Woman’s Work for Woman in the Lord’s Name

Lydia Lord Davis (1867-1952)


Robbie Fee-Thomson

OC 2003




Since the earliest days of the Oberlin Colony and Institute, Oberlin has long been known for its pioneering spirit. Among the ranks of its pioneers was a young woman from Ravenna, Ohio. Though she never sat in any classroom or took a meal at the ladies’ dinning hall, the life and work of Lydia Lord Davis survives to tell the story of a band of missionaries from Oberlin who served their God in China at the turn of the twentieth century. Original letters, diaries and other papers provide a rare and singular look into the lives, losses and work of an ordinary woman from a rural Ohio village, who is remembered for her remarkable contributions to foreign missions. But Lydia Lord Davis’ life also serves to remind us that the ordinary is truly remarkable as we piece together the history of our country through its most significant historical asset—people.

Men and women came to Oberlin in the nineteenth century to learn the skills necessary to spread the message of their evangelical Christian faith to the then untamed, heathen west. Though many Oberlin students did just that, some answered the call to serve God not in the west, but in the east. In 1881, a group of twelve Oberlin students, lead by Martin Luther Stimson, developed the idea of forming a band of missionaries who would serve together in China.[1] The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was happy to have the many volunteers from Oberlin, but required that each apply for mission service individually for appointment. Stimson and his wife Emily Brooks Hall were the first of the Band to arrive in China in 1882. Twenty-eight other missionaries, twenty-one of whom had studied at the College, joined them in Shansi, China. One of the missionaries who went to Shansi was Lydia Lord Davis.

Daughter of Eleazer and Mary Lewis Lord, Lydia was born in Ravenna, Ohio, on August 31, 1867. A Ravenna High School graduate who recently earned her teaching certificate from the Normal School in Ada, Ohio, Lydia was teaching second grade when she met Francis Ward Davis in the summer of 1889.[2] The couple met while Francis, a recent Oberlin Theological Seminary graduate and newly ordained Congregational minister, was guest preaching in Lydia’s hometown. After a whirlwind two-month courtship, they were married August 14, 1889. In addition to the wedding plans, the couple also spent their courtship anticipating service with the Oberlin Band. Francis had applied for mission service and urged his future bride to do the same. Ironically, Lydia had previously applied for service but was turned down because of her age.[3] Although women were welcome to accompany their husbands into the field, they, like the early members of the Oberlin Band, had to apply separately for posting as “assistant missionaries.”[4] The first letter in this collection, written by Francis, highlights the couple’s courtship and preparations for their travel to China. The couple sailed from San Francisco to China on September 11, 1889. After their disembarkation at the coast, the couple made the arduous 350-mile trek by riverboat and mule litter to Shansi Province in three weeks time.[5]

The ABCFM knew women’s contributions to mission service were invaluable because strict gender lines divided China during this period: Only Western women could share the Gospel with Chinese women.[6] But no matter how indispensable or valuable they were, duties to home and family came first for the missionary women in China. And Lydia was no exception. During her tenure in Shansi, Lydia established a home for herself and Francis and had children. Lydia, like many missionary wives, balanced her family duties with her evangelical and educational passions. In his book, Women in the Mission Field, Reverend Augustus R. Buckland wrote:

In thinking however, of women’s work in the mission field, it must always be kept in mind that missionaries’ wives, although they may not be counted as members of the staff, are still missionaries. There home and family duties have necessarily been their first care; but these have not kept them from rendering service of the highest value … Men have been well matched in the mission field by workers of the sex often condescendingly labeled “the weaker.”[7]

Buckland might easily have had Lydia in mind when he penned these words in 1895, but she was still in the China field. In 1893, Lydia defied the long-held Chinese tradition that did not recognize education as a female prerogative and opened the first girl’s school in Shansi Province.[8] Though only a singular reference to “the school girls,” the second letter in this collection was written the year after Lydia opened the daring and pioneering school. This letter is representative of the numerous letters she wrote during her eight years in Shansi. This letter gives a good snapshot of life in the foreign mission for married missionaries, including pregnancy, household tasks, preserving American customs, female friendships, Chinese cultural influences and giving and asking for news from home.

Fen Chou Fu, also called Fenzhou, was where the Davis’ made their home as newlyweds and where they welcomed four of their sons, who were born in China. The day after one of their sons was born, her husband wrote the fourth letter in this collection. This baby died in infancy in 1894, as did their first son in 1890. The Davis’ second son William Potter was a toddler at this time. Another son John Lord was born in 1896, also in Shansi. This letter highlights the missionaries’ greatest joys were also their greatest sorrows. Dysentery, typhus, diphtheria and pneumonia threatened the lives of children—and adults. By 1900, of the twenty-five children born to missionaries in Shansi, twelve died in the field, including the Davis’ two newborn sons.[9]

After eight years of inadequate medical care and four pregnancies in the province, which only had three doctors from 1882 to 1900,[10] Lydia’s health forced the family to return to the United States on furlough in the spring of 1897, where Lydia gave birth to fifth son Lewis Eleazer later that year. The fourth letter in this collection was written by Lydia upon her return to Oberlin during their furlough. Francis returned to Shansi two years later, with the promise of Lydia and the boys’ return once her health was restored. That day never came for Lydia because Francis was among the ten Oberlin missionaries and three children killed in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. This collection’s fifth letter was written by Lydia on her 11th wedding anniversary and expresses much fear for his safety and whereabouts. Lydia was not notified for nearly a month following Francis’ death on July 31, 1900, and she continued to write to him in the field, with touching and poignant epistles that testify their loving relationship. The sixth document in this collection is a September 1900 newspaper article, which includes the names of the Oberlin Band who died in Shansi.

Grieving the loss of her husband, Lydia moved to Oberlin in 1903 to raise her three small sons. And although China now held bittersweet memories for the former missionary, she never lost her fervor for the mission field. Though caring for her children prevented her from returning to the field, she took up the cause from her home.[11] Beginning with local speeches at churches, Lydia soon transitioned in organizing and leading mission study groups for the Board of Missions for the Interior; Midwest Regional Commission, which took her to venues, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and California in the 1920s.[12] The final letter in this collection was written by Lydia to her mother during her seven-month visit to Shansi in 1924, her only return trip to China. During this trip she visited the martyrs garden where her husband and the other Oberlinians were buried. She also visited the “Lydia Lord Davis School for Girls” in Fenzhou, which was renamed in her honor after the Boxer Rebellion.

The year 1926 was a significant year for Lydia because she transitioned from volunteer status to paid employee when she was appointed Assistant Secretary of the ABCFM, a position she held until 1931. Also in 1926, she became a field secretary for the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, established in 1908 to promote an educational memorial in Shansi, to honor the martyrs killed in 1900. She was later appointed Executive Secretary with financial compensation, a position she held until her retirement in 1941.[13]

Lydia remained in Oberlin after her retirement until her death in 1952. The Davis’ sons each went to Oberlin College. William Potter graduated in 1915, followed by John Lord in 1918 and Lewis Eleazer in 1919. William later became the Treasurer of Oberlin College from 1941-58, John was a member of the firm of Davis and Barnett, Investment Counselors of San Francisco and Lewis was the Assistant Vice President of the Bank of America in Bangkok, Thailand.[14]

Lydia Lord Davis, once a second grade teacher in Ravenna, Ohio, grew to be one of the most well-known and influential women in foreign missions. Although most missionary women considered their foreign service as simply an answer to God’s call, few turned it into a professional. Lydia’s life shows us the gendered divisions and expectations of missionary work at the turn of the century and how women expanded their roles, despite the conflicting demands of home life. Through Lydia we gain a new understanding about the dedication, strength and determination of women missionaries. Notwithstanding tragic personal losses in the field, women took active roles in establishing themselves as competent, credible, professional women, who challenged the boundaries of acceptable womanhood in the field. Most importantly, her life testifies to the transformative power of foreign service for some women. Lydia, used her China experiences, self-confidence and newfound agency to carve out a new identity as professional woman in a field not normally sought by women. Certainly her pioneering efforts on behalf of the girl’s school were enough to place her in the history books. But her life in its entirety helps us to understand the ordinary as remarkable and that history must be framed and told through the lives and work of ordinary people like Lydia Lord Davis.


Document 1 - Document 2 - Document 3 - Document 4 - Document 5 - Document 6 - Document 7


[1] Ellsworth C. Carlson, The Oberlin Band (Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, 2001), 3.

[2] Lydia Lord Davis biography, OCA RG 30/80 Finding Guide.

[3] Carlson, The Oberlin Band, 28-29.

[4] Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 11.

[5] There are some conflicting records concerning the date of the Davis’ departure for China. September 11, 1889 is the date most often referred in Lydia’s personal papers. Lydia Lord Davis Obituary typescript, OCA RG 28 Alumni Records, Grads and Formers Series, Box 241, Francis W. Davis student file.

[6] Hunter, 15.

[7] Augustus R. Buckland, Women in the Mission Field: Pioneers and Martyr’s (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1895), 16 and 24.

[8] Lydia Lord Davis biography, OCA RG 30/80 Finding Guide.

[9] Carlson, The Oberlin Band, 50-52.

[10] Carlson, The Oberlin Band, 52-53.

[11] Ellsworth C. Carlson, “Lydia Lord Davis (biography)” reprinted from Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Autumn 1890, OCA RG 28 Alumni Records, Grads and Formers Series, Box 241, Francis W. Davis student folder.

[12] Various correspondence, RG 30/80 Lydia Lord Davis, Series V, Box 6, Professional Correspondence of Lydia Lord Davis 1902, 1920-43 folder.

[13] “General Report of the Executive Secretary”, September 1, 1941, OCA RG 30/80, Series V, Box 6, Professional Correspondence of Lydia Lord Davis, Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association 1902, 1925, 1932, 1941, 1943 folder.

[14] Lydia Lord Davis Obituary typescript, OCA RG 28 Alumni Records, Grads and Formers Series, Box 241, Francis W. Davis student file.