By Philip A Pinckard, NOBTS
Since I grew up in east Tennessee, the birthplace of Bill Wallace, a Southern Baptist missionary to China, his name was one of the first I associated with missions’ service.
Jess Fletcher begins his biography on Bill Wallace as follows: “This is the story of an ordinary man, who, in the providence of God, lived an extraordinary life.”
Let’s examine the life of a quiet but remarkable man.
Bill Wallace made his public commitment to Christ at Broadway Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was active in Royal Ambassadors, RA’s.
His father, William L. Wallace, Sr., was a well-respected physician.
When Bill was eleven years old, influenza took the life of his mother, Elizabeth, so Bill and his sister were raised by his maternal grandmother and father from that point forward .
The date was July 5, 1925, in the middle of what was called the roaring 20s, when a 17-year-old teenager who was a good mechanic picked up his New Testament.
The questions with which he wrestled were: “What should I do with my life? No, what would God have me to do with my life?” He determined that God was calling him to be a medical missionary.
Later Bill Wallace would give his grease-marked New Testament to his sister, the very copy that had been used by God in challenging him with a life-changing call on his life.
Wallace enrolled in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, did well there, and then went to medical school in Memphis.
His father died at this juncture of his life, and Bill came back to Knoxville to practice medicine at Knoxville General Hospital.
The preparation by Bill Wallace to serve as a medical missionary would intersect with a great need.
Dr. Robert Beddoe, an MD serving as administrator of Stout Memorial Hospital in Wuchow, China, pleaded with officials at the Foreign Mission Board (now called the International Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention to send help.
“Without a surgeon, this hospital is operating in a limited capacity, and its potential as a teaching institution and an influential lighthouse for all of China is going unrealized,” Beddoe wrote the FMB. “We must have another missionary doctor, a surgeon who can come in and do things I have not been able to do since my eyes gave way so many years ago.” He finished the letter and then appealed to his heavenly Father: “O God, give us a surgeon.”
About the same time, Dr. Bill Wallace felt the timing was right to apply with the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board.
Here is part of his letter to the mission board’s Secretary: “I must confess, I am not a good speaker nor apt as a teacher, but I do feel God can use my training as a physician. As humbly as I know how, I want to volunteer to serve as a medical missionary under our Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board.” He was appointed on July 15, 1935, which was ten years after his surrender in the family garage to prepare to become a missionary.
Even before Dr. Wallace completed formal language studies, the sounds of war between Chang Kai-shek, who headed the national government, and warlords around Wuchow were occurring. Soon the war threat was over, but it was a sign of what would come.
Wallace would operate in the mornings and continue language study in the afternoons.
He dealt tenderly with a couple whose child could not be saved from advanced diphtheria and told them of Christ’s love.
Soon the number of people using the hospital increased and God was moving in the hospital as a number of people from all economic classes were coming to Christ.
When the occupation of Wuchow by the Japanese was about to occur, Wallace got equipment and staff loaded on barges on the West River and headed to Puesh, a small town where they stayed until they were forced to move again. Wallace passed on his rice allowance to a nurse with a severe fever.
A Chinese nurse told Lucy Wright, a fellow missionary of Wallace: “I don’t want to offend you, Miss Wright, but we Chinese are not used to seeing Americans or Europeans do things like this. We know the missionaries love us, but there is always a difference. They lived their way and we lived ours, but Dr. Wallace didn’t know about the difference. He was one of us; he accepted our portion – all of it.”
Bill Wallace returned to China after a furlough during World War 2, saying: “I’m not going back because I’m heroic. Actually, I’m a coward. But I want to go back because it’s where I’m supposed to be.” Before his return, he was elected a fellow in the International College of Surgeons.
One unexpected life-threatening danger Wallace faced after surviving the war was paratyphoid fever in 1948. When asked how he survived, Evelyn Hayes, a missionary nurse, replied to Sam Rankin, “No earthly reason, true, but maybe there was a divine reason.”
A crisis occurred in July 1950 when Bill Wallace told Communist officials: “We are doctors and nurses and hospital staff engaged in healing the suffering and sick in the name of Jesus Christ. We are here for no other reason.”
Wallace was arrested and accused on suspicion of acting as a spy. Wallace told his jailer of Christ and preached from a cell window. A fellow missionary asked him how he was doing. Wallace replied: “All right, trusting in the Lord.”
When Bill Wallace died in prison, local Chinese friends put up a marker where he was buried with the following verse on the marker: For me to live is Christ, from Philippians 1:21.
Theron Rankin wrote of his death and the ones who arrested him: “They have tried to get rid of the witness of Bill’s life. But that is precisely where they fail. Bill Wallace’s witness of God’s love in Christ has been made immortal.”
Why would someone go willingly to serve as a missionary in a dangerous situation?
Bill Wallace answered that before his appointment when he told his home church: “I want to express to you my sincere and heartfelt appreciation in making it possible for me to go to China as your missionary, your ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ …. Why should I go when there are such hardships and inconveniences? The only answer I have is that it is God’s plan that I go.”
May the Lord continue to raise up sons and daughters of Southern Baptists like Bill Wallace who are willing to lay down their lives so that others may know of Christ’s love among the unreached in our world.
Philip A. Pinckard, Ph.D. is director of the NOBTS Global Missions Center and Professor of Missions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.