It was a journey of hardship, sorrow, joy, and faith that brought John Leonard Benson to the mission field in China from his birthplace in Sweden. This journey gave him many lessons he would apply in his forty-year ministry of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those living in mainland China and Hong Kong. The journey began on January 4, 1884, in the town of Vega, Breared Parish, Halland Sweden, when John L. Benson was born, the sixth of seven children.
John lived on the family farm in Veinge Parish until the age of six. His mother had died the previous year from pneumonia and his father, himself an invalid, had no choice but to divide the children among relatives, for he could not take care of the farm and the children by himself. John went to live with a newly-married cousin back in Breared Parish. It was not until after reading a letter informing him of the death of his older brother Birger, who drowned in a drunken brawl, that John had the realization he too would end up like his brother if he did not set himself upon a different path. Immediately after reading this letter he confessed his sins, asked for God's forgiveness, and pledged his life in service of the Lord.
In 1900, at the age of 16, John Benson emigrated to the United States after his older brother Peter sent him a ticket. It was an eventful journey for the younger Benson. While searching for a drink of water at a train station in Denmark, the train left without him. Upon arriving in Liverpool, he boarded the wrong boat and landed in Philadelphia instead of New York. He made his way to New Haven, Connecticut, and after searching that city for two hours, found the rooming house at which his brother was living.
In the following three years he attended special classes for immigrants and worked for local New Haven merchants. In 1903 he enrolled at Uppsala College, East Orange, New Jersey, graduating in 1909 with a bachelor's degree. Although he enrolled at the Augustana Theological Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois, for the following fall, he instead began classes at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, with an eye to completing a master's degree in sociology. It was at the University of Chicago that John L. Benson's interest in foreign mission work was sparked. He had intended to begin ministering to those living in America's urban areas, but after becoming a member of the Student Volunteer Movement at the university, through which he was introduced to the study of Chinese culture and history, he began to think about devoting his life to mission work occurring in China. Though he struggled with his decision, in the end he believed he was called to the field in China and freely accepted that it was God's will. He was ordained in June 1914, in Sycamore, Illinois, with a call from the China Mission Board of the Augustana Synod. In August of that year, he and his wife departed for China, arriving at the mission field in Honan Province, China, on September 30, 1914.
In all, the Bensons spent four terms as missionaries in China. Their first term, 1914-1921, was spent in evangelistic work and teaching. After finishing up language training in Hsuchang, Rev. Benson was left in charge of the mission station there. During this time the Bensons encountered many hardships, but always maintained the ability to see the necessity of their work in China. Rev. Benson worked to train Chinese leadership for the eventuality of forming an indigenous church. When a famine developed in 1920, Rev. Benson began his involvement in relief work through his responsibility for distributing funds collected for famine relief.
The family spent 1928-1933 in the United States in the home mission field, where Rev. Benson had a pastorate. He served this congregation for five years. Rev. Benson and his family were able to return to the China mission field in 1933. They were stationed at Hsuchang, Honan Province, and involved in education work. Rev. Benson was the principal of the Hasselquist School for Boys, and Mrs. Benson was the principal of the Emmy Evald Training School for Girls. In 1934 Rev. Benson was elected president of the Augustana Synod Mission, China. This was an office he would hold until his retirement from the field in 1954. In 1941 the family returned to the United States.
Rev. Benson stayed in Minneapolis until 1942 when he returned alone to China. Beginning in 1944, he was involved in establishing Lutheran congregations in Shensi Province, teaching at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Chungking, and later rebuilding church organizations. His time in Honan was cut short due to illness, and he returned to the United States in 1946 for medical treatment.
Rev. and Mrs. Benson's fifth term in China began in the fall of 1947. Both Rev. and Mrs. Benson taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Taofongshan, Hong Kong, and Rev. Benson also worked as the Food and Famine Commissioner. In forty years of missionary service Rev. Benson also spent time as a district superintendent in Hsuchang, secretary of the China Mission, president of the Central Honan Augustana Synod, and Chairman, China Committee, Lutheran World Federation. He was the founder of the Augustana Lutheran Church of Hong Kong and president of its Lutheran mission. In the summer of 1954 the Bensons returned to the United States for good.
The records are from 1916-1960 and comprise matters both of a business and personal nature. These records were generated in the course of Pastor Benson's various job duties throughout his mission career. There is a small amount written in Swedish. The correspondence is handwritten and typewritten and subject matter includes updates on mission work, missionary personnel matters, financial and material needs of the mission, the political situation and preparations for evacuations during civil war, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Communist revolution. There are some copies of mission meeting minutes and mission president reports. Other subjects addressed in these letters include difficulties encountered in mission field, staffing needs, and missionary updates. These papers also include personal correspondence from Pastor Benson to his family from 1943-1946, during his fourth term in China in which he was without his wife and family. In addition, there are photographs taken in 1944-1945. The collection is available on microfilm.