Willie Kelly was born in Wilcox County, Alabama in 1862. Her father was a once-wealthy planter who had lost his large plantation after the Civil War. Her mother died when she was still young, and Kelly had to help educate and care for her eight younger siblings. She attended the University of North Alabama, finding new life in Christ at the age of nineteen. Kelly first felt a call to missionary work when her pastor showed her a foreign mission magazine with letters from Lottie Moon, whose writings and speaking similarly impacted many others. As a first step, she gave up her teaching career to become an assistant to Dr. W. B. Crumpton, the missions secretary of the Alabama Baptist Convention. In 1892, Kelly applied for appointment to China, but a lack of funds led to a delay in her placement. When Crumpton promised the Board that Alabama Baptist women’s missionary societies would guarantee funding if the Board would appoint her, the Board agreed to assign Kelly, and she finally traveled to China in 1893.
Kelly spent her first days in Shanghai riding through the city, which she loved. Her enthusiasm helped her to quickly adapt to Chinese customs and manners. Deciding the best strategy for learning Chinese was total immersion, she left Shanghai for Pudong (Pootung), where there were no other foreigners. There, she spent weeks hearing and speaking only Chinese. Being single allowed her to plunge more deeply in the culture and language than many married couples could. In Pudong, she was completely cut off from the outside world, receiving no Western food, mail, or newspapers. Out of necessity but also gladly, she turned to Chinese women and children for companionship. She visited their homes regularly, and they became her closest friends.
Although Kelly found the Chinese written characters difficult, she loved the language and studied six days a week. After only three months, Kelly was able to supervise a day school. At the end of three years, she passed a language examination conducted by senior missionaries. Her Chinese teacher became one of her first converts. Even after twelve years, Kelly continued to study with a private tutor, insisting (correctly) that three years of language study resulted in only rudimentary speaking skills. She still preferred to have her teacher present when she taught Bible to her women’s class and asked the Foreign Mission Board to help supplement her tutor’s salary.
Kelly believed life-long language learning was essential for career missionaries. Her continual study resulted in her language skills becoming legendary. The Chinese pastor of her church in Shanghai said that Kelly spoke Chinese like a local and told a story of how Chinese in adjoining rooms to Kelly could not distinguish her accent from those of native speakers.
Kelly felt tremendous admiration for Chinese culture. Whenever possible, she followed Chinese practices and refused to violate the Chinese prohibition on single women traveling alone in the countryside. She always attempted to take a Bible woman with her on journeys. Kelly thought the success of a missionary depended on her Chinese coworker more than any other factor, saying “Every missionary needs at least one congenial, wise, and spiritual Chinese helpmate.” Kelly and her Chinese assistant lived together, ate together, and prayed together as “sisters in the Lord.” Of all eighteen women (most of whom were American) who resided with Kelly during her time in China, she said that her Chinese woman was the most thoughtful, easiest to live with, and most helpful. Kelly sought comfort not from other missionaries but from her Chinese Bible woman.
Kelly split her time in China between teaching and evangelism. Most of her efforts went toward teaching in the early years, when she established a school for boys with the support of Shanghai’s Old North Gate Baptist Church. She started holding Bible classes for mothers and sisters of her pupils and called on them from door to door. Kelly spent Friday afternoons speaking to women in rural areas along with a fellow teacher and two Bible women. Over time, she realized that women’s evangelism was her lifelong passion, and after 1904, she began focusing most of her work in that area. Kelly brought large numbers of Chinese women to study in her home, conducting Bible studies by reading verses and explaining them. She led summer Bible schools for children in Shanghai and preached to their mothers. Once a month, Kelly also visited all the female members as well as the non-Christian wives of the male members of her Shanghai church.
Kelly continued with her schools, however, since she found that they provided an easy way to make friends with women. By 1910, the girls’ school she supervised in Shanghai had to turn away applicants. Shanghai officials placed her on a committee to visit and teach in all government girls’ schools. She was even allowed to invite the 3,000 girls enrolled in government schools to examine Christianity as a religious option.
By 1914, although her kindergarten was thriving and had become self-sufficient, the results of her evangelistic efforts were slow, and she grieved at the lack of progress she witnessed. Kelly decided to begin more social ministries to the Chinese, constructing a large building she conceived as an “institutional church,” similar to those which were being built in the United States at the time. It was used seven days a week and housed schools, industrial classes, a gymnasium, and other facilities. A night class enrolled fifty young men. By the 1930s, Old North Gate Baptist Church of Shanghai had organized the social ministries she began into a “Good Will Center.” Kelly formed three such centers in the congregation’s evangelistic stations, with each center containing regular schools, an evening school for adult men, and a charity office. She lobbied the Southern Baptist Convention Board for a church worker to oversee this ministry. Old North Gate Church flourished as a result of this mixture of evangelistic, educational, and social ministries.
Kelly pushed for an expansion of women’s rights in China, both in political and ecclesiastical roles. After seeing the harmful effects of foot binding on the students in her schools, Kelly and her missionary colleagues organized “The Natural Foot Society” to prevent the practice of foot binding and to persuade Chinese girls to unbind their feet.
She suggested to her Old North Gate Baptist Church that they appoint the wives of deacons as deaconesses. (The Chinese translation of 1 Timothy 3:11 reads “deaconesses” rather than “wives.” Though of contested accuracy, this rendering lent powerful support to her argument.) This led to a board of deacons at the church consisting of three men and three women, and in time, the church began to elect single women in addition to married women. Kelly herself became a deaconess and successfully lobbied for the appointment of Chinese women as well. She also encouraged female evangelists, and under her leadership, the church employed two women evangelists. She wrote two books in Chinese about the role of women in the Old and New Testaments. Over time, Kelly transformed the Old North Gate Baptist congregation of only a dozen or so women members into a congregation with an overwhelming majority of women in its leadership.
Kelly was involved in a multitude of leadership positions herself. She was elected the first secretary of the Central China Mission in 1896 and handled the mission’s financial business and correspondence with the Foreign Mission Board. Kelly did not hesitate to protest board policy when she disagreed with it. She was adamant about allowing Chinese churches to be self-supporting and tirelessly lobbied the Foreign Mission Board to transfer ownership of the Old North Gate Baptist Church to its Chinese congregation. She finally won her case during the 1930s. In addition to her duties as principal of a kindergarten, administrator of a Bible school, and director of a Bible training program, she served as co-treasurer of Old North Gate Baptist Church. Kelly also served as church secretary four times and was a permanent member of the church’s finance and building committees. Her cheerful and indomitable spirit earned her the Chinese name meaning “happy” among her Chinese friends.
During her early years in China, Kelly lived in the houses of other missionary families. For a period of time in 1895, she stayed with a family who experienced a difficult pregnancy and delivery. Kelly cared for their infant son during the first four months of his life. He slept in a bassinet in Kelly’s room, and she fed him at night, assuming many of the responsibilities of motherhood. When the family returned to America so the mother could recover more fully, Kelly and another single missionary maintained the couple’s house, hosting missionary friends and leading a Bible study for Chinese women. Kelly believed that Chinese women would feel more comfortable visiting the house of a single female missionary and began lobbying for a dwelling where she and other single teachers could live.
When Kelly returned home on furlough in 1900, she spent time tutoring the children of Alabama “lumber baron” W. T. Smith. She mentioned to him her need for better missionary housing and her desire for a house for single women. He gave Kelly $2,500 to build a house large enough to accommodate both single women missionaries and Chinese women for Bible study. When the house was completed in 1904, Kelly named it “Smith’s Training School” in honor of her donor. There, Chinese women could come live and study with the missionary.
Although the house was functional, it had a dull appearance, with no courtyard or garden. After a decade of living in the property, Kelly sold it at a considerable profit. She also sold a valuable tract of land along the Great Western Road which a friend of hers (the wife of an American businessman in Shanghai) had given her. Using the proceeds, Kelly constructed her dream home. It was a compound containing two large three-story houses with a separate bedroom and private bath for each of the single missionaries who would live there. Possessing all of the modern conveniences, it was erected in the affluent French Concession at No.466 Rue Lafayette. The structure became one of Shanghai’s showplaces and housed generations of single women missionaries, refugees, and Chinese women who attended Kelly’s Bible schools. Kelly also built elaborate gardens, from which she supplied flowers for events at Old North Gate Baptist Church. Kelly remained in her beloved home throughout her time in China, despite the Baptist mission’s attempt to consolidate all personnel in a compound where they would be safer.
Over her nearly half a century in China, Kelly only took five summer vacations from her work. When she was home on furloughs, the burden of speaking arrangements soon made her long to go back to Shanghai. Although she disliked speaking tours and would rather have spent her time with family, she performed well in front of audiences. One pastor’s wife described how people could not listen to Kelly talk without “catching the enthusiasm she felt for Chinese” and how “she made us feel that they are indeed our neighbors.” Kelly would wear Chinese dress, display Chinese shoes, and exhibit Chinese idols. Baptist women fell in love with Kelly and ovations greeted her everywhere. By 1934, the Women’s Missionary Union’s professional and business women’s circles alone paid her annual salary. During the late 1930s, the WMU raised $5,000 in Kelly’s honor to build a new worship room for Old North Gate Baptist Church. Donations from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian friends paid for student scholarships, construction of a chapel, and salaries for Bible women.
Although the Foreign Mission Board usually required missionaries to retire at age seventy, it made an exception for Kelly, who had lost all the money she had invested for retirement when a trust company failed in 1935. The Board allowed her to keep her house and salary as long as she did not share the arrangement with other missionaries. In return, Kelly agreed to allow the proceeds from the sale of her house to finance a new seminary if the Board would consent to provide another permanent residence in China that would house single female missionaries after her death.
Japanese offensives in the 1930s drove thousands of refugees to Shanghai, where Kelly’s church provided the refugees with two meals a day. When the Japanese launched their attack on Shanghai in August of 1937, the Board forced Kelly to return home, despite her protests that she must stay and support her Chinese friends. As soon as she arrived in Alabama, she set about applying for a new passport and sailed back to the Japanese-occupied city in the late 1930s. There, she assisted her Chinese friends with money she had raised while home and urged Old North Gate Baptist Church to buy new property at war-depressed prices. When another evacuation order arrived in December of 1940, Kelly knew that she would not be allowed to return to Shanghai and declared it the saddest day of her life. State Department officials took away Kelly’s passport when she arrived back in the United States. Kelly said this action of cutting her life line to China broke her heart.
Once home in Montgomery, however, she was greeted by an outpouring of love. She devoted her energy to China relief, raising over $1,300 for Old North Gate Church in Shanghai and making additional large personal contributions. The Baptist Foreign Mission Board selected Kelly as part of its “Much to Dare” series of books for Baptist Youth. The volume was entitled Willie Hays Kelly of China: White-Haired Lady of Shanghai. It educated an entire generation of pre-teenage Baptists about her life. In 1947, Alabama’s Women’s Missionary Union contributed $25,000 to build a memorial chapel in honor of Willie Kelly. Kelly, however, never felt at home in Alabama. China had become her true home.
- Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950.