Sunday, May 04, 2008

Another Western Woman in Eastern Lands: Miss Mary Ann Aldersey

Source: Not Less Than Everything, by Valerie Griffiths.

In 1834 a group of British women came together to form a new ministry with the good Victorian name The Society for the Promoting Female Education in [India, China, and] the East. Over the next 40 years they sent more than 150 single women, mostly mature women with teaching experience, to China, Southeast Asia, India, South Africa, and the Middle East, to set up schools for local children. Other agencies that refused to accept single women nevertheless depended on the SPFEE for a supply of teachers.

One of the founding committee members of this ministry was Mary Ann Aldersey. When she was 30 she gave a large donation to the London Missionary Society to encourage them to send out a pair of single women, and canvassed her friends to do the same. A clergyman impressed by her enthusiasm finally asked, “Why don’t you go yourself, Miss Aldersey?”

She was on the point of doing so when her brother was widowed. Mary Ann was expected to take over supervising his household and eight children [another source says five]. While she resented the delay, the experience with children certainly helped equip her for future ministry. When her brother remarried in 1837, Mary Ann, now 40, was free to go. She was also able to support herself through her own means - always handy when you are doing the unexpected!

Foreigners were still forbidden to live in China so she sailed for Indonesia, and ended up spending her first years in the city of Surabaya. Living outside the capital and teaching Christianity in a Muslim area she might have faced more opposition that she could withstand, but, as she said, 

“‘My weakness was my strength. It was not expected that a woman missionary’s activities would do much good or harm.’ There would be many times in the future when women missionaries could go where men could not, simply because of that assumption.” (Griffiths, p. 20)

In time, treaties between China and Western governments allowed foreigners to live in China. In 1843 Mary Ann became the first single Western woman to set foot there. Her 12-year-old adopted daughter came with her, and they were soon joined by two Javanese girls who had become Christians at her school in Surabaya.

The government may have allowed them to live there, but plenty of hardship and local opposition remained. Dysentery, cholera, and typhoid were constant threats, and summer temperatures were stifling. When disasters struck the Chinese believed someone must have offended the spirits and the foreigners were obvious scapegoats. Mary Ann, committed to preserving her health, also took daily morning walks along the city walls, which led to rumors that she was communing with "the spirits of the night." 

“Moreover she wanted to teach their girls, and everyone knew that was a waste of money: girls married and left home, and they were a burden on the family from the day they were born until the day their married. Rumours abounded that Mary Ann had murdered all her own children and now wanted theirs.” (Griffiths, p. 30)

Mary Ann persisted. By 1852, when she was 55, this British lady was a pillar of the community, held in high respect by both the foreigners and the Chinese. 

“The local Chinese decided that, since Britain was ruled by a woman, the Queen had sent Miss Aldersey to rule the British in Ningbo.” (p. 34)

Miss Aldersey fits certain missionary stereotypes. A visitor remarked, admiringly, that “the orderly and self-respecting habits of her early years remained unchanged.” The product of an upper-middle class home, she felt it was important to maintain discipline and decorum. Does that show integrity, or inflexibility?

I first heard about Miss Aldersey as the one who had forced young Maria Dyer to reject Hudson Taylor’s first offer of marriage. Maria was serving under Miss Aldersey, teaching in the Ningbo school. In Miss Aldersey’s eyes Taylor was uncouth, unqualified, and a Sabbath-breaker to boot! But was it necessary for Miss Aldersey to oppose Maria’s interest in him (and his in her) so vehemently? She actually dictated Maria’s letter of rejection, including the sentence instructing him to never bring up the matter again. (They ended up getting married in the end anyway, but that’s another story.)

Considering the world she grew up in, the world to which she had come, and the role she played in bridging the two, I find more sympathy for Miss Aldersey than I thought I would. 

“These were the early days for overseas missions. Arguments raged between those who believed in preserving their Western culture and dignity in other lands, and those who abandoned the trappings of the West and adopted the ways of the place where they had lived.” (Griffiths, p. 34)

I’m still a big fan of cultural sensitivity and identifying with those you wish to serve, so you can say, “follow me as I follow Christ.” You might expect Mary Ann Aldersey’s white table cloths and Victorian manners to get in the way, but perhaps they did not. She still offered hospitality unstintingly, and she loved and served the Chinese even if she was not willing to live as they did. She was effective; she was well loved. Maria would live her life quite differently, but it wasn’t just their relative positions that caused her to see Miss Aldersey as a role-model.

One woman who reminisced about meeting Miss Aldersey said she had expected to meet “a tall, masculine-looking person with a mind and will of her own,” and must have certainly found that mind and will were there, but also called her “one of the loveliest little women it has been my privilege to meet. She captured my heart from the start.” (Griffiths, p. 35)

Would that we could all transcend the limitations, personality issues, and prejudices we all have, to love and bless those around us!

1 comment:

Marti said...

Here's a postscript. In our office library we have this cool old book called 'Eminent Missionary Women' (by Mrs. J.T. Gracey, New York: Eaton & Mains, 1898!). It definitely tends toward hagiography, but it's very interesting. I had a hunch Miss Aldersey would rate an entry. She did. EMM has this to add, as well:

"As a pioneer Miss Aldersey had to face every form of prejudice and opposition. For some time she was regarded as a cannibal, and many were the stories circulated among the natives concerning her method of taking out the eyes of children and of murdering all who went into her house... But the hearts of many of the natives were won through the Christian spirit she manifested. Her work was one of preparation and laying foundations for future results. She was the forerunner of a great army of Christian women who have given their lives to save Chinese women." (p. 90-91)