Bates was born in Newark, Ohio, the son of a Disciples of Christ minister and college president. He graduated from Hiram College, Ohio, and received both A.B. and MA degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at University of Oxford; in 1935 he received the Ph.D. in Chinese history from Yale University. He served in India and Mesopotamia with the YMCA in 1917-1918. For a span of 30 years (1920-1950), he taught history as a missionary of the United Christian Missionary Society (Disciples of Christ) at the University of Nanking (Nanjing), China, an institution formed in 1910 by the merger of three colleges sponsored by American Protestant missions.
In addition to teaching, Bates was active in numerous ecumenical enterprises. He was a member of the China delegation to the Madras meeting of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1938, and subsequently served as Far Eastern consultant and, from 1941 to 1945, as coordinator of wartime emergency services in China for the IMC. He served with the Fellowship of Reconciliation in wartime contacts with Japan. He served on the Council of Higher Education of China, the Nanking International Relief Committee, and the executive committee of National Christian Council in China. He served as investigator of opium trade in Japanese-occupied China. His Religious Liberty: An inquiry (1945) was published in seven languages.
From 1950 to 1965, Bates was professor of missions at Union Theological Seminary, New York; he was a trustee of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, and a member of the China Program Committee of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. After his retirement from teaching until his death, he worked tirelessly on a massive research project focused on the history of the Protestant effort in twentieth-century China.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
A content guide to the notes and manuscripts of Bates was prepared and published after his death, along with an introductory essay and outline of the register of his papers: Cynthia McLean, “The Protestant Endeavor in Chinese Society, 1890-1950: Gleanings from the Manuscripts of M. Searle Bates,” IBMR 8 (1984): 108-112. Bates’s China research papers are in the China Records Collection, Yale Divinity School; other papers are in the Disciples Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee.