Life Lessons from Christian Luminaries: Isobel Kuhn
Isobel Kuhn—or Belle, as she preferred to be called—didn’t start out planning to be a missionary. Belle, a native Canadian, was born in Toronto, Ontario, just a few months after the end of the Boxer Rebellion in China, in December 1901. The Boxers were a secret society that violently tried to drive every foreigner—and eliminate every Chinese Christian—from China.
Belle moved with her family to Vancouver, British Columbia, when she was eleven. As she grew, she made plans to become an English professor. In college, she decided she was tired of believing in God simply because her parents did. Not knowing if there really a God who cared about her, she became an agnostic.
She made plans to be married, but her plans didn’t work out. At nineteen, she found herself heartbroken and wanting to die. At almost the last moment, God intervened. She whispered a cautious prayer: if He would prove to her, by giving her peace in her heart, that He was real, she promised she would do anything and go anywhere He sent her.
Slowly, Belle’s heart and life began to change. She took a Bible class, finished her college studies, and became a third-grade teacher. It was during this time she discovered a most liberating truth—God had a plan for her life. Even if she didn’t have any idea what it was, God did. She could trust him with her future. She continued praying and reading God’s Word. She let go of trying to control every detail of her life. Slowly, God’s plan unfolded.
She began to understand that God was calling her to be a missionary in China, and she tried to make plans to go. But the obstacles in her way seemed insurmountable. In other words, she needed a miracle! And that’s just what she received. In the spring of 1924, God provided the funds she needed to go to Chicago and spend one year at the Moody Bible Institute. She would still have to trust Him for the money to meet her needs while she studied, and to provide the following year’s tuition, but it was a beginning.
She completed her studies at Moody Bible Institute, and in 1927, she made her plans to go to China. However, due to political instability in the country, the missions council couldn’t send her right away.
While Belle waited for things to calm down in China, she needed to find a job. God’s answer turned out to be the Vancouver Girls’ Corner Club, where Belle worked to help young working women grow in their understanding and faith in God. She also helped them learn how to reach out to their coworkers with the Gospel.
In God’s time, the doors to working in China opened, and Belle sailed in 1928. Six years later, she and her husband, John Kuhn, had the opportunity to serve the Lisu people in the Yunnan Province. From 1934 to 1950, they worked with the Lisu, teaching them God’s ways and translating the Bible into their language.
It was during this time with the Lisu that World War II invaded their lives, though the mountainous region where the Lisu lived was not directly in the path of the Japanese. After the war ended, the civil war between the nationalists and communists in China, which had been interrupted by the world war, erupted into a full-fledged and violent struggle. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party proclaimed the success of their revolution in China. With this declaration, it soon became clear that Christian missionaries were no longer welcome. This meant that John and Isobel Kuhn had to leave China and their beloved Lisu people. Belle and her son, Danny, fled the Yunnan Province in 1950, and John followed soon after. But that was not the end of missionary service. From 1952 to 1954, Belle and John Kuhn served among another Lisu people group in Northern Thailand, retiring only when Belle learned she had cancer. She died in March, 1957.
This remarkable woman wrote numerous books about her experiences, including stories of the amazing Lisu people with whom she had lived. As you read her books, you will discover a joy, an exuberance, a delight in living with Jesus that is a direct result of her well-learned lessons of trust in God’s wisdom, His goodness, and His faithfulness. What a powerful legacy she has left for us all!
Isobel Kuhn: On the Roof of the World, Christian Heroes Then and Now series, by Janet & Geoff Benge, YWAM Publishing.
Nests Above the Abyss, by Isobel Kuhn, Harold Shaw Publications.
Isobel Kuhn: The Canadian Girl Who Felt God’s Call to the Lisu People of China, Women of Faith series, by Lois Hoadley Dick, Bethany House.
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