Ruth Nathorst was the first missionary to be formally sent to China in 1918 on behalf of Svenska kyrkans mission (SKM).
Ruth Nathorst was born in Stockholm in 1883. Her father was Professor Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and her mother was Amy Rafaeela (Ella) Nathorst, née Windahl. The family included an additional four children: Ruth Nathorst’s two sisters and two brothers. Ruth Nathorst attended Ateneum girls’ school for the first six years of her schooling and then continued her education up the eighth grade under Lydia Wahlström at Åhlinska skolan. In 1910 she graduated from Anna Sandström’s högre lärarinneseminarium (advanced female teacher-training programme). She then attended lectures in theology at Uppsala university for a few terms.
Ruth Nathorst’s biggest opportunity for growth came through working as her father’s secretary. Alfred Gabriel Nathorst was known as a Polar researcher. Together they undertook many trips to attend conferences on the natural sciences and to see contacts in Europe.
It was through the Christian students’ movement that Ruth Nathorst first met people who were involved in missionary work, particularly in China. One of these individuals was Ingeborg Wikander, who along with a group of internationally active women set up Svenska Kvinnors Missionsförening (SKMF, Swedish women’s missionary association) in 1903. Following Ingeborg Wikander’s departure to China in order to work for Kristliga föreningen av unga kvinnor (KFUK, Young Women’s Christian Association), Ruth Nathorst succeeded Ingeborg Wikander as travel secretary of SKMF. Ingeborg Wikander’s letters appealing for more assistants inspired Ruth Nathorst to sign up with Svenska kyrkans mission to go and work in China despite the lack of an official appeal for help. The Swedish Church had yet to set up a missionary enterprise in China. In the meantime, in 1917, Ruth Nathorst published a written work entitled Sveriges världshistoriska uppgift i denna tid in which she points out the importance of a new Swedish mission to China. She wanted to make a contribution to educating the youth of that country.
On 2 January 1918 Ruth Nathorst travelled via Haparanda and Petrograd (St Petersburg) on the trans-Siberian railway, crossing Revolutionary Russia in the direction of Beijing, where she arrived three weeks later. In order to get to Changsha, in Hunan province, where Ingeborg Wikander and her KFUK enterprise were established, Ruth Nathorst had to travel through a military zone on an armoured boat. On arrival she moved into the same palace to which Ingeborg Wikander had been welcomed and had transformed into a KFUK center, namely a palace belonging to the ducal Tso family. Ruth Nathorst spent her initial years in China working with Ingeborg Wikander. The palace accommodated a variety of activities in its many rooms: a sewing class, a cookery class, an English-language teaching class and various Bible-study groups.
Before leaving Sweden Ruth Nathorst had already declared her stance on the Swedish Church efforts regarding their Chinese mission. She felt that the Swedish Church should dedicate itself to the educated classes and especially young students instead of focusing on current evangelising efforts in the countryside. She felt there was no need for more testimony meetings and Bible pamphlets and that instead qualified educational efforts in the towns should be prioritised. Ruth Nathorst wrote many and frequently quite short-tempered letters to the mission board. One of her proposals was that the Swedish Church should establish a university in China. Regardless of her grand plans the final outcome was initially a high school in Taohualun which, after some time, was transformed into a teaching enterprise where Ruth Nathorst sometimes taught.
Ruth Nathorst was the first missionary sent to Hunan province by SKM. She was followed by a group of female missionaries, all based in Changsha, including Elfie Källberg ad Willie Stenfeldt, as well as the priest Gustaf Österlin, who came to have a major influence on the direction of the enterprise. His goal was to set up congregations which would be independent and self-sufficient. This resulted in the small Swedish mission group being torn into two factions. There were those who were unfailingly loyal to Gustaf Österlin and his principles and who “tirelessly tramped the small ridges between the rice fields, conversed, taught, preached and sang with the locals”. In contrast there was Ruth Nathorst who stubbornly stuck to her original plan of focusing on higher education. Further to teaching at various school she wrote a lot, not just letters but also textbooks in Chinese on Christian teachings. She wrote Kinas kvinna i forntid och nutid, which was published in 1924 and directed at a Swedish readership. She also wrote Sun Yat Sen. Det nya Kinas frihetskämpe, published in 1933, as well as Korsstygnsmönster från Kina, from 1928.
China was at war. Hunan province lay in the line of fire. The lives of the missionaries and their work was constantly subjected to the need to decamp and evacuate. In the spring of 1940 all the China missionaries had returned home apart from Ruth Nathorst who, in September 1939, had travelled back to China in order to take over the running of the school. In 1944 there was once again a number of missionaries on site but following the fall of Changsha and several other places into the hands of the Japanese halfway through the year all foreigners were evacuated. Some travelled to Chungking in western China, others left the country altogether.
Ruth Nathorst, who was at that time physically weakened by a number of illnesses, managed to get to India to receive medical treatment. She then travelled home to Sweden in the summer of 1945 and retired the following year, in 1946. The consequences of the Long March emerged after 1947 and Mao, the son of Hunan, became leader of what became a new ‘red’ China, with neither whites nor missionaries.
Ruth Nathorst died in 1961 in Uppsala. She is buried at Norra begravningsplatsen (the Northern Cemetery) in Solna.