Lydia Lord Davis was born in Ravenna, Ohio on August 31, 1867, the first child of Eleazer (1823-1904) and Mary Lewis Lord (1844-1929). After graduating from Ravenna high school in 1885, she attended the Normal School in Ada, Ohio (now Ohio Northern) and received a teaching certificate. Returning to Ravenna, she taught second grade from February 1886 until the summer of 1889, when she met Francis Ward Davis (1857-1900).
Francis W. Davis, the eldest son of blacksmith Charles (1824-94) and Mary Kelly Davis (1834-67), was born on September 8, 1857. A confirmed skeptic as a youth, Davis embraced Christianity as an adult. Enrolling at the Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1885 at the age of 28, where he was inspired by the tutelage of Professor of Church History Frank Hugh Foster (1851-1935), Davis early committed himself to a foreign missionary career. He was assigned to the Board's mission at Fenzhou in Shansi Province, China, which had been established in 1887. Martin Luther Stimson (1856-1935; B.D. Oberlin 1881) pioneered Oberlin's missionary work in China by bringing members of the Oberlin Seminary class of 1879-80 to Taigu in 1881. Calling themselves the "China" or "Oberlin Band," the Oberlin students and their spouses initiated the work of the American Board in North China.
In June 1889, Davis graduated with the B.D. and was ordained a Congregational minister. While serving as a guest preacher in Ravenna, Ohio, he met Lydia Lord. During their summer courtship, Francis encouraged Lydia to apply to the American Board for an appointment; in July 1889, Lydia, too, was assigned to Shansi Province. Following their marriage on 14 August 1889, Francis and Lydia Davis sailed for China from San Francisco, arriving in Fenzhou in late November.
The Oberlin missionary enterprise in China was primarily an educational one; in this it was unique. Missionaries were guided by the conviction that biblical instruction was only possible among the literate, and therefore every effort was made to teach reading. As the Chinese believed girls should not receive an education, the work of Lydia Davis among Chinese women broke with native tradition. In 1893, Lydia Davis founded at Fenzhou the first girls' school in Shansi Province under the auspices of the American Board. When the Fenzhou school was reestablished in 1904, after the Boxer Rebellion, the school was renamed "The Lydia Lord Davis School for Girls."
Throughout their eight-year stay in Shansi, from 1889 to 1897, Lydia and Francis Davis studied the Chinese language, learning to pray and read the Bible in Chinese. Francis Davis served as treasurer of the mission. Both endured the loss of infant sons in 1890 and 1894, but raised their boys William Potter Davis (1893-1975; A.B., Oberlin College 1915) and John Lord Davis (b. 1896 A.B., Oberlin College 1918) at the Fenzhou mission. A third son, Lewis Eleazer Davis (b. 1897, A.B. Oberlin College 1919), was born in Ravenna, Ohio.
In the spring of 1897, Lydia, Francis and the two boys returned on furlough to the United States. All were physically weakened by eight years of inadequate medical attention. Lydia Davis sought treatment in 1898 from Cleveland physician Dr. Henry S. Upson (1859-1913). Following Upson's advice, Lydia did not return to China with Francis in September 1899 but remained in Ohio to convalesce. The news of her husband's murder at the hands of the Chinese Boxers on July 31, 1900 reached her on September 8, 1900. From then on, Lydia Lord Davis dedicated herself to reopening the Shansi mission and to continuing the work begun by the slain missionaries of the Oberlin Band.
In 1903, Lydia Davis settled in Oberlin. There, in 1908, she helped to establish the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (O.S.M.A.) under the leadership of Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King (1858-1934). In 1912, she organized the Ping-An Club for High School Girls in Oberlin for the purpose of raising money for the mission school and hospital in Fenzhou and for O.S.M.A. and its school at Taigu. Davis was appointed Field Secretary for O.S.M.A. in 1926, although compensation did not begin until 1927. In 1929, she became Executive Secretary, serving until her retirement in 1941. During her tenure, the curriculum, faculty, and student body at the Taigu school were strengthened and new buildings erected. Teaching, coaching, and other activities expanded at Ming Hsien, the school built on land received by the American Board as restitution for losses in the Boxer Uprising.
In addition to her advocacy work for O.S.M.A., Lydia Davis became a well-known speaker and fundraiser for the American missionary work of the Congregational Church in the Midwest. After successfully raising money for the Ohio Branch of the Women's Board of Missions of the Interior, she served as Field and Thankoffering Secretary of the Commission on Missions for the Midwest region (1919-26). In 1924, she returned to China for a nine-month visit. The letters written during her stay were published under the title, My Letters From the Orient, (ca. 1924) to raise money for Kobe College. In 1927, she was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Home Department of the A.B.C.F.M., a post she held until 1932.
In retirement, Lydia Davis completed an autobiography, "Letters to My Grandchildren," (1944). Never published, it contains accounts of her family history and childhood, Francis Davis' youth and religious conversion, their lives together in China, and her subsequent work for the missionary cause. Beloved by several generations of Oberlin students who had sought her counsel and hospitality, she died in Oberlin on November 30, 1952.