Calvin Wilson Mateer was born in January of 1836, on a farm in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. 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 did not believe. The Mateers had seven children, all but one of whom became teachers, ministers, 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.
In 1855, Mateer began 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. Sensing God’s leading to preach the gospel, Mateer sold his school and went to Western Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1861, having already started preaching. In 1862, Mateer married Julia Brown, who shared his missionary zeal. On July 3, 1863, Mateer and Julia left for China, arriving in Tengchow (Dengzhou) 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. He devoted his first ten years to evangelization, where he felt primarily called. His experience during these years was dismal, however. While Julia succeeded in opening a boy’s school, Mateer was failing in his preaching work in the countryside. Between 1864 and 1873, he traveled fifteen thousand miles by foot and donkey, all over Shandong. He endured being stoned and roughed up. All of this resulted in only a handful of converts, and Mateer became frustrated and discouraged. He also became disillusioned after one seemingly promising convert, into whom he had poured much emotional energy, neglected his books and ceased coming to church. Mateer concluded that the Chinese really did not know what religion was and lacked understanding of what faith and Christianity were all about. Tired of the futility of his work and of being away from Julia, Mateer abandoned his rural preaching and became more involved in the work of Julia’s 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 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.
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. Educating the boys in the Confucian classics was essential to the students becoming accepted as educated men in Chinese society; the Chinese teachers they employed to teach these classics, however, 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 teaching 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 commitment to Jesus and five had already renounced him by 1872. Only seven of the enrollees had completed the theoretical 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 Christian molding 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.
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 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” (Hyatt, 179). Mateer emphasized that his school was the strong point of the mission work in Tengchow. 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.
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.
The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions also decided to give the Tengchow School enough money to go forward and expand after 1877. 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.
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 stance 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.
Mateer’s talents did not end at instruction and educational organization. He was an accomplished mechanic; he built laboratory equipment and fixed everything from eyeglasses to locomotives. He was also a successful author, writing books and educational texts. His most well-known work was the Arithmetic, which sold by tens of thousands for over forty years. 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 called Mandarin Lessons, which for thirty years remained the starting point for most English-speaking arrivals in north China.
Calvin Mateer’s last big project was a New Testament translation, which he worked on from 1892 until 1906. The 1890 General Conference had elected him head of this project, and he devoted massive amounts of time to this work, taking care to achieve both integrity and intelligibility. Mateer served on a total of nine committees at the 1890 and 1907 general conferences. During this time, he served as a sort of pioneer organizer of cooperative programs. He believed “Denominational feeling at home ought to be sacrificed for the sake of unity of the Church [in China]” (Broomhall, 113). Mateer’s remarkable success at juggling so many ambitions was largely due to his organizational abilities. Mateer was truly a kind of entrepreneur who pushed himself and others to the limits.
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). He declined both offers as he felt that his missionary work was more important. 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 bet 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).
- 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.
- Hyatt, Jr., Irwin T. Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Shandong. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. Piscataway: Gorgias Press LLC, 2009.