An autobiography by Audrey Wetherell Johnson
Published December 1, 1982
Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly
(Col 3:16 NIV)
THE ENGLISH YEARS. Audrey’s mother, Maud Wetherell, was from a prominent family in the north of England. While she was a governess, she fell in love with the son of her employer and married John Cope. They had four children, two boys and two girls: Claude, John, Katherine, and Marjorie. After John died, Maud married Henry Johnson, a Christian missionary. Their only child, Audrey Wetherell Johnson, was born December 1, 1907, in Leicester, England.
In her late teens at the request of her father, Audrey moved to Paris, France to be tutored in the French language and culture. She learned a smattering of French, Latin and was introduced to discussions of the great intellectuals of the day—also to professors and journalists from various countries. She studied Buddhism, Confucianism, and many famous philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Pascal and Voltaire. Not surprisingly, she became an agnostic.
Sometime after she returned to England, she started a quest to discover: What is the truth? Is God real? She prayed that God would reveal it to her if He was real—along with some reasonable philosophy that made sense to her. Fast forward: Her quest led to her accepting Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.
Soon she had a spiritual hunger to read, research and study the Bible.
She studied with three questions in mind:
(1) What does this Bible passage say?
(2) What did it mean to the people of the day when it was written?
(3) What does it mean to me?
Thus began her love story with God and the Bible.
Soon she began taking speaking engagements about the Bible. In the slum area of Birmingham, England, she taught a group of factory girls about God/Bible
She trained and became a delivery nurse. For two years, she delivered over 600 babies on her own without anesthetics or doctors present. During this time, she also taught Bible classes.
She decided she wanted to commit to full-time Christian ministry. Her preference was to work in the country with the most depraved and poor—which she believed was Sudan, Africa. She read a variety of publications about mission work in different countries around the world. The experiences of missionaries in China made a huge impression on her, and she attended a meeting in London led by one of them, Mildred Cable.
Mildred told about the absolute paganism in China, the danger of traveling, and the glory of seeing God change lives after only one hearing of the gospel. Audrey was enthralled and felt that God was saying to her, “This is what I have for you. Why do you keep trying to get Me to call you to Africa?”
THE CHINA YEARS. The China Inland Mission (CIM) was established by James Hudson Taylor on June 25, 1865. Eager to reach the inland provinces of China with the gospel, the mission prayed hard and sent out waves of workers to China throughout the late nineteenth century. (CIM is now known as OMF International)
After Audrey was accepted into the China Inland Mission, she attended the Bible Institute in London where she studied theology, Bible, how to teach the Bible, the Chinese language and its culture and its history.
She was scheduled to sail for China in 1935, but due to the murders of CIM missionaries in China, ALL missionary assignments to China ceased. Meanwhile, Audrey worked as a missionary in France with CIM.
Finally in September of 1936, she set sail for China where she would remain for the next nine years without taking any furloughs. Her first task was to attend the language school where she learned to read, write and speak in Chinese.
For the next five years, she ministered at various CIM stations in China. At one station (Lin Ming Kawn), she ministered to a congregation of 300 Chinese, some who would walk nine miles to get there. Services were held all day on Saturdays and Sundays.
ENTER WWII. In August of 1942, the Japanese arrived at the headquarters of the China Inland Mission and took all the missionaries to two internment camps where Audrey, along with 2,000 other aliens, were held for three long years.
For the next three years she would eat rice covered with worms, one-inch cube of meat, and occasionally a half spoonful of vegetables (spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, beans) that the prisoners grew themselves from packets of vegetable seeds they had smuggled in their luggage and pockets. Audrey and the other prisoners would stand in line twice a day for water. At bedtime, 7 p.m., she would strap her waist with a tight belt to ease the hunger pains.
For Audrey, the highlight of this time was that she was able to teach 500 children in one room with only a blackboard and chalk.
WWII ENDS. Deliverance at last! In August of 1945, allied airplanes appeared in the sky dropping all colors of parachutes with cans of food. Audrey saved a red parachute as a memento. Then an American Liaison officer arrived at the camp and told them all the news of the war and how they won. The prisoners had heard no news of the world for over three years.
THE USA YEARS. In 1947, at the age of 40, Audrey sailed from China to San Francisco. After a six-month rest, she began speaking at conferences and universities.
She discovered there were many women in the US with her same name, five in her city alone! This created confusion–the banks got their checks mixed up, etc. Her birth name was “Audrey Wetherell Johnson.” She reasoned that there would be few American women named Wetherell, so she began to go by her first initial “A” and her middle name Wetherell: “A. Wetherell Johnson.” Many referred to her as “Miss Johnson.”
In 1952, after Wetherell finished a speaking engagement at a church in San Bernardino, California, five women from that church asked Audrey if she would teach them from the Book of Colossians. These were all earnest Christian women, well-versed in Bible. For Audrey’s response, here is a quote from her book:
My heart fell! What had I come to? In San Bernardino, there was such an abundance of churches where people could hear God’s Word—while by contrast, in China, there were millions who had not even heard His name. I asked God, “Am I to give more to those who already have so much?”
She prayed about it and God led her to two scriptures: Jeremiah 45:5 and Zechariah 4:10,
Jer 45:5 Are you seeking great things for yourself? Don’t do it!…I will give you your life as a reward wherever you go. I, the Lord, have spoken!
Zech 4:10 Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.
She agreed to the request of the five women—with conditions. She told them, “I will not spoon-feed you. Are you willing for me to dictate a few questions, which will help you in your study of each passage? Then for you to share with all of us what God has given you–after which I will share with you what He has given me.”
Doesn’t this study method sound familiar?? The ladies were happy to study this way. Wetherell noticed that during her lecture the women were taking notes and felt this distraction could diminish the impact of her words. So, she began typing her lecture notes for each lesson, together with the questions that applied to the following lesson and handing them out at the end of each lesson. Commentaries were not allowed.
Little did she anticipate then that those lesson notes and questions would someday develop into the composition of 5,000 words each and 20 questions for the following week’s lesson!
CLASS YEAR. They referred to their annual schedule as the “class year” and used the same class year as the US schools, which benefited mothers with school age children. The BSF class year, met for 32 weeks–Sept to May–with the last class of the class year being a testimony meeting. No classes were held in the summer or during school holidays.
They viewed BSF as “an arm of the church” They were a faith-based group—They never advertised publicly, allowing the Holy Spirit to generate interest via word of mouth. They also never asked for money—there was a box/jar near the exit. As people left and picked up their lessons, they could conveniently donate money if they desired for lesson printing, etc.
NOTE: Options for donations to BSF are at: https://www.bsfinternational.org/support/
It is an understatement to say that printing the lessons was at times difficult—old mimeo machines, breakdowns, deadlines for shipping to classes, etc. Meanwhile, Miss Johnson was furiously writing lessons for the next week, trying to stay ahead of the class meetings.
A dear friend became an invaluable helper to Miss Johnson in 1959. Alverda Hertzler had been a dean and vice-principal of a high school. She very capably took charge of all the business administration for BSF. While Miss Johnson was in charge of the general direction of the work, training new leaders, writing the studies, etc. Together they were a great team, complimenting each other’s strengths. At some point, they moved into the same home and lived on separate floors. The basement was used to print lessons. The two ladies are buried in the same plot.
More and more ladies were hungry to study and understand God’s word and wanted to attend the classes. They soon outgrew the home where they were meeting. Fortunately, a pastor invited them use his church for classes. Today, many churches volunteer the use of their facilities for BSF. Some groups in San Francisco grew to 300 each.
Miss Johnson trained additional discussion group leaders and more discussion groups were created. Leader training was instituted which led to discussion leaders’ meetings. She taught them never to say, “That isn’t right,” but to simply say, “thank you,” and to ask if someone might have a different opinion? Occasional class luncheons were added.
EXPANSION. In 1958, Miss Johnson began conducting Bible classes for the revival converts of Billy Graham’s crusades. Some BSF class ladies who had to move far away from her classes expressed their grief to Miss Johnson. She asked them, “Why not start a class of your own…we will send you lessons—start with your friends at first and call me if you have difficulties. God will make you a teaching leader thru the Holy Spirit.” She started taping her lectures and sending them to leaders. This enabled them to develop their own lecture styles.
BSF BEGAN in 1959 and grew until groups sprang up all across the US, and ultimately around the globe. At first it was called Miss Johnson’s class; then 2 Tim 2:15 (rightly dividing the word of truth), and finally they settled on Bible Study Fellowship. This name was incorporated and registered in all states. Notes were copyrighted.
NO DISCRIMINATION. Bible Study Fellowship did not discriminate. Every color, economic status, and religion or lack thereof, were welcome: atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, and every Christian denomination one could think of, including Catholics. Miss Johnson wrote:
“A Catholic priest attended my class for six weeks and we developed a real friendship. Sometime during the 1960s after Pope John advocated Bible reading, we noticed a great increase in Catholic membership. Priests in one of the Bay Area churches were so impressed with Bible Study Fellowship that anyone who taught catechism on Saturday had to be a member of BSF.”
They bought their first official headquarters and later moved to larger quarters in California two more times before moving to San Antonio, Texas, where HQ has remained ever since.
In 1968, after much searching for a lot to build larger quarters, they found one reasonably priced in an office park complex. The BSF Board approved the purchase and a deposit was made—pending the approval of the City of Oakland’s Planning Commission. Expectations were high. However, they were flatly turned down. Hopes were dashed. They had combed every possibility.
Miss Johnson replied, “Never mind, This is the Lord’s work. And He does not shut a door without opening another one.” The next day the president of the complex called and offered to sell them their building with its beautifully landscaped gardens and artistic offices that were more elaborate than they would ever have planned!
Buying this property for HQ was a huge step of faith—they trusted God, not only for the initial purchase, but also for building a new wing for printing and shipping. While building, money and payments were needed at certain stages, and God provided sufficiently at each stage until the project was completed. On dedication day, Miss Johnson told the 80 people present the story of their venture of faith and of God’s goodness. She then announced, “And it is all paid for!” Gasps of praise filled the room.
Miss Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1968 and had radical surgery. Everything went well until 1977 when the cancer reoccurred. She continued as General Director through 1979.
By 1980, Miss Johnson had been writing BSF lessons and leading BSF for more than 25 years. Her decision to retire led to a major move of their HQ from California to San Antonio, Texas, where it still is located. The new HQ building was dedicated in 1981.
Rosemary Jensen took over as General Director. Several other Executive Directors succeeded her. In 2021, Hollie Roberts was appointed by the board to be the new Executive Director and still is currently.
Miss Johnson’s Bible study with five women birthed a worldwide movement. Today, Bible Study Fellowship – through Men’s, Women’s, Student, Children’s and Newborn groups, BSF Online and BSF’s WordGo app — serves more than 400,000 class members on six continents in more than 120 nations. The COVID19 pandemic that began March 2020 caused the 60-year old international organization to shift its thousands of in-person Bible study meetings to online.
In 1984, aged 77, Miss Johnson died from cancer and is buried in Monterey County, California.
She had ministered in England, China, Switzerland, France, California and Texas
She published her autobiography is Created for Commitment two years before her death.
Reviewed by Cherie Kropp, October 20, 2023
TOMBSTONE: “My heart stands in awe of thy word” (Ps 119:161)
BIRTH: Dec 1, 1907, Leicester, Leicester Unitary Authority, Leicestershire, England
DEATH: Dec 22, 1984 (aged 77), Monterey County, California, USA
BURIAL: El Carmelo Cemetery, Pacific Grove, Monterey County, California, USA
FindaGrave–Miss A. Wetherell Johnson: (includes some photos)
FindaGrave–Miss Alverda Hertzler: (includes some photos)
China Inland Mission website: https://omf.org/us/about/our-story/china-inland-mission/
Amazon Book Link:
A brief dramatized video about Miss Johnson and BSF’s beginnings: https://www.bsfinternational.org/about-bsf/
Donations to BSF: https://www.bsfinternational.org/support/