Mary Stone – A Forgotten Hero of China

The expected life path for a woman in late Qing dynasty, China, was quite restricted. Little Han Chinese girls were subject to foot binding, which meant that she would never be able to walk any significant distance without debilitating pain. Her place would be quite literally at the home doing housework and homebased economic activity such as weaving. Any education she would be privileged to get would also take place at home. The purpose of her life would be to bear and raise preferably male offspring and her business was to obey; her father before marriage, her husband during marriage and her sons after marriage.

But what happens when the light of Christ begins to shine, and people turn to Him? Culture no longer has the final say. This became clear in the lives of the Shi family. They were reportedly one of the first protestant converts in central China after the door slowly opened for missions in that area. The husband became a Methodist minister, the wife was the principal of a methodist school for girls – that in itself was quite a career for a Chinese woman – but when she gave birth to three daughters in a row, it became clear the parents had what was described as “radically nonconformist attitudes toward certain traditional Chinese values”.

They refused to have their daughters’ feet bound. This may sound like a rational and loving decision to us today, but it took courage, both for the parents and the daughters. It meant that the girls were bullied for their large feet by their peers, and it reduced their chances of marrying well.

The girls were also educated, both at the mission school and by their mother. They learned the Chinese classics as well as Christian literature. Moreover, their father had been inspired by American medical missionary Kate Bushnell, to think way out of the box about his daughters’ possible futures. He decided he wanted his oldest, Meiyu, to study in America and become a doctor.

She left for the United States in 1892 and graduated four years later together with a Chinese friend, to become one of the two first Chinese women to get a medical degree from the US. In the US she became known as Mary Stone. Rather than work for an American mission hospital in China after graduating, she founded her own small hospital. She felt Chinese doctors should learn to work independently from foreigners, administer their own medical expertise and train Chinese staff.

Tragedy struck in 1900 when her brave father paid the price for his non-conformism. He was killed by the Boxers during the Boxer rebellion. She fled to Japan for a short time, but returned in 1901 and with the help of an American supporter founded the Elizabeth Skelton Danforth Hospital. Decades of hard work followed. She looked after thousands of patients, trained hundreds of nurses, translated textbooks from English, adopted four orphan boys, campaigned for hygiene and against foot binding, alcohol and opium but foremost, she was a preacher of the gospel. She led the daily worship in the hospital and her nurses were trained both as nurses and as evangelists.

Meanwhile her youngest sister Phoebe, who was only a child when her father was killed, followed in her footsteps and graduated as a doctor in the US in 1918. She took Mary’s place as the hospital administrator, while Mary did some graduate studies at John Hopkins university. After returning, both sisters moved to Shanghai, where they founded Shanghai Bethel mission with an American missionary friend, Jennie Hughes. In a few short years, these three women founded a hospital, a primary and secondary school, a nursing school, an orphanage and an evangelist training centre.

Mary Stone was passionate about both medicine and evangelism. She had become not only the first Western trained female doctor, but also the first ordained female minister in China. She helped found the Chinese Missionary Society because she believed the Chinese themselves should take up the task of evangelising China.

This belief was expressed in her helping organise the ‘The Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band’. In the thirties and the forties, groups of Chinese evangelists travelled all through China and beyond from the Bethel mission in Shanghai. Researcher Paul Hattaway called it “the largest and most effective evangelistic band in China”, reaching hundreds of thousands with the gospel.

Mary’s younger sister and co-worker in mission, Dr. Phoebe Stone, died aged forty of tuberculosis, but Mary was able to continue the work until, in her seventies, she retired to the United States. She died in 1954, at the age of 82.

Mary never walked the path of a traditional Chinese woman. She never married or gave birth to children. She certainly didn’t stay at home. But with her unbound feet and her non-conformist heart, she paved the way for thousands of women and men to follow after Christ instead of the expectations of culture. Her footprints still can be found all over China.

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