Mary Raleigh Anderson was born into a strong and stable family in Blue Mountain, Mississippi in 1878. Her father was a Baptist preacher, and she made a profession of faith and was baptized at the age of nine. Anderson was educated in the city schools of Memphis and then Blue Mountain Baptist College, whence she graduated in 1900. She received her master’s degree in education from Peabody College and her Ph.D. in educational psychology from Columbia University. Anderson taught college for ten years in the United States before heeding the call she felt to China in 1917.
Anderson was appointed to Canton, where she taught at Pei Tao Academy, a Baptist girls’ school which her aunt had founded. Anderson expanded the curriculum of her school to include geography and mathematics, and she changed the curriculum so that more of the instruction was in Chinese and less in English. With her changes, she emphasized that “Christianity was not a foreign religion, but a worldwide faith … as natural in Chinese as in English.”
Under Anderson’s leadership, Pei Tao Academy played a critical role in preparing leaders for Christian churches, YWCA, and Girl Scouts. Her students opened a free school for poor children and a night school for servants in 1913. Students also started such schools in their home villages during summer vacations. They began the first Girl Scout Troop in Southern China in 1921. By the 1920s, many of her graduates were going on to Chinese and American universities, teaching in rural schools and assuming positions of leadership within churches. Anderson claimed the school had become the pride of south China Baptists by the 1920s, despite inadequate funding from the Foreign Mission Board.
After eighteen years teaching at Pei Tao Academy, Anderson resigned and returned to Alabama after a dispute with the Foreign Mission Board over Chinese control of the school, which she favored. She believed the Foreign Mission Board did not understand modern academic or philosophical issues in education. As the product of a family of educators - her grandfather was the founder of Blue Mountain Baptist College for Women in Mississippi, her mother was one of the college’s first teachers, and her aunt was a missionary teacher in China for half a century - Anderson became one of the most authoritative Baptist spokespersons on mission education.
In 1943, she wrote an encyclopedic study of Protestant girls’ schools in Southern China between 1827 and 1937, entitled A Cycle in the Celestial Kingdom. Based on nearly twenty years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, and director of teacher training, she urged the continuation and expansion of Christian boarding schools. Although she criticized some traditional mission policies, specifically their emphasis on soul winning to the neglect of academic standards, her book was thoroughly researched and carefully balanced, containing no denominational bias.
Anderson noted in detail the history and contribution of each mission school for girls in Southern China. She viewed nineteenth-century Christian schools as little more than Bible classes where pupils memorized Scripture and received religious instruction in English. She believed that these early schools had mainly served wealthier families, although they had benefited all classes. The rise of Chinese nationalism in the early twentieth century had led to drastic improvement in the quality of the schools. The governmental plan for nationwide education and the requirement that mission schools register with the Chinese government led to the reduction of religious content and shifted the schools to being self-supporting, backed by Chinese churches. Her own school survived and flourished by maintaining high academic standards, because most of its students came from non-Christian homes. Although the schools continually sought the conversion of students and family members, they gradually elevated their academic standards as well.
Anderson’s philosophy of mission education was carefully developed, and reflected the intense debates about mission education in policy at the time. She deemed that Christian schools needed to be more innovative and spur the imagination of students. Christian schools possessed a key advantage over government institutions both in China and in the United States in that they enjoyed the ability to experiment. In opposition to the current trend, she also urged mission schools to construct an “indigenous curriculum” more adapted to Chinese cultural patterns and less foreign-dominated. She thought schools should teach not only Western learning but also the importance of preserving Chinese culture. At the same time, the curriculum should emphasize health, civic problems, international relations, industrial education, and community activities. Mission schools should aim more at helping gifted, maladjusted, and abnormal students. Raising students’ standards of living, defined in terms of “cleanliness, elegance, and culture,” should be second in importance only to their conversion to Christianity.
Anderson used her own teaching practices at Canton’s Pei Tao Academy to illustrate this philosophy. Pei Tao offered courses in Chinese cooking, painting, embroidery, and the Chinese classics to develop student pride in Chinese traditions. One of her lectures was on malaria, the role of mosquitoes in transmitting the disease, and effective public health strategies for combating it. Despite her emphasis on the use of Chinese a medium of instruction, Anderson also defended mission schools from the criticism that they taught too much in English by explaining how Chinese students insisted on mastery of the English language as an important instrument of social and economic mobility.
Anderson also addressed the positive aspects of traditional Chinese social values in her book. She wrote that individual women in China had achieved fame and political power years before Protestantism ever reached China. Even ordinary Chinese women had excelled in handicrafts. Although traditional social custom kept women in the home, it instilled in them values of dignity, reserve, modesty in dress, and gentle manners that were positive aspects of Chinese culture. Anderson also traced the growing freedom of Chinese women in every aspect of their lives to women’s education. Educational opportunities furnished by mission schools allowed the emergence of Chinese women into public roles. Anderson noted that of the 333 women graduates of four Christian colleges, 215 entered the professions. Anderson also praised the enfranchisement of Chinese women in 1912, more than five years before all American women could vote.
Following her resignation as a foreign missionary, Anderson spent much of the time lecturing and writing extensively about China. She also continued to teach for many years, both in Mobile, Alabama and in Texas. Anderson lived until the age of 104.
- Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950.