This month, I began writing a column about South Carolina Methodist history for the SC United Methodist Advocate, our Annual Conference’s newspaper. The first column appeared this week, so I’m sharing it here on the blog as well.
Several years ago, a collection of some 147 letters arrived at the Conference Archives at Wofford. These letters were written by a South Carolina Methodist missionary serving in China to her family in the College Place section of Columbia. They provide a glimpse at both the life of Mary Belle Winn, the daughter of a minister in the conference, during the 1920s and 1930s, and at the challenges faced by missionaries during those turbulent years.
Mary’s letters from 1923 recount her travels across the United States and the Pacific en route to her appointment in Soochow, China. Her letters after arriving describe the various institutions in the city – the hospital, a settlement house, and the schools, as well as the university. She appeared to be more shocked by the living conditions outside of the mission areas. The streets were narrow, covered with filth, and the city lacked proper sewage, which was a problem in a city of close to 800,000 people. She confessed to breathing through a handkerchief at times, though she supposed she’d get used to it.
The letters describe some of the missionaries’ activities. Mary had to undertake extensive study of Chinese when she arrived, but soon she was mixing language school with teaching. She reported in November that she was rushing to get her Christmas presents in the mail, and wrote after Christmas that her packages from her family in South Carolina had yet to arrive. Her letters are full of stories about members of the missionary community, of their work, and their travels. Some of the details are especially vivid. In the summer of 1935, as she was leaving for her furlough year in the United States, she talks about four passengers trying to get on the ship as it was pulling away from the dock. A harbor pilot had to bring them out to the ship, which Mary found very exciting.
The missionaries attended their Annual Conference and missionary society meetings, and Mary once wrote of her disappointment at having her appointment changed by the bishop. Still, those meetings allowed the Americans who were in the mission field to get to know each other, and Mary reported of the many invitations she had to visit with other Methodist missionaries in different parts of China. She traveled to Shanghai frequently, and on a few occasions, she had to be evacuated there.
Especially in the later letters, Mary describes the unrest in China, and some of her letters from 1938 in Shanghai refer to the Japanese invasion of China, censorship, and the closeness of war. Fortunately, Mary did not wind up as a captive during World War II. She did return to China for a few years after the war, and about a dozen letters tell of her postwar experiences. After the Chinese Communists expelled American missionaries, Mary Winn went on to work in the mission field in Pakistan for eight more years. Later in life, she lived at the Methodist Home in Orangeburg, now The Oaks, where she died in 1980.
This collection of letters has never been used by researchers – but would be useful to someone studying church history, missionary work, 20th century China, women’s history, or another similar topic. The stories here offer only the quickest glimpse of what’s in the rest of the letters.
One of the purposes of the Conference Archives is to collect materials such as these letters. They provide insights into the lives of those who once lived among us, and they connect us to our past.