Cicero Washington Pruitt invested most of his life laboring among the Chinese people for the cause of Christ. He was not only an encouragement and help to Lottie Moon with whom he served for ten years, but he also remained in China for over five decades—staying when others left, staying through extreme hardship, and staying into old age.
He formed a theological seminary and helped to lay a solid foundation for the church in China, which endures to this day despite opposition and persecution.
“C. W. Pruitt was not only an encouragement and help to Lottie Moon with whom he served for ten years, but he also remained in China for over five decades.”
Staying When Others Left
Born in Georgia in 1857, C. W. Pruitt began following Christ in his early teen years, and at the same time, he felt a strong impression to preach and to preach in China. At the age of twenty-four, Pruitt arrived in China and served with Lottie Moon from 1881 to 1891 as the only constant missionary personnel at the North China Mission. The Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) had started the work in northern China in 1860. But due to the difficulties surrounding the American Civil War, there weren’t enough missionaries for the work.
Efforts to change this shortfall began in the early 1880s when eight new missionaries joined the team, including Pruitt. Within about five years, though, C. W. Pruitt was the only one who remained of the new arrivals. Four had simply not endured, and three—including his wife, Ida Tiffany Pruitt—died on the field.
One of the veteran missionaries, T. P. Crawford, also stirred up trouble in the North China Mission, which spilled over to the SBC. He argued for missionary self-support and eventually against mission boards in general, which finally resulted in his resignation in 1889. Lottie Moon, C. W. Pruitt, and his second wife, Anna Seward, remained loyal to the board and watched as Crawford pulled seven of the remaining eleven missionaries into his new Gospel Mission group and relocated.
Staying through Suffering
Hardship for the Pruitts and the North China Mission continued after the departure of Crawford. In 1894, war broke out between China and Japan, making the people of China largely victims of both sides. When the United States government warned the missionaries of the dangers and urged them to evacuate, they opted to remain and carry out the work God called them to do.
The Pruitts offered medical treatment to soldiers. They huddled together with Chinese Christians and neighbors as the Japanese military shelled Tengchow. They endeared themselves to the people they were trying to reach with the gospel. In Anna’s words, “We had been given a chance to prove our disinterestedness and from thenceforth were counted as citizens and not aliens” (The Day of Small Things, 95).
In 1896, the Pruitts’ little girl, Virginia, died after ten days of excruciating symptoms from a skin infection. They met what they called “our first great sorrow” with trust in the Lord, claiming the hope that “those ten days of agony must have been fitting her in some way for higher enjoyment and greater usefulness in the more abundant life which she had entered” (The Day of Small Things, 109).
The following year, 1897, Ashley, the Pruitts’ five-year-old boy died suddenly from what seemed to be diphtheria. Knowing that his parents were anxious about his sore throat, he told them that he was not afraid to die if Jesus wanted him to. The missionaries had long prayed for a doctor to join the work, and the deaths of the two Pruitt children stirred the hearts of Baptists in Georgia to raise the necessary funds to add medical help to the North China Mission.
Staying into His Later Years
The Pruitts also weathered the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century as well as the revolution of 1911. And while they certainly saw fruit in the first few decades of their ministry in China, the harvest became plentiful in later years. In 1912, C. W. Pruitt wrote that people were rushing into the churches and that there were baptisms nearly every Sunday.
Theological education was successfully and firmly established in 1920, with the conglomeration of educational efforts into the North China Baptist College. The mission provided educational opportunities from kindergarten through university and seminary curriculum. C. W. Pruitt was instrumental in the founding of this school and served in its theological faculty.
The longevity of Pruitt’s tenure allowed him to complete what he called the “joy-job of a lifetime.” John Broadus mentored Pruitt during his time at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Pruitt translated his Matthew commentary for the people to whom he had devoted his earthly life.
Leaving a Lasting Legacy
The Pruitts retired in 1936, and C. W. took up the post of dean of the Baptist Foreign Mission of North America. He passed from this world in 1946. Anna followed two years later. They were survived by two sons and a daughter, Robert, Dudley, and Ida, the latter of which contributed to reestablishing Chinese-Western relations in the later twentieth century.
Cicero Washington Pruitt left behind a legacy of more than half a century of service to his Lord and Savior. He remained dedicated though abandoned. He persisted through tremendous suffering. And he saw the saving grace of God extended to those who otherwise would have had no access to the gospel. The church in China endures to this day, in part, because of C. W. Pruitt’s humble willingness to follow God’s leading and faithfully persevere in carrying out the missionary task, no matter the cost.
Andrew Ballitch is a pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and adjunct professor of church history and historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College.
King, Marjorie. China’s American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888-1985). Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2006.
Pruitt, Anna Seward. The Day of Small Things. Richmond, Va.: Foreign Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, 1929.
Pruitt, Anna Seward. Up from Zero. 1st ed. Richmond, Va.: Rice Press, 1938.