Born near the city of Portland, Maine in America on 24 March 1863, Mary Morrill received a good education and was known for her academic ability and strong character. As a child, ‘she was serious and thoughtful beyond her years, and there was nothing in the way of books and magazines available in the community which she did not read and thoroughly enjoy.’
She found life in China difficult at times, but she persevered and gradually gained a good grasp of the language and a deep love and respect for the people. She also knew that her call entailed great personal risk. After hearing of the massacre of some Catholics near Beijing in 1891, she said: ‘There is so much to do, and if the end comes quicker than we think, we do not want to have a single bit of work undone.’
She was head teacher of the girls’ school in Baoding, and did a sterling job, though her hearts’ desire was more to be a travelling evangelist - a call that the arrival of Annie Gould in 1893 freed her to pursue. Golud was also from Maine, having grown up just 50 miles (81 kilometres) away from Morrill. The two of them became such close friends in China that ‘peop/e who knew them always spoke of them as one.’ A missionary who worked with them added, ‘What one lacked, the other made up from her fullness.’ The pair traveled widely around the province, encouraging believers and sharing the gospel wherever the opportunity arose. In a letter home dated 21 April 1899, Morrill declared:
I have never been so hopelessly impressed with our country work as now, and I am anticipating giving more time to it next year. The people in the Zhao Xian district, which is the most remote corner of our Baoding field, are peculiarly warm-hearted and cordial, and I do not think that we who have been there on a recent tour will recall any of the fatigues of the journey - they are all forgotten in the welcome we received.
Such positive reports belied the fact that she was physically frail. She suffered at times ‘from swollen, inflamed eyes and constantly from splitting headaches, possibly migraines.’
As the summer of 1900 approached, it slowly dawned on the missionaries in Baoding that they had no way of escaping. In her final letter home, on May 30, Morrill wrote:
Long before this letter can reach you the cables will have carried all kinds of news and conjectures. We are now back where we were in the beginning - all our boasted civilisation has been taken from us at one stroke… Miss Gould and I cannot leave if we would and would not if we could. Our twenty-two girls may be able to get away after examination, June 18th, but most probably will not… The Lord can do great things, as He has done in the past, for His arm is not shortened that He cannot save, nor His ear heavy that He cannot hear. Do not feel too troubled about us. The danger is all around and near, but God is nearer… Despite all apprehension, we are happy, and even try to be jolly. Will write as soon as I can.
At seven o’clock on the morning of 1 July 1900, a mob of ruffians led by the Boxers arrived at the mission compound, eager to butcher the Christians inside. Morrill and Gould fled into the church. Morrill tried to reason with the Boxers, pointing out ‘that the missionaries only felt love and goodwill toward the Chinese. “Why must you kill us?” she asked a government officer who was standing by with some thirty soldiers, watching but not interfering. “Because you prevent rain,” the officer answered, although it was raining. “Then kill me,” she said, “and let the Chinese go.”
Her plea was in vain. According to one account, ‘Miss Morrill and Miss Gould were dragged a short distance, the former by her hair… Morrill exhorted the people as she walked, and even gave a piece of silver to a poor person by the wayside. They were taken to the Boxer temple in the South East corner of the city.’ Another witness of their ordeal stated:
Miss Morrill, being a fearless woman of considerable moral strength, was able to walk, and did so… En route the streets were thronged with people, many of whom clutched and tore the clothing of the two women, which soon was much tattered, but no deliberate effort to parade them in a nude state was made. Neither does it appear that they were violated…but they were roughly handled and knocked about.
Along with five other missionaries and several Chinese believers, Mary Morrill was beheaded by a Boxer sword, and her corpse flung into a shallow grave near the city moat. She was 37 years old.
China’s Book of Martyrs. Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. Used by permission.