Signe Erickson: A Bethel Martyr

One day after their attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces began their invasion of the Philippines. In December 1941 that commonwealth hosted twenty-one American Baptist missionaries, mostly working in hospitals and schools on the island of Panay. By April 1942, with American and Filipino defenses collapsing, only eleven of those missionaries remained at liberty. With the help of a Filipino pastor named Delfin Dianala, they hid themselves in a densely forested canyon, building a camp that they called Hopevale.

One of the eleven was a forty-three year old teacher named Signe Erickson, who had spent one of her furloughs in the mid-1930s studying at Bethel Seminary.

Signe Erickson

Signe Erickson (1898-1943) – American Baptist Foreign Mission Society

A native of northern Pennsylvania, Erickson attended Moody Bible Institute and graduated from Gordon College, serving churches in Boston and Brooklyn before arriving in the Philippines in 1930. The following year she began her tenure at the Baptist Missionary Training School, teaching high school-aged girls how to run Bible studies and Sunday School and to minister to women in rural villages. “The medium of giving the gospel message,” she wrote in her application to be a missionary, “would not be limited to preaching or teaching, but would include Christ-like living in their midst.”

When war came in 1941 (the same year Erickson completed a master’s degree at Columbia University), she and fellow teacher Dorothy Dowell resolved to “stay with the Filipinos unless their staying would endanger Filipino lives.” They came to Hopevale in December 1942, to spend Christmas with fellow missionaries and seek medical attention for Dowell (suffering from arthritis) from a doctor in the group. The two teachers were still there the following May, when Erickson smuggled out a brief letter:

We have occasionally played hide-and-seek with the Japanese. When it is safe we make occasional evangelistic visits to nearby barrios. We have plenty to eat and still have clothes to wear, although some of us have gone barefooted during wet weather to save the one pair of shoes we still have.

On December 19, 1943, Japanese soldiers finally discovered Hopevale and captured the missionaries. Erickson and the others were beheaded the following day.

Little is known about their last moments, acknowledges Baptist pastor Scott Walker (raised as a missionary kid in the Philippines) in his 2009 book, The Edge of Terror. But that doesn’t stop him from offering the following reconstruction:

What is known is that the small band of Americans asked if they could meet alone for a time of prayer before the execution. At exactly 3:00 p.m. [sic? other sources suggest dawn] they were summoned. Their final communal act was to boldly sing a hymn of faith as they walked back to the Japanese. The words and the tune do not now matter. Rather, it was the years of their lives spent caring for others that composed that sacred hymn, and now their deaths formed its loudest crescendo. (p. 205)

How did the Bethel community respond to this modern-day martyrdom?

It’s hard to tell. From at least 1946 to 1949, Erickson’s home church in Warren, Pennsylvania endowed a $50 scholarship in her name. However, there’s no mention of the Hopevale martyrs in Bethel’s student newspaper. (But then — as we’ll no doubt discuss at some point — Clarion issues of 1941-45 have less to say about the war than one might expect.) And while historian Merrill Jarchow mentions the story in the Bethel chapter of his book on Minnesota’s private colleges, the issue of the Bethel Bulletin that he cites seems to be missing from our archives.

(By the way, Jarchow claims that two Bethel alumnae died at Hopevale. But in the American Baptist booklet commemorating the martyrs, Through Shining ArchwayErickson’s is the only biography that notes a Bethel education. UPDATE: The September-October 1945 issue of the Bethel Bulletin does claim one other Hopevale martyr as former Bethel Seminary student: Louise (Cummings) Rounds, also at Bethel in 1936. This isn’t noted in Through Shining Archway, and she — like Erickson — doesn’t appear in the Bethel yearbook from the time.)

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