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.

  2. Rev. Speer's first wife was Cornelia Brackenridge. She was born in Pittsburgh, PA on 24 Sept 1822, the daughter of Judge Alexander and Mary (Porter) Brackenridge.

    Rev. William Speer and his wife, Cornelia, arrived in Macau, Concelho de Macau, Macau on 26 Dec 1846 as missionaries of the Presbyterian Board USA in the province of Canton [China]. On 05 Feb 1847 their daughter, Mary Cornelia Speer was born.

    Cornelia (Brackenridge) Speer died 16 Apr 1847 and baby, Mary Cornelia died 08 July 1847. Both are buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau.

    Their grave marker documents all the information in this comment.

  3. Rev. William Speer, D.D., one of the best known citizens of Washington [Washington county, PA], and one of the leading Presbyterian clergymen of Western Pennsylvania, died at his home in North Main street, Washington, Pa., yesterday morning [16 Feb 1904]. He was the son of Dr. James Speer and was born at new Alexandria, this county [Westmoreland county, PA], April 24, 1822. He graduated from Jefferson college with the class of 1839 and studied for the ministry, being licensed to preach in 1846 by the Presbytery of Ohio. Immediately afterward he went to China as a Presbyterian missionary, returning to this country in 1858. Until 1865 he was a home missionary in the Western part of the United States. For 11 years following this work he was corresponding secretary of the Presbyterian board of education. Dr. Speer was a writer of some note, being the author of “China and the United States.” He married on May 7, 1846, Miss Cornelia Brackenridge, who died a short time later. He was again married in 1852 to Miss Elizabeth Ewing, who with one daughter, Miss Henrietta, of Washington [Washington county, PA] survives. Several brothers and sisters reside in Pittsburgh [Allegheny Co., PA].

    Greensburg Daily Tribune 17 Feb 1904

  4. Although Rev. William Speer's obituary says he returned to the US from China in 1858, it is much more likely he returned prior to his 1852 marriage.

    Rev. Speer's second wife, Elizabeth (Ewing) was born and raised in Washington Co., PA. They married in 1852 and their first child, John Ewing Speer, was born in 1853 in San Francisco, as were their next several children in 1854 and 1856. Two children, born in 1860 and 1863 died in 1863. Those small graves are in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, but they were not buried there until 1865. Rev. William and Elizabeth's last child, Breading Speer was born in 1865 in Minnesota.

    1. Thanks for adding this information. It helps flesh out the life of this man and his family.