Mary Martin was born in 1843 into a “pious and exemplary family” in Edinburgh, Scotland where her father worked as a city missionary. Showing intellectual aptitude at an early age, Miss Martin was appointed an assistant teacher at the age of fourteen in the same Normal School where she herself had been a student.
After years of varied educational employment, in 1870 she joined the staff of the Merchant Company’s College School, and taught there until her departure for China on July 29, 1876 with the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to take charge of a Chinese girls school in Yantai (previously known as Chefoo) under Alexander Williamson.
The recommendations accepted in support of Mary Martin’s application to the mission give ample testimony to her many gifts—her Christian character, knack for teaching and even her beautiful singing voice were all widely noted by a range of learned men, including both William and Alexander Peddie. Typical of her other supporters, Thomas Dunlop, then of the Bristo United Presbyterian Church, recommended her to the mission with the following words: “I hold in very high estimation her piety, her prudence, her aptness to teach, and steadiness of character, and I believe her to have by nature and grace, as well as culture, those rare qualities that make one capable of the highest things in Christian heroism.” (Thin, 66–67) There appears to have been some concern about her physical fitness, but she enjoyed comparatively good health during years of living, working, and especially giving birth in north China.
Mary Martin first met Timothy Richard of the British Baptist Missionary Society in Chefoo during one of Timothy’s trips to the coastal city, but it was the North China Famine (1876–1878) that indirectly allowed their relationship to deepen. A letter sent by Timothy to Mary to congratulate her for surviving a particularly deadly bout of famine fever amongst the foreign population of Shandong marked the beginning of their more purposeful correspondence. They were married in Chefoo after a brief engagement in October 1878, and then spent their honeymoon—aptly described by one fellow missionary as “weird”—passing through famine-ravished north China on their way to their new home in Taiyuan. Their urgency to reach Shanxi where the famine was most severe resulted in their wedding banquet being held in Taiyuan, where they took the unorthodox decision to provide a meal for forty of the poorest members of the local community. As Timothy Richard explained in a letter to his mother in Wales, “[the banquet] did not cost much but it brought pleasure to many widows and let’s hope that the feast was acceptable in the sight of God who is in heaven.”
Mary and Timothy were well suited to one another, and their marriage was a happy one blessed with four daughters. Timothy Richard was impressed by his new wife’s intellectual acumen, noting with approval her years spent learning theology from her Edinburgh minister William Peddie. In a letter to his mother during the summer of his first year of marriage, Timothy Richard explained the many ways in which he had “been blessed with a very valuable wife.”
She is always at some work or other. She is an exceptionally good singer…. I never met any one like her. …[S]he had good education at home. She was a governess and she was a schoolmistress. She was teaching girls to play the harmonium and piano. Besides this her greatest pleasure is to teach people to fear God and to keep away from all evil. She is religious, good and of tender heart, learned, hard working, in one word an unequalled help to me…. You will say that I am praising her more than I should perhaps. I shall say that I am not likely to be one sided because the more I (am in her company) know her the more I respect her because of her good virtues. There are in this town four other women from England but I would not change my Mary for any of them for anything.
Mary Richard’s aptitude for education meshed nicely with her husband’s background, and suited her well for the increasing role education would play in China and in the Richards’ ministry. Teaching would remain a constant throughout her life in China, from the schools for famine orphans she established in Shanxi to the many official families she tutored in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. Significantly, the Gospel was always present in her educational endeavors, as evidenced by the fruit of her labors. To give an indication of the breadth of her witness, many of her Shanxi orphans became Christians, her tutoring in Beijing led three Japanese officials to faith in Christ, and some of the women who attended her training class for Bible women in Tianjin soon after became powerful evangelists, bringing hundreds of new believers into the Tianjin church.
Over the years Mary Richard became an expert on Chinese music, both helping develop Chinese congregational singing and also explaining Chinese music to westerners. She also attained a reasonable level of competency in the Chinese language as evidenced by the tracts and bible story collections she produced, as well as her collation and translation of what eventually became the ten-volume series Christian Biographies. Her energy and range of activity was remarkable; as one missionary remarked on her passing, she seemingly accomplished “ten times as most much as most women.” (Richard, 320–21)
Throughout, Mary Richard shared in her husband Timothy Richard’s life’s work as well as his devotion to that work, a fact ably demonstrated by her impassioned defense of her husband’s first fifteen years of missionary endeavor when Richard was being challenged by colleagues during the 1880s. She also served as his amanuensis for several years in the 1890s when he temporarily lost the use of his right arm due to illness. Perhaps the greatest testimony to their cooperation in ministry was the simple fact that Richard esteemed his wife’s opinion so highly that her voice would reach him when the warnings of others could not.
Mary Richard passed away in Shanghai in 1903, following a lengthy battle with cancer. Intellectual companion and aid to her husband, scholar of Chinese hymnody, author of tracts and Christian biographies in Chinese, effective evangelist, and minister to women and children across China, Mary Martin Richards is a paradigmatic example of the missionary that so often is hidden by the term “missionary wife.”
- Jiaoshi liezhuan 教士列傳 [Christian Biographies]. 10 vols. Shanghai: SDCK, 1898.
- Paper on Chinese Music. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1899.
- With Timothy Richard. Xiao shipu 小诗谱 [Tune-book in Chinese Notation]. 1885.
- Kaiser, Andrew T. “Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891).” PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2014.
- Richard, Timothy. Forty-Five Years in China: Reminiscences. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1916.
- Soothill, William Edward. Timothy Richard of China: Seer, Statesman, Missionary and the Most Disinterested Adviser the Chinese Ever Had. London: Seeley, Service and Company, 1924.
- Thin, James. Memorials of Bristo United Presbyterian Church. Edinburgh: Printed by Morrison and Gibb, 1879.
- Records related to Mary Martin Richard’s years with the Foreign Mission of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland are held in the Archives of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh; and in the Manuscript Collections of the National Library of Scotland.
- Records related to Mary Martin Richard’s years with the English Baptist Mission are held in the Archives of the Baptist Missionary Society at the Angus Library and Archive, Regents Park College, Oxford University
- The family photo is from the Alfred Jones Papers at the Day Missions Library, School of Divinity, Yale University. The photo of the couple is from Richard, Forty-Five Years, 193.