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Zenas Loftis Born to Serve in Tibet

Gravestone marks the resting place of Loftis's remains.

ON THIS DAY, 11 May 1881 Zenas Loftis was born in Gainesboro, Tennessee. We know little of the circumstances of his birth, and that little has been preserved only because of the circumstances of his death. 

When Loftis was seven, his family moved to Kansas. He became a Christian when he was thirteen, and as a young man, was active in slum mission work and taught in a Chinese Sunday school. He studied pharmacy at Vanderbilt University and supported his widowed mother. 

Inspired by the story of Dr. Susie Carson Rijnhart, who brought the Gospel to Tibet despite the murder of her husband and the loss of her child along the way, he determined to become a medical missionary. Telling the Lord he would go “to the most difficult field in the world where the need is greatest,” Loftis returned to Vanderbilt and trained to become a doctor while working outside jobs to support himself. 

After graduation, he left Nashville, Tennessee for Tibet on 31 August 1908, recording his adventures and experiences in a journal that was published as A Message from Batang shortly after his death. At many stops along the way, missionaries pleaded with him to join them. In his journal, he commented that he wished he could multiply himself by a hundred, so great was the need. Along the way, he gave what medical assistance he could to people he met, including two patients suffering from opium poisoning. 

The greatest dangers of his journey were from filth, vermin, and hostile dogs. But other risks, such as running rapids or riding a horse on the edge of a precipice, abounded as well. He shuddered at the people he met, whose darkness had been untouched by Christianity, and pleaded again and again with the Lord to be able to open a few eyes to the Savior. 

On 14 June 1909 he came to the tombstone of William Soutter, an earlier missionary to the Tibetans. The place was so lonely and the grave so forlorn that a chilly sensation crept over him. He wrote in his journal: “O my master, if it is Thy will that I fill a lonely grave in this land, may it be one that will be a landmark, and an inspiration to others, and may I go to do it willingly, if it is Thy will.” 

Three days later he reached the station at Batang where he was to work. Fellow missionaries welcomed him with joy. The next day he began language studies and soon was offering medical assistance to the few cases that came to him. On 12 August 1909 he died, having contracted smallpox and typhus after only a few short weeks in Batang. 

Fellow missionaries provided a marker for him. News of his death inspired Dr. William Moore Hardy to take his place and others also volunteered. As a result, the number of Tibetan Christians increased. The work continued until 1932, when all missionaries had to leave during a Tibetan revolt against China.

—Dan Graves

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