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This page last updated 15 April 2007
Anglicans Online last updated 14 September 2014

an essay for Anglicans Online

The 50th anniversary of the Arrival of
two American Episcopal missionaries to Okinawa

The 155th anniversary of the Arrival of
Bernard John Bettelheim, first Anglican Missionary to Japan

by The Reverend Timothy Makoto Nakayama


Two Missionaries: The Reverend William C. Heffner and the Reverend Norman B. Godfrey

On March 21, 1951, two missionaries from the Episcopal Church USA, William C. Heffner and Norman B. Godfrey, came to Okinawa. The 50th Anniversary of their arrival will be observed this year 2001 in Okinawa. Participating in that anniversary will be a group of Episcopalians headed by the Rt. Rev. Richard S. O. Chang, Bishop of Hawaii. The Church in Japan will be represented by Bishop Igarashi of Kyushu.

Why did the Episcopal Church send these two missionaries in 1951?

Shortly after the end of World War II in Asia (referred to more accurately as the Pacific War) the Primate of the Church in Japan made an impassioned plea for the Episcopal Church USA to look after the pastoral needs of people in the southernmost part of Japan: Okinawa. In the entire spectrum of ancient and modern history of warfare, there had never been the huge loss of non-combatant lives as occurred in the Battle of Okinawa 1945. The number of lives lost exceeded those who perished from the dropping of the two atomic bombs combined (on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The battle was so extreme. The small island (65 miles long and 2 to 12 miles wide) is the central island of Okinawa Prefecture. It was said that the island was surrounded by so many battleships that the waters of the ocean could not be seen. Okinawa, located in 'typhoon alley', was in the maelstrom of the Battle of Okinawa, described as the 'typhoon of steel'. One of the American soldiers William C. Heffner, who participated in the battle was so affected by it that he dedicated his life to the service of God and the Church and became an Episcopal priest.

During the war the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Japan had been driven underground by the Government of Japan. The defeat of the Axis powers brought political, social, and religious changes. The end of religious proscription brought the Anglican-Episcopal Church (Sei Ko Kai) out from being underground, into the light of day. General Douglas MacArthur appealed for a flood of missionaries.

The Primate of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, Bishop Michael Hinsuke Yashiro, on behalf of the Church—but more generally for the people of Japan—made several visits to foreign countries with the message of reconciliation, asking that Japan be forgiven for the atrocities of the war. In 1949 he went to San Francisco to attend the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Again he bore the same message, but he asked for special help from the Church in the United States.

Because of the devastation of the war, the lack of personnel, and the power of the purse, he made an impassioned plea for the Episcopal Church to look after the pastoral and social needs of church members and of Okinawa. The northern islands had been overtaken by Russia, but the southern islands of Okinawa were occupied by the United States military. It seemed right for Bishop Yashiro to ask particular pastoral care for Okinawa.

Two people heard his urgent request: Bill Heffner and Canon Norman B. Godfrey, another veteran who had become a priest after the war. The two arrived on March 21, 1951. Shortly thereafter the Rev. Gordon Goichi Nakayama went from Canada as an interpreter for the American priests. The Nippon Sei Ko Kai also sent priests and church workers to support the effort.

American Episcopalians among the military personnel gathered for services according to the Episcopal Liturgy. Among the military chaplains were Episcopal priests. But Episcopalians worshippers could not always be assured of Episcopal ministrations. For greater stability they decided to organize an English-speaking congregation and build a church off base. That was the beginning of All Souls' Church, 'Dedicated to those of every nation who died in the Battle of Okinawa 1945'.

Among the clergy who have served this congregation are Bishop Furman Stough, Bishop, retired, of Alabama, and Bishop Edmond Lee Browning, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA and former Bishop of Hawaii. After learning Japanese and becoming Priest in Charge of a Japanese congregation, the Hawaiian jurisdiction was changed and he was appointed first Missionary Bishop of Okinawa. This record brings another fascinating fact to light.


Bernard J. Bettelheim: the first Protestant Christian to Japan, an Anglican medical missionary

On May 1, 1846 Bernard J. Bettelheim became the first Anglican and first Christian Missionary in the modern era to begin living in Japan—for a period of eight years. He thus predates Bishop Channing Moore Williams as the first one, but official accounts and records have yet to recognize this.

Today's All Souls' Church overlooks Chatan beach on the East China Sea, the location where the British Naval vessel, 'Indian Oak' sank and was rescued by the people of Chatan in August 1840, before Japanese people had been permitted to have any kind of contact with foreigners. Japan's records to this day remain silent about the incident and subsequent building of a ship so the passengers and crew could continue their voyage a few months later. The British Naval records, however, tell of this humanitarian rescue by the people of Chatan, 'in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.'

In 1815, Ernest Clifford had accompanied Captain Basil Hall on a journey and encountered the gentle people of Okinawa. Hall visited the Isle of St Helena and told the exiled Napoleon of an 'Island of Peace'—Okinawa—where there were no soldiers and no weapons. Napoleon said there surely must be some swords. Hall said the King had embargoed them. Napoleon said if there were no soldiers, no swords, 'That must be heaven!'
Around the time of these voyages Bernard John Bettelheim was born in Hungary. Meanwhile in England, Clifford, filled with missionary zeal, founded the 'Loochoo (Ryukyu) Naval Mission'.

The floundering fund of 1815 gained new impetus when the English people heard about the 1840 rescue of the 'Indian Oak' by the citizens of Chatan 'in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.' Also in 1840, Bernard John Bettelheim, a Hungarian Jew made a visit to Smyrna, Turkey to study Arabic. He met two priests of the Church of England. With the background of Hebraic rabbinical training at the age of nine from an uncle in Hungary, and Italian medical training in Padua, Bettelheim heard of Jesus the Messiah, believed, and was baptized. Hoping to share his new-found faith with fellow Jews in the Middle East, he went to London to study theology in English. His missionary enthusiasm was magnified when he met Dr David Livingstone, the African missionary. Bettelheim was further ostracsized by his Jewish Hungarian family when he married a nurse, Elizabeth Barwick, devout member of the Church of England and daughter of a wealthy lumber magnate.

The Loochoo (Ryukyu) Naval Mission wanted to send a missionary to bring health to the soul and a doctor to bring healing to the body. In Dr Bettelheim they found both: a Medical Missionary! With his nurse wife and their daughter, Bettelheim set sail. Their infant son was born as they were rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In the four-month voyage of preparation, Bettelheim mastered Japanese and Chinese. Arriving in Asia he met the famous missionaries Robert Morrison and Augustus Gutzlaff.

Augustus Gutzlaff was in the process of equipping some Japanese fishermen—who were endeavoring to return to their homeland—with the Scriptures. These men went adrift because of a severe North Pacific storm and were picked up on North America's Olympic Peninsula, near Cape Flattery, Washington State, as slaves of the Native Indians. The Hudson's Bay Company Factor at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, bought them their freedom. He introduced them to the Christian faith and sent them to England for an audience with the Queen. Desiring to return to their homeland they found their way to Macao. They attempted to re-enter Japan but were prohibited, and went all the way back to the Olympic Peninsula. It is said that when the doors were open to Japan, one of them, who was baptized, returned, but several graves for them remain on the Peninsula.

On May 1, 1846 the Bettelheim family landed in the port of Naha, Okinawa. They stayed for eight years in spite of the prohibition of foreigners by Japan. Dr Bettelheim and Elizabeth Barwick, as medical missionaries, provided Western medicine and shared the message of faith in God and salvation through Jesus the Christ. He had discovered that giving clean drinking water was essential to save victims from cholera. In discovering this new faith he was able to offer the water of life by which one need not thirst any longer.

Before he left England a fellow convert presented him with a small gilt-edged leather-covered Bible of the King James English Version, including the Old Testament in Classical Hebrew and the New Testament in Koine Greek. Bettelheim thought he had equipped himself with the necessary languages, only to discover that the people he met in Okinawa spoke another dialect, 'Hogen'. He ingeniously picked it up from a native helper, in spite of encountering trickery and no written form of the language. With 'katakana', a phonetic system within Japanese, the richness of his understanding of the faith arising from his Jewish rabbinic knowledge and his fervent conviction in his new-found Messiah, he gained a fluency sufficient to converse, and using the Bible given to him, he translated the Scriptures.

Some accounts of Bettelheim unfairly paint him as an eccentric; after all he looked and acted differently. He wore spectacles in the days when they were unknown in Asia. He and his family required necessities to survive, but local people could not sell anything to foreigners. So as not to get merchants into trouble, he devised a way of picking up what he needed, later ingeniously leaving money elsewhere so the connection would not be readily apparent. His wife Elizabeth would distribute leaflets inviting people to a gathering, only to have the papers carefully gathered by the authorities and returned: evangelism was strictly forbidden. But as Dr Bettleheim introduced people to Western medicine in the process he talked to them about the Christian Faith and gave talks about medical practices, hygiene, and health, with a Christian perspective. Some were baptized.

During the year 1996, Bettelheim's 150th anniversary of arrival, sponsored by the Okinawa Christian Council, the Japan Bible Society conducted a 'Bible Campaign' to highlight Bettelheim's work as a Bible translator and pioneering missionary. The medical profession in Okinawa recognizes the Bettelheim heritage and the academic community carefully preserves primary sources (diaries, translations, Hong Kong Bishop's visitation records), and artifacts (KJV Bible, engraving) of Bettelheim in the national university and prefectural museum. One Okinawan visitor to the exhibit mentioned having some Bettelheim oral tradition in their family: of a grandparent having known Dr Bettelheim.

Before Commodore Matthew Perry made his famous visit that opened Japan to foreign relations after 250 years of closed doors, he first visited Naha, Okinawa. Dr Bettelheim was his interpreter, a task of some considerable importance, but unsung. Bettelheim was to go shortly thereafter to the United States as a U.S. Naval Officer, and later served as a doctor in the Union Army! In Chicago he completed his translation activity in Japanese, and because he knew the Japanese could read Chinese ideographs or 'kanbun'. His passion to share the Gospel among the people of Japan drove him on, in spite of being unsuccessful in seeing his works published in Yokohama.

His grave can be found in Brookfield, Missouri, where he died at the age of 59. A monument in his memory was erected in the 1920's in Naha, Okinawa, but was partially destroyed in the early 1940's during the Pacific War. In recognition of this pioneer Medical Missionary, 'Bettelheim Hall' was built and dedicated last year by the Diocese of Okinawa.

May Bettelheim's record be lifted up and inspire us. Let us thank God for these precious beginnings and pray that all the people of Japan may come to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

THE REVEREND TIMOTHY NAKAYAMA is a retired priest living in the Diocese of Olympia (Episcopal Church in the USA). He was a missionary to Japan from 1991 to 2000. You can write to Fr Nakayama at frtim@yahoo.com.

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