Shi Meiyu - The Remarkable Story of China’s ‘Bible Women’
In the 1860s, female missionaries found that one of the more strategic ways to communicate the gospel was to recruit local Chinese women as “Bible women” to evangelise their female compatriots. The earliest Bible women were often recruited from the employees of missionary households or from the wives and the mothers of Chinese male evangelists. Some were educated but many were illiterate. Due to the Protestant priority of the Bible, women missionaries needed to teach them to read Chinese—often through a Romanized form of Chinese characters—before they could read the Bible for themselves and communicate basic Christian teachings. These convictions encouraged female missionaries to create boarding schools to educate Chinese girls. As Chinese society had long prioritised literacy and education for men, the missionaries’ desires for everyone to have the ability to read the Bible opened new vistas for these Chinese women.
Initially, Bible women worked under the supervision of foreign female missionaries. Their main responsibilities were limited to teaching the Bible to women and children, often in rural contexts. As their numbers and skills grew, these responsibilities included visiting the sick and offering various forms of medical care. By the 1880s, some missionary societies allowed Bible women to publicly evangelise and teach the Bible to mixed-gender groups.
Shi Meiyu, also known as Mary Stone, a name she adopted while studying in the United States, was born into a Christian family in Jiujiang (Kiukiang), Jiangxi province in 1873. Her father was a Methodist pastor and mother was the principal of a Methodist school for girls. Defying Chinese tradition, her parents refused to bind her feet. She was taught the Chinese classics and Christian literature by her mother. Impressed by the work of American medical missionary Dr Kate Bushnell, her father, decided that she should become a doctor.
Having graduated from the Rulison-Fish Memorial School under the guidance of Gertrude Howe, an American Methodist from Lansing, Michigan, she left for the United States with Howe in 1892 to study medicine at the University of Michigan. In 1896 she graduated together with her friend, Kang Cheng (Ida Kahn), the first two Chinese women to receive medical degree from an American university. Upon graduation, they returned to China as medical missionaries of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church and set up a one-room hospital in Jiujiang. In the first 10 months, Shi and her associates treated more than 2,300 outpatients and made hundreds house calls, and their hospital was always filled.
During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Shi lost her father, causing both her and Kang Cheng to seek refuge in Japan. They returned in 1901 and, with the support of Dr Isaac Newton Danforth, opened the Elizabeth Skelton Danforth Hospital, a 95-bed, 15-room hospital. For some 20 years, Shi worked there as superintendent, taking care of patients, training nurses, and promoting public hygiene. Grown up with unbound feet, she was enthusiastic in opposing foot binding. During busy periods, Shi’s hospital was treating around 5,000 patients per month. She supervised the training of more than 500 Chinese nurses and translated training manuals and textbooks for their use. She also supervised a home for cripples and adopted for boys. Even, as she herself underwent surgery in Chicago in 1907, she took this as an opportunity to raise funds for her hospital. A Rockefeller Foundation scholarship enabled her to do postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University from 1918 to 1919. Her sister, Phoebe, also a doctor and a graduate of Johns Hopkins, took charge of the Danforth Hospital in her absence.
Upon her return to China in 1920, Shi severed her ties with the Methodist Board of Missions and moved to Shanghai. She established the Shanghai Bethel Mission with the assistance of Jennie V. Hughes, an American missionary. In less than 10 years, the Bethel Mission had developed a hospital, primary and secondary schools, an evangelistic training department, and an orphanage. She conducted Bible classes for the nurses, intending to produce nurse-evangelists. From 1920 until the Japanese invasion in 1937, Bethel was well known for its training program for nurses. The Japanese invasion forced Bethel members to move inland and to Hong Kong, resulting in new Bethel churches. Shi went to the United States to raise support for the Mission.
Shi was also a prominent evangelist and women’s leader of the Chinese church. She served as a member of the China Continuation Committee of the National Missionary Conference after the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. She was the first Chinese Christian woman to be ordained in central China. Recognizing the importance of carrying out mission work by the Chinese, she cofounded the Chinese Missionary Society in 1918. This society aimed at supporting and sending Chinese missionaries to work among the Chinese. She was also the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in China (1922), an organization committed to fighting alcoholism and the use of opium and cigarettes. In the 1930s, she was one of the organizers who formed the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band. In 1948 the Bethel hospital built a surgery ward in her honor.
Shi spent her last years in Pasadena, California. In 1954 she died at the age of 82.
There is much in the life of Shi Meiyu that challenges and encourages us.
First, I see a godly passion. The world is divided into those who are driven and those who drift. Shi Meiyu was in the first category, seeing the spiritual and physical needs of an enormous nation and working tirelessly to meet those needs. It’s a great thing to dream dreams but it’s an even greater thing to work to make them happen. Do we have her passion and zeal? If not, why not?
Second, I see a godly wisdom. It would have been easy for Shi Meiyu to have burned herself out in the innumerable battles she faced as a doctor and administrator. But she knew her limits and, aware that she could not realise her vision for China alone, trained others in medicine, nursing and evangelism. Most importantly for the long term, she trained them to train others. Equally, Shi Meiyu didn’t just campaign for progress, she demonstrated by example that Chinese women were capable of the highest levels of skill, learning and administration. Shi Meiyu saw, too, that ultimately China could only be effectively evangelised by the Chinese themselves and had a vision for a truly indigenous church independent of foreign missions. That emphasis was to prove invaluable when the Communist government expelled foreign missionaries in 1949.
Third, I see a godly balance. During Shi Meiyu’ s lifetime China underwent cultural and economic changes that in many Western countries had taken centuries. Living through such turbulent times she fought many battles as a reformer. It would have been easy for her extraordinary energies to have been so diverted but her prayerful relationship with Christ remained at the centre of all she was. She was never anything other than a Christian with a heart of Christ.
The Bible reminds us that any genuine living faith must be worked out in practice. In Shi Meiyu’ s life we see an example of this on a grand scale: she impacted a vast nation for Christ. May the Lord raise up more Shi Meiyus for a time such as this.