Helen Sanford Coan was born on January 6, 1833, in Seneca County, New York. Her father was a physician.
She was such a companion to her husband John Nevius from the beginning that he entrusted all his thoughts and even his faults to her in his letters while still in seminary.
In Our Life in China (hereafter referred to as Our Life), Helen tells us that as a child she had heard of a foreign land directly opposite to hers in America, which one could reach by digging a tunnel straight through the earth, but she never dreamed that she would ever live there. More than once, foreign missionaries visited their home, including one from China whom she would later meet there.
Nevius had met Helen Coan in 1848. The two began to develop a closer relationship during the summer of 1852. She wrote, ‘It was then that we exchanged brotherly and sisterly friendship of long-standing for something much dearer” (Life 83). He began writing long letters to “Nell” about his studies, their future life together, and suggestions of books for her to read. When he could return home, they would go walking or riding together in the lush countryside which they both loved so much.
In March 1853, John Nevius wrote Helen that he intended to become a missionary to Siam [Thailand] or China, if God willed. After Helen consented to go with him, John applied for assignment to the work in Ningbo, one of five treaty ports open to foreigners at the time.
They sailed for China in September, 1853 on an old ship called the Bombay. Though they were crammed into tiny quarters and the ship was “badly provisioned,” she reflected that “it was a discipline well suited to prepare us for the change, from ease and comforts of home, to the varied experiences of missionary life” (Our Life, 8).
This kind of attitude shines through all the pages of her narrative of their first five years in China as well as the full-length biography of her husband John Nevius. Whether it was a fierce storm at sea, where she witnessed the “wonders of the deep” (Psalm 107); a dangerous stretch of the river leading to Hangzhou, bandits, peril from the Taiping rebels, illness, privations of living in China, the arduous labor as a missionary – though sometimes discouraged, she never lost her firm faith in God as her Father, protector, and faithful provider.
Relations with Other Missionaries
Right from their first night in Shanghai after a long and dangerous voyage, Helen and her husband enjoyed cordial relationships with missionaries from all societies of every nation. This was, in those days, a small and close-knit company of dedicated men and women who had left all to follow Christ in China. From her care in mentioning the names, organizations, and national backgrounds of other missionaries, we learn a great deal about the overall composition of the foreign missionary force during her decades in China.
In times of illness, they cared for each other. When necessary, they took in, or even adopted, the orphaned children of fellow missionaries. They opened their homes to each other, sometimes for months at a time. Their shared experiences of deprivation and danger, and their common love for the Chinese, forged tight bonds of affection and loyalty.
That is not to say that there were no conflicts arising from different personalities, levels of spiritual maturity, and doctrinal differences. There were, of course. Still, Helen’s narratives rarely speak of these interruptions in true fellowship, for they were the exception, not the rule. Even when she has to record friction, differences, or conflict, Helen never does so with rancor or harsh criticism, but only in kindness, though often not without humor.
Helen had apparently learned to play the guitar as well as the melodion as a child, for she wrote that on their first voyage to China, she “amused” herself by playing it until she learned that it was disturbing the officers’ sleep in the daytime.
At his urging, Helen began teaching music to some of the pupils in the two boarding schools run by their mission. She writes, “I cannot here describe how, in the course of a year, my class grew into a very respectable choir, with some really fine voices among them, singing four parts in perfect harmony” (Life of John Livingston Nevius [hereafter referred to as Nevius], 135). She injured her voice by over-taxing it, however. When he was away, she visited Chinese women house to house. Sometimes she also accompanied him on his trips to surrounding areas.
Helen seems never to have enjoyed robust health. In 1856 she experienced a breakdown that obliged them to move her to a cooler place about twenty miles from Ningbo. Both she and John “had frequent and severe attacks of fever and ague, which, however, was not thought a matter of great importance; it was so common there [southern China], so much a matter of course, though I am sure Mr. Nevius never fully recovered from the effects of it” (Nevius 145-146).
The rest did not restore Helen’s health, however, so she returned to the United States in December 1857. Friends believed that John should go with her, but both of them were convinced that he should remain in China. She wrote later that, “If we had taken their advice it is not likely that we should ever have returned to China, as my health was never completely restored… I can never be sufficiently thankful that God gave me strength to refuse positively to take my husband away from China,” though she adds, “Of the trial of separation under such circumstances I will not write” (Nevius 150). At the time, Nevius considered it likely that she would die before him, but in the end she outlived him long enough to write his biography.
Helen’s poor health necessitated yet another return to America for her in 1879. He joined her the next year. They returned to China in 1882.
When Nevius formally resigned his care of the country stations in November, 1887, the presbytery “spoke of Helen’s self-sacrifice in never allowing her ill health to prevent my starting on my journeys” (Nevius 433).
Her husband’s long absences took a toll on her, however. In 1876, for example, she wrote that “Very often, either Mr. Scott or Mr. Greenwood remained with me during my husband’s absences. But … I was that autumn entirely alone, and that an unusual load of trials and anxieties was resting on me” (Nevius 316). Another time she wrote, “During one of my husband’s long absences, when my burden of loneliness and care was almost more than I could bear…” (Nevius 342). John felt lonely, too. He wrote, “Your letter was charming, and the news about your health was as good as I could expect under the circumstances; still … I did not feel happy. The fact is, I suppose, your letter made me homesick! These three months, how long they seem!” (Nevius 316).
After quoting from one of his frequent letters to her, she wrote: “It was with these slight-hearted, cheery letters that my dear husband tried to cheer my loneliness; but I could read between the lines, and knew that the long-continued nervous strain was wearing upon him, and I was never entirely free from anxiety; though, happily, neither he nor I had a doubt that it was his duty to do this particular kind of work, and my duty to allow him to do it” (Nevius 368).
Helen always wholeheartedly and unreservedly entered in John’s work. For example, during the great “first” famine of 1877, when he brought back twelve orphaned boys and one girl, she readily took them in and cared for them. When thousands of refugees thronged into Yantai (Chefoo), she knew she must do something, so she and another missionary wife “provided immense baskets of cakes made of millet or Indian corn, and, by the help of our natives, distributed a certain quantity to each woman and child” (Nevius 321).
Nor did they neglect the spiritual needs of these wretched people. “During the hours in which they were assembling I and my girls [from her school] were in different rooms, or among various groups on the lawn, teaching them verses from the Bible, prayers, and hymns” (Nevius 321). Precisely at noon, the gate was opened just wide enough to permit one person to exit, and at that time a few cakes were given to each one.
She became so ill in the summer of 1889 that Nevius informed both her and others that her death might be imminent. In 1890, as they made preparations for a much-needed furlough, they intended to go to India, and then to some place in Europe to rest, but Helen’s health required them to change their plans. Nevius wrote to his mother, “Helen is slowly recovering from an attack of fever complicated with bronchitis. She is very weak and obliged to keep as quiet as possible; but to keep quiet and rest is one of the last and least of her accomplishments” (Nevius 443).
Her ill-health did not prevent her from working, however. In 1869, while on itineration, he heard that Helen was very ill, so he hurried home. He later wrote: “Helen has been ill during my absence, but it is surprising to see how much she accomplished. She has trained two new servants, and taught them in the kitchen, so that they can now make as good bread, butter, cake, etc., as you would wish to eat anywhere. During my absence she has added furniture to the house, put down matting, and had everything and put in order… She has also made important changes in the school” (Nevius 279).
One letter from John to his mother helps explain the reasons for her illnesses: “She gets intensely interested in her studies, her school, and her housekeeping, and it is impossible for me ever to convince her that she is over-tasking herself, or that she is working on excitement rather than strength. When her weak body can stand it no longer she goes down, and suffers more or less with a loss of voice, a distressing cough, and pain in her chest. In the course of one, two or three weeks she rallies again and is ready for another bout” (Nevius 280).
Helen frequently refers to the awful heat of summers in southern China. In time, they had to remove to the Shandong in the north in order simply to survive.
Helen opened a boarding school for Chinese girls. Assisted by Chinese Christian women, she taught them several subjects, including music, to prepare them to be helpful wives to Chinese pastors and evangelists. She was an excellent musician. Gifted with a fine voice, she taught Chinese men, as well as boys and girls, how to sing. From youth she could play the melodeon.
In addition to the girls’ boarding school, Helen started an “industrial school” for Chinese women, calling it the “Needle and Thread Club.” In time almost one hundred women came to their home weekly to sew garments, which were then sold and for which they were paid. During the afternoons, they also learned a great deal about the truths of Christianity. She was assisted by a Chinese girl who was a student of hers in Tung-chow and who had come to live with them.
Helen excelled as a writer. Our Life in China and her Life of John Nevius together run to about 1,000 pages and are replete with invaluable descriptions not only of what they did but of China during the last fifty years of the Qing Dynasty. She could describe a scene of great charm or beauty, explain the religious ideas and cultural ways of the Chinese, or narrate the course of her life with John, with elegance, clarity, and lively detail. The reader travels with her on the waterways and canals, great and small, in a variety of craft; walks the city walls of Ningbo; spends a few days or even weeks in temples; revels in the beauty of unspoilt scenery; bargains in busy markets; and witnesses scenes of warfare, banditry, and cruelty.
Perhaps part of the reason for the outstanding style and value of her books stemmed partly from the fact that she read a great deal in a variety of literature, and during meals often “entertained him with the resume of a story, or a choice bit of history, or anecdotes; and thus, in a second-hand way, he had some drops from the great sea of literature, into which it would have been such a delight to him to plunge, could he have felt it right for him to do so” (Nevius129). Here we see both John’s self-discipline and Helen’s immense usefulness to her husband.
Helen cited her husband’s diary and letters freely, as well as her letters and the letters of their contemporaries. Her account, therefore, presents the observations and thoughts of both Helen and John and other first-hand witnesses to their work and character. Sprinkled throughout her books, we can find short sketches of the activities and personalities of other missionaries from a number of different mission societies. We can have every confidence in the historical accuracy of her narratives, which is thus an extremely valuable resource for information and insights into the life and ministry of missionaries and of late-Qing China in all its variety and contrast.
Since she is so candid about herself, she gives us a window into her character as a person and as a missionary. She comes across as a well-educated, urbane, relatively impartial, and mostly sympathetic student of Chinese culture and society. Though she rejects the gross idolatry of Chinese popular religion, she does not despise its devotees; instead, she pities them as those who have not known the revelation of God’s truth as contained in the Scriptures.
Her portraits of the many Chinese people of all classes, including Christians, whom she met during her long career, reflect great respect and admiration for their finer qualities. At one point she explains why the Chinese equaled, and often surpassed, Westerners in courtesy and social refinement. We must assume that the affection shown to her and John by Chinese Christians and non-Christians alike was a response to the admiration and affection they received from their American friends.
Helen did not hide the pain of her life as a missionary. Nor did she gloss over John’s faults, but provided readers with a faithful narrative of their life and ministry that stirred others to pray for them and possesses abiding value. Throughout, we observe the life of two people who served Christ as well as they could, regardless of difficulty or danger. The calm, understated, but honest tenor of Helen’s long books reveals a woman of great courage, endurance, and faith in God.
She also composed books in Chinese. Even in her early years, in Ningbo, “in addition to house-to-house visiting,” she “translated the ‘Peep of Day,’ writing it with the Ningpo romanized colloquial” (Nevius 159). John wrote that the catechism she composed “is now regarded by both native and foreign teachers here as one of the best books we have for general distribution, and is very much sought after” (Nevius 279).
Life after John’s Death
Her comment when he died was, “Thanks be to God for that life and for that death” (94).
Though her grief overwhelmed her for some time, she resolved that she must write the story of John’s life. The biography runs to 500 pages, and is our main source of information about John Nevius and his remarkable ministry. She died in Yantai at the age of 76 (or 77) and was buried at the Chefoo Hill Temple Cemetery.
Helen Sanford Coan Nevius, Our Life in China. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1969; 1869.
____________, The Life of John Livingston Nevius: For Forty Years a Missionary in China. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1895. Reprinted by HardPress Publishing, Miami Florida.