Mary was born in 1791, the oldest daughter of Dr. John Morton, an expatriate from Ireland living in Macao. She met Robert Morrison there in 1808, when Robert invited the family for “social prayer” (Hancock, 65). Morrison continued to socialize and worship with the family, until they were married on February 20, 1809; Robert was 24 and Mary was 17. That same day, Robert was offered a post by the East India Company as Chinese Secretary and Translator for the English factory in Canton.
Robert’s devotion to his missionary work had kept him from marrying before leaving England, and now his prayer was that his marriage to Mary “may not impede me in the great work to which I have given my life” (Hancock, 65). He wrote to his father, “… I have every prospect of being exceedingly happy with one whom I love, and who is unfeignedly attached to me … My missionary calling is much as ever on my heart; and in it, I trust I shall not be impeded, but considerably aided, by my dear Mary” (Hancock, 66).
Mary shared Robert’s single-minded devotion to Christ, reading much Scripture daily, and other Christian books including Milne’s Church History. As Robert wrote, she “had a strong sense of religion, an ardent love for her Saviour, and a full conviction of the uncertainty and insufficiency of all temporal enjoyments” (Hancock, 148).
She was ill at the time of their marriage, and Robert referred to her as “my poor afflicted Mary” (Broomhall, 125-6). He wrote that “a nervous disease strongly agitates body and mind” (Hancock, 68). Her situation was bleak: her family members all left Macao, and she was barred from joining Robert in Canton for his six-month stays for work for the East India Company. Living alone in a shabby house in a foreign country where the climate was unhealthy for westerners, with no Christian fellowship, the pain and isolation it caused worsened her condition and drove her to a depression that lasted for most of the remainder of her life. Though she spoke Portuguese like many of the sailors, she was only acquainted with one family. The nature of Robert’s missionary work, which was under attack from the Chinese government, greatly restricted Mary’s freedom to make friends even with other expatriates. Even the helpers who were employed around the house feared that they would jeopardize their safety because of their connection with her. The more famous Robert became, the more Mary became a martyr for his cause.
She gave birth to a son named James in 1810, but he died shortly after, and they feared that Mary would pass with him. She survived, however, and gave birth to Mary Rebecca in 1812 and John Robert in 1814. The trials of pregnancy and new motherhood, however, only wore further on Mary’s health, and to Robert’s grief, her continual, psychosomatic sickness was pronounced incurable, and persisted throughout their twelve years of marriage.
As her health continued to deteriorate, she followed the advice of her doctor and returned to England in January 1815 with their two children. Robert did not go with them, as he deemed his work “of so important and urgent a nature, as that the suspension of them even for a few months, would have been a great loss” (Hancock, 109). She and Robert were separated for six years. He wrote, “My domestic affliction in the indisposition, absence, and helplessness of Mrs. Morrison, is very great; and though I do not murmur much, it makes me often go with a heavy heart. Still I would not repine. O no!—God is righteous.—He is merciful!” (Hancock, 109) He made every effort to care for her from a distance, even asking friends in England to spend time with her, saying that, “every civility shown to her I shall esteem tenfold more than if done to myself” (Hancock, 109).
When Mary had regained her health, she moved back to Macao with her children in August 1820. They lived in a comfortable house on the seashore, and for a time, Mary enjoyed good health. Robert recounts their times at the seaside, “where we and the children walked happily together almost every evening” (Hancock, 147-8); she was able to take care of her home and make clothes for her expected baby. He also wrote, “We often said to each other, that we must take care not to set our hearts on earthly things; for we were too happy” (Hancock, 148). Robert, however, had to leave again in a matter of a few weeks, and continued to only be reunited with them for short periods.
Mary’s final pregnancy was unusually healthy, but her fears mounted as birth drew closer. She would break out in sweats, have restricted breathing, and be unable to sleep. She went into premature labor on June 8, after coming down with cholera for two painful days, with much sweating and vomiting. Before giving birth, she and the baby died on June 10, 1821. Robert wrote, “But for my dear motherless children, who are weeping around me, I would forego my own happiness on earth to resign my Mary to go before me…yet oh, how great the disappointment! Oh, what a stroke!” (Hancock, 148) He went through a period of deep grief, which affected his health; his correspondence dropped off for the rest of the year.
Due to superstition, the Chinese refused for Mary to be buried next to her first child, and the Catholics refused her, a Protestant, to be buried in their cemetery. So Robert’s colleagues, agents of the East India Company, bought a plot of land for a thousand pounds and buried her there. This plot became known as Macao’s “Old Protestant Cemetery.” The chaplain of the Factory led the service, men from the Factory served as pall-bearers, and the Chief and other dignitaries of the region were present, as well as many native Chinese. That Sunday, the whole English expatriate population in Macao attended the church service in honor and mourning for her.
Robert wrote, “Our Mary was much esteemed by all who ever conversed with her. She had an excellent understanding, and a well-principled heart” (Hancock, 150). Eventually, Mary’s children were sent back to England, and both later served as missionaries in China. Robert was eventually buried next to her.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates, 125-26, 135, 155-56, 221.
- Christopher Hancock, Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism, 65-70, 85, 109, 141-3, 147-50.