Calvin Wilson Mateer was born in January of 1836, on a farm in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. He was the oldest of seven children, two of whom also served in China as missionaries: John and Lillian. Both his parents were professing Christians when they were married. Calvin was baptized as an infant in the old Silver Spring Church near their home. Later, his father became a ruling elder (that is, not a teaching elder) in the Presbyterian church that they later joined. Gifted with a fine voice, he led the choir for several years. Mr. Mateer drew upon the wealth of books in the church library, becoming, in time, well-respected for his knowledge of Scripture, church history, and theology. Calvin’s mother, whom he resembled physically, seems to have had a stronger influence upon him, especially through her intense practicality and her passion to give her children the best possible education.
When Calvin was five, the family moved to another farm which was larger but harder to till in a profitable manner. Calvin and his brothers had to pick stones out of the soil, a task they lightened by reciting to each other passages from the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Scriptures. Almost all the farm implements had to be manufactured and repaired by them in the barn, where Calvin learned the mechanical skills for which he later became famous in China. Family worship, including reading the Bible and singing a psalm, was held morning and evening. On Sunday, they not only attended church but spent the afternoon studying the Scriptures and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, long passages of both of which the children were required to memorize.
From youth, Calvin was gifted with a physical constitution which, though not unusually strong, was extraordinarily robust. “At no period [of his life] was he laid aside by protracted illness” (Fisher, Biography, 27). He did get sick at times, and he had to take care of himself, but he was able to serve in China for forty-five years without any serious breakdown in health. Mentally, though not a genius, he possessed an intellect superior to many, especially in the fields of the applied sciences and machinery, and perhaps mathematics. His remarkable mastery of the Chinese language was acquired by “years of ceaseless toil,” for he had no special linguistic gift (Fisher, 28).
He spent his schooling years in Gettysburg, where he helped on the family farm, and attended family worship twice daily. Reared in a Christian household, Mateer recalled that he never remembered a moment when he did not believe. The Mateers had seven children, all but one of whom became teachers, ministers of the gospel, or missionaries, and four of whom ended up in China. The Mateers instilled in all their children the deep value of learning. Although Calvin Mateer’s father wanted him to help on the family farm, his mother supported his schooling, and Calvin was allowed to split his time between school and the farm. She also sought to inculcate in her children a love for the work of the gospel, either at home or abroad, in a variety of ways, including the regular reading of missionary periodicals and offerings for missions.
Mateer benefitted greatly from two outstanding teachers in his high school years, excelling alike in mathematics and Greek, which he taught to earn money for his tuition. He made a profession of faith a few months before entering college, greatly impacted by the preaching of Dr. Samuel Wilson, the pastor of the local Presbyterian church.
In 1855, Mateer began studies at Jefferson College, graduating in just two years as co-valedictorian. His classmates described him as having an unlimited capacity for hard work. He was invited to join the faculty at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, but Mateer instead bought a local academy in Pennsylvania, building it up from twenty boys to ninety in just three years. He excelled as a teacher, and would have continued in that field, but, sensing God’s leading to preach the gospel, Mateer sold his school and went to Western Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1861. His fellow students remembered him for his “mental superiority and deep spirituality. In some respects, indeed most, he stood head and shoulders above his fellows around him.” Another classmate recalled that Mateer was “cheerful and yet not flippant, and with a tinge of the most serious. He was optimistic, dwelling much on God’s great love … I doubt if any one of us felt the responsibility of life as much as he did. I doubt that anyone worked as hard as he” (Fisher, 45-46).
A great revival swept parts of the United States in the winter of 1857-1858, and it reached across the Atlantic. Theological schools felt the renewing impact of this revival, which kindled a zeal for the salvation of people in other nations. While in seminary, after a long process, Mateer sensed God’s leading to become a foreign missionary. He came under the care of the presbytery of Butler, Pennsylvania, in April of 1860, and he was licensed to preach. He spent that summer preaching in various churches. In the fall, he was obliged to preach a missionary sermon. “He did this so well that the students by a vote expressed a desire that the sermon should be published. In his Journal he notes that the preparation of this discourse ‘strengthened his determination to give himself to this work’” (Fisher, 49). In December, he wrote to his mother that he had, after much thought and prayer, concluded that it was his duty to offer himself for foreign service. The next April, he applied to the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board and received their letter of acceptance in the same month.
The Civil War delayed his departure, since contributions for missionary work severely declined. He spent this time preaching in different churches and then serving as an interim pastor for a church in Delaware. This congregation had been dying from internal strife, but when he left, it was alive and vital again. He was ordained as an evangelist by the Presbytery of Marion, Delaware, during this time.
More on Julia
In 1862, after a two-year courtship, Mateer married Julia Brown, who shared his missionary zeal. “Julia … was a superbly good wife for him. In her own home, in the schoolroom, in the oversight of the Chinese boys and girls who were their pupils in the preparation of her ‘Music Book,’ in her labors for the evangelization of the women, in her journeys, - hindered as she was most of the time by broken health, - she effectively toiled on, until at last, after thirty-five years of missionary service, her husband laid away all of her that was mortal in the little cemetery east of the city of Tengchow” (Fisher, 54).
On July 3, 1863, Mateer and Julia left for China, arriving in Tengchow (Dengzhou), Shandong, on January 15, 1864.
China had been Mateer’s last choice of mission fields, and he found his work there difficult. Tengchow was a newly established mission; there was only one other missionary couple. At first Mateer struggled mightily to learn the language, although he eventually became quite fluent. Indeed, he considered acquiring fluency in Mandarin a “herculean task” and lamented his slow progress, but soon he was able to preach well enough to hold the attention of students who came for the annual examinations. He used every spare moment to improve his grasp of this difficult language. Eventually, he was called by other missionaries “the prince of Mandarin speakers among foreigners in China” and was able to compose a treatise on the language that became the most widely used textbook for students of Chinese. That he was chosen to be chairman of the committee to produce a Mandarin version of the Bible testifies to the esteem in which his mastery of Chinese was held by his fellow missionaries.
When Mateer and Julia arrived in China, they had to share a house with several other missionary families. The missionary force had been depleted by illness, death, and departures, thus freeing up space for them, but they found that the Chinese-structure was in every way unhealthful for them. They believed that the chronic rheumatism that Julia developed at this time was caused by the dampness in which they had to live. Mateer thus set out to construct a new, Western-style house with two stories within the mission compound.
Mateer served as his own architect, contractor, and builder, displaying the skill and inventiveness that later characterized his entire career. For example, he did all the brickwork himself. For several months, he had to neglect language study and evangelism to concentrate on providing a home for himself and his family. The result was a very pleasant house into which they welcomed many both temporary and long-term visitors during the ensuing decades. Mateer lived there from 1867 to 1904.
He and Julia enjoyed a very happy and harmonious union. He would later say, “In the thirty-five years of our married life, there never was a single jar” (Fisher, 82). Each one respected the other and allowed each other to rule over their respective areas of responsibility. One guest remembered Julia as “one of the most sensible and dearest of women, and Dr. Mateer as always ready in any leisure moment for a frolic” (Fisher, 83). Though a serious Christian and dedicated missionary, Mateer possessed a great sense of humor and loved to play with children, who returned his affection.
Since there were few missionaries and no Western merchants in Tengchow, correspondence and the shipment of goods to them took a long time. Most pressing of all was the lack of medical attention, though Mateer often pleaded that medical missionaries be sent out to help them. Here again he employed his practical genius, learning how to dispense medicines and perform simple dental work not only for his family and fellow missionaries but also for the Chinese, many of whom found healing through this ministrations, especially in epidemics of cholera.
He devoted his first ten years to evangelization, where he felt primarily called. At this point, we should make a note about the ruling convictions of his work as an evangelist, and the core truths that he communicated to the Chinese:
He believed that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, and he was so sure that this is radically essential in the faith of a missionary that he was not ready to welcome any recruit who was adrift on this subject. He believed also with like firmness in the other great evangelical doctrines set forth in the symbols [creeds] and theologies of the orthodox churches. His own creed was Calvinistic and Presbyterian, yet he was no narrow sectarian. He was eager to cooperate with the missionaries of other denominations than his own; all that he asked was that they hold to what he conceived to be the essentials of Christianity.
Salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, man’s sinfulness and need of immediate repentance, and faith, and the duty of every Christian to live a holy life and constantly to bear witness of Jesus, were the great truths he always emphasized (Fisher, 102-103).
At first, he joined the effort to preach the gospel to the residents of Tengchow. They obtained the use of a room that could be used as a chapel on a main street where crowds passed by or could gather to listen while Mateer and his Chinese assistant preached After a while, it seemed that the early interest in the Christian message had diminished, so he began to make trips into the surrounding area and in other cities of Shandong. Without the rivers and canals of southern China, the missionaries had to travel on foot, a man-powered wheelbarrow, or mule-drawn litter. The last was an excruciatingly painful experience. For the most part, Mateer chose to walk thousands of miles. He “had a good strong physique and simple tastes, and was entirely free from any disposition to fret over small annoyances.” At night they stayed in inns, which were never comfortable and often very unpleasant. Mateer never complained.
To supplement their preaching, Mateer and his associate, Corbett, distributed Christian tracts and books, including Bibles and portions of Scripture, mostly by selling them. On one early tour, they thus put more than 277,000 pages into the hands of Chinese listeners.
They received a mixed reception. Sometimes, the crowds were curious and friendly. Thousands listened to the message intently, and then eagerly bought and read their literature. Often, however, they heard the epithet “foreign devil” hurled at them in anger, a reflection of the strong anti-foreign feeling widespread in China at that time, and in several periods since then, an enemy that eventually exploded into the Boxer Rebellion, which started in Shandong. In these early days, Mateer carried a revolver for self-defense, and on occasion had to point to it, or even draw the gun from its holster, to warn dangerously violent attackers. He later renounced this reliance on a weapon and trusted God to protect him.
During these years, he also appealed to the treaty “rights” of both missionaries and Chinese Christians when he or they suffered at the hands of anti-Christian mobs or officials. On several occasions, he also called upon the American naval commander to make a demonstration of force. These methods, of course, only provoked more animosity, and he eventually followed a policy of non-interference in court cases involving Chinese Christians and of not asking for foreign intervention. In 1873, when he was “stoned and roughed up worse than on any occasion since he had begun itinerating … he sought no redress for this” (Hyatt, 153).
After a while, Julia accompanied him on these tours, ministering to thousands of women along the way.
As more and more Chinese believed the gospel, were baptized, and formed small congregations, Mateer redirected his energies to caring for these infant churches. His final purely evangelistic journey took place in 1878, this aspect of the work having been turned over to younger missionaries and Chinese Christians who had developed into very competent evangelists.
Mateer rejoiced to see the growing number of Chinese evangelists and pastors, many of whom had been educated by him and Julia. From the beginning, he sought to build a full Presbyterian system of church government, with Chinese teaching elders (ordained ministers) and ruling elders (laymen) treated as full equals. He advocated the use of Mandarin in all meetings and worked for the day when, at all levels, Chinese would be in charge. In only one respect did he disagree with his friend and colleagues, John Nevius: He believed the native pastors should be at least partially supported financially by income from the foreign mission, even as he strove mightily to motivate Christians in the churches to give more money to support their ministers.
He later gave his estimation of the value of itinerant evangelism: “This method of work is very excellent, and at the same time very laborious. It reaches obscure places, and a class of people – those who stay at home – not otherwise reached. To be successful it must be pursued at a time of year when the people are somewhat at leisure” (Fisher, 127).
One biographer (Hyatt) claims that he was a miserable failure as an evangelist, gaining only a few converts of uncertain quality. He concludes that Mateer was temperamentally unsuited for evangelistic work, unlike his associates Corbett and Nevius. The evidence seems to contradict this assessment. At his funeral, the presiding Chinese pastor spoke of “his power as a preacher who addressed himself straight to the hearts of the people, and of the enduring character of the work he had accomplished,” which must have included his peaching (Fisher, 327). A memorial resolution by the English Baptist Mission likewise called him “a powerful preacher” (Fisher, 335). Most likely, the need for pastoral care of the new churches, and availability of competent Chinese evangelists, the immense labor of itinerant preaching, the occasional violent opposition, and the growing success of the school started by Julia all combined to direct Mateer’s energies back to Tengchow.
The Tengchow School
Although Mateer had served as principal of the Tengchow Boys’ School since its beginning in 1864, the institution was run primarily by Julia with the help of Chinese assistants, as Mateer’s time had been mainly consumed with evangelism for the first decade. The school had been Julia’s idea from the beginning (though Mateer fully supported her in this) and started with six boys from poor farming families, who were largely illiterate. Julia taught the students prayers, Scriptures, and reading. Since the school was free, the Mateers assumed much of the expenses, adding to the allowance the school received from the Board of Foreign Missions. The school gradually expanded in the early 1870s, as the Mateers sought to “mold” their students in Christianity.
Mateer believed passionately that education should be in Chinese, so that the graduates could be respected among educated Chinese scholars and play an integral part in the Chinese church and in Chinese society. Furthermore, educating the boys in the Confucian classics was essential to the students’ becoming accepted as educated men in Chinese society.
Despite its growth, the school faced a number of challenges. Recruiting and managing Chinese teaching assistants was one of the most difficult problems the Mateers had to overcome. The Chinese teachers they employed to teach these classics often taught contradictory views to the Christianity the Mateers desired to impart to their students. The instructors professed Christianity, but combined it with Confucianism, thereby opposing the position of the Mateers that Christianity meant “in Christ alone.” Julia would try to counteract these teachers’ influence by praying for the teacher’s soul at the end of his classes, but the damage was often already done.
The student body had also been recruited indiscriminately, and the Mateers were unsure how to handle the ragged group of boys. Despite Mateer’s efforts to secure a contract from parents that the boys would remain in school for a period of at least six years, twenty students withdrew without approval through 1872. The Mateers would not take the sons of native Christians as boarders in their school, mainly because they did not want parents to profess faith in Christ merely to attain schooling for their sons, and also because they wanted to maximize evangelistic contact. The make-up of the school in the early years, however, was not conducive to its success. Of a total of eighty-five students between 1864 and 1872, only fourteen expressed a commitment to Jesus, and five had already renounced him by 1872. Only seven of the enrollees had completed the theoretically six-year program. In 1874, Julia wrote, “So far, we have not known one individual instance of the friends or relatives of the boys being brought under the influence of the gospel by the school. Instead of carrying home the good they get, as we naturally supposed they would, they only get it laughed out of them, and their frequent visits home tend to harden them against Christian influences” (Hyatt, 164).
Recognizing that their school was failing, the Mateers set out to change things. They altered its enrollment policy, settled on better books and courses, and achieved a communications breakthrough between the students and faculty. The admissions process became selective; students accepted were older, better prepared, and from Christian homes. Over time, non-Christians were admitted as well, but on a smaller scale. In 1873, Mateer encouraged one of his brightest students to take an initial qualifying examination for the lowest academic degree. His student passed the exam, giving the Mateers’ school more local respect. Sixteen of seventeen boys who took the exam over the next ten years passed, resulting in an increase of respectable non-Christian applications. If the boys looked promising or if their families would sign contracts of up to twelve years, the Mateers would accept these non-Christian students.
The Mateers also began employing teachers who did not profess Christianity to instruct the boys in the Confucian classics, deciding that “heathen teachers are far less hindrance spiritually than inconsistent Christians” (Hyatt, 167). The Mateers no longer monitored their classes, leaving the teachers free to instruct as they saw fit. The school had always taught Chinese studies and religious instruction; they now added Western science and arithmetic, which Mateer himself taught. The school expanded again, and the Mateers became quite beloved among their students.
One of the main differences between the early school and this later school was the way it was run. Mateer had learned executive talents from his time in Shanghai during 1871-1872, where he went to take temporary charge of the American Presbyterian Mission Press, which had fallen into confusion. Under Mateer, the press emerged as one of the leading foreign-style printing establishments in China. Mateer discovered he had entrepreneurial abilities, as he turned the printing press into a well-organized business. When Mateer was able to convince his brother John to come from America to work with him and take over the press, he was able to return to Tengchow and concentrate on improving the school there. He found that the school was in truth much like a large business, and he devoted himself to running it more efficiently; improving its organization, supervision, and logistics.
With non-Christian teachers instructing the Chinese classics, Calvin and Julia faced the burden of inculcating Christian character all alone. They believed their own personal contact with the students would gain them a powerful moral influence. They met with the students at least once daily for religious discussion. Julia devoted most of her time to the younger boys, while Calvin concentrated on the older ones. They were both strict with their discipline, but they were also extremely nurturing and loving, and their students came to view them as parent figures. Even after graduation, the Mateers helped the boys marry and find jobs. This deep personal connection paid off; by 1876, religious motivation was developed enough to be institutionalized downward, into the hands of the students themselves. A student-organized group called the Evangelization Society was born. Its members evangelized other students and, on Sundays, worked off campus. Soon, all of the students were joining.
In February of 1877, the school held its first graduation exercises for three young men. Although all three wanted to be preachers, Mateer gently guided them in another direction, believing the church had more need for teachers than preachers at that time. Two of the graduates went off to teach at small day schools, and the third remained at the Mateers’ school to help with instruction and writing textbooks. With the graduation ceremony, the institution’s status also rose from a boys’ boarding school to Tengchow High School.
1877 Shanghai Missionary Conference
In May 1877, the first General Conference of Protestant Missionaries was held in Shanghai. Mateer took the lead in creating the structure for this conference and served on six different committees. He defended his Tengchow School with a speech on educational work. Unfavorable attitudes towards education by missionaries were on the rise and educational budgets had been reduced. Mateer had already instituted partial charges at his school to reduce its dependence on the Board of Foreign Missions and had been able to attract donations from American churches, but he still needed support from the Board. He prepared an address on “The Relation of Protestant Missions to Education” in which he intended to demonstrate the great importance of education in christianizing China and to “claim for it its legitimate place” in the world (Hyatt, 179). Mateer emphasized that his school was the strong point of the mission work in Tengchow.
Of Christian education, he said that “the object of mission schools I take to be the education of native pupils, mentally, morally, and religiously, not only that they may be converted, but that, being converted, they may become effective agents in the hands of God for defending the cause of truth. Schools also which give a knowledge of Western science and civilization cannot fail to do great good both physically and socially” (Fisher, 119).
On the other hand, he “disclaimed any intention to exalt education as a missionary agency above other instrumentalities, and especially not above preaching the gospel; and claimed for it only its legitimate place … [which was] to provide an effective and reliable ministry; to furnish teachers for Christian schools, and through them to introduce into China the superior education of the West; to prepare men to take the lead in introducing into China the science and arts of Western civilization, as the best means of gaining access to the higher classes of China, and of giving to the native church self-reliance, and of fortifying her against the encroachments of superstition from within and the attacks of educated skepticism without” (Fisher, 131).
In his address to the Convention of 1877, he wrote: “So long as all the Christian literature of China is the work of foreigners, so long will the Chinese church be weak and dependent. She needs as rapidly as possible a class of ministers with well-trained and well-furnished minds, who will be able to write books, defending and enforcing the doctrines of Christianity, and applying them to the circumstances of the church in China” (Fisher, 131).
Mateer observed that missionaries were already attending to the temporal needs of their Chinese hearers and converts by offering medical care when they could, and by giving assistance in all sorts of situations other than those associated with evangelism and pastoral care. One major purpose of missionary work was to “give to the whole world all the blessings which Christianity has to bestow,” including the knowledge of science taught from a Christian point of view by Christian teachers, employing textbooks written by Christians, so that the many benefits of science could come to the Chinese in a form intimately associated with Christianity, rather than, as would otherwise happen – and did, later – as a branch only of secular knowledge, with no reference to God.
In short, he believed Christian schools would make the native church self-reliant by training leaders and would prepare the church intellectually for challenges from those opposed to Christianity. For this latter reason, he thought schools should be comprehensive in their curriculum, teaching Chinese studies and Western science in addition to religion. Mateer’s speech was the first significant public expression of such ideas.
To that end, the boys were taught to “read and write in their own language, so that for themselves they might be able to study the Bible and other books which they were expected to use” (Fisher, 136).
The conference’s reaction to Mateer’s speech was negative; nevertheless, a small undercurrent of men with educational interests joined him in securing approval for a School and Textbook Series Committee. Many educational failures were the result of a lack of available teaching materials, and the textbook committee was able to publish over one hundred books in just thirteen years, with sales keeping them afloat financially. The textbook committee ended up being one of the conference’s most important achievements, as it turned the tide for Christian education in China. Students in mission schools tripled by 1890, and the textbook committee was officially established to continue as the “Educational Association of China.” Mateer was elected its first president.
Later, Mateer summarized his educational approach: To educate thoroughly, including not only Chinese language and the Christian faith but also science, geography, and history, to break the power of both superstition and ethnocentric anti-foreign prejudice; to educate in the Chinese language; and to educate under strong Christian influences. “What he most wanted were Christian community developers – ministers and schoolmasters – who would use science as he did, as a tool for making an impression, gaining face, and ‘witnessing’ to more important truths” (Hyatt, 185).
After the 1877 Conference
The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions also decided to give the Tengchow School enough money to go forward and expand after 1877. To supplement this source of income, Mateer wrote an annual letter to churches and Sunday schools back home. “These letters were of a very high order, taking for the theme of each an important phase of Chinese life and manners or of mission work. They might to advantage have been gathered into a volume; and if this had been done, it would be entitled to rank with books of the very best kind on the same general subject” (Fisher, 133-134).
In 1879, the Mateers took a furlough, where Mateer campaigned for a full-time assistant and also for his school to be promoted to college status. In 1882, the Reverend Watson Hayes was sent to China to be trained as Mateer’s helper, and the high school officially became Tengchow College. Mateer established a uniform curriculum for his school in 1881 and added more teachers, enabling the school to offer each course every year. This curriculum meant that the school became more successful at securing the largest and best class of students. The Mateers had to cut off the enrollment at seventy, fearing that they could not handle any larger numbers. Mateer established a series of entrance exams and placement interviews to handle admissions. He required all of his students to take a heavy load of math and science, as Mateer believed “the only thing that commands respect is thorough scholarship” (Hyatt, 185).
Although scholarship was essential to Mateer, he also strove to make the point that scholarship by itself was not all-sufficient. He conducted daily devotionals, and students were required to attend three different Sunday school classes and nightly prayer meetings led by student monitors. A number of voluntary religious organizations were also important in this Christian instruction. Christian Endeavor held weekly Bible studies and a Foreign Missionary Society planned evangelization of other Chinese provinces. In 1895, the YMCA arrived, absorbing these older groups and putting members in touch with Christian students elsewhere.
As a teacher, Mateer was “enthusiastic and eminently successful. He was always wide-awake and never dull; so he was able to keep the attention of every student” (Fisher, 148). Eventually, teaching at the Tengchow College began to pass largely into Chinese hands, as Mateer had planned. Mateer would employ the best student in each of his graduating classes at the school for two to three years and would then help him find a strategic position elsewhere. He wanted to implant as many people as possible into the new intellectual life developing in government schools in order to increase the standing of Christianity in China. Mateer also continued to send his teachers to Protestant colleges and mission schools in the hope of building and protecting Christian schools.
Calvin Mateer believed that “All depends on the direct personal conduct of the superintendent with the scholars, and the personal influence that is gained over them… [In constancy of contact] he established himself as a sort of powerful moral presence, … as an official (kuan-fu) who truly taught as well as judged” (Hyatt, 169).
He “thus taught all sciences except mental arithmetic, as well as classes in religion (moral science) for the older boys. According to the school’s Alumni History, his classroom performances soon inspired ‘god-like awe … for his mental faculties, his intense activity, and his good judgment.’ More comprehensively, ‘They loved him like a father.’ When someone transgressed a rule, he punished severely; but once past, he forgot it at once and did not remember it. When someone was in difficultes, he would find a way to help – generously, appropriately, and without partiality… He was not a permissive person, and discipline was indeed strict. Given the traditional father-son relationship in China, this was not necessarily detrimental to the love the boys bore him” (Hyatt, 169).
“Calvin’s work enabled Julia Mateer to give most of her time to the younger boys. She taught them geography and music, on which she wrote a book, and handled their religious training. Her extracurricular relationship to her pupils was even more intense than her husband’s” (Hyatt, 170). She exercised strict discipline, but combined it with teaching the students the reason(s) for the rule and the penalty for disobedience. “Mostly, however, she strove to create a personal bond between herself and each young pupil. In the first week of the school year she would learn the multiple new names and kinfolk connections. At daily sick call, or more often in dormitory room visits, she would then go on drawing them out, gently and with good humor” (Hyatt, 170).
“The Alumni History remembered Julia Mateer as ‘unique among women,’ as did many of her missionary acquaintances. Although ill for much of her later life, she is said to have remained a person ‘whose simple presence was a stimulus and an elevation.’ One alumnus’s way of explaining this was that [her] teaching was accomplished through graciousness, and without the anxiety of constraints she transformed the students … Her loving sincerity flowed out in the way she spoke, and in the expression on her face” (Hyatt, 170-171).
Though neither Calvin nor Julia was naturally a good teacher, they worked hard to improve their skills and they seemed to bring out the best in each other and to complement one another. Being childless, they poured out their parental love upon their students, who loved them in return.
At the end of twenty years, the school had advanced to become a high school, and then to do collegiate work. “Of those [students] who remained long enough to be molded by the influence of the institution and were mature enough, all made a public profession of faith in Christ” (Fisher, 149).
Julia died in February of 1898.
In 1881, Mateer successful appealed to the Board of Foreign Missions to elevate the status of the school to that of a college. Mateer remained president until Dr. Watson Hayes, whom he trusted completely, assumed that post. Mateer spent a great deal of time and energy improving the campus, building himself the facilities to supply heat, water, and electricity, and providing the laboratories with the latest scientific equipment. He also continued to teach.
In 1904, under the impulse of younger missionaries and others, the college was moved to the city of Wei Hsien (now Weixian). Mateer superintended the movement of all the equipment, including the boiler and the laboratories. He and his wife settled there in a small cottage, where they lived until his death after hers in 1907.
The question of whether English should be used as the medium of instruction, as in most other Christian colleges, had arisen from the beginning. Mateer always insisted that if the subjects were taught in English, the college would end up being a training ground for those seeking success in secular employment. Well-to-do parents would choose the school so that their children could find good jobs in society. The subsequent history of Christian colleges in China proved Mateer to have been correct.
Mateer’s goal was different: To train men to be ministers in the church and teachers in other Christian schools. Finally, after the college was moved, he gave in to some extent, offering several hours of English to theological students so that they could take part in larger meetings of Christians, including missionaries, and be accepted as educated people in a modern society. Otherwise, his insistence on using Chinese proved to be prescient. Christian colleges did mostly produce men and women of the world, not pastors and evangelists.
The success of the Tengchow School can be measured by its graduates. After its removal to Wei-Hsien, statistics showed that 205 had received diplomas; 38 were teachers in schools; 68 taught in Christian schools; 17 served as pastors; 16 as evangelists; 10 were engaged in Christian literary work; 9 in business; 7 were physicians; and the rest served in government, business, or the YMCA.
It was said that “Dr Mateer never led in prayer, either public or private, that he did not most earnestly ask that the Lord would raise up Chinese Christian men, who as leaders would bring many to Christ” (Fisher, 235). To the end of his life, he maintained that the greatest priority for Christian missionaries in China was to train Chinese pastors and teachers who could accurately transmit the faith and useful knowledge to the Chinese people and thus build a thoroughly Chinese church. He accurately predicted a day when the knowledge of English would lead to the introduction of Western skepticism into China; at that time, only thoroughly trained Christian pastors and teachers would be able to equip Chinese Christians to stand firm in their faith.
The Tengchow Church
After Dr. Mills left Tengchow, Mateer was called by the church to be its pastor. He loved this role and excelled in it. For one thing, he much preferred the opportunity to preach organized, well-prepared sermons each week as compared to the extempore and often-interrupted messages demanded by itinerant speaking to crowds of mixed interest. For another, as with the school, Mateer poured his life, love, and energies into the development of mature Christians, and especially men who could become leaders. Many of these, of course, were products of the school. His forceful preaching and faithful pastoral care, in which Julia played an indispensable role, helped to build a solid congregation that grew steadily through the years.
An All-Around Man
Mateer’s talents did not end at instruction and educational organization. He was an accomplished mechanic as well, and he built laboratory equipment and fixed everything from eyeglasses to locomotives.
“As the years went by, and as in this sphere of his multifarious activity he rose to larger and more difficult achievements, his fame as to this spread far and wide and among both natives and foreigners. At no time, however, did he permit his efficiency in this line to loom up in such a form or in such a degree as to seem to others to put his distinctly missionary labors in the background. He was – first, last, and all the time – a man whose life and whose abilities were so completely and so manifestly consecrated to the evangelization of the Chinese, that when those who knew him best looked back over the finished work [of his life], his remarkable achievement with apparatus and machinery scarcely arrested their attention” (Fisher, 237).
Eventually, Mateer used the proceeds from the sale of the Mandarin Lessons to build a museum that housed a number of scientific and mechanical contraptions and machines. He would invite Chinese to visit this display, and then, in a large hall constructed for this purpose, preach the gospel of Christ to an audience already well-disposed to respect and listen to him.
Mateer also helped local Chinese Christians to start industries on their own, by purchasing equipment and donating it to them, such as a loom for making fabric, a press for drying cotton, or a lathe for the use of a blacksmith. Usually, he directed these efforts to help the poorer members of his church.
He was also a successful author, writing books and educational texts in Chinese and English. “His publications in Chinese … were very considerable in number, and were of large importance to the work of missions” (Fisher, 151). His most well-known work was the Arithmetic, which sold by tens of thousands for over forty years. Other works included a report on chemical terms in Chinese, with a new and distinctively Chinese method for the symbols of that science, a catechism on Genesis, an explanation of half of the Ten Commandments, Julia’s “Music Book,” especially the part on musical terminology, many hymns, either composed or translated, a translation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and a translation of most of Pilgrim’s Progress.
He compiled notes for “an immense [Chinese-English dictionary] left behind in manuscript… It is wholly in Chinese, and as it lies unfinished it occupies more than a cubic foot of space, and consists of a set of volumes” (Fisher, 166). Though unfinished, this dictionary “had three direct descendants. With Dr. Goodrich it produced first a Chinese phrase book, and then a pocket Chinese-English dictionary, which for brevity and comprehensiveness is a marvel, and which is regarded by almost every student of Chinese as a necessity” (Fisher, 166).
Mateer supervised several committees on terminology for the Educational Association of China from 1893 to 1908, producing Technical Terms in English and Chinese which systematically labeled twelve thousand items. Mateer also published a book in two volumes called Mandarin Lessons, which for thirty years remained the starting point for most English-speaking arrivals in north China. For this work, Mateer travelled widely so that he could record local variations of spoken Mandarin in northern China; he also canvassed a large number of people to gain their input. He composed a book on the proper translation of biblical words for God, based upon research by him and his assistants of a large number of Chinese books that use “Shen” as the translation for “God.” Both the Mandarin Lessons and The Meaning of the Word Shen are still in print. To be sure, his indispensable assistant in these two products was Chou Li-wen, his favorite and most promising student. These two works are still in print.
Calvin Mateer’s last big project was the revision of the New Testament translation, which he worked on from 1892 until 1906. The 1890 General Conference had elected him head of this undertaking, and he devoted massive amounts of time to this work, taking care to achieve both integrity and intelligibility
He chaired the Mandarin revision committee and took part as one of the translators. Each foreign translator had at least one Chinese assistant. Chou Li-wen burnt himself out and died early as a result of his strenuous efforts to produce the most accurate possible rendering in Chinese. Wang Yuan-the took Chou’s place after his death. Both men had been trained in Mateer’s theological school. Mateer’s second wife, Ada, also provided indispensable help.
Mateer insisted that the translation should be understandable not only to educated readers, but to all who heard it; it was to be a version in spoken, vernacular Mandarin. Mateer was present at all the meetings of the translation committee from its inception in to the conclusion of the project in 1906 – fifteen years in all. Discussions were usually held in Mandarin, so that the Chinese helpers would be able to participate. At the end, he said that he had given the equivalent of seven years of “all-day labor” to the immense project. Aside from participating in the translation, Mateer was give sole responsibility for punctuation, which required a huge amount of effort. In the process, he invented a new system of punctuation for the Chinese language, one largely used in Chinese Bibles today.
The revision of the New Testament – really almost a new translation – was accepted by the General Missionary Conference of 1907. At that conference, Mateer was chosen to lead the committee that would produce a similar version of the Old Testament. He commenced the work, but he died before the year was finished.
A Leader Among Missionaries
Also at the 1890 General Conference, Mateer proposed an important resolution of dissent from the conclusions of his fellow missionary, W.A.P. Martin, who argued that missionaries should tolerate ancestral worship. Hudson Taylor supported Mateer’s resolution. This resolution passed almost unanimously, affirming the belief of the conference that idolatry was an essential component of ancestral worship and opposing the view that missionaries should not interfere with Chinese methods of honoring their ancestors.
Mateer possessed extensive knowledge of Chinese classics and etiquette, which helped keep him out of trouble. On one occasion, when a misunderstanding occurred between the brigadier of the military garrison and Mateer, Mateer’s knowledge of Chinese dealings caused the brigadier to lose so much face that he had to withdraw. Gradually, Mateer became an authority on official communications with Chinese, heading a committee on “The Missionary and Public Questions” for the 1907 Centenary Conference of Protestant Missionaries. Mateer stressed restraint by missionaries and emphasized that missionaries should maintain friendly relations by expressing their deep sense of obligation for Chinese official protection.
Mateer maintained his interest in educational reform, and in 1898, he was offered positions at the new imperial universities in Beijing (Dean of Science) and Nanjing (headmaster). Coming from such a high Chinese dignitary, the latter was “an extraordinary mark of respect and confidence” (Fisher, 294).
He declined both offers as he felt that his missionary work was more important. The year 1898 also brought tragedy to Mateer: his wife, Julia, passed away. Two years later, he married Ada Haven, who became his assistant translator and helped him revise and abridge the Mandarin Lessons. Mateer also picked up an understudy in Watson Hayes, who made Mateer his mentor and model.
Mateer demanded excellence among other missionaries, which often made him a hard person with whom to work. However, he also strove for humility, and was quick to ask for forgiveness. His humility was exemplified by the fact that early in his career, he recognized the value of his wife Julia’s work and decided it was a better investment than his own. By working side-by-side, the two accomplished a great deal.
Throughout his life, Mateer persevered in making things accessible for “the people.” He insisted on using Shen as the Chinese character for God because it was familiar to the Chinese. Through his early struggles and later success, Mateer developed a faith in long-term progress and learned to maximize his talents, making his trials a period of constructive self-education. All of his work was done with the goal of changing China and the Chinese for the better.
In September of 1908, Mateer died of peritonitis. He and Julia were buried together in China. His legacy included one hundred and seventy graduates of his school, most of whom had become teachers themselves. He was remembered among his colleagues as “a sort of prince among men… . He was born to lead, not to follow” (Hyatt, 225).
Calvin Mateer’s “knowledge of the Chinese language was extraordinary” (Fisher, 11). A man of wide learning, he received no less than three honorary doctorates: In 1880, Hanover College conferred upon him the Doctor of Divinity (D.D.); in 1888, the University of Wooster, for his “attainments, literary and scientific, philosophical and theological, and for his success in his work as a Christian missionary and teacher,” bestowed upon him the Doctor of Laws (D.LL.), as did his alma mater, Washington and Jefferson College, in 1902 in recognition of his “distinguished ability and service as a scholar and minister of the gospel” (Fisher, 293).
The British and Foreign Bible Society gave him the distinction of being an honorary member in 1894.
On his seventieth birthday, he was honored by his students with a large and lavish celebration, with many speeches extolling his role as a teacher, guide, and friend. “There were hundreds and perhaps thousands in Shantung who revered his as a father, and confided in him as they did in almost no other human being” (Fisher, 307).
In September of 1900, he married Ada Haven, who had served in Beijing with the American Board and was “recognized as an accomplished Chinese scholar and a successful and highly esteemed teacher in the Bridgman School.” She later helped Mateer with the shorter edition of his Mandarin Lessons and assisted the committee translating the New Testament by making a Greek and English concordance of their first edition.
Mateer returned to the United States several times on furlough: May, 1879 to January, 1881; July, 1892 to October, 1893; June, 1902 to August, 1903. On his last furlough, he and Ada went overland by the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe, and thence to the United States by ship. While home, he showed Ada all the important scenes of his childhood. Other travels took him all over northern China to study the different dialects of Mandarin.
Throughout his long career, Calvin Mateer faced danger on several occasions; he always responded with calmness and courage.
“Hand in hand with these great convictions went an absolute loyalty to duty. To this he subordinated everything else” (Fisher, 103). The writer goes on to attribute his building of the house with his own hands, spending long years on the Mandarin version of the Scripture, defending the minority position that Shen was the proper name of God, and his insistence that English should not be used as the medium of instruction in the school and college to his dedication to do what he thought was right, regardless of the cost.
A personality like this carries with it certain dangers, and Mateer was not without fault. “He did not always did not make sufficient allowance for persons who could not see things just as he did. He sometimes unwarrantedly questioned the rectitude of others’ conduct when it did not conform to his conception of what they ought to have done.”
Still, “these defects were not serious enough greatly to mar his usefulness or to spoil the beauty of his character. His wisdom as a rule, his rectitude, his entire consecration to the service of God in the work of missions, his wealth of heart, after all, were so unquestionable that any wounds he inflicted soon healed, and he was in an exceptional degree esteemed and revered by all who came into close touch with him” (Fisher, 104). At his death, several who knew him well spoke of his tenderness of heart.
His Inner Life
We cannot know much about his inward thoughts, because he stopped keeping a diary after November 1876. His many activities left him no time to record what was going on in his mind and heart. Furthermore, Mateer was an unusually practical and matter-of-fact man who seldom showed strong emotions, leading many to wonder whether he possessed deep feelings of any kind.
Daniel Fisher, his biographer, admits this fact, but points out that he and others witnessed many occasions when Mateer was moved to tears, either in religious services or when affected by the piety or need of others, or when he faced separation from his family. “His tenderness was often shown in quiet ways to the poor and unfortunate, and he frequently wept when some narrative full of pathos and tears was red” or when moved by a hymn (Fisher, 91). “His mother’s love he repaid with a filial love that must have been to her a source of measureless satisfaction. Julia could not have reasonably craved any larger measure of affection than she received from him as her husband; and later, Ada entered into possession of the same rich gift” (Fisher, 92).
“He was a man who believed in the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit in order to begin a genuinely Christian life,” and when he joined the church at nineteen he “thereby publicly declared that he was sufficiently sure that this inward change had passed upon him to warrant him in enrolling himself among the avowed followers of Christ. But of any sudden outward religious conversion he was not conscious, and made no profession” that he had had such an experience (Fisher, 92).
He had no obvious vices from which he needed “conversion”; he just never knew a time when he did not trust in Christ. As Fisher notes, this is an “experience which … has often been duplicated in the children of godly households” (Fisher, 93). “The fact is that during the decade which extended from his admission to membership in the church to his entrance on his religious experience to such a degree that subsequently, though there was increasing strength, there were no very striking changes” in his character (Fisher, 101). There can be no doubt about his dedication to God and to his missionary commission. After he became completely convinced about his entire consecration to the work of God to bring the gospel to other Chinese, he did not search his heart about this matter” (Fisher, 101).
At the time of his last illness, he was working on the translation of the Psalms, his final great passion in life. “Those who knew most intimately recognized in him a man of extraordinary reverence for God … His last words were ‘Holy! Holy! True and Mighty” (Fisher, 324).
Bays, Daniel H., and Ellen Widmer, eds. China’s Christian Colleges: Cross-Cultural Connections, 1900-1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
Broomhall, Alfred. Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. Sevenoaks: OMF and Hodder & Stoughton, 1981-1989.
―— Assault on the Nine, 1988.
―— It is not Death to Die, 1989.
Doyle, G. Wright. “Names for God in Chinese.” (99+) Names for God in Chinese | Wright Doyle - Academia.edu.
Fisher, Daniel Webster. Calvin Wilson Mateer: A Biography. London: T. French Downie, 1911. Reprinted by Legarre Street Press, an Imprint of Creative Media Partners.
Hyatt, Jr., Irwin T. Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Shandong. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Hyatt, Jr., Irwin T. “Protestant Missions in China, 1877-1890: The Institutionalism of Good Works.” In American Missionaries in China: Papers from Harvard Seminars, edited by Liu Kwang-Ching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966, 93-126.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. Piscataway: Gorgias Press LLC, 2009.
Peng, Ann Cui’an. The Translation of the Bible into Chinese; The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version. In Studies in Chinese Christianity, co-edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021.