175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

An Arch of Understanding

In 1900, nearly 200 Western missionaries and more than 32,000 of China’s faithful were massacred in a campaign to banish the perceived Western imperialism being thrust on China’s land and culture. The most severe persecution took place in the Shansi province, where the so-called “Oberlin Band” of missionaries—men, women, and children—had flocked since the late 1880s.

To honor the victims, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions proposes a Memorial Arch in Oberlin and donates it to the College to commemorate Congregational Church missionaries and their children. The Memorial Arch bears two bronze tablets with the names of the 13 missionaries and their five children who were killed by the Boxers.

Builders laid the cornerstone of the monument on October 16, 1902; it was dedicated on May 14, 1903. Built of Indiana limestone, the arch was designed by architect J.L. Silsbee of Chicago. The statement, “Ye Are Witnesses,” is engraved in the center and emblematizes the memory of those slain. The missionaries provide education and medical care and spreading the gospel in the Shansi region of China. Many criticize the arch for failing to acknowledge  the Chinese victims of the rebellion. The Oberlin Class of 1994 resolved the omission by raising money for two new plaques to honor their service and sacrifice.

Oberlin’s roots in Shansi began in the late 1880s, a period shared by foreign missionary activity and increasing military presence in China. Japanese, British, Dutch, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian military powers seized Chinese land and wealth. A secret Chinese society known as the “Boxers,” or “The Righteous Ones,” was born out of frustration and foreign influence.

The Boxers worked behind the scenes to recruit members in every part of the country. Toward the end of the 1890s, foreign missionary activity became increasingly difficult, and Chinese Christians were persecuted and accused of being “running dogs” for Western imperialists. The turmoil erupted in 1900, with mobs sweeping through Beijing and massacring Chinese Christians, even burning them alive in their homes.

Despite the brutality of the Boxer Rebellion, Oberlin College initiated an educational exchange program in Shansi Province in 1908. Oberlin Shansi was founded to provide support and guidance for the consolidation of educational efforts at the Ming Hsien Schools in Taigu, Shansi Province, China. In 1918, the Shansi Association sent young Oberlinians to Ming Hsien, starting a tradition of sending Oberlin graduates to universities in Asia.

Today, Oberlin Shansi is a thriving educational and cultural exchange program that has expanded to universities in India, Indonesia, and Japan. It is one of the oldest educational exchange institutions in the United States.

Sources: Oberlin College Archives; Oberlin Shansi; AsiaHarvest.org; New York Times online archives.

Names of Memorial Arch martyrs

The Rev. Francis Ward Davis, the Rev. Dwight Howard Clapp, the Rev. George Lewis Williams, Miss Mary Louise Partridge, and Miss Susan L. Bird; all of Taiku, Shansi, China; Miss Annie A. Gould, the Rev. Horace T. Pitkin, and Miss Mary S. Morrill, all of Paoting-Fu, China; the Rev. Ernest R. Atwater, Mrs. Elizabeth G. Atwater, the Rev. Charles W. Price, and Mrs. Eva J. Price, all of Fenchow-Fu, Shansi, China.

Children of the slain missionaries:
Ernestine and Mary Atwater, at Tai-Yuan, Shansi, China; Bertha and Celia Atwater and Florence Price, at Fenchow-Fu, Shansi, China.