Baptist History Homepage

Henrietta Hall Shuck
The First Woman Baptist Missionary to China
By Marjorie Dawes

The Influence Of A Godly Home

      In June, 1837, a young girl of eighteen received the news that she had become Queen of England. So began a long and illustrious reign. Two years earlier, another girl of about the same age stood beside her newly-wed husband on the deck of a steamer off New York. They were setting out for mission­ary work in China, a land then, as today, almost closed to foreigners, and especially to religious workers.

      Henrietta Hall Shuck was an attractive little brunette. Like the young Queen Victoria, she was small in stature. Unlike the famous Queen's, her life was to be cut short within ten years; yet in that brief period her life and work proved that she, like Queen Victoria, was indeed a great little lady.

      It was no sudden whim that made this seventeen-year-old bride a missionary. The move followed deep thought and earnest prayer on her own part, the religious influence of a godly home and friends, above all of her father, Colonel Addison Hall, and a new evangelistic movement of the time. Many of the early American settlers were religious refugees, such as the Pilgrim Fathers: men and women who, for the

[p. 108]
sake of their religion had left home, friends and country to make a new life in a new world. After the adventurous times of the settlers came a period of consolidation, but early in the nineteenth century a few men and women in America began to feel the urge to carry the Gospel message to heathen lands, as the English Baptist, William Carey, had already done in India. To the early settlers dispersion and exile, where they might cherish their faith, seemed God's will. Now came the opposite urge — to go out to lands where the name of Jesus had never been heard, and proclaim the Gospel there. Among others, Mr. and Mrs. Judson went out to Burma, and their work aroused much interest.

     Some of these stirrings must have reached the comfort­able Virginian home of little Henrietta Hall. In those days visitors from the outside world brought glimpses of wider horizons which modern children may gain from a visit to the cinema, or the turning of a television switch. Eager little Henrietta and her younger brothers and sisters had no such aids, and loved to have visitors at their riverside home at Merry Point. A young minister, Mr. Jeter, came to stay at the house, took the little girl on his knee, and talked to her of Jesus. He was later to become her first biographer. The greatest influence on her young life was her father, whom she loved dearly. A man of deep Christian character, he strove earnestly to express his Christianity in the whole of his life. At first a merchant, he later studied the law and served on the Virginian legislature, combining his legal and civic duties with the preaching of the Gospel, as opportunity occurred. At the age of thirty-seven he decided to give his whole time to preaching and became a minister. In the same year Henrietta, aged sixteen, made her decision to become a missionary.

      Henrietta had all the normal sprightliness of healthy youth. In an entry in her journal some years later she notes, 'I am too much inclined to be merry.' But there was also a strain of deep seriousness in her nature which was increased by circumstances. At the age of thirteen her father sent her

[p. 109]
to a good girls' school in Fredericksburg. She was a good scholar and very fond of reading. One day her teacher wrote on the board, 'Where shall I be a hundred years' hence?' and invited her pupils to give her their answers individually at a later period. Such an educational method might not be approved to-day, but it deeply influenced at least one pupil, for this solemn question turned her mind to religious subjects, and during the next holidays she made her confession of faith at a camp meeting and was baptized when she was not quite fourteen years old. The death of her mother two months later made a deep and lasting impression. She took very seriously her responsibility to her two younger sisters and three still younger brothers, both at this time and later, when she was separated from them by half the circumference of the earth.

      It was soon after her decision to become a missionary — a decision which seemed difficult of accomplishment for a young unmarried girl of that period — that she went to stay in Rich­mond, and there met a handsome young theological student, Lewis Shuck. Mutual attraction and interest led to their union-surely a marriage made in heaven. Lewis Shuck had set his heart upon work in the foreign mission field. At a certain missionary meeting much enthusiasm was aroused, and an appeal to those present to give all they could produced a good collection of silver and gold, and one pencilled note: 'Myself, J. Lewis Shuck' This offer was accepted, and Lewis proposed that Henrietta should accompany him as his wife. Both Addison Hall and his daughter, in spite of their deep family affection, felt even more strongly the love for Christ and His work, so difficulties and objections soon vanished, and within a short time the young bride and her husband stood on deck on the first stage of their missionary journey to China.

      'The sincere prayer of my heart is, Oh, that I were qualified to become a missionary of the Cross.' So wrote Henrietta at that time, longing with youthful enthusiasm to throw herself into the good work. She was soon to learn, and

[p. 110]
to realize still more later, that endurance as well as action is required of a missionary.

The First American Woman Missionary
      Travellers to-day, who move easily and rapidly over the globe for a conference or even a holiday, can scarcely realize the contrast of travel little more than a century ago. Henriet­ta found the first few weeks very trying. She had anticipated some discomfort from sea-sickness, but wrote that she did not know it could be so 'dreadfully dreadful'. To reach Calcutta, ships then had a journey of nineteen thousand miles. They had to sail towards the coast of Africa, then back towards Brazil, and then, turning again, far to the south to round the Cape of Good Hope with the aid of the trade winds. But after some weeks of discomfort the twenty-two missionaries settled down to life on board and planned a programme of meetings for prayer and study. The ship called at Calcutta and then at Amherst, in Burma, where Henrietta visited the grave of Ann Judson, whose memoirs had inspired her desire to be a missionary; but they did not meet Mr. Judson, who was still labouring in the area.

      The Shucks reached Singapore in March, six months after they had sailed from home. The next five months were spent at Singapore, studying the Malay language, which is easily learned and widely spoken, and then attempting the more difficult Chinese language. While they were at Singapore, Henrietta's first child was born and named Lewis Hall, after his father and grandfather. A month after the baby's birth the young family set out on the last stage of their journey, a pleasant voyage to Macao. This was a small peninsula ninety miles south of Canton, where the Chinese permitted foreigners to settle, provided they did not create a disturbance. Since 'foreign females' were considered great exciters of disturbance, the Chinese boatman would not carry Henrietta, her baby and

[p. 111]
nurse, to land, so the first American woman missionary was almost smuggled in by the captain of another boat.

      Soon after their arrival in Macao, Henrietta began the educational work on which she concentrated her energies. She took into her home a little Chinese boy, who proved an intelligent pupil. Soon after, her heart was touched at seeing a poor little boy walking beside the funeral procession of his father, whose death left him alone in the world. The child seemed brokenhearted, and Henrietta asked if they would give the boy to her. The offer was readily accepted. She also took into her home a little girl, whom they called Jane Maria. This was the way in which Henrietta collected most of her pupils. They were children of poor homes whose relatives were glad to give them up for the sake of their board and lodging.

      Henrietta's great desire was to give the benefits of education to the neglected women of China, but so little were the girls esteemed that the parents would not allow them these benefits. She found she could only get girls by accept­ing boys and insisting that girls should be admitted with them. When the children were given to her, Henrietta demanded that they should stay with her till they were twenty-one, but after a few months the relatives often took the children away, to Henrietta's sorrow. One girl who had shown promise was carried off, married to a worthless man who ill-treated her; her feet were cruelly bound, so that her health suffered, and she was upbraided because she would not bow down to idols. Such were the appalling difficulties of educational work in a land where regular education for women was unheard of. Yet Henrietta's work was on the right lines. Kathleen Bliss, writing in 1952 of more recent work in China, says, 'In China, Japan and Manchuria women take a full share in the life of the local churches ... Christian missions from the earliest days worked to give girls as good an education as was given to boys, and the fruit of this is the presence in the Church of women trained not only in book-learning, but in the democratic life of the Christian residential high school and college, the finest training for working with

[p. 112]
others in the church.' (The Service and Status of Women in the Churches, p.178.)

      The numbers in Henrietta's little school fluctuated greatly. At times she had only two pupils, at others eight or more. She had written the Board asking for permission and funds to start a small school. As soon as this was known she was offered a hundred children, far more than she could take, but on her own initiative and with some local help she began in a small way with about eight pupils. The slowness of communication at that time — Henrietta's first letters from home took a year to arrive — led to some difficulties with the mission board at home. The missionaries were forced to act on their own initiative, and then their expenditure was sometimes criticized. An American captain, whom Mr. Shuck had unwittingly offended, on his return to America reported that the Shucks were extravagant and worthless. This undermined the trust of the Board in their missionaries. After some time and much heart-burning these difficulties were straightened out, and the Board realized that these two were indeed true and faithful ambassadors of Christ, often giving their own personal wealth, as well as their services, to the missionary cause.

      Communications are so much easier to-day that there is less excuse for misunderstandings between the mission field and the home base. We at home have the ability and the duty to understand the needs and the work of our mis­sionaries abroad. Particularly to-day, when many in the homeland are not convinced Christians, and might question the value of foreign missions, it is the duty of Christians at home to know the true facts of missionary work, and to spread that knowledge at home, as our missionaries spread the Gospel abroad.

New Work At Hong Kong

      In spite of many difficulties the work at Maco had borne some fruit. Mr. shuck's preaching services had been
[p. 113]
well attended, and he and Henrietta, by visiting, had come to know the people in their own homes. A few converts had been baptized, the first of all their own Chinese cook, and there were other serious inquirers. Henrietta had found some opportunities for teaching, although during this period two other children had been born and her health at other times had given cause for anxiety. Her second son was born in 1837, at a time when both her husband and first child were ill with dysentery. Henrietta in a few days was up and caring for the other invalids. The third child, Henrietta, was a delicate little girl whose health gave her mother much anxiety.

      In 1841 Hong Kong was ceded to the British by treaty, and soon became a thriving settlement. For some time the Shucks had considered the advisability of moving from Macao, and it was thought that the change of climate might benefit Henrietta's health. After much thought and prayer they decided to move to Hong Kong, forty miles away, and began work in 1842. Here were great opportunities, and Lewis and Henrietta Shuck were quick to seize them. Lewis Shuck approached his many friends in the foreign community of the area and asked for their help in the provision of chapels and schools for the new settlement. There was a good response, and the Governor of the island made a free grant of land. In spite of difficulties which would have daunted less courageous souls, within four months of the Shucks' arrival, two chapels were built and dedicated, with Mr. Shuck as pastor of one, and a third was opened soon after. Within six months they had built and moved into their own mission house near the chapel. Henrietta at once, as in Macao, began to gather a few children in her home for teaching, but a friend offered a handsome sum to Mr. and Mrs. Shuck if they would open a boarding school for boys and girls. This was opened just a year after their arrival in Hong Kong, with fifteen little boys and a few girls. The work prospered and soon a larger building was needed. A good house, with schoolroom and boarding facilities, was built and opened in September, 1844, with thirty-two boarders.

[p. 114]
      The prospects for the new work were good, but there were fresh difficulties to overcome. Mr. and Mrs. Dean had come to share the Shucks' labours; Mr. Dean helped with the teaching and evangelical work, and Mrs. Dean helped with Henrietta's girl pupils. One day a little girl in the school was taken ill with chicken pox, and another became more seriously ill, so that smallpox was suspected. Then Mrs. Dean was attacked by the dread disease, and died within a week. Though the infection did not spread further, the sorrow and anxiety of this period left its mark on Henrietta.

      When her fourth child was born she was seriously ill, but made a good recovery, and again threw herself with her usual ardour into her work. School and evangelical work continued to prosper, but Henrietta's entries in her journal show that she was aware of her failing health and sometimes apprehensive of the future. She wrote to her father on her birthday, 'I am to-day twenty-seven years old, fast, fast growing old', and ended: 'And now, my beloved Pa, Farewell! May you long, long be spared to your family and to the cause of God. Do what you can for China.' Yet her trust did not fail her, as her last letter to her family shows: 'I rejoice to be able to say that recently, more than ever, I have enjoyed the smiles of the Saviour; I have felt so much happiness, so much joy, in committing all my cares into the hands of him who, I know, cares for me. How delightful to know that God is our Friend, and that all things shall work together for our good.'

      Whenever possible Henrietta continued her busy life, but on the night of 26th November she was suddenly taken ill. The doctor was called at midnight, but his efforts were unavailing and at three o'clock she died. Her husband, in his grief-stricken letter to her father, describes her last hours: 'Her mind was engaged in prayer to the last, and as there was scarcely a pain or a struggle, but purely sinking and prostrations, she literally fell asleep in Jesus, yea, almost like Enoch, translated, for having walked with God, He took her in kindness, to himself, without the usual suffering and

[p. 115]
distress . . . . She seems to have passed away like a glorious meteor, and her light still shineth.'

Her Vision Of An Educated Chinese Womanhood

      We may regret that Henrietta Shuck did not know the marvels of modern science — speedy modern travel which would have saved so many months of discomfort, medical discoveries which might have prolonged her life for years of further service. But modern knowledge could not have increased her wealth of spiritual gifts. She was indeed rich in faith, hope and charity. She had a faith undimmed by the trials of life or the threat of death. She bore equably parting from her loved American home, sickness and sorrow in China, misunderstanding in their missionary work, and, finally, the prospect of early death and parting from her beloved husband and little children. She had hope which saw beyond the few children learning their lessons at her side, a vision of educated Chinese womanhood, with feet unbound and minds set free. And in abundant measure she had a love for humanity, eastern or western, rich or poor: a passion for souls which set her heart yearning in her American girlhood for the lost millions of China, and which led her, when at her busiest in China, to write long and tender letters to her sisters and younger brothers, in the hope that they too might come to know her Saviour. This hope had a glorious fulfilment when her sister Isabella married a minister, the Rev. Thomas Tobey, and the couple went out to China, only a year after Henriet­ta's death, to carry on the good work she and her husband had begun.

      Soon after her death a book, Travels in China, compiled from her writings, was published, and her old friend Dr. Jeter collected some of her letters and journals in a book of Memoirs. In 1930 Dr. Thomas Dunaway wrote the story of Henrietta Hall Shuck, A Pioneer for Jesus, to which the present writer is greatly indebted. Dr. Dunaway contrasted the difficulties of those days with the flourishing Chinese missions

[p. 116]
of his own time. The picture to-day is darker; once again China is closed to foreign missionaries, and many of their centres of work have been closed down.

      'Cast thy bread upon the waters' is a text which may have puzzled many an English reader. Perhaps it is more easily understood by Chinese Christians, whose staple food is rice, and who are accustomed to sow their rice and wait till the flood waters come. For a time there is no sign of life or growth, but when the floods subside an abundant harvest of rice is gathered. We of this generation have seen the floods of hostility overwhelm the Christian Church in China, but because of the efforts of the Shucks, and the many devoted workers who followed them, an indigenous church has been established in China. Whether it lives and thrives beneath the floods, none can tell, but in God's good time the floods may subside and an abundant harvest be reaped. 'Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.'


[From Marjorie Dawes, "Henrietta Hall Shuck," in A. S. Clement, editor, Great Baptist Women, (London, 1955), 72-83; via The Baptist Heritage Journal, Premiere Edition, (n.d.). - Jim Duvall]


     On the plain granite slab designed to mark the spot where repose her remains, is engraved the following inscription.

The Rev. Addison Hall of Virginia, United States,
The Rev. J. Lewis Shuck, Missionary to China
American Baptist Board Of Foreign Missions. She was born October 28, 1817. Married 8th September, 1835. Arrived in China September, 1836. In the prime of life, in the midst of her labors, and in the meridian of her usefulness, suddenly, but peacefully, She Died At Hongkong, November 27, 1844, Aged 27 years. Hallowed and blessed is the memory of the good.


A link to Jeremiah B. Jeter A Memoir of Mrs. Henrietta Shuck, 1850. (Google Books)

Baptist China Missionary Index
Baptist Biographies
Baptist History Homepage