Virginia Atkinson became a Methodist after being brought up by her cousins in a textile mill home. Atkinson suffered an unhappy childhood, losing her mother and her stepmother early in life. Her father (a minister) then sent her to live with her cousins in Rock Mills, Alabama at the age of eight. He tied a tag on her clothing with her name and destination and told her older brother to take her to the train station, buy her a ticket, and put her on the train from Georgia to Alabama.
After graduating from LaGrange College with first honors, Atkinson became a teacher in Rock Mills. When the Methodist newspaper put out a call for nine unmarried women missionaries in 1884, Atkinson responded. She headed to China, but having received no orientation and suffering a lack of confidence because of her childhood trauma, Atkinson felt inadequately prepared for the work. Nevertheless, she left behind all that she knew and set sail for this foreign country. She traveled with a group of other Methodist missionaries, but being timid by nature, she was afraid of the strange people, the boat, the water, and the storms.
Once in Shanghai, she moved in with three other single women and began her Chinese language study. She became frustrated with the long hours of language tutoring and wanted to assume her teaching duties immediately. When her supervisor refused her request, she sneaked away to visit her school. Once there, she observed a student reciting Confucian classics, stepping to the rhythm of the words. A Chinese teacher slapped him with the ruler whenever he stumbled. Atkinson was upset by the teacher’s methods and lack of explanation of the text, but she realized by watching the student that Chinese was a matter of rhythm as well as sounds. This revelation inspired her to practice her own Chinese lessons to the rhythm of her feet.
She met with her Chinese tutor less and less, but learned more and more Chinese. Her American supervisor was wary of her system of acquiring the language and warned her that she must pass her first examination. Atkinson proved herself by achieving the highest score ever on the test. The Chinese were amazed at her skill with their language and enjoyed her playful spirit.
Although Atkinson began her teaching in Shanghai, in 1889 she moved to Suzhou (Soochow), a city some fifty miles inland from Shanghai, and spent most of her teaching career there. When Atkinson first arrived, mission schools suffered from a poor curriculum, Chinese teachers who were cruel to the students, and a low attendance, despite free tuition. Atkinson was put in charge of five Methodist day schools in Suzhou, which only averaged about thirteen pupils each. Parents saw no need to educate their daughters, which drove Atkinson to increasing frustration. She resolved to reform the devaluation of women among Chinese.
Over the next forty years, Atkinson started four innovative and different types of schools: a modern kindergarten, an industrial school for women, a teacher-training institute, and the Davidson School. Atkinson offered physical education and music classes for girls (she was the first music teacher among Methodist missionaries), and she modernized the curriculum. She recruited a Chinese co-principal for the Davidson School before the Chinese government required it, making the transition smooth when the Nationalist government decreed that schools had to be directed by Chinese principles in order to be accredited. Through these schools, much of the indigenous Methodist leadership in Central China was nurtured, including physicians, teachers, and Bible women. Atkinson’s schools gave women opportunity, which eventually led to the expansion of women’s rights over the period of time she served in China. Having received an education, women were able to take positions of leadership in Chinese society.
Atkinson began the Industrial School of Suzhou (later called the Moka Garden Embroidery Mission), where she paid women a generous salary of $7.50 a month. At first, they embroidered robes for the wealthy, but later they produced table linen and underwear, which was bought up by eager consumers in the United States. Production was limited only by the number of embroiderers. They began work at 8:30am, had a morning and an afternoon break, a chapel service, lunch, and a Bible study, and ended by 5:00pm. By Chinese standards, this was an easy schedule. The industrial school helped to relieve Suzhou’s unemployment, and it created evangelistic opportunities for Methodist missionaries.
Although Atkinson was timid and delayed her first furlough for fear of public speaking back home, in time she became a feature at missionary societies and Alabama Conference meetings. She spoke at the Women’s Missionary Council meeting in 1927, where she addressed the improving social status of Chinese women, the development of modern coeducation, and the progress of the Chinese church towards self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. She argued for Chinese sovereignty, insisting that Western nations must give China its freedom. She was so beloved among her constituents at home that the women of East Liberty Baptist Association claimed Atkinson as one of their own, despite the fact that she was a Methodist. Her work in China inspired Baptist women to organize a Woman’s Missionary Union within their Baptist Association.
Atkinson was also an effective fund raiser. When she realized the enormous demand for mission schools and asked for a teacher-training school to help expand her staff to meet this need, the Alabama Conference responded with the funds for its construction. When Atkinson wanted one of her Chinese converts to be able to come to the United States to study elementary education, an American woman gave her a check for $2,000. In later years, the Alabama Conference built a structure to house Atkinson’s embroidery mission for women. She also brought in a steady stream of money for China relief from Japanese aggression during the late 1930s.
When Atkinson moved out of the missionary compound, she lived in a Chinese-style house with forty rooms, large enough to accommodate herself, her boy’s school, her Chinese teacher and his family, another missionary, her Bible women, and an adopted Chinese infant. Atkinson received criticism for dwelling in the city as an unmarried woman with a Chinese baby, but the living arrangement allowed extensive contact with her students and their parents and was beneficial to Atkinson’s work.
Atkinson was close friends with her Bible woman. When she found out that the woman had been forced to sell a daughter in order to survive, Atkinson was so moved that she traveled to Shanghai and bought the girl back. The girl became a Christian and later took over Atkinson’s educational work.
Atkinson learned to defer to Chinese patterns of thought and action in conducting business. In one instance, she inspired a Chinese congregation to increase their contributions to their pastor by Chinese methods of indirection rather than Western style pressure. She believed in self-governance by the Chinese churches, and encouraged the American mission boards to give Chinese churches the chance to administer themselves and make their own contributions to Christianity.
During her time in China, Atkinson suffered from a variety of ailments. Soon after her arrival, she experienced a severe allergic reaction to varnish, followed by high blood pressure, chronic bronchial infections, severe arthritis, and typhoid fever. She heard a rumor that removing teeth cured arthritis, so while home on furlough, she found a dentist who agreed to pull her teeth. Although it did not help her arthritis, Atkinson was satisfied that she had done everything she could to prolong her missionary career in China.
Atkinson witnessed regularly to the children in her school, but at the age of fifty-six, she replaced a friend in women’s evangelistic work. Although the work did not fit with Atkinson’s personality because of her shy nature and desire to stay at home, she traveled throughout a wide region and stuck with the work until her retirement. As Atkinson aged, her white hair earned her the appellation of “Honorable Elderly Teacher of Teachers” among the Chinese.
When Atkinson retired, her Chinese friends built a house for her, so that she could remain in her beloved China. She received a small stipend as an emeritus missionary, which provided for her needs and left her a modest sum to help Chinese friends.
In 1941, Atkinson was forced to return to Alabama due to her poor health and the growing threat of war, but she used her time in the United States to mobilize Alabamians against Japan and to promote China missions. When she died, Atkinson asked that her ashes be transported to China. After fifty-seven years there, she thought of China as her home.
- Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley, .