Frank Houghton - Eager to Glorify God

Frank Houghton - Eager to Glorify God

            The news of the brutal murder of John and Betty Stam – together with a local shopkeeper who tried to defend them – shook the missionary community and other Christians everywhere. It was December 1934, and the 10th division of the communist Red Army had just arrived in the Anhui Province. of China. The Stams - missionaries with the China Inland Mission – were an easy target. They were beheaded after a night’s imprisonment and a 12-mile march to the place of execution.

            When Frank Houghton, then editorial secretary for the China Inland Mission, heard the news, he reacted in a way that may sound counterintuitive. Instead of minding his own security, he began a tour of missionary outposts in China in order to encourage and strengthen the churches. According to the Stams’ great-nephew, Carl (“Chip”) Stam, while Houghton was “travelling over the mountains of Szechwan, the powerful and comforting words of 2 Corinthians 8:9, ‘though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor,’ were transformed” into this Christmas hymn:”[1]

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,

All for love’s sake becamest poor;

Thrones for a manger didst surrender,

Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,

All for love’s sake becamest poor.


Thou who art God beyond all praising,

All for love’s sake becamest man;

Stooping so low, but sinners raising

Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,

All for love’s sake becamest man.

            The Stams had given up their earthly life, but Christ had given up so much more, assuming a human nature forever in order to save men and women who had willfully rebelled against him – all while remaining the everlasting “God beyond all praising.”

Early Life

            Houghton was born in in 1894 in Stafford, England – the fourth of the eight children of a local curate. He showed an inclination to poetry from a young age, and composed some of his first poems, both sacred and funny, when he was 13.

            A turning point in his young life happened at age 17, when he and his brother Alfred nearly drowned in the sea and “were miraculously saved after both had disappeared, and were dragged out unconscious.”[2] They both believed God kept them alive for a purpose, and both devoted their lives to Him.

            Frank took longer to recover, because of a lung congestion that left him physically weak, so much that he was declared unfit for military service. Alfred and another brother, Herbert, served in World War I, but Herbert was killed in 1916 in the tragic Battle of the Somme.

            Frank graduated from the University of London, was ordained in 1917, and served as curate in Liverpool and Preston. In 1920, he answered a call to serve with the China Inland Mission (CIM), against the advice of his doctor who was concerned about Frank’s heart problems. Frank was not the only one in his family to become a missionary. Three of his siblings answered a call to China and two to Burma.

            In 1923, Frank married Dorothy, daughter of William Cassels, the well-respected Anglican bishop of West China. He then served as principal of the Theological College in Paoning, Sichuan, until 1928, when he visited his home country. His stay was prolonged by a surge of nationalistic violence in China.

Putting Christ Back in Christian Missions

            While in England, he edited the book China Calling, explaining the need for missionaries in China. By that time, there were questions on why Christians should travel to other countries to convert populations who were, after all, living decent lives. In other words, people understood a need for missions only in countries that were considered dark, backward, and immoral. This was partially due to miscommunications by missionaries who emphasized these things in order to arouse pity and raise support.

            Houghton redirected their minds toward the true reason for missions: “China is needy not because the people are any worse than ourselves, but because they are like ourselves”[3] – sinners in need of Christ.

            Houghton traveled around Eastern Szechwan (a province as large as England and Wales put together), between 1937 and 1940, while he was bishop of that region, covering over 1300 miles on foot or by local transportation. This gave him a good idea of the condition of the churches under his supervision.

            In 1940, he accepted the position of general director of CIM. As such, he emphasized the importance of indigenous, self-governing churches that are able to support themselves while supervising their mission work. “As soon as a Church has been brought into being in any country,” he wrote, “evangelism is the task of the church, not merely individuals within it, still less of Christians from other lands.”[4] He believed that, at that point in time, missionaries had to work in service of and submission to the local churches.

            Houghton’s insistence on strengthening the local churches included a respect for Chinese culture, reproving the common mistake, made by foreign missionaries, of “condemning as unchristian what is, after all, only un-British or un-American.”[5]

Missions in the People’s Republic

            In 1948, when the victory of the Chinese Communist Party seemed imminent, Christian missionaries started to leave the country. Initially, Houghton was determined to stay, and encouraged others to do the same. He thought they could find a way to continue their work in spite of the changed political scene. But the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the onset of the Korean War created greater animosity against Americans and – subsequently – Christians. Finally, in 1951, CIM was forced to leave the country.

            Houghton and his wife returned to England where he served in several churches until his retirement in 1963. He died on 25 January 1972.

            He authored several books, mostly on missions. The most enduring is probably his biography of Amy Carmichael[6], a missionary to India who was a dear friend of Houghton and his wife.

Houghton’s Poetry

            Houghton continued to write poems throughout his life, almost as a journal, expressing his prayers, struggles, hopes, and thankfulness. Some were turned into hymns. Many are collected in the volume Faith Triumphant.[7]

            “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” has become a well-known Christmas hymn, describing the wonder of Christ’s condescension for our sakes, in his incarnation, humiliation, and suffering.

            The hymn, sung at a tune of an old French carol, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” (What is this lovely fragrance?), concludes with Houghton’s prayer that God may make him and mold him as He saw fit, through and because of the indwelling Christ:

Thou who art love beyond all telling,

Saviour and King, we worship thee.

Emmanuel, within us dwelling,

Make us what thou wouldst have us be.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,

Saviour and King, we worship thee.

            This is a recurrent theme in Houghton’s poems: his desire to be used by God in the mission field (as in the hymn “Facing a Task Unfinished”) and anywhere else, in imitation of Christ, “who patiently endured the cross” and, “though He were a Son, came to His crown through a bitter loss.”[8] One poem in particular seems to sum up his life-long yearning:  

One eager hope, one passionate desire,

One grand, all-unifying aim –

Albeit in doubt’s dark night or pain’s fierce fire –

Let me bring glory to His Name.[9]


[2] A. T. Houghton, Dense Jungle Green. The First Twelve Years of the B.C.M.S. Burma Mission, Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society, 1937, p. 18

[3] Frank Houghton, China Calling, 1936

[4] Frank Houghton, “The Pattern Shown,” China’s Millions, China Inland Mission, 1945, quoted in Miller, Anthony J., “Pioneers in Exile: The China Inland Mission and Misisonary Mobility in China and Southeast Asia, 1943-1989," 2015. Theses and Dissertations--History. 26. p. 108.

[5] Ibid., p. 111

[6] Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, CLC Publications.

[7] Frank Houghton, Faith Triumphant, An Anthology of Verse, OMF International, 1973

[8] Frank Houghton, “The Road of My Desire,” in Mary Batchelor, A Treasury of Christian Poetry: 700 Inspiring and Beloved Poems, Gramercy, 2004, p. 185.


Simonetta Carr