Jessie Wengler (1887-1958), veteran Assemblies of God (AG) missionary, served for 39 years in Japan. As the only AG missionary to remain in Japan throughout World War II, she held a knowledge of the post-war needs of the nation and a respect from its people that few others could match.
Raised in Clayton, Missouri, Wengler was saved, filled with the Spirit, and called to missions in a Pentecostal meeting in 1909. During the next 10 years, she studied teacher training in Colorado and briefly studied for the ministry at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Brooks Bible Institute in St. Louis. She participated in jail and hospital ministry and handed out tracts in street evangelism. With no formal experience as a pastor or evangelist, the AG appointed her as a missionary to the new field of Japan in 1919. She initially went to Yokohama, where she joined Assemblies of God missionaries Barney and Mary Moore, who had arrived the year before.
After language study, the Moores sent Wengler to begin a church in Hachioji, a city of 80,000 close to Tokyo. As the only foreigner in the city, Wengler thought it best to begin reaching out to the children and formed a Sunday School in the home of a neighboring family. The children came along with parents and grandparents. The singing was especially popular, particularly the chorus, “Jesus Loves Me.” Her Bible stories and songs became so popular that the tunes could be heard in the marketplaces throughout her neighborhood. Even the Buddhist leaders took note of her success with the children and soon began teaching their own children to sing, “Buddha Loves Me.” Soon the young daughter of the family hosting Sunday School, Komiko, became Wengler’s assistant and within 10 years, the church had built a large building and Komiko was serving as pastor.
In 1928, Wengler wrote to her supporters in The Pentecostal Evangel, sharing how their new building had escaped a fire that burned down a building not four feet from their assembly. She wrote, “The little chapel stands in the burnt district a testimony to the delivering power of God.” Wengler had no idea that an even greater fire was coming that would affect her and her believing friends in a way that they could never have imagined.
The church sponsored other new church plants and Wengler felt that she could move to Toyko to help build the work there. She soon noticed a shift as the atmosphere became charged with a national patriotism that had not been as prevalent before. Pressure was mounting on Japanese churches to conform to the national image. “Thought Police” began to work to unify the thoughts, actions, and behavior of the Japanese people.
As war conditions in Asia and Europe caused concern around the world, AG missions leader Noel Perkin ordered all missionaries to return to the United States in mid-1941. Unfortunately, Wengler had been confined to a hospital bed for several months from overwork, anemia, and a heart condition. Too weak to make the trip home, Wengler was the only AG missionary to remain in Japan and was there during the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Partially paralyzed on her left side, the Japanese government did not place Wengler in an internment camp as they had with most Americans. She was placed under house arrest and allowed to walk to the market. Her home was searched for contraband and the land she owned was confiscated. Her Japanese friends were not allowed to visit her, although some came to bring her needed resources during the darkness of night. By the second year of the war, her rations were reduced to ¾-cup of rice and a few leaves of vegetables, which had to last for three to four days. Her weight dropped from a normal 124 pounds to less than 90 pounds. She was unable to communicate with the United States, so the AG missions department did not hear from her for four years and did not know if she was dead or alive.
Wengler faced much pressure from her neighbors to fly the Japanese flag on the monthly Rescript Day, the eighth day of each month to honor the day war was declared on the United States. She responded that as an American she could not, in good conscience, celebrate the beginning of the war nor could she recognize the emperor as god in the national celebrations. Through this time, she continued to love her neighbors and serve as a Christian example.
In 1944, American B-29s began dropping thousands of incendiary devices, focusing heavily around Tokyo. Wengler was moved by the military several times until, finally, she was housed with five Baptist missionaries interned in the city. Wengler described the March 1945 bombing: “Bombs were falling like rain all around us. Soon the whole neighborhood was a roaring inferno. No matter which way we turned to flee it seemed we were walking on fire. I cannot describe the terror. The exploding bombs, the roaring fire, the screaming people. We ran through a wall of fire to the school building where we stayed all night. In the morning we returned to find that while homes next to ours were completely destroyed, ours was still standing.”
After the war ended, Tokyo was devastated. 100,000 residents had been killed and one million were left homeless, making the March bombing the most destructive single air attack in human history. The Japanese people were dazed, confused, and exhausted. Wengler longed to serve her people but was sent back to the States in late 1945 to rest and give reports. When she returned to Japan in 1947, she served as the AG representative to the Allied powers until the final peace treaty was signed in 1951.
Wengler worked tirelessly until her death in 1958, at age 71, to help the Japanese people and to rebuild their church. She conducted Bible classes for university students and led many people to Christ who became leaders. Upon her death, she left her life insurance money to build a church in Ichikawa City and was buried with honors by her friends in Karuizawa Cemetery.
Read Wengler’s report on the Hachioji fire, “Quenched the Violence of Fire” on page 9 of the Jan. 21, 1928, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “The Sin of Resisting the Holy Ghost” by A.G. Jeffries
• “Are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit for Today?” by Donald Gee
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.