Missionaries, Beloit, and AsiaPosted by admin on 11/23/09 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2009
Jerome Davis prayed as he stood on the battlefield at Shiloh, hoisting the flag of the 52nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
It was 1862.
Shells whizzed past him for nearly half an hour as he struggled to hold his infantry colors upright. When one of the major battles of the U.S. Civil War finally ended, Davis was severely injured, but he was still alive. He would survive the rest of the war, return to Beloit College as a student, and go on to become a protagonist in one of the earliest episodes of the College’s international story.
Davis would be the first of three prominent Beloit College alumni to serve in the Civil War, study at seminary school, and go on to pursue his life’s work in Asia. Over lifetimes, these men and their families developed deep connections with the people and institutions of Japan and China.
Jerome D. Davis, Arthur Henderson Smith, Henry Dwight Porter: They were missionaries, whose dedication to spreading Christianity took place in the context of a larger movement of their time. But these early Beloiters were also pioneering and influential educators, whose work, friendships, and family ties laid much of the foundation in Asia on which a small college in Beloit, Wisconsin, continues to build.
Jerome Davis, Class of 1866
Before he enlisted in the Union Army, Jerome Davis was an intensely serious and devoutly religious student at Beloit College. He was driven to serve in the war, he wrote, because he hoped it “would be the death of slavery.”
Only a couple of years after Davis held the flag at Shiloh, a young Japanese man named Joseph Hardy Neesima, the academically bright son of a Samurai, was charting his course to the West, defying his country’s overseas travel ban. He was drawn to see the world and to study Western culture and Christianity, so he stowed away in a schooner headed west. The ship turned out to be owned by an American who sponsored Neesima by sending him to the best New England colleges and seminary school in America.
When Neesima later returned to Japan to break new ground in Japanese education, he would do so with the help of Beloit’s Jerome Davis.
The American Board of Missionaries had selected Davis to serve in Japan in 1871, a time when religious gatherings were forbidden by law. Neesima and Davis had met earlier at a missionary meeting in New England, crossed paths again in 1875 in Kobe, Japan, after Neesima returned home, and went on to develop a close friendship.
After religious restrictions were lifted, they were free to pursue the burning ambition they shared: to found a school that would educate Japanese students for the ministry while providing them with a broad educational foundation. “It would be as unwise to ordain a man here without knowledge of science as it would be to ordain a backwoodsman in America,” Davis wrote from Japan.
Later that same year in Kyoto, Davis and Neesima founded Doshisha Academy, which became Doshisha University, the first modern Christian university in Japan, and a school that continues to thrive today. When Neesima died in 1890, Davis became president of Doshisha.
Arthur Smith and Henry Porter, Class of 1867
Two other Beloit alumni—top students, classmates, and lifelong friends—graduated a year after Davis. They, too, served briefly in the U.S. Civil War as “One Hundred Day Men,” Union Army volunteers who enlisted for a 100-day period at the behest of Lincoln.
Arthur Smith and Henry Porter’s lives would mirror each other far beyond Beloit and long after the war, when they pursued lifelong work as Congregationalist missionaries abroad.
They would go to China.
There, beginning in the 1870s and spanning decades, Smith and Porter would witness a violent uprising, assist with relief efforts during a famine, write books about China that became highly popular with American readers, and even influence U.S. government policy that made scholarships available for Chinese students to study in America.
Smith and Porter maintained a brotherly closeness, spending most of their lives in China and raising their families within close proximity. Like Davis, they wrote copious letters and columns and returned to campus to speak, bringing a global outlook to Beloit so early it seems embedded in the College’s DNA.
They entered their first field of mission in 1872 at Tientsin, then moved on to P’ang Chuang, in Shantung, China, where Porter became a medical missionary and Smith a general missionary.
Arthur Smith arguably made the greatest impact of early Beloiters in China. Recognized for his wit and brilliant intellect, he wrote a number of important books, the best-known of which was Chinese Characteristics (1894), said to be the most widely read American work on China until Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth (1931). Smith also wrote China in Convulsion (1901), a bestseller about the Boxer Rebellion, which was published in English and in translation.
All told, Smith sustained a 54-year, uninterrupted career as a missionary, and, in the end, a kind of elder statesman who encouraged economic, educational, and industrial development in China.
“Very few men have known Chinese life so intimately or have been able to interpret it so accurately and vividly,” Arthur Smith’s obituary stated in 1932.
But one of Smith’s highest-profile acts was his advocacy for returning funds the Chinese were being required to pay to the United States as war reparation after the Boxer Rebellion. Smith visited President Theodore Roosevelt to argue that this sizeable amount of money—known as the Boxer Indemnity—should be given back and set aside for education.
After much political debate on both the Chinese and American sides, the resolution passed Congress in 1909. Later, the funds brought hundreds of Chinese students to study in America and abroad on scholarships and helped establish universities in China.
At Beloit, the Boxer Indemnity brought Chinese students to campus, including Ching Ye Tang, the first to come in 1914. The son of a Chinese educator, C.Y. Tang arrived at age 16 with a limited command of the English language. Still, he went on to win the 1917 Wisconsin State Oratorical Contest against stiff competition. After Beloit, Tang attended Columbia University and later became executive secretary for the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, before returning to China to teach.
Tang sent his son, Xiao-Xuan Tang’49, to Beloit to study chemistry, and in turn, he sent his son, De Ming “Eddie” Tang, who graduated in 1984.
Henry Porter, for his part, strengthened his ties to Beloit College—and incidentally the connections between China and Beloit—when he returned to Beloit in 1879 from his mission post to marry Elizabeth Chapin, the daughter of the first College president, Aaron Lucius Chapin. The newlyweds returned to China, raised a family, and spent a good deal of their lives there, where Porter was known and beloved as a physician/missionary.
Both Smith and Porter witnessed the violence during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Smith was in Peking during the siege, and Porter attempted to stay at his inland post during the uprising, but he and the missionary staff were eventually forced to flee. Because the uprising was directed at foreigners and Christians, the attacks hit close to home, and the stress of the rebellion seems to have haunted Porter for the rest of his life. According to his son’s account, he never fully recovered his health after the events of 1900.
That same son, one of four the Porters raised in China, would add substantially to his family’s legacy there. Lucius Porter (1901) came from China to attend Beloit and carved out an impressive career as a top student and star athlete. After going to Yale for graduate school, he married, then returned to China, and joined the faculty of Yenching University, where he built a reputation as an influential philosophy professor and well-regarded dean.
Yenching became the most prominent Christian college in China until it was absorbed by Beijing University, which remains one of the country’s top universities.
In 1941, the younger Porter was imprisoned by the Japanese and remained in an internment camp throughout World War II. Once freed, he did not seek a life back in the United States, but instead he reunited with his wife and returned to Yenching. He taught there until the Communists came into power, when it became clear that his career and the family’s life in China must come to an end.
As the lives of the Porters, the Smiths, Davis, Neesima, and the Tangs attest, Beloit’s oldest connections to Asia formed through individuals, whose works and networks of friends and associates are richly documented through handwritten letters, diaries, and early editions of Beloit College Magazine. Many others strengthened the early connections between Beloit and Asia: geographers, explorers, educators, but most of all generations of students, whose educational exchanges started enriching lives in Beloit and in Asia in 1873, when the first Japanese student enrolled at Beloit College.
This article is partially based on the work of Warren Bruce Palmer, associate professor of economics and management at Beloit College. Palmer’s research informed a talk he gave during “Beloit College and the Asian Century,” a conference held on campus in 2006. Palmer is one of a broad contingent of Beloit faculty members with expertise in and connections to China.
This essay will be included in East Asian Art and Inquiry at a Midwestern College, a forthcoming book being published by the Beloit College museums about the connections between Beloit and Asia. Available through the College museums’ gift shop, the book includes an overview of Beloit’s extensive collection of Asian art and artifacts.