden matter of convenience. The biography must have been convincing because on February 25 Susie wrote, “in the afternoon we heard that the COs at Fort Leavenworth were to get their discharge.”


Neither threat of illness nor the threat of war could dissuade Susie from her missionary zeal. On July 1, 1919, she received a letter from Susie Ratzlaff telling her of the opportunity to go to China in the fall. The decision was already made; it only awaited implementation. The days that followed were filled with the usual necessities of daily farm life alongside the unique activities relating to the China venture.

July 17, [1919] Thursday: In the afternoon father, John [Susie’s brother], and I went to Marion to find out about my passport and citizen’s papers.

July 24, Thursday: It was very hot. Eva [Susie’s sister] and I went in the morning to the dentist and had our teeth fixed up. Mine cost $27.00 and Eva about $45. I had the bridge work done and three crowns put on.

July 25, Friday: In the afternoon Father and I went to town to get the wood for the box and also the steamer trunk which cost $10.20. In the evening we went to John’s and sang.

July 28, Monday: It was still dry. Mary [Susie’s sister] started to sew my China clothes. I did all the chores. Father went to town in the afternoon and got 14 bushels of corn and also my big trunk for $15.

August 4, Monday: In the forenoon Mr. Harder, Brother John, and I went to Marion and worked on my passport.

August 5, Tuesday: In the forenoon we three again went to Marion and finished my passport. For dinner I was at Harders and in the afternoon we worked on the clergy permit and letterhead for the China mission.


Then began a series of fund-raising meetings. The field of China was not yet embraced by the mission budget of the MB Conference. Susie Baltzer would work under the China Mennonite Mission Society organized by H. C. Bartel in Tsao Hsien. This meant that she had to {216} depend on individual contributions. She was welcomed in many churches and some even collected offerings for her, but her support came mainly from members of her family and other individuals. It was not until 1945 that the MB Board of Foreign Missions assumed Bartel’s China mission work.

Susie’s first efforts at fund-raising follow:

August 7, [1919] Thursday: Sister Eva took me to town to Bro. Harder, then took Susie [probably Susie Ratzlaff home from China on furlough] and me to Springfield where we had our first meeting. For night we went to Cornelius Pletts. Father was helping brother John make hay.

August 8, Friday: Cornelius Plett went with us first to his brother, Jacob, then to Lehigh to his old parents, then we stopped at Dr. Loewen and bought 12 bottles of Schlagwasser for $8.00. Then he took us for dinner to Peter Loewens.

August 10, 11, 12, 13, 18, and 21 record visits to various churches and homes in central Kansas. The flurry of church fund-raisers is interrupted with the practicalities of preparation.

August 27, Wednesday: Went to town to have our teeth fixed up but the dentist was drunk.

August 28, Thursday: Got the big box packed for China. $290.93 worth.

August 30, Saturday: At about 1 o’clock at night Susie and I started on our way to Fairview, Okla. Got there at 1:20 PM. Susie’s cousin got us from the depot but Mr. H. Bartel came then and got me to their place for the night.

In Oklahoma they make fund-raising visits on August 31, September 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14 with the amounts of donations duly recorded. The Corn MB church provided 103 dollars, the largest amount mentioned.

Preparations for the trip continued during the following days. On October 5, in the Sunday evening service of the Hillsboro MB Church, Susie was asked to speak on the spur of the moment. She records that her story “came as lightning.” It would seem that she was growing in confidence in her public presence and she was sensing that God would provide the message. In and around Hillsboro she continued to solicit contributions and enlist supporters. {217}

Susie and all of the missionaries working for H. C. Bartel in China had high hopes that either the KMB or the MB missionary boards would formally embrace their work. The MB District Conference in Hillsboro on October 26-29, 1919, proved to be another disappointment.

By early November all the boxes had been shipped, all the documents were ready, and all the farewells had been spoken. Only one event remained: the farewell and ordination at Hillsboro MB church.

November 16, [1919] Sunday: It was my farewell and ordination day. Mr. Footh [sic] spoke the blessing on me using the passage taken from John 21:14-17.

November 17, Monday: In the evening the future seemed to rise before me like mountains.


There were various “mountains” to be faced. How, for example, would Susie—an unmarried woman—be accepted by the men who ran the mission program and by the Chinese people who were strongly male dominated. Paulina Foote, an MB who worked with Susie in China, wrote perceptively on the role of missionary women in her book, God’s Hand over My Nineteen Years in China (Hillsboro, KS: MB Publishing House, 1962). In it, Paulina wonders about the purpose of her ordination. Why should she be ordained since she was not permitted to minister to men? If she were speaking to a group of Chinese women and a man walked into the crowd, should she stop speaking?

For Paulina the answer came during her ordination service. The preacher chose to speak on the Easter text in which Mary Magdalene and the other women discover that Christ is risen. In the familiar story, the women run to tell the disciples. It was the perfect message for Paulina. The first missionaries, the first believers who brought the message of the “good news” (the gospel), were women. And they brought the gospel to men.

It cannot be denied that the work of missionary women, particularly single women, both in the field and in their reports to home churches during their furloughs, did much to open the door for women in ministry. In the best cases, it was clear that God had gifted women in equal proportion to men when it came to public ministry.

Susie does not mention this concern in her diary. She was quite used to the identity of women in her family and in her church. But her diary shows that she was capable of public speaking in churches as well {218} as hard physical labor. It was not until June 18, 1922, three years after arriving in China, that Susie recorded “my first experience in leading the meetings.” This was because all of the missionary men were out of town. Even then Susie deferred to the Chinese pastor, Puo Ta Sao, for the sermon. On October 21, 1922, Susie recorded, “The evangelist, Dallion and I, drove out to the villages. We were in four villages. This is the first time I drove out alone with the Chinese.”


On November 21, 1919, Susie and Mary DeGarmo, another single missionary, “left home on the four o’clock train.” Susie’s brother, Ben, came with them to the station and saw them off, probably to San Francisco. From there, an ocean voyage to China typically took at least twenty-one days, making her arrival sometime in mid-December.

Susie had concerns about what was ahead, but she also had the encouragement of family members already there. Her older sister, Sarah, had served in China since 1913, and her brother and sister-in-law, Peter P. and Lydia (Maier) Baltzer, had arrived there in 1917. She knew that her primary role would be to care for domestic tasks and work with missionary children. She would teach Chinese women and perhaps care for the girls in the orphanage. These were the expected tasks of women.

The first two hurdles she had to overcome upon arriving on the field were language acquisition and cultural adjustment. The language challenge was undertaken immediately. On May 18, 1920, only six months after she arrived, she wrote, “I took my exam in reading the first chapter of John to my brother. He gave me 98% in it.” And daily she met with a Chinese teacher who taught her out of the Bible even though he was not a believer. Within a year Susie was able to present memorized testimonies to Chinese women. Eventually she mastered the spoken and written language sufficiently to spread the gospel in the villages and to work with orphaned children.

The cultural adjustment was also a challenge. Even with a brother and a sister in China, Susie was given to bouts of weeping.

May 24, 1920: And in the afternoon had a good cry [Susie’s underlining], the enemy tried in all ways to discourage me, but I finally found Romans 15:13.

July 20, 1920: . . . had a good cry.

July 23, 1920: . . . had a good cry. {219}

One of her greatest trials came on May 5, 1921, less than seventeen months after beginning her assignment. A telegram arrived from Honolulu: “Sarah died on [sic] hearts disease, remains taken to San Francisco, Birkey.” Her sister was on her way home for furlough when she died at sea. Sarah had spent eleven years working at the Sprunger orphanage in Berne, Indiana, and then had continued with orphanage work in China since 1913. Susie wrote, “I bathed myself in tears.”

August 10, 1921: Praise God for tears.


Though the going was often rough, Susie never shirked her assignment. She met regularly with her language instructor, she accompanied more experienced missionary women on house visits, and she accepted the advice and sometimes admonishment of her coworkers.

July 13, 1922: Sister Mary Schmidt gave me an awful rebuke about receiving the women. She said in all her years of institutional life she never worked with such a cranky person together as I was.

As with most difficulties in her life, Susie took this rebuke to the Lord in prayer. She had a box of verses filled with scriptural words of encouragement and comfort. From this box she would draw at random until she found courage to continue.

Her first assignment was to assist at the main compound in Tsao Hsien where H. C. Bartel had established the center of his mission.

May 26, 1920: Mary De [Garmo] was given the kitchen and I shall over-see the house.

The Bartel house was more like a hotel. It provided housing for Susie, Mary DeGarmo, Mr. and Mrs. Bartel, and their children, and from time to time other missionary families. It had a main floor, an upstairs and an attic. It was surrounded by a large garden.

The stream of names that appear in the diary reflects the numerous contacts Susie had with missionaries either as they traveled through the Bartel mission compound or as she made outings to other mission stations. Visitors were appreciated but their presence required additional work for Susie. The rooms had to be prepared in advance and cleaned afterward. These visits also created mountains of laundry. The rooms needed regular cleaning, especially since dust storms were almost as frequent as were guests. {220}


The amount of food preparation was staggering. Although Susie’s main assignment was to oversee the house, she often assisted with food cooking and preservation. Even with the help of Chinese assistants the following entries are daunting.

June 10, 1922: we also canned 82 quarts of apricots.

June 17, 1922: we canned 48 quarts of apricots.

November 3, 1922: the girls dug 32 bushels of potatoes.

Susie worked in several other stations in the course of the diaries and it is not always clear exactly where she was located for a given entry. However, it is clear that she moved more and more into the kitchen assignments. She must have been an excellent cook.

October 2, 1922: It was a most beautiful day. I baked bread, zwieback and cake, and canned 7 quarts of peaches.

October 7, 1922: Got up at 4:30 and kneaded my dough, went back and rested a little while yet, then came down and fixed my cookie dough and baked before breakfast yet graham cookies, bread, coffee cake, doughnuts. At 10 o’clock was through with the baking, then I ironed yet but did not get through with ironing before dinner.

October 10, 1922: In the evening went out to prayer meeting and after prayer meeting made a batch of marshmallows.

But Susie knew her calling was a spiritual one. She recorded that on May 23, 1920, there were thirty-two souls baptized at Pa-li. On June 27, 1920 “in the afternoon we had ‘Lord’s Supper’ with the dear Chinese Christians, also foot washing.” On October 16, 1921, there was a baptism of fifty-three, including four missionary children. On October 24, 1922, there was a baptism at Tsao Chowful which she photographed.

After fulfilling her housekeeping assignments, she also attended street meetings, did house visitation, taught the Bible to women’s groups, and participated in prayer meetings. As her command of the language increased she made numerous trips to neighboring villages and to more distant mission stations where she made house visitations and conducted impromptu street meetings. {221}

She had no medical training, yet she was called upon to treat the sick and injured. She wrote about “preparing black salve” and she had twelve bottles of Schlagwasser which she brought from Hillsboro. On June 16, 1922, she wrote, “I treated a shot up fellow.”


However, life was not all work and prayer. There were annual train excursions to Shanghai for Bible conferences, to do some shopping, and to care for such details as dental work. She was in Shanghai in May 1922: “This was the day I first tried to eat with chop sticks, and Loyal [Bartel] was in the theatre for the first time. Dr. John R. Mott preached in the theatre.” Again in March 1923 she was back in Shanghai.

Most of Susie’s diary entrees record the routine and often challenging chores of caring for a mission station. This makes her mention of anything entertaining or recreational all the more significant.

May 31, 1920: watched them unravel silk worms.

Aug. 9, 1920: a big huei [fair] in the city. Sarah [Susie’s older sister] and I and the two women went to the fair.

Nov. 1, 1921: got ready for our trip to Kai chuang chi. Took our telescope.

April 15, 1923: With Dorothy [Maier] and Faith [probably daughter of J. J. and Louise Schragg] walked around the entire city wall.

Some breaks in the routine were created by natural phenomena. Dust storms posed a constant threat during the dry season, and floods caused major problems in the rainy season. Heat and humidity were mentioned during the summer and cold winds and snow caused discomfort during the winter. On October 5, 1924, she recorded an astronomical event which might have seemed like a portent of the drama which was unfolding in China and in her own life.

Oct. 5, 1924: Shortly before supper a meteor made his appearance, such a very bright light and then roaring like hard thunder for a few minutes.


China was entering a period of upheaval. And yet it seems that Susie was oblivious to its significance. She made very few observations {222} about the political turmoil stirring in China. The uncertainties of the Chinese Republic founded by Sun Yat-Sen receive no mention. However, she could not ignore the anarchy that was brewing like a dust storm around her.

When Susie returned from her Shanghai trip on May 19, 1922, she found “Mrs. Willems and Esther had been staying with Sister Mary S. The city was taken by Feng soldiers.” And on June 2, 1922: “Bro. Willems left for Len Ho to Sheng liang to find the orphan boys who had run away to be soldiers.”

June 10, 1922: watched soldiers march and sing hymns outside the city wall.

Aug. 13, 1922: Feng Yu Hsiang passed through with his soldiers to fight robbers.

General Feng is referred to in history books as “the Christian” general. It is said that he “baptized” his soldiers en masse with water from a garden hose. The Republic was crumbling, Chiang Kai-shek was beginning his attempt to unify China, and the Communist party was beginning to exert power. This provided an opportunity for the provincial warlords to take local control. In the following years Tsao Hsien, the mission center, was captured and recaptured at least ten times. General Feng eventually met his death as the result of an “accidental” fire on board a Russian ship.

June 13, 1922: As we waited at the depot for Mr. Maier a big long soldier train came with a lot of munitions, it pulled out before Bro. Maier’s train came, but they were not far when a great shot went off.

She goes on to describe explosions throughout the night. Eventually they were told that there had been an accidental fire on the train that had caused a series of explosions. Susie may have suspected other causes for the explosion. Only three days later she was called upon to treat a wounded soldier.

Nov. 30, 1922: We met with some robbers in one village but they left us go.


The diary for 1924 has written on the cover, no doubt added in {223} retrospect, “the most important year of my life.” What could have been more important and dramatic than the threat of robbers and war?

The 1924 diary recounts the story of the courtship of Susie and Peter D. Kiehn. Peter’s wife died in January. Near the end of July, Susie wrote:

July 26, 1924: It seemed the future was before me like a mountain.

After several months of friendship and of caring for Peter’s girls, reality was dawning on Susie. Peter D. Kiehn was looking for someone to be more than a baby-sitter. Susie had used a similar reference to the “future like mountains” on November 17, 1919—at that point to describe her feelings as she looked forward to her original voyage to China. She now realized that her life was about to change dramatically once again.

By July Peter had asked Susie to become his wife and the mother of his three teenage daughters. After serious reflection and time in prayer over the next weeks, she agreed.

November 20, 1924: Our wedding ceremony was announced for 7:30 in the Alliance Church [Shanghai]. There were eighteen people present.

She carefully documented the train trip back to her new home in Yu Ch’eng where they were met by a host of well-wishers.

November 27, 1924: Thanksgiving day, one like never in my life before.

However, the euphoria of the marriage was quickly challenged. Ten days after their arrival Susie made the final entry in her diary.

December 6, 1924: In the morning I started to unpack some of my things, but we soon got word from the official very urgent, that we should all quickly come into the city for a big crowd of disbanded soldiers were coming. So around 11 o’clock we quickly hitched up and went here to the Presbyterian Compound. May God rule and overrule.

The remainder of the diary is empty. If this were a tragic novel it could not end more dramatically. However, Susie’s life did not end in martyrdom. Susie and Peter D. Kiehn devoted their lives to mission work in China. They returned in 1930 and again in 1946. When they {224} were finally forced out of China by the Communist government in 1948, they settled in Los Angeles where they ministered to patients at Los Angeles General Hospital. For the remainder of their days they continued active in the City Terrace MB church in that city.

Susie Baltzer Kiehn was a Mennonite Brethren missionary to China, 1919-1948. Dr. Larry Warkentin is professor emeritus at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California, where he served for forty years in the music department.
The author presented an extended version of this essay to the Fresno Pacific University Council of Senior Professionals in March 2003. The diaries of Susie Baltzer Kiehn along with numerous photographs from her collection have recently been donated to the Mennonite Brethren Mission Archives at FPU.

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