Oberlin College and Shanxi


The Establishment of the Oberlin Missions in Shanxi.


   In 1879, a graduate from Oberlin Theological Seminary in Ohio, Martin Luther Stimson proposed to Dr Judson Smith, a teacher at Oberlin that he lead a group of graduates to missionise in China. Stimson envisaged an "Oberlin Band" of missionaries consisting of twelve graduates of the Oberlin Seminary. This was an opportunity not only to save souls but also to make an international institution of Oberlin, to establish an "Oberlin-in-China". Stimson suggested his plan to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) based in Boston, in 1881, which in turn assigned the Oberlin Band to the relatively unexploited province of Shanxi. In early September 1881 Martin and Emily Stimson left the U.S.A. in order to reconnoitre Shanxi and finally arrived in March 1882. Throughout the entire province of fourteen million people there were only three Protestant mission stations and a total of about fifty converts. The two Oberlin mission stations were established in Taiku in late 1882 and Fenchow-fu in 1887.



The Missionary Experience: Their Roles in Health, Education and Conversion.


   The Oberlin missionaries assumed various roles in Shanxi in order to establish Christianity, not solely through preaching. One of the primary areas in which the missionaries sought to aid the local populace was through medical service. The Oberlin Band was initially struck with a problem due to the lack of a qualified doctor to accompany them. One missionary, Iranaeus J. Atwood, studied with a British missionary in Tai Yuan Fu the capital of Shanxi and gained sufficient proficiency as to perform simple operations on common disorders. He was particularly successful at "couching", a technique used to remove cataracts from the eyes. Atwood opened a clinic in Taiku in the late 1880s and treated over one thousand patients within the first three months of its establishment. He later returned to the U.S.A. on furlough in 1888 and received a medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago (1). In 1899 Atwood and his family left China, this meant that there was no doctor present in the Shanxi mission, the clinic and hospital in Fenchow-fu was closed. This was extremely bad news for the Oberlin missionaries as medical treatment was one of the best ways of establishing relations with the local community and thereby meeting potential converts.

   The essentially charitable nature of the Shanxi mission was very hard to maintain financially. The Oberlin Band encountered problems with debt and the need to spend relatively large proportions of their A.B.C.F.M. salaries on the mission. Therefore, it was important to extract money in exchange for medical services. Howard Clapp, a missionary, imposed a fee for day patients who could afford to pay, this was thirty cash, the equivalent to one and a half pence. In patients were charged fifty cash, or two and a half pence in order to cover the expense of fuel and lighting. One thousand cash was charged not inclusive of cart hire for cases of opium poisoning. Sales of medicines, largely cod liver oil, totalled 73,000 cash or $36.65. In 1899 the dispensary earned a profit of $147.98, the surplus was accordingly ploughed back into missionary work (2).

   One of the most important areas of missionary work was the treatment of those suffering from opium addiction. The missions at Taiku and Fenchow-fu established opium refuges in order to help deal with the massive problem of opium in Shanxi.  One addict, Liu Feng Chih, who had once been a wealthy businessman, had reached the point of bankruptcy due to the ruinous effects of opium when he was persuaded to stay in the refuge in Taiku. He attended for forty days and stayed with the missionaries for several months. Teaching the Gospel was used during treatment, the missionaries believed, to not only boost willpower but of course to provide the possibility of adoption of Christianity. Duly, Liu returned to his village with a Bible, in 1891 he was baptised and became known as Deacon Liu, the first true convert of the Oberlin missionaries after nearly ten years of preaching in Shanxi (3). The book entitled "The Christian Occupation of China" identifies the A.B.C.F.M. missions in Shanxi as "marked by a special ministry through opium refuges", clearly this field was viewed as a very important one (4).

   Education was of great importance to the missionaries, after all their ideal had been to establish an "Oberlin-in-China", a seat of higher education devoted to the Christian faith. In 1889 the first humble foundations of the ideal began, seven years after the arrival of the Mission. Jennie Clapp, a former teacher, enrolled fifteen pupils ranging from five to eighteen years in Taiku to form a boys' school. The syllabus consisted of the studying of traditional Chinese texts in the morning. In the afternoon the pupils studied the Bible, Christian doctrine, simple arithmetic and geography, if they were progressing well they would be introduced to Western history and science. The educational ambitions of the missionaries were, however, stunted by the fact that they had to teach through interpreters. Jennie Clapp was aided by Chinese teachers many of whom were initially not Christian. The boys' school in Taiku experienced some major problems. There was a difficulty in finding adequate teachers, problems of language, difficulty in persuading Chinese parents to allow their children to attend and the disruption caused by the leaving and arriving of different missionaries. However, in 1899 the boarding school for boys in Taiku had a total of twenty-four pupils but a shortage of funds to enable expansion. Seven of these pupils were undergoing special studies that would prepare them for college, most likely the North China College. In 1899 one previous student, K'ung Hsiang His, was already attending this newly established institution, the first to do so from Shanxi (5).

   In Li Man, outside Taiku, there was a girls’ school run by Louise Partridge numbering sixteen pupils in 1899. In that year and vicinity there were also believed to be over one hundred families being taught the Gospels and a large number of women taking reading classes. Partridge was happy to boast that forty of them had unbound feet. In Fenchow-fu the educational ideal also saw progress. The boys' boarding school had twenty-one pupils, several of whom had transferred from Chinese schools. There was also an increase in Chinese Christian parents sending their children to Mission schools. Additionally, there were two day schools in outlying villages with twenty-five pupils in total (6).

   In order to propagate Christianity, an important duty of the Oberlin Band was to disseminate religious material in the form of Bibles and tracts. Howard Clapp headed the Mission's Depository and reported in 1899 that book and tract distribution had grown rapidly that year in Fenchow-fu. The retail of scriptures, calendars, scientific books, hymnals and monthly magazines contributed 163,426 cash or about $81.70 to the Mission that year. Clapp was disappointed to record that sales in Taiku had been minimal due to the lack of money to hire a colporteur and, he remarked, the lack of anyone fit to do the job. The Oberlin Band only distributed a few cheap tracts and several hundred old American Bible Society books in Taiku (7).

   These areas, health, education and tract distribution were all a means to an end, this end initially was conversion then the establishment of the "Oberlin-in-China". Conversion was not as easy as the missionaries had assumed when they were mere Oberlin graduates, in 1881 Stimson had hoped that they would "be eminently successful in turning some portion of the world to Christ”(8). In 1899, Eva Price remarked sarcastically that she could imagine "a year of uninterrupted and successful work with hundreds, yes, thousands brought into the fold. Oh, Yes I see it all!”(9). Sadly, for the Oberlin cause they had seriously underestimated the difficulties that they would encounter in China having undergone no preparation by the A.B.C.F.M. Indeed, with no training in the language, history, culture and the customs of China they inevitably found it very difficult to attract Chinese whom they could genuinely convert. The Chinese had already established their own system of religion and many tenets of Christianity did not seem logical or were directly opposed to the revered traditions of China. For example, the missionaries knew dragons to be representative of evil, whereas Chinese mythology denoted that they were a "symbol of intelligence, beneficence, and power.”(10) This was just one of many ways in which the diference of culture made the attempts to convert by missionaries such a slow process which inspired much opposition especially from the ruling classes. The missionaries did make real progress, however it was not of the magnitude they had hoped or expected. In 1899, the church at Taiku had (established 1894) had seventy-six Chinese communicants and about two hundred others attended services on Sundays. The church in Fenchow-fu (established 1897) had fifty-two probationers and about forty-one members. The church had given only one baptism service in 1899 at which four men were christened. The long time it had taken to establish the churches and the small Christian community provides a good indicator as to the uphill struggle that faced the Oberlin Band. The external difficulties associated with conversion were compounded by problems within the missions. Brandt describes the missions in 1899 as "Understaffed, plagued by never-ending illnesses and death" by this time the sum of the Oberlin Band actually in China amounted to ten (11). Their achievements in Shanxi were statistically minute compared to those of Protestant societies in other areas of China. By 1900 the original ideal of beginning an "Oberlin-in-China" still seemed very distant.



The Oberlin Band and the Boxer Uprising.


   In 1900, the Christians of Shanxi suffered the worst persecution of any province in China principally due to the ferocity of the governor Yuxian. He was determined to follow the Imperial Edict of the 24th of June that ordered the "extermination" of all foreigners. On Tuesday July 31st Boxers and Imperial soldiers broke into the Mission compound of the Taiku section of the Oberlin Band. Six missionaries from Oberlin were brutally murdered, with approximately thirty-eight Chinese Christians, including children. As the Peking Legations were relieved on the 14th of August, the Christian community of Fenchow-fu was ambushed whilst being escorted from the city in the village of Nan Kai Shih. Four Oberlin missionaries were killed with their three daughters. Two other missionaries from the China Inland Mission (C.I.M.) were also killed with four Chinese Christians.



The Aftermath to the Present.


   The Boxer Rising was a momentous material blow for Oberlin and Missions in Shanxi. The obedience of Yuxian had decimated the foreign population. According to the "Christian occupation of China",  "The mission property of the three large societies at work in Shansi was completely destroyed, and all but 3 or 4 of the foreigners residing in the province at the outbreak of the trouble were put to death."(12) How did Oberlin recover from this shattering blow? Surprisingly, the aftermath of the Boxer Rising was seen as an extremely promising time by the missionary societies in China although admittedly "all phases of the Christian program received a serious check from which some districts have never quite recovered.”(13) Links with Oberlin were not re-established until the return of  Dr. Iranaeus Atwood, the sole survivor of the initial Oberlin Band in 1902. In 1905 the first new missionaries from Oberlin arrived in Taiku. During the period 1903-1917, twenty-three Oberlin graduates arrived in Shanxi. The Oberlin Mission saw a revival and a strengthening. "Better sites and buildings were secured...The native leaders who had carried the burden of the work in the absence of the missionaries were given greater responsibilities, and closer co-operation grew up between foreign and Chinese workers.”(14) The bond between Oberlin and Shanxi was strengthened by the formation of the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (O.S.M.A.) in 1907. In the immediate aftermath of the Boxer Uprising there were only 125 communicants attached to the Taiku mission, in 1918 there were 1,500 (15).

   The Oberlin Mission continued but what about the missionaries murdered by the Boxers?  The bodies of the missionaries and their Chinese Christian followers were removed from the pits into which they had been thrown and reinterred in a nine acre park to the east of Taiku in 1901. This park was known as the "Flower Garden" and was confiscated at Iranaeus Atwood's behest from the Boxer leader, Meng Ta Hsi, who had led the attack at Taiku. In 1950, when the communist government came to power, these graves were completely destroyed (16). Links between Oberlin College and the Ming Hsien Academy were severed, it became the Shanxi Agricultural University which re-established ties in 1980 (17).

   Meanwhile, in Oberlin, a memorial arch was dedicated to the missionaries who were now, according to the inscriptions "martyrs". The monument stresses the idealism of the missionary age, religious quotes adorn the arch such as "The Blood of Martyrs - The Seed of the Church". The evangelical passion of the period was exemplified by Judson Smith who pushed vehemently for the construction of the Arch. In a speech of 1900 to the A.B.C.F.M. annual meeting in St. Louis he stated "When we went to China with the gospel it was to stay and conquer; and nothing has happened to change our purpose.” (18) However, the fiery zeal of Smith and his pupils is now hugely diminished, the theological seminary of Oberlin College has been transferred to another institution and the presence of the Arch has raised many questions. The principal one being: what does it represent? The rise of importance of issues such as racism and ethnicity have led to a questioning of the morality of missionising in China. Certainly, few would now suggest that it still stood to represent a burning ideal of conversion and Christian martyrdom. Instead it is a monument that, as Hevia puts it, "provide[s] a rhetorically powerful answer to the critics of the missionary's critics" and asserts "the righteousness of the missionary cause". (19) This stance has become provocative to large sections of a modern audience not least Asian-Americans.


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N. Brandt, Massacre in Shansi (Syracuse, 1994).


M. Broomhall, ed., Martyred Missionaries of the China Inland Mission with a Record of the Perils and Sufferings of some who escaped (London, 1901).


J. Hevia, Monuments and Memory: Memorials to Missionary "Martyrs" of the Boxer Uprising (1997).


J. Gittings, Lost Souls, The Guardian, Saturday August 5th, http://www.guardian unlimited.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,350503,00.html.


R.P.Hart, ed., Session 132: Re-Siting the Missionaries in China: Critical Analyses of Translation, Imperialism, and Historical Memory, http://www.aasianst.org/abstz/1998abst/China/c132.htm


F. K-Y Hsueh, untitled, (1997), http://members.nbci.com/fhsueh/introduction.htm.


K.S. Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China (New York, 1929).


M.T. Stauffer, ed., The Christian Occupation of China (Shanghai, 1922).


The China Mission Hand-Book (Shanghai,1896)


The China Mission Year Book 1919.




1 N. Brandt, Massacre in Shansi (Syracuse, 1994), p.31.

2 Ibid., p. 120.

3 Ibid., pp. 10-12.

4 M. Stauffer, ed., The Christian Occupation of China (Shanghai, 1922), p. 185.

5 Brandt, Massacre in Shansi, p. 114.

6 Ibid., pp. 114-115.

7 Ibid., p.118.

8 Ibid., p. 24.

9 Ibid., p. 79.

10 Ibid., p. 53.

11 Ibid., p. 61.

12 Stauffer, ed., The Christian Occupation of China, p. 185.

13 Ibid., p. 185.

14 Ibid., p. 185.

15 Ibid., p. 185.

16 Brandt, Massacre in Shansi, p. 276.

17 F. K-Y Hsueh, untitled (1997), http://members.nbci.com/fhsueh/introduction.htm.

18 Brandt, Massacre in Shansi, p.285.

19 J. Hevia, Monuments and Memory: Memorials to Missionary “Martyrs” of the Boxer Uprising (1997), p. 13.