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RG 30/373 - Irenaeus Atwood Family (1850-1913)

Irenaeus Atwood, born 4 December 1850 in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, became a crucial contributor to Oberlin College’s history in China with his work as an member of the 1882 “China Band” and later diplomatic efforts to settle missionary claims after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. A son of Kelly Atwood and MaryAnn Kean, he first obtained his B.A. from Ripon College in 1878. After this initial academic degree, he went on to attend the Oberlin Theological in 1878 and graduated in 1881. At that time, he made his first journey to China as a member of the Oberlin “China Band,” a missionary group that established schools, refuges, and religious centers in the Shansi region.

Atwood married Annette Williams on 25 December 1877. They established a family in the midst of an itinerant lifestyle, in which Annette and their children, Edward, Mabel, and Paul, were compelled by violence or disease in China to remain in the United States while Irenaeus returned to continue his missionary work. All three children had the opportunity to spend some time living and studying in China over the courses of their lives, as well as obtaining some of their education and living amongst family members in the United States. Atwood, meanwhile, pursued missionary work in China continuously until increasing deafness resulted in his return to the U.S. shortly before the Boxer Rebellion.

Atwood’s activities as a missionary worker would form the basis for his entire career, as well as establishing a life that would be spent largely in China, away from his native United States. During a furlough in the United States, Irenaeus Atwood studied to obtain his medical degree from Rush College in 1888. He returned to China as a medical missionary, helping to address a want for medical professionals that, according to notes written by his daughter Mabel, he had identified during his first period of work.

The Boxer Rebellion, which took place in 1900, had disastrous implications for the Oberlin Missionaries of Shansi. As violence spread across the northern regions of China, members of the “Oberlin Band” who remained in the area were killed in mob activities. Soon after the rebellion subsided, Atwood returned to China to engage diplomatically in the effort to have the bodies of missionaries exhumed and reburied according to the standards deemed appropriate to American Christian mission workers. He successfully negotiated this transaction, which resulted not only in their reburial but also in the building of monuments to their deaths. The result of further diplomatic negotiation was the establishment of new missions in the area, and this final success marked one of the pinnacles of Atwood’s career. He received a button of the third rank from the Emperor of China in recognition of his services in settling missionary claims, and perhaps even more remarkably, Atwood accomplished these feats of negotiation almost entirely on his own. His work demanded that he travel widely in China for prolonged periods of time following the Boxer Rebellion, and he remained in a degree of peril. To ensure that his safety be preserved, Atwood received an armed consort provided by American and other foreign forces active in the area.

Irenaeus Atwood remained in China working for missionary reparations until ill health and old age forced his return to the United States. The last part of his life was spent in the Puget Sound Sanitarium in Tacoma, Washington, ending with his death in Milton, Washington, on 1 October, 1913. Although he did produce several published and unpublished writings, including “Breezes from the Flowery Kingdom”(1900) and “The Light of Asia vs. the Light of the World,”(1910) his legacy lay almost completely in the tangible evidence he left in China: the memorials and new-founded missions he negotiated to establish.

This information was drawn from brief biographical notes by Mabel Atwood, included in the collection under Series V, Subseries 1: Materials Relating to the Atwood Family.

Sources Consulted

Student File of Irenaeus J. Atwood, Student Files, OCA; biographical notes of Mabel Atwood, located within the Irenaeus J. Atwood and Atwood Family Papers.

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