View from the Faraway Pagoda: A Pioneer Australian Missionary in China from the Boxer Rebellion to the Communist Insurgency

Robert and Linda Banks


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Click here to listen to Leigh Hatcher’s interview with Robert and Linda Banks about their book on his Open House radio program, broadcast on 24  March 2013.


This book describes the life and service of an inspiring woman, Sophie Newton, the grand-aunt of Robert Banks, whose desire to serve God led her to the forefront of missionary work in south-east China from 1897 to 1931. She lived through the tumultuous events of the Boxer Rebellion and Nationalist Revolution, as well as warlord conflicts and early communist uprisings.

Sophie spent her life empowering women through establishing schools and training Christian workers, as well as opposing the opium trade and challenging the practices of foot binding and infanticide.

Drawing on a wide range of family journals, personal letters, official records and newspaper reports, this story describes how the conviction, sacrifice and compassion of one single-minded woman can make a real and lasting difference to a community.

Robert and Linda Banks have worked in churches, universities and other educational institutions. Robert has taught in history departments and theological colleges and written several award-winning books. Linda has been a teacher, pastor and chaplain. Together they have produced a range of creative Christian resources.

Recent News

On 24 August 2014, Robert and Linda Banks took part in a headstone laying ceremony for Sophie Newton, organised by Jenny Inglis. You can read more about this event here.


To read the review, written by Audrey Grant, follow this link.

To read the review, written by Peter Schendzielorz in Essentials, Summer 2014 follow this link.

To read the review, written by Hazel Barker, follow this link.

Robert and Linda Banks are my boy’s godparents, and I am one of the persons whose names appear in the acknowledgments. These may have, admittedly, influenced my five-star rating, but not much.

View from the Faraway Pagoda is about a single female missionary, Deaconess Sophie Newton, who had, under the auspices of Australia Church Missionary Society, labored more than thirty years (from 1897 to 1931) in the Foochow area of China and devoted most part of her adult life to the service of God. It gives us a glimpse, from a Western perspective, of the early 20th-century China, a China that was not yet polluted, but dominated by poverty, ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, violence, and warfare. In many ways, Sophie was a remarkable woman. She had been tough and strong to face alone many dangers and snares as a single lady in an exotic land. She loved the Chinese people as her own countrymen, speaking their language, and regarding China as home. But as well, she was an ordinary woman, not without mortal emotions, subject to all sorts of frailties and weaknesses throughout her life. Occasionally, she would even find herself wrestling with God, but each time, through prayer her most powerful weapon, she had been able to receive wisdom and restore strength so as to continue in her faithful service. She was, like Phoebe from Romans 16 that St. Paul speaks of, a sister, helper, and true servant of God, which is the Biblical meaning of the word “deaconess”.

While reading this book, I was constantly thinking of the Greatest Commandments taught by Jesus. The first one is “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, and the second one, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. These two constitute the core of Christianity, and no doubt Sophie was a person who had lived up to it, for it is always love that counts. Sophie’s love for God was ignited in 1892 by the Irish missionary Robert Warren Stewart, her precursor in the Anglican mission field of Foochow who was to suffer martyrdom in Kucheng Massacre in 1895. Since then, she had put that heavenly love into earthly practice by loving, helping, and serving countless people ceaselessly at both home and abroad, including thousands of Chinese. An interesting discovery that I recently made is a 90-year-old lady in Fuzhou who refers to Sophie as “Ngū Mā” (Grandmother Newton) and fondly remembers everything of her girlhood in relation to her. In 1956, in the waning years of her life, Sophie’s love even reached out to inspire the young heart of her teenaged grandnephew, Robert Banks, who decades later with his wife Linda painstakingly compiled her journals, letters and diaries into this biography. In turn, and again by His providence, Rob and Linda’s love also deeply touched mine… Sophie has entered that eternal glory, and her love still influences us on earth, working on forever, which gives me a real sense of the life everlasting. And I closed this book asking myself, “Now who is the next person I should pass this love on to?”

For the Christian reader, View from the Faraway Pagoda is a book about love, a book that changes life. For the missiologist, it also provides precious pictures of the Anglican history of China, of how the CMS missionaries were working side-by-side with the Chinese Christians on transforming Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui from a foreign mission into an indigenous church, in which Sophie had played a humble yet indispensable part. Yes, Sophie always saw further than most of her contemporaries did, and that’s probably because she was standing on that ancient Faraway Pagoda.

It is my earnest hope that I can translate this book into the Chinese language in near future, so that Sophie’s story may reach the audience in the country she had loved and served so well and for so long. If anyone has similar thoughts, please feel free to contact me. I will be more than happy to establish a meaningful collaboration.

George D. Ngu / 牛冬
All Saints’ Day, 2013, in Fuzhou / 二零一三年诸圣日志于福州, 3.11.13.


Neville and Elspeth Carr, missionary educators
The beautifully crafted and rigorously researched story by Robert and Linda Banks of the life and service to her Lord of Sophie Newton (Robert’s great aunt) speaks volubly of a far larger group of Christian, and especially single women missionaries – for whom ‘being a missionary is first and foremost about being faithful to him

[Christ] above everything else’, resulting in ‘a quietness of spirit in the midst of daily activities, submissive acceptance of God’s will on an hourly basis, a gentle response to slights and provocations, greater flexibility in the hands of God, calmness in times of turmoil and busyness, willingness to yield to the wishes of others, and deliverance from anxiety’. Here was an ordinary woman, desiring no more than to be a servant of Christ, despite personal sacrifice and disappointment, who made her home among the people of China during the awful years of the Boxer Rebellion, and responded in so many practical ways to material, intellectual, religious and social justice challenges – with prayerfulness, wisdom, humility and love. A deaconess, school teacher and builder, preacher, evangelist, mentor, media personality, loving daughter and sister, and advocate for women’s rights, she had the servant heart of her Lord and the same incarnational humanism which alone can transform individuals, communities, culture and belief systems.

We recommend this book firstly, to Christians seeking to discover and follow the path of the Cross, but secondly, to those outside the Christian faith engaging in the search for meaning and contentment in today’s post-Christian and post-modern society. Sophie’s life story deserves to be on the shelves of bookstores around the world! Mission societies like CMS will thank the authors for adding a significant historical piece of the jigsaw to the wonderful missiological saga that is China.


Dr Teresa Chai, Theresa Chai, President of Alpha Omega International College, Malaysia
The phrase ‘unsung hero’ comes to mind as I read this book. Indeed when thinking about missions to China, the name Hudson Taylor comes easily to mind, but not Sophie Sackville Newton. Hers is a beautiful story of a young lady willing to go where her LORD called her to the vast, mysterious land of China. Here she found people she could minister to, especially women and children. This was done in the midst of heavy political turmoil of the Boxer Rebellion, where many were martyred for the sake of the gospel. If you want fresh inspiration to evangelize, come against injustices as Sophie did against infanticide, opium-trading, and feet-binding, and to do church-planting, you must read this book. If you are considering your calling and place as a woman in ministry and leadership, you must read this book and be encouraged by this narrative of a resilient and pioneering spirit! I heartily endorse this book as a missionary, an educator, and a Chinese woman.


Christine Jensen, Anglican Diocese of Sydney
Robert and Linda Banks have written an amazing book about an inspiring woman, Sophie Sackville Newton. Her deep faith led to a continued exercise in courage and the fruitfulness of her ministry shows again the way in which God takes and uses a life thoroughly committed to his service. Her endurance and perseverance are remarkable.

Right to the end, Sophie was keen to talk to people about Jesus. I am so glad to have learned about Sophie Sackville Newton and grateful that her story has been captured permanently for the annals of CMS Australia. It is the story of Sophie Newton, but more importantly it is the story of God at work in China. There is much to thank God for as we see that the Church in China owes so much to the early missionaries who brought the Gospel of Jesus to this great nation.


Margaret Reeson, award-winning biographer
Robert and Linda Banks have taken the raw material of a collection of old documents bequeathed to their family after the death of an aged missionary, Miss Sophie Newton, and breathed life into them. Through their thorough research of her context – China and New South Wales, the Anglican Church and CMS – interviews with those who knew her and well-informed imagination, Sophie Newton speaks to us. In this account, we see the value of the ministry of women, the specific challenges for single women in pioneering and sometimes dangerous settings, and the life of the spirit of this woman as she followed God’s call over many years. It does not retreat from the realities of a missionary life, with its frustrations, disappointments and conflicts, or from the pain of leaving a beloved people; Sophie remained homesick for China until the end. It is good to have been introduced to Miss Sophie Newton, a woman of God.

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