Attrition among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1807-1890

By Lutz, Jessie G. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Attrition among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1807-1890


Lutz, Jessie G., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Attrition narratives for almost every Protestant mission represented in China between 1807 and 1890 paint very similar pictures. (1) Consider a number of representative accounts drawn up by contemporary observers and later historians:

   It is estimated that it requires at least five years of residence
   and study for a missionary to become fully effective in China, and
   only one of the missionaries of the M. E. [Methodist Episcopal]
   Church, South, who went out prior to the Civil War remained as long
   as this. After a promising start and the baptism of the first
   convert in 1851, health difficulties began to beset the mission.
   (2)

   Of the [first] fifty-three missionaries sent out ... by the CIM
   [China Inland Mission], only twenty-two adults (and eighteen
   children) remained in the mission, and of these only four or five
   men and three or four women were much good. (3)

   Health problems ... held a special urgency since the health of
   mission personnel in other areas had been disastrous--forty-five
   deaths abroad since the founding of the American Board [of
   Commissioners for Foreign Missions], plus fifty-three returnees,
   thirty-one of which were for reasons of their health or the health
   of members of their families. (4)

   To say that twenty-seven missionaries and missionary wives arrived
   in Foochow between the beginning of 1847 and the end of 1851 could
   give a misleading impression of the size of the missionary
   force.... The fact is that the missionaries had serious health
   problems, and casualties were heavy. By the end of 1853, only
   fifteen of the twenty-seven who had arrived between 1847 and 1851
   remained in the field; the rest had either died or left. (5)

   Although the Oberlin Band [of student volunteers for foreign
   missions] were joined by two more couples in 1884--a total of
   eleven, five married couples and a single man--it remained a
   "feeble Mission" that at one point was down to three members. (6)

   Of the three hundred and thirty-eight missionaries named in the
   list [of Protestant missionaries to China by 1867], the aggregate
   term of service in China has been 2,511 years, giving an average of
   nearly seven and a half years to each.... These numbers include the
   time that missionaries have been absent on visits to their native
   lands or elsewhere, generally on account of their health. (7)

   Of the eleven [women] who pioneered these stations [in Shanxi] in
   1886--87, two died young, one committed suicide, two were sent home
   to die, and two died at the hands of the Boxers. Only four survived
   past 1900. (8)

Inevitably the prevalence of health breakdowns and deaths influenced the mood and effectiveness of those who remained. It is not surprising that the early missionaries often seemed to be preoccupied with death and sickness. Conversations, it was said, frequently centered on recent departures of ill colleagues, the death of a newborn, or the sickness of a friend. More than one missionary perceived a relationship between early departure and despondency over health problems and the lack of converts. William Lennox of Peking Union Medical College, who in 1918-19 made a statistical study of the health of missionary families in China, concluded that a significant number of missionaries left China because of "neurasthenia," or nervous breakdown.9 At the time, "departure for health reasons" often covered mental health as well as physical health. Since the records rarely mention mental health, however, the precise proportion of those departing because of mental problems cannot be determined. Biographies of individual missionaries do reveal that many missionaries experienced depression. Elijah Bridgman, Dr. Peter Parker, and Tarleton Crawford, for example, often were plagued by weeks or months of despondency. In the course of 1848 James Legge of the London Missionary Society experienced the death of his father, his infant daughter, a close friend, and his wife, in childbirth. …

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