Devello Sheffield was born August 31, 1841, in Gainesville, New York. He studied at several academies and spent two years in the army during the American Civil War. In 1869, he graduated from Auburn Theological Seminary and was ordained by the Cayuga Presbytery in Auburn, Alabama. In July, he married Eleanor Sherrill, and in October, he and his new wife set sail from San Francisco on a steamer to China.
The Sheffields arrived in Tungchow (Tengchow) late in November of 1869. At first, Sheffield devoted his time to studying the Chinese language, eventually becoming proficient in both writing and speaking. Sheffield turned his attention to preaching in the chapel in Tungchow, evangelizing in nearby villages and outstations, and teaching in the boys’ school founded by the Reverend Lyman Chapin. Although Sheffield found the results of his evangelizing meager, he remained enthusiastic, writing in 1872, “We have few results of our labor for the Master, but the labor of preparation I trust is steadily going on.” (Paterno, 49) Over time, however, Sheffield began to become discouraged. In March of 1877, he reported that no one had expressed any interest in his message during an entire eight day tour. He described his work as being like “sowing seed on the waters.” (Paterno, 49) In the wake of this frustration, Sheffield began to devote more of his energies to the boys’ school.
In the 1870s, there were two levels of instruction in the school: a primary class and a theological class for older boys. Other stations of the North China Mission were sending their boys to be trained in the school in Tungchow, and Sheffield began to consider the possibility of establishing a central school in Tungchow for the whole North China Mission. He wrote to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), “We trust that a Central Training School is now being permanently established … whose usefulness will increase from year to year, giving us, at no distant day, a band of cultivated, devoted native preachers who shall go forth to win many souls to the banner of the Cross.” (Paterno, 50)
In 1876 and 1877, a new schoolhouse was built to accommodate thirty boys. Seventeen students were enrolled in the fall of 1877, and all were given free tuition and free room and board. A native teacher taught the students Chinese language and classics, with Sheffield supervising and pointing out the superiority of Christianity to Confucianism at appropriate places. Two women missionaries taught arithmetic and Scriptures, and Sheffield taught systematic theology.
Although Sheffield had originally been opposed to general education work among missionaries, his circumstances brought him to support this form of ministry to a degree he never expected. He observed in 1879 that the congregation in Tungchow was composed chiefly of students, and he believed the logical course of action was to concentrate on these pupils, particularly the younger ones, to nurture them in the faith and build the foundation of a native church. He wrote to the ABCFM that the most encouraging work of the station was in connection with the school.
In addition to teaching in the school, Sheffield spent time writing textbooks. In 1882, he finished a book on universal history which included the origins and doctrines of Christianity and emphasized Christian civilization. The work was the first of its kind in Chinese and was widely read. Although the ABCFM did not want Sheffield to become involved in literary activity and would not finance its publication, Sheffield financed it with a loan and defended his work outside of evangelism, writing, “My observation and experience thus far tend to the conclusion that our most reliable, efficient native laborers must be drawn from our Christian schools, where from boyhood they have been moulded by Christian influences.” (Paterno, 54)
In 1882, Charles Stanley of the Tientsin (Tainjin) station of the North China Mission began pushing for an Anglo-Chinese College. The college he envisioned was not a directly religious one, however. Its curriculum would be secular in nature, including a focus on technology and English. When the ABCFM denied Stanley’s request for funding, the project temporarily died. In 1884, Stanley and Sheffield were included on a three-man committee to again try to plan a college. The committee was able to buy some land with funds lent by a friend, and they asked the ABCFM for a $10,000 grant. Sheffield, although a member of the committee, privately wrote to the ABCFM and expressed his reservations about using missionary funds to support the type of secular school Stanley had in mind. Again, the ABCFM denied Stanley’s request for funding.
Sheffield and Stanley’s basic differences finally came to a head in 1885 at the annual meeting of the North China Mission. Sheffield took a leading part in the discussion, proposing a more distinctly “mission college” and introducing a motion to drop the name “Anglo-Chinese College” to make clear that the new project would involve a radical change in the nature of the institution. A new five-man committee was elected, including Stanley and Sheffield, to draft another appeal to the ABCFM.
By late June of 1885, Stanley had composed another letter to the Board. In it, he wrote that the only real change in the proposed college from his previous appeals was that the management and financing of the college would be in the hands of the mission, but that there would be no change in the purpose or character of the instruction. When he sent his letter on to the other four men of his committee for signatures, Sheffield refused to sign the report unless substantial alterations were made. Stanley was unwilling to change the letter, and sent it on to the ABCFM without Sheffield’s signature.
What Stanley and Sheffield each had in mind for the college was vastly different. Stanley envisioned an institution patterned after the regular colleges of the West, where instruction would include secular Western science and the English language. He wanted to prepare his students to be the new leaders in China, where knowledge of Western science and English would be valuable. Sheffield, although he did not have a problem with the establishment of such a college, did not think that mission funds should create or sustain it. He wanted the mission to finance a strictly mission school which would be attuned to the particular needs of the mission itself and would place a great emphasis on religion, including Christian instruction in the curriculum. The college Sheffield envisioned would limit enrollment to Christian boys or at least boys from Christian families or those close to the mission. The school would endeavor to produce leaders of a native Christian church who could serve as preachers, evangelists, teachers, and the like.
The place of English in the curriculum was one of Stanley and Sheffield’s greatest disagreements. Sheffield insisted English teaching be reduced to a bare minimum, as he believed teaching English would attract non-Christian students and would push graduates toward business and other lucrative careers rather than the work of the church. He was willing to have English taught as a separate subject, but only in the last two years of college. He argued that students would better understand teaching in Chinese and could better transmit it when they began to teach others. He wanted a prominent position for the study of Chinese classics, which he believed necessary for the graduates to gain a hearing in society. Stanley, however, was adamant that English take pre-eminence in the curriculum. With the tension between Stanley and Sheffield, the college project was abandoned once more.
Sheffield continued developing his mission school in Tungchow, and by 1886-87, the instruction had advanced sufficiently for it to earn the term “high school.” Thirty students attended the school, all professing Christians. By 1888, Sheffield felt enough time had passed to write the ABCFM again about establishing a college. He pushed for the college to be located at Tungchow, since the foundations of a mission school had already been established there. He emphasized that only education could prevent the Christianity of the converts from being diluted by the ever-present heathenism in China. He wrote, “Knowledge is power, and what we want in China is power consecrated to the service of Christ.” (Paterno, 70) In 1889, the ABCFM responded that they were amenable to an expansion of the school in Tungchow, as long as the school remained strictly Christian.
By this time, Sheffield was a great proponent of educational work by missionaries. After seeing the disappointing results of evangelism, he believed education provided a legitimate means of seeking conversions and argued that it should be one of the tasks charged to a missionary. He wrote a paper entitled “The Relation of Christian Education to Other Branches of Missionary Work.” In it, he argued that in evangelism, “There is too much time employed in scattering the divine seed broadcast, and too little in turning back to water the seed thus sown, and to remove the weeds and enrich the soil, that the young plants may grow into vigorous life.” (Paterno, 71) He dismissed those who argued that there was no precedent for missionaries as educators in the New Testament by comparing their arguments to those of the Chinese who opposed railroads because they were not sanctioned by Confucius. Sheffield was convinced that evangelism without education would forever be disappointing and transitory. Sheffield would never go as far as Stanley, however. His approach to education was that it would produce church leaders and educated native clergy.
In 1889, the North China Mission finally approved the proposal for a college in Tungchow. By 1891-1892, there were 62 students in the school in Tungchow, and six men graduated. All of the students were professing Christians. Tungchow had become the educational center of the North China Mission; students came from many of the surrounding mission stations. In 1893, the educational establishment was more fully organized. Two main units were formed: The North China College and the Gordon Memorial Theological Seminary. The two units were complementary and were placed under one overall board of managers composed of missionaries from the North China Mission. Sheffield was appointed the president of the North China College and the head of the board of managers.
By 1890, the college had outgrown the old premises of the boys’ school. Construction on a new campus began, and in the fall of 1895, the school was able to move to its new buildings. Instruction followed three main lines: Biblical studies, Western learning and sciences, and Chinese studies. English was not offered as a subject, as Sheffield did not want his students tempted to enter secular fields, where their salaries would be three to five times greater than what preachers were paid. He dictated that the one fundamental rule of the school was that “all students must order their lives in harmony with the principles of Christianity.” (Paterno, 80) A catalogue for the school declared that “the supreme purpose of the school has been to supply Christian men for the opening lines of Christian work on every hand.” The school also provided tuition, room, and board to students free of charge.
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of the college was a very active organization. It held prayer meetings, Bible studies, discussion groups, and did evangelistic work in the countryside. It served as an important training ground for the work that students were expected to do after graduation.
Sheffield achieved a prominent place in the circle of pioneer missionary educators in China. He served as president of the Educational Association of China from 1896-1899. While president of this interdenominational society formed by Protestant missionaries, Sheffield published an article entitled “Christian Education: Its Place in Mission Work.” In this piece, Sheffield stressed his views on the proper type of school in missionary efforts. He emphasized that schools must be definitively Christian and should not be separated from the church. He implored missionaries not to pattern their schools after those in the West, but to remember that missionary education must win the heart of the child. He drew the following distinction between the two types of missionary educational systems: one looking to educate men of affairs, with Christianity having an indirect influence; the other looking to impart direct religious instruction to Christian students, without neglecting general education. Throughout his time in China, Sheffield adhered to his views on the importance of colleges remaining distinctly Christian.
Besides his extensive work on the North China College, Sheffield took up a number of other activities in China. At the missionary conference in Shanghai in 1890, he was elected a member of the committee to prepare a new version of the Old Testament in the wen-li, the literary style of China. The committee’s completed work was presented in 1907, and Sheffield was appointed chairman of a reorganized committee to complete the same work for the New Testament. Sheffield was also chairman of a committee on training Chinese workers.
In the fall of 1912, Sheffield’s health began to fail, forcing him to give up his work. He remained in China, however, until he died on July 1, 1913, at the age of 72. He was buried in Tungchow, near the scene of his life’s labors.
- Paterno, Robert. “Devello Z. Sheffield and the Founding of the North China College.” American Missionaries in China. Ed. Kwang-Ching Liu. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.
- Smith, Arthur. “Rev. Devello Z. Sheffield, D.D.” The Missionary Herald, 109 (1913).