Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rev. William Speer: An Early Christian Missionary to the Chinese

    From about 1867 to 1875, Rev. William Speer, D.D., his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children lived at 3409 Hamilton St.  While here, he work for the Presbyterian Church of America as Corresponding Secretary of Education from 1865-1876.  He brought to this work a rich history of working as a missionary first in China then among the Chinese immigrants in California.

     At the time of Speer's birth, his grandfather and namesake was minister of the Presbyterian Church of Greensburg, Pa.  (He was also the uncle of President Buchanan.)  Speer studied medicine for a few years in addition to becoming a Presbyterian minister.  His first wife died in 1847 not long after their marriage (possibly in childbirth).  He left for China in December, 1848.  He spent about four years as a missionary in Canton and became fluent in Cantonese.  In 1852, he married Elizabeth B. Ewing in Allegheny Co., Pa. and they settled in San Francisco  In 1853, he founded a mission that became the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, the oldest Asian-American Christian church in North America.  He visited new Chinese immigrants and Chinese mine workers and set up a dispensary to provide care to the Chinese.  He also was founder and publisher of The Oriental, a Chinese language newspaper.  He was a strong advocate of establishing schools for Chinese immigrant children, however, he supported using these schools to teach Christianity.
    Speer became an early supporter of Chinese immigration and opposed laws for Chinese exclusion.  He offered strong economic arguments in favor of immigration, but his main focus was evangelizing.  He hoped that Chinese who converted to Christianity would return to China and spread the faith.
   While in Philadelphia, Speer published two large volumes.  The first,  The Oldest and Newest Empire: China and the United States (1870), was a massive history of China and its culture.  The second was The Great Revival of 1800 (c1872).  (Both are available for  download from the Haithi Trust.)
      Speer's stay in Powelton overlapped with the that of the Fullerton family who lived a block away at 3307 Hamilton St.  They had been medical missionaries in India during the time Speer was in China.  One can only imagine what experiences they shared with each other about their time as early American missionaries in two great, but very different, cultures..


  1. I hope you remember that I contacted you some time ago and asked about the family of Ashmead (lived at 3500 Hamilton) and Mantua Academy regarding the Japanese students who lived with the family in the early 1870's. The son of Ashmead (Albert, Jr.) lived in Japan from 1875 as the Foreign Medical Director of the Imperial Japanese Hospital, according to your research. (Thank you so much for the information, btw.)

    It seems the area (or street) had some connection to Asia. Do you have any idea why? President Buchanan?

    1. I think the fact that at least two early missionaries to Asia lived here has more to do with the Presbyterian church. The Fullerton family probably moved here because her sister's husband ran a small school here. The neighborhood supported several Protestant denominations, but it had a strong Presbyterian community. I don't know how Albert Ashmead, Jr. ended up going to Japan. However, the Ashmead family belonged to the large Presbyterian church at 3500 Baring St. and he may have been motivated in part by the medical missionary spirit.