Dr. Skinsnes helped countless Chinese in a dangerous time. When the spirits could not help, the Chinese came to the Mission Hospital. (Photo from the book)
By Torbjørn Greipsland, from the new book ”To the Ends of the World. 1000 Norwegian-American Missionaries”.
Two times orders were given for Casper Skinsnes to be killed. Both times his life was spared. When he came back to China in 1946, between ten and fifteen thousand Chinese people welcomed him.
That says so much about the life of the Norwegian-American missionary doctor Casper Christiansen Skinsnes. He was born in Mandal on September 29, 1886. His parents were sea captain Christian Christiansen (Sandnes, Mandal), and wife Olene, born Jensen, from Randesund (Kristiansand).
Casper emigrated to the US in 1907 and studied so that he became both theologian and physician. In 1915 he married Mathilde Olsen, born in Kristiansand on February 14, 1887, the daughter of sea captain Fredrik August Olsen and wife Janna.
Mathilde has probably been one of the few girls who at that time studied at a technical school, Kristiansand tekniske skole. Later she studied at a business school. She emigrated to the US in 1912. Then she took education as a nurse and worked at the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Chicago until 1915, when she and Casper traveled to China as missionaries sent by the United Lutheran Church in the United States.
The couple is featured in Norsk Misjonsleksikon (Norwegian Mission Encyclopedia). But we find most information about his life in his autobiography “Scalpel and Cross in Honan,” published in Minneapolis in 1952.
The autobiography is the thrilling account of a couple who came to a culture completely alien to them, a land more and more marked by major conflicts and wars. Even though equipment in hospitals was limited and simple, they managed to help thousands of people.
Dr. Skinsnes had hardly learned much about Chinese culture before traveling out to China. He was clearly strong and in good physical shape. He had never thought that he would need to be carried in a sedan chair on long trips to visit patients, but this was the custom he had to follow. Two groups of four men carried him in shifts. But not always. If they needed to move a sick patient, then the patient got to sit on the chair. Then people wondered why a foreign doctor was walking—that was not right.
– But we suppose they are carrying something important that the doctor needs to use at the hospital, they suggested.
One trip that Dr. Skinsnes and the carriers had to take, was 72 km. They traversed the stretch within 13 hours.
Dr. Skinsnes came to a culture where fear of the demons ruled. A road in the city roads was built in curves, because the citizens thought that the devil was only able to move along in a straight line.
Mathilde and Casper together with their children Olaf Kristian and Phoebe. Olaf Kristian became a medical doctor like his father. (Photo courtesy Anwei Skinsnes Law)
The first two years the Skinsnes couple worked at a hospital in Yiang that belonged to the Norwegian Mission Society (Det Norske Misjonsselskap), while Dr. Volrat Vogt was on furlough. Later they were stationed in Huangchuan where Dr. Skinsnes built a hospital. What they managed to accomplish is amazing.
The Chinese were skeptical of the medicine and treatment the missionaries came with. They tried all other alternatives before they came to the hospital, to the white people whom they called “foreign devils.”
What they accomplished in the hospital and visiting service with small means, is incredible. A carpenter said to Dr. Skinsnes that they marveled that such a young man would come to them.
– However, more and more patients have come to you. I guess that for every 100 treated, 85 go home with a song in their hearts. I see that the kingdom of God lives in you.
A patient came and said he had sent his spirit to T’ai Shan, a sacred mountain, to pray for his father who was ill. But it did not help.
He then asked the advice of the local medicine man. He said he should cut out a piece of his own liver and give it to his father to eat.
He tried, fainted, and failed.
When father and son came to Dr. Skinsnes, he saw that the father suffered from dysentery. After three weeks, he was well. The son who had injured himself trying to get out a bit of his own liver was also healed. Dr. Skinsnes asked the son if his prayers had been answered.
– Yes, he said, but not by T’ai Shan.
They came with a woman they said was blind. They had told her that she had no value because she was blind. For that reason, she had tried to take her own life by cutting her throat. They brought her to the hospital where she got treatment and recovered from her injuries. Moreover, Dr. Skinsnes discovered that she was not blind, but was plagued by trachoma. That was why she could barely see anything at all. They treated her and she improved so much that she could see well enough to walk home alone.
There is no doubt that Dr. Skinsnes worked long days at the hospital. One day he performed 12 surgeries, treated 150 other patients, and was present at 25 intravenous injections. In addition, he was the hospital administrator and would arrange countless practical matters, large and small.
Conflicts and war
Mathilde and Casper Skinsnes got to experience conflicts in the Chinese society at close range. One day they saw that 70-80 people had been killed close to the hospital.
In Sinyang county they witnessed battles between two “warlords” and their large armies. Twice Dr. Skinsnes was in direct danger as orders had been given to execute him. In the one case he was to be shot, and in the other he was to be killed with a knife.
In one of those instances a commander heard that they were about to kill him and said: “Had you done that, the whole village would have turned against us. He is the doctor at the hospital!”
Dr. Skinsnes thanked God that his life was spared.
Another time he was asked to mediate between two warring parties. That conflict was settled peacefully, probably saving the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
In 1926-1927 there was great unrest. Communist soldiers had occupied the hospital and buildings. Mrs. Skinsnes and several others had to escape. Dr. Skinsnes accompanied them part of the way before they went further on a dangerous journey in rough terrain. Dr. Skinsnes himself returned to continue to help the people he had grown so fond of.
Only interrupted by furlough, Mathilde and Casper Skinsnes remained in China until 1942. Then the situation was untenable. The Japanese had invaded China, and after their attack on Pearl Harbor animosity between them and the Americans arose. The Skinsnes couple and the other missionaries had to flee.
But the missionary vocation was alive. The couple was willing to travel out again now to Tanzania, where they served for two years from 1942 to 1944.
This poster shows that many sick people were awaiting the arrival of Dr. Skinsnes. (Photo from the book)
In 1946 they returned to China. They were met by ten to fifteen thousand Chinese who welcomed them, a powerful testimony of the confidence the Chinese had placed in them. The Word of God was preached at the mission hospital run by Norwegian missionaries. The same thing was happening at the hospital where Dr. Skinsnes was leader. But listening to it was voluntary. Missionaries witnessed countless Chinese people coming to faith in Jesus. And their lives changed.
A man came and said that he had seen a suffering stranger.
– Before, I would have just left him there, because we had the attitude that we should not help strangers. But now I could do nothing other than help him and bring him to the hospital. For I am a Christian.
In the book, Dr. Skinsnes comments on the critics who say one should not “force” something on people that they have not requested.
Dr. Skinsnes answers that they do not force anything on them. It is voluntary. You listen to the preaching only if you want to.
– However, if one has experienced something that brings peace and happiness, then why does he in good conscience remain at home and not share it with others? Do you have the right to refuse to share with your neighbor the privilege and blessing that you are benefiting from? At the hospital thousands are freed from their ailments and are led to spiritual peace. Just come and see!
Editor’s Note: In the book you can read articles about, or interviews with thirty of more than a thousand Norwegian- American missionaries. You will find more information and can purchase the book here at Norwegianheritage.org.