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Rev. Isaac Taylor Headland: Missionary to China

By Roger Applegate
With Research assistance from Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 34 No. 3

Born in Freedom, Pennsylvania on August 16, 1859, Reverend Isaac Taylor Headland became a missionary to China during the last part of the nineteenth century and stood witness to the struggles of the opening of Chinese society to the west. In his time, this Beaver County native was considered to be one of the top experts on China in the world and was also the author of many books and articles on Chinese life.

Reverend Headland began his higher education at Mount Union College where he met his first wife, Anor Eckert who was described as a very smart and industrious young lady who "depended on her own labors to defray the costs of her education". This statement was further proven by the fact that she received her college diploma at the age of twenty. Following their nuptials in 1886 in Ravenna, Ohio, the college sweethearts moved to Boston where Isaac attended Boston University school of Theology, and upon graduation in 1890 was ordained as a Methodist-Episcopal minister. Shortly thereafter, Rev. and Mrs. Headland were "called" to become missionaries to China.

It is interesting to note that Reverend Headland was chosen to go as a teacher, but his appointing Bishop decided to ordain him before he left for his new post just in case he "failed as a teacher, he would be able to preach" instead. This becomes even more obvious as he describes himself on his original mission application as "pious ­ but not enthusiastic". In any event, Reverend Headland apparently excelled at both pursuits.

At that time, despite its ancient civilization, China was a backward and superstitious country that shunned all things modern, and the Imperial rulers did little to embrace foreign technology and learning. Upon his arrival, Rev. Headland was to take a position as the professor of science at Peking University, but as he later described it, he taught anything from astronomy to arithmetic and any other subject for which they didn't have a teacher, and all teaching was done in the Chinese language. Following a lengthy two month sea voyage from San Francisco, the Headlands arrived in China on November 1, 1890. Here is how he describes the city of Peking which was actually three walled cities, each enclosed within the other:

In the place where Peking now stands there has been a city for three thousand years. Five centuries before Christ it was the capital of a small state, but was destroyed three centuries later by the builder of the great wall. It was soon rebuilt, however, and has continued from that time until the present, with varied fortunes, as the capital of a state, the chief city of a department, or the dwelling-place of the court. It is the greatest and best preserved walled city in the empire, if not in the world. The Tartar City is sixteen miles in circumference, surrounded by a wall sixty feet thick at the bottom, fifty feet thick at the top and forty feet high, with six feet of balustrade on the outside, beautifully crenulated and loopholed, and in a good state of preservation. [Note: he is describing above a defensive system similar to that one would see on the wall of a medieval castle]. The streets are sixty feet wide, or even more in places, well macadamized, and lit with electric light. The chief mode of conveyance is the 'ricksha', though carriages may be hired by the week, day or hour at various livery stables in proximity to the hotels, which, by the way, furnish as good accommodation to their guests as the hotels of other oriental cities.

In the centre of the Tartar City is the Imperial City, eight miles in circumference, encircled by a wall six feet thick and fifteen feet high, pierced by four gates at the points of the compass, and in the centre of this again is the Forbidden City, occupying less than half a square mile, the home of the court.

The Methodist mission compound was located just inside of the Tartar city gates on what was aptly named Filial Piety Lane. The property, enclosed by a brick wall, covered little more than two acres, and was once the residence of a chancellor of the empire, which formerly housed his family of twenty-seven wives and a large group of servants. The residences of the missionaries stretched in a west to east direction, with the Headland residence near the end by the Asbury Church, considered by some as the best Protestant church building in China. Here the grounds of the Peking University began, and stretched to the eastward, occupying several acres including a dormitory, classrooms as well as some small buildings in which printing and carpenter work were taught, and finally to the west of this compound was the hospital.

The Headlands were entering into a strange and alien world very unlike that which they left at home. Exotic and alluring, yet this seeming paradise was fraught with problems caused by the Chinese vision of all foreigners as trespassers and corrupters of Chinese custom and culture. Chinese hatred and fear of foreigners always simmered just below the surface and could erupt at any time. A biography of Mary Porter Gamewell, a contemporary of Rev. Headland at the Peking Mission, described it like this:

When Mary Porter Gamewell would seek relief by venturing outside the gates of the compound she is at once confronted by the gateless wall of race hatred, and cannot enter sympathetically into the life of the great world into which she has come with her message of love. She is physically repulsive to the Chinese. Her speech is barbarism. Her manner, measured by Chinese etiquette, is coarseness itself. What gentleman would be seen walking the streets with his wife? Children cover their eyes and run from her, screaming with terror till at a safe distance, when they will join with others in the cry, "Foreign devil!" Many look upon her as an intruder, and are bold to let her know that she is not wanted. They think her a meddler, coming to attack their venerable faith, and race hatred is intensified by religious passion. A young and sensitive woman must have hidden resources to endure all this and hold to her purpose. As it is, it is safer and pleasanter to keep as much as possible within the compound with her few companions, in spite of its limited range and its dusty old Chinese houses, so unlike her sweet home beyond the seas.

Within a short time of their arrival in Peking and after settling into their modest quarters at the Methodist Mission, their life was suddenly torn apart as Anor fell sick with typhoid fever and eventually died in early December of 1890. She was laid to rest in the ancient soil of China.

Pushing his grief aside at the untimely death of his wife, Reverend Headland dove into his work so deeply that it consumed almost all of his time as he was both teaching and devoting his few free moments preaching at various Methodist churches in and around Peking. Four years after his wife's passing, Rev. Headland was to meet and fall in love with Dr. Mariam Sinclair, M.D. a fellow missionary and Canadian native who had arrived in China a few years before him in 1888. A University of Michigan graduate, Dr. Sinclair was head of the Presbyterian Women's Hospital in Peking. The couple was married in Tientsin, China in 1894 and Mariam gave up her post at the hospital to become Professor of Hygiene at Peking University and be closer to her new husband.

Due in part to her status as a female doctor, the new Mrs. Headland was the physician to the family of the Empress Dowager's mother and sister as well as to many of the princesses and high official ladies in Peking. She was welcomed at court in both her official as well as a social capacity and the above mentioned ladies were frequent visitors to the Headland home. In fact, it was through her knowledge and contacts that Rev. Headland was able to observe and write one of his books on the "Court Life in China".

During the year of 1894, Rev. Headland was instrumental in supplying books that had been translated into Chinese to the Emperor Kuang Hsu as he looked toward learning all that he could about foreign science and technology in order to begin modernizing his country. From his book, we get the following excerpt that helps to illuminate Chinese frustration with western technology:

One day the eunuch saw my wife's bicycle standing on the veranda and said: "What kind of a cart is that?" "That is a self-moving cart," I answered. "How do you ride it?" he inquired. I took the bicycle off the veranda, rode about the courtyard a time or two, while he gazed at me with open mouth, and when I stopped he ejaculated: "That's queer; why doesn't it fall down?" "When a thing is moving," I answered, "it can't fall down," which might apply to other things than bicycles.

The next day when he called he said: "The Emperor would like that bicycle," and my wife allowed him to take it in to Kuang Hsu, and it was not long thereafter until it was reported that the Emperor had been trying to ride the bicycle, that his queue had become entangled in the rear wheel, and that he had a not very royal tumble, and had given it up.

In 1895, the Headlands started a family and named their firstborn child Clare Anor in honor of his first wife. Unfortunately, the name was to continue to carry bad luck in China as Clare died a short four days following her birth. Whether it was the physical birth or the mental anguish of losing her first child, Mariam did not recover and was unable to work. The official diagnosis was albumen in the blood from the childbirth and the doctor believed that she was also "nervously broken". For many months she languished and finally, in March of 1896, Mariam returned home hoping to facilitate her recovery in a more healthful climate. Whatever the case, the cure must have worked as Mariam petitioned the Board of Missions to allow her to return to China almost exactly a year later. Apparently, no worse for the experience, the Headlands went on to have two more children; Marion Sinclair in 1898 and Courtney Inglis born in 1900.

In March of 1900, the Headlands returned to America for a short rest and visit, and Rev. Headland was also to receive his Doctorate of Philosophy from Mount Union College during his stay. In their absence occurred an armed uprising of a secret society called the "Righteous Fists of Harmony" whose intent was to remove all foreign influence and evangelistic teachings from China by force. Commonly known to history as the "Boxer Rebellion", the Boxers were assisted by conservative factions within the Imperial Court as well as the Empress Dowager herself. The match was struck and China was set ablaze with the aim of cleansing the taint of foreign intervention with blood. Diplomats, missionaries and Chinese Christian converts were threatened and even murdered in an orgy of bloodshed that lasted several months between June and August of 1900. Many missionaries from Rev. Headland's North China mission as well as Chinese converts and their families gathered for safety at the Methodist compound which was fortified and received a small contingent of American Marines for protection. Once the Imperial army entered the fray on the side of the Boxers, the compound was abandoned and everyone was evacuated to the Legation Quarter where they held out against heavy odds for 55 days until a multi-national relief column relieved the siege of Peking. Anyone who has seen the Charleston Heston movie, "55 Days in Peking" or even the "Sand Pebbles" with Steve McQueen has an idea as to how dangerous a situation existed for the foreign missionaries at that time.

The Headland family would return to China in the spring of 1901 to find that all of their worldly possessions, with the notable exception of three of Reverend Headland's diplomas, were destroyed during the rebellion. With the recent end of the Boxer Rebellion fresh in his mind, Rev. Headland produced the book "Chinese Heroes: being a record of persecutions endured by native Christians in the Boxer uprising in 1902". It was done to chronicle the heroism and loss endured by the native Chinese Christians since so much had been written by the press about that endured by foreigners.

The work of rebuilding the mission was begun soon after the siege was lifted and would stretch for several years. Rev. Headland writes that his house was just ready to be "roofed" in November of 1901 along with several other missionary homes and school buildings.

Rev. and Mrs. Headland would continue to serve the North China mission until the beginning of August, 1907 when he was ordered to return home to the United States because he had contracted Sprue. Today, we know Sprue as Celiac Disease which is an autoimmune disease that affects the body's ability to absorb nutrients in the digestive system. He was put on a milk and raw egg diet, but his weight fell to 114 pounds and his health was failing. After making their final good-byes to both missionary and Chinese friends of many years, the family made their final departure in November, 1907. Although the Headlands left China behind them forever, they would continue to carry with them a deep love and respect for her people. Throughout the rest of his career, Rev. Headland would take every opportunity to write and lecture about their virtues and devote himself to the improvement of both their spiritual and physical condition.

Apparently in recovery and semi-retirement for several years, Rev. Headland spent his time lecturing on Chinese life, art, language and history as a guest speaker at Chautauqua Institute, Bible Schools, college commencements and summer conferences throughout the United States. He also traveled nationwide to display many of the over 500 paintings of his Chinese collection, some of which included paintings by the Empress Dowager as well as her art teacher and many other painters from earlier dynastic periods. Today, some of these paintings can be seen on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Two notable personal events occurred in his life during this period: First, his mother Eliza Headland passed away in Freedom in 1913 at the age of seventy-five and second, in 1917, Dr. Headland was offered the Presidency of Beaver College which as he said, "was in sight of where I was born at Freedom" at a salary of between $3,000 and $3,500, but he refused the generous offer in order to remain at Mt. Union College, where in 1914 he had taken the newly established chair of Missions and Comparative Study of Religions on an unpaid basis and served until his retirement in 1937.

In all, Rev. Headland appeared in 13 "Who's Who" books, wrote over thirteen books of his own on Chinese life, as well as numerous lectures and articles printed in magazines and newspapers across the country. Some of his books included:

Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes
The Chinese Boy and Girl
Chinese Heroes
Our Little Chinese Cousin
Court Life in China
Some By-Products of Missions
China's New Day
The Young China Hunter
Guide to Peking

On August 2, 1942 at the age of 83, this world renowned expert on Chinese life died in Alliance, Ohio following a year long illness and was buried in the local cemetery there. Reverend Headland was survived by his wife, Mariam and two children.