Leonard Outerbridge’s life often seemed like a parable of Bermuda’s motto: he was carried by the “fates” to distant, unforeseen shores. After a childhood spent among his father’s lily fields in Warwick, the 1920s and 1930s found him a missionary on the parched plains of North China and the wheat lands of prairie Canada. The Second World War found him preaching on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in the Norwegian Sea, at the chilly end of the Gulf Stream. His education carried him to a small midwest American college, then to a Canadian theology college and later to graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he became the Rev. Dr. Outerbridge.

Authorship and a reputation as an early “sinologist” capped a career that culminated with a 1950s call to a rural Canadian parish.  While his fate may have seemed haphazard, an unshakeable Methodist faith in fact stayed Outerbridge’s course through the whole navigation. He dedicated himself to the abiding wisdom of Methodism’s founder John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, /By all the means you can, /In all the ways you can, /In all the places you can.”

  • Lilies and Methodism
  • Leonard Mallory Outerbridge was born at the very dawn of the twentieth century on January 25, 1900. His father, Eugene Worrall Outerbridge, was a seed merchant and “nursery man” prominent in the Mount Pleasant area of Shelly Bay. Eugene’s keen entrepreneurial eye early on spotted the potential of exporting Bermuda lily—Lillium longiflorum—bulbs to America. With that in mind, in 1894, he rented verdant land at Longford in Warwick to expand his harvest. There Leonard was born, a middle addition to a family that would eventually number eight boys and three girls.

The family of Eugene and Fanny Outerbridge was not only rooted in the soil of Bermuda, but also in its ardent Methodist faith. Brought to Bermuda in the early nineteenth century by George Whitehead and Joshua Marsden as disciplines of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism stressed a methodical Christian life, one dedicated to worldly works and the spreading of God’s message. Methodists were not predestined to heavenly reward, but instead earned sanctification through a life of good works. Thus, the tilling of fields and the cultivation of the soul were the twin compulsions of the Outerbridge family, passions that would propel its offspring to excellence both in the fields of Bermuda and in missionary fields far beyond.

At age eleven, Leonard was sent to Whitney Institute in nearby Flatts. There he excelled. One of his teachers later recalled that he had “never had a brighter boy to teach” and “even then felt his call to preach the gospel.” Graduating in 1915 with his class’s highest grades in math and history, Leonard veered towards his family’s agrarian vocation. He joined the Bermuda Department of Agriculture, where under the tutelage of its director, Ernest Albert McCallan, he soaked up a hands-on education in botany.

Outerbridge proved a quick study in agricultural management. In St. George’s he teamed up with African Methodist Episcopal minister Richard Hilton Tobitt to introduce a course in horticulture in the local schools. By 1920, he had risen to the assistant directorship of the department. A year later, when a scourge—Indian peach scale—hit Bermuda’s signature oleanders, Outerbridge worked with Professor Herbert Whetzel of Cornell University to arrest the infestation. In 1922, he accompanied Whetzel to Washington to lobby the American government against any import restriction on Bermuda lily bulbs.

Throughout these years, Outerbridge’s Methodism tugged at his sleeve. In his late teens, he began to preach at local churches—Grace Church, Ebenezer Methodist, Wesley Methodist in Hamilton, Harris Bay Methodist and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian. Royal Gazette accounts of these sermons described him as a “brilliant” preacher and began to style him as “Reverend” Outerbridge, although he had no formal religious training. When time allowed, Leonard undertook missionary training sessions for the Wesleyan Methodist Central Circuit. Initially, his evangelicalism was confined to island pulpits, but further shores soon beckoned. The tipping point came late in 1922 when, after a stint as a stand-in preacher at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, he resigned his government post and headed for Mount Allison College in New Brunswick. A small college founded in 1849, Mount Allison boasted a theology faculty steeped in Methodism. At a farewell social, well-wishers saluted the 22-year-old as he departed his “native island” to pursue a “fuller preparation for your life’s work.”

Bermuda’s Ebenezer Methodist Church where Outerbridge preached as a teenager despite having no formal religious training at the time.

  • Adieu Bermuda
  • Leonard’s departure on the SS Chaleur for Halifax marked the beginning of a remarkable diaspora for the Outerbridge family. When father Eugene died in 1919, sons Eugene and Rogers took over the family lily business, nurturing it into the island’s largest floral producer. In the 1930s, E. Worrall Outerbridge Company pioneered the introduction of a hardier, earlier blooming lily—L. longiflorum Howardii—to Bermuda, a budding lily that sustained shipment to markets as far away as California. Another brother, Joseph John, prospered as the manager of the Trade Development Board, the control room of Bermuda’s burgeoning tourism. In keeping with the family’s horticultural bent, Joe cultivated an impressive citrus orchard in Smith’s. A building at the Botanical Gardens to this day consequently bears the Outerbridge name.  A sister, Elsie, trained as a nurse and rose to become matron of nursing at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. Other brothers entered the wholesale trade. All remained stalwarts of their church.

Other Outerbridge offspring took a road less travelled—carrying their faith far beyond Bermuda. Brother Theodore became a doctor and served as a medical missionary to China. The eldest daughter, Lydia, taught English in Japan, served as a missionary in China and then did social work in Nova Scotia. Thus, Leonard’s departure for Mount Allison fit a pattern of what historians have labelled the “social gospel”—the urge to demonstrate God’s omnipotence across the globe.

For Leonard, however, the first sortie of faith did not go well. By Christmas, he was back in Bermuda, announcing that he had given up his studies at Mount Alison “for the time.” An “urgent need” at local churches had pulled him home. In the absence of any preserved body of Leonard’s correspondence, we are often left to speculate on exactly what shaped his decisions, beyond perhaps his restless convictions. We do know that he briefly returned to Truro, Nova Scotia, to preach as a locum at the Brunswick Street Methodist Church. Throughout the winter of 1923, Leonard reappeared in Bermuda pulpits, dabbled in horticulture, joined HMS Curlew on a Caribbean cruise and pondered his future. That future became clearer thanks to Professor Whetzel, the Cornell University botanist with whom he had tackled the oleander plight. Impressed by Outerbridge’s drive, Whetzel pushed him towards Wabash College, a small midwestern American college in Indiana, which had recently bestowed an honorary degree on the eminent botanist.

In the fall of 1923, the Wabash student newspaper, The Bachelor, announced the arrival of a “prominent Bermudian.” Leonard would have been older than most of his confreres and, given his work as a horticulturalist, probably more worldly wise. Enrolled in Wabash’s BA programme, Outerbridge flourished. In particular, his preaching prowess stood him good stead. For instance, he represented Wabash at the State Peace Oratorical Contest, declaiming on “Our Common World.”

A Wabash bachelor’s degree did not, however, equip Leonard for a clerical life. Thus, in 1924, he arrived at the theology college of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Queen’s had deep Presbyterian roots and a reputation for producing “muscular Christians.” Queen’s was impressed by Outerbridge’s “wide experience.” The Queen’s years did witness two life-shaping developments in Leonard’s life. He was given permission to take courses at the University of Chicago’s theology faculty as part of his degree, an affiliation that would last for years. And, in June 1925, he married Christina Henrietta Martyn, a small-town Ontario girl with a Queen’s arts degree and an ambition to teach school.

  • China calls
  • Outerbridge’s ordination in 1925 coincided with the creation of the United Church of Canada—an amalgamation of Canada’s Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist faiths. His assignment to the Bay of Quinte Conference of the new church did not last long. From the shores of Lake Ontario, he would soon depart for the arid plain of North China. Although only 25 years old, Outerbridge had already acquired a dual reputation for evangelical zeal and horticultural expertise. This reputation had not escaped the American Board of Foreign Missions which called on its Canadian affiliate to release the young minister for service in China. Late in 1925, Leonard and Christina sailed across the Pacific.

Two forces conspired to lure the couple to China. For almost 1,300 years Christianity had tried to penetrate China. Progress had been slow in the face of entrenched local belief. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American Board was the largest missionary presence in China. Its “stations” scattered across China offered not just the Gospel, but also medical and educational assistance. Resistance was often strong. At the turn of the twentieth century, the anti-western Boxer Rebellion had seen missionaries murdered and driven out of the country. The urge to proselytise China was given added impetus by the so-called Great Famine of 1920–21 that starved an estimated 500,000 Chinese in drought-stricken North China. In response, the China International Famine Relief Commission was founded in 1921 to convey food aid to the needy. Leonard Outerbridge’s talents seemed ideally suited to each of these challenges.

The Outerbridges were initially sent to the Yenching School of Chinese Studies in Beijing, where they joined 130 other missionaries and buckled down to learning Chinese. From the outset, Leonard was earmarked not just for preaching but also to the task of modernising Chinese agriculture. Once proficient in the language, the Outerbridges were deployed to “Fenchow” (today Xinzhou) in Shanxi Province, in the interior west of Beijing. Shanxi Province is bounded by Inner Mongolia to the north along the route of the Great Wall and is skirted by the Yellow River as it ran to the sea on its western border. Physically, Shanxi is a high plateau framed by mountains.

Times were not good in Fenchow. Severe drought persisted; the monsoons had failed to materialise for several years, and crops were meagre. More worrisome were the initial skirmishes of what was about to turn into a full-fledged civil war as the erstwhile coalition of the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party broke apart. Local warlords and Soviet advisors complicated the situation. National unity began a slow deterioration.

  • In the Fields of Shanxi
  • The Outerbridges reported to the Royal Gazette that were “relatively safe” in Shanxi amid the “chaos” but that there was a “bad odour” towards foreigners. Nonetheless, Leonard went to work. On Sundays, he preached, but by week he set to work establishing an agricultural research station aimed at bringing the “dry and barren” fields of the district back to life. Since the onset of drought in the early 1920s, the local kaoliang (sorghum) crop, the essential staple for grain and pasturing, had withered. Salvation, Outerbridge concluded, was to identify new crops which grew in a shorter growing season and needed less irrigation.

Financed by grants totaling $80,000 from Mission Board and the China International Famine Relief Commission, Outerbridge’s research station tested seeds—Dwarf Millo Maize, Feterita and Spring Rye—imported from countries with similar arid climates. Dramatic results ensued. Kaoliang, for instance, took 140–160 days to come to maturity; Outerbridge’s replacements matured in 120. Local farmers nicknamed Feterita “ten thousand years of greenness” in tribute to its hardiness. For her part, Christina Outerbridge mounted fairs to display the bounty of new harvests to Mission officials and curious local farmers. Outerbridge reported his experiments in an article for the prestigious Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. “The new agriculture of China will be a distinctly Chinese agriculture,” he wrote, “and not a European or American importation, although contributions from the West will be welcomed here.” Just as lilies and vegetables had boosted Bermuda’s economy, so too would new crops pull Shanxi out of rural poverty.

  • Home Again
  • The Outerbridges stayed six years in China. They were years of applying faith and knowledge to humanity’s needs. These years also saw the birth of two children: Henrietta and Ian. But by 1931, events in China were spiraling out of control. The unfolding decade would bring further civil turmoil between Nationalists and communists, compounded in 1931 by a Japanese invasion and culminating in the Second World War. Such chaos provoked a steady exodus of missionaries. In the summer of 1931, the American Board of Foreign Missionaries called Outerbridge home, partly out of concern for his family’s safety but also because it recognised his administrative talents could be applied to its central administration.

Leonard and Christina celebrated Christmas 1931 among family in Bermuda at “Mount Pleasant,” the family home at Shelly Bay. Little Hetti and Ian saw Bermuda for the first time. Rev. Outerbridge’s China reputation had preceded him, and he found himself much in demand as a speaker. He returned to many of the pulpits familiar to him as an adolescent preacher. He reported on “the big problem” in China to the Rotary Club, painting a grim picture of “the chaos now paralysing her.” The Royal Gazette recognised Leonard’s rhetorical power, praising his “racy, lucid and succinct style.” Sir Stanley Spurling saluted him as a lad he had always thought would do Bermuda proud. As the decade wore on, other missionaries in the Outerbridge clan would bring similar messages back from the Far East. Sister Lydia brought news of “life in China” to Rotarians and doctor brother Ted castigated Japan’s “sheer bloodthirsty aggression” in China.

In 1943, Outerbridge was appointed naval chaplain at the HMCS Burrard in British Columbia, a shore station and headquarters of the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force during the Second World War.

Back in the United States, Outerbridge was appointed an associate secretary of the Board of Foreign Missionaries, based in Auburndale, Massachusetts. |His innate organisational skills soon prompted promotion to the executive secretaryship of the Board and a move to White Plains, New York. Depression and global unrest throughout the 1930s aggravated the Board’s widespread obligations around the world. Through all this, Leonard remained intellectually restless. In 1933, he completed a master’s thesis on “The Transformation of Religious Concepts in North China” at the University of Chicago’s theology college.

When war came in 1939, Outerbridge found himself in still neutral America with a Canadian wife, a pastoral connection to the United Church of Canada and little prospect of missionary field work. So, in 1940, he accepted a call to become the minister of Metropolitan Church in Regina, Saskatchewan. At the heart of Canada’s wheat economy, Saskatchewan had suffered terribly through the depression and drought of the Dirty Thirties but was now coming back to life in the burgeoning war economy. Metropolitan Church—an impressive brick edifice located downtown in the provincial capital—was steeped in Presbyterian and Methodist ways and provided a welcome platform for Outerbridge’s clerical qualities.

  • For Those in Peril on the Sea
  • Entering the Second World War, Canada had puny, underfunded armed forces but the conflict brought exponential growth in both materiel and manpower. Canadians —many of them of Anglo stock—flocked to the colours. And when 200 of his Regina parishioners enlisted, Outerbridge concluded that he should follow them to minister to their spiritual needs.   In 1943, he became a naval chaplain and was appointed to a shore establishment, HMCS Burrard, in Vancouver. There, once again, Outerbridge’s rhetorical power shone. Called upon to talk at war bond rallies, he caught the attention of the naval senior staff, who invited him to become the chaplain on an aircraft carrier being fitted out in nearby Victoria. HMS Puncher was a so-called “baby flat top,” a small carrier designed to provide air defence for convoys. Although officially a Royal Navy ship, Puncher was crewed by Canadians (and, Outerbridge proudly noted, a few boys from Bermuda).

In 1954, Outerbridge was invited to be chaplain aboard the Canadian Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Puncher. For two years he preached form the hangar deck to the carrier’s crew of 850.

For the next two years, Outerbridge preached to and consoled the carrier’s crew of 850. The ship traversed the Atlantic many times, ferrying new fighter aircraft to the Allies in Europe and Africa before operating out of Scapa Flow protecting convoys heading for Murmansk in Russia. Outerbridge’s “chapel” was the capacious hangar deck of the carrier. He frequently evoked Lord Horatio Nelson’s famous Trafalgar battle prayer in his sermons: “To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.” Luckily, his ship sailed through enemy waters unscathed, although her sister carrier, the Nabob, was severely damaged by a Nazi torpedo. When hostilities ended, Outerbridge wrote a history of the Puncher’s war and privately published it. The ship, he wrote, “was one of the happiest ships in the Royal Navy.”

  • Post-war Preaching and Reflection
  • With peace Outerbridge returned to his Regina pulpit. The energy of wartime economic production shifted smoothly into postwar prosperity in Canada. Church attendance boomed. Despite his now comfortable existence in Canada, China remained prominent in Outerbridge’s thoughts. Although the Japanese had been vanquished, China remained locked in a vicious civil war. As the decade wound down, the communists inexorably pushed the Kuomintang toward defeat. In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, and communism prevailed on the mainland. Once again, China became curtained off from the West. Communism was antithetical to Christianity. The West responded by portraying communist China as a malevolent virus, a menace that would be reinforced through the 1950s by the Korean War (“yellow peril” on the march) and America’s embrace of phobic McCarthyism.

One of Leonard Outerbridge’s abiding strengths was his ability to stand apart from prevailing preconceptions in order to take an objective assessment of situations from which others had drawn precipitous conclusions. In 1949, Leonard left his Regina flock and headed for China to study its dramatically changed social and political landscape. It was a bold, perhaps reckless, thing to do: China had become a place where westerners were persona non grata. Outerbridge’s aim was to compile material for a University of Chicago doctorate on the question of why Christianity had “failed” to penetrate China. For most, the church had “lost” China as a result of the virulent atheism of communism. Outerbridge begged to differ.

Leonard’s 1951 Chicago PhD thesis took a long view of Christianity’s quest in China. He delved back 1,300 years to when the Nestorians first tried to proselytise the Chinese. Many expulsions punctuated the following centuries culminating in the most recent communist putsch. But, Outerbridge argued, Christianity’s fault in China lay within itself, not in the “modern devil” of communism. The missionary impulse, he said, had been blighted by “blunders” and “errors” which had prevented Christianity from ever engaging the Chinese as a people with a legitimate and meaningful cultural heritage. Christians had “dismissed China’s religious past as completely pagan and idolatrous.” Missionaries had rested their view of China on “dogmatic assertions” that saw no spiritual worth in the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tze. They had failed to recognise that the Chinese, like Christians, based their spiritual life on “an infinite, eternal, and mysterious reality” and in failing to appreciate this the whole Christian effort in China had failed to “indigenise” itself to local norms. If, Outerbridge concluded, this debilitating myopia was recognised the “present seeming catastrophe can become a divine instrument” out of which “an essential unity” of Christian and Chinese might emerge.

Outerbridge’s thesis surfaced in book form from a Philadelphia publisher in 1952 under the title The Lost Churches of China. The word “lost”—as in lost sheep—conveyed a telling Biblical resonance. Outerbridge perpetuated his contrarian take of China in talks he gave on China’s isolation from the West, talks in which he presented the Chinese Communist Revolution in nuanced rather than categorical terms. China, he argued was not the unwitting victim of communist ideology but instead was going through a complex political, cultural, social, religious and economic modernisation.  His lectures provoked bold newspaper headlines: “Outerbridge: US Cause for Chinese Ill-Will.” America’s failure to accommodate China in its postwar diplomatic and military policies had, he argued, set the stage for communist victory. In an America seething with McCarthyite hatred of all things communist, Outerbridge was poking the bear of American public opinion.

Dr. Outerbridge now retreated to Canada. His academic prowess brought an honorary degree from his alma mater Queen’s in 1959. Before that, in 1952, he had accepted a call from a United Church parish in Québec’s Eastern Townships. Lennoxville, a largely Anglo town with deep Loyalist roots, was also the home to Bishop’s University, a small, predominantly undergraduate liberal arts college. Tapping into Outerbridge’s Oriental expertise, Bishop’s appointed him a professor in its Department of Eastern Religion and Philosophy. These were times when Canadians knew little of China beyond Cold War stereotypes. Outerbridge created his own pedagogic traditions: each year he took his students to Lennoxville’s Nanking Café and treated them to an evening of Chinese music and food. The evening included a lesson in eating with chopsticks and Outerbridge’s translations of the clever aphorisms printed on the chopsticks’ wrappers. The evening was intended, the professor explained, “to give students a better psychological understanding of the Chinese people. It teaches them why they react the way they do toward the western civilization.”

Bermuda was never far from Leonard’s mind in these years. His family continued to prosper on the island. Summer visits were frequent. And in 1953, Outerbridge’s daughter, Henrietta or “Hetti,” married a young Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers, whose career was beginning to attract international attention. Twenty years later, Hetti and Jon—often fondly known as “God’s tenor”—moved to Bermuda’s Tucker’s Town and quickly melded into local society. Music was indeed central to the Outerbridge family. Hetti’s brother Ian, a Toronto lawyer, would later arrange to have the organ in Toronto’s Victoria College dedicated to his hymn-singing family’s global footprint.

Leonard Outerbridge’s remarkable life came to an end in April 1960. A 1958 auto accident incapacitated him, obliging him and Christina to retire early to her hometown of Ripley, Ontario. His health never recovered, and pneumonia claimed him in a Toronto hospital. His tombstone in Ripley was plainly inscribed: “Leonard Mallory Outerbridge, 1900–1960.” He surely deserved, one could argue, a less humble recognition of a life so fully spent. Perhaps the injunction of Charles Wesley—“Soldiers of Christ, arise/And put your armour on”—might better have conveyed his worldly achievement.

Dr Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen’s University in Kingston. He has written on Bermuda history and heritage for years, along with many books and articles on Canada and Brazil.