A Woman on a Mission: Annie R. Houston Patterson | Presbyterian Historical Society

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A Woman on a Mission: Annie R. Houston Patterson

March 13, 2023

While piecing together the background of a museum collection object found in the basement storage of the Presbyterian Historical Society, I found myself growing very familiar with a young woman whose dream in life was to become a missionary. Her name was Annie R. Houston, and she chased her dream—going to school to study medicine, interning for three years post-education, and gaining the trust and encouragement of her family—until she caught it. Grasping her dream tightly, Annie traveled to China in September 1891, where she became the first woman physician sent there by the PCUS. She would serve in the mission field for almost 50 years.

Image taken from the front page of biographical pamphlet, courtesy of Robert G. Patterson. View the PDF here.

Who was Annie Houston Patterson?

When Annie R. Houston (March 25, 1867-February 9, 1954) was 20 years old, she decided to study medicine. The following excerpts are taken from a biographical paper Annie wrote, which was discovered by her great-grandson, Robert G. Patterson.

It was in my twentieth summer that Kate and I evolved the idea of studying medicine with a view to foreign missionary work. Kate was pretty, popular, and never much of a student, so our friends only laughed at her. But all encouraged me. Mrs. Lewis [see below] at once promised to help me financially. I was very afraid that my father would object, but to my surprise he answered without hesitation, “By all means, study medicine. Every woman should do it.”

She studied for three years in Baltimore, Maryland, during which time she attended the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church. Annie graduated in May 1891, and left for China in September of that same year. She traveled with a group of others heading to China to serve as missionaries, including a young man by the name of B.C. Patterson.

There were no dining cars on the trains in those days, so lunches were in order. Miss Davidson had a basket, and so had B.C.P., so he took me under his wing! He thought I needed looking after, and he was willing for the job!! And he has done it well. After September 17, 1891, there are two lives to record!

Annie’s essay ends here. Robert G. Patterson, however, also found a pamphlet authored by his great-grandmother titled OUR MISSIONARY, which was published by the Woman’s Missionary Department of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi. It was written in 1904, after Annie had been serving in China for 13 years. In this publication, we hear more of Annie’s voice, as she tells her story once again. At the time of publication in 1904, the Houston’s had four children, all boys, aged 6 months to 7 years old.

Quote taken from OUR MISSIONARY pamphlet.  View the PDF here.

What did mission work in Suqian, China, look like in the early 20th century?

The first missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) arrived in China in 1867. Throughout the 1870s, the PCUS constructed a number of schools, residences, and church buildings to prepare for the growth of the mission. From just two stations—one in Chekiang province and another in Kiangsu province—and fifteen missionaries in 1883, the PCUS mission grew to ten stations and 71 missionaries by the last year of the century. There were clinics and dispensaries at several of these stations, though only one, Soochow, had a formal hospital building. 

The first medical missionary assigned to serve in China remained there for only two years, from 1881 to 1883. His successor would not arrive until 1887. Dr. Annie R. Houston Patterson arrived in 1891—she was the first woman physician sent to China by the PCUS, and she would serve in the field for almost 50 years. While there, she worked to establish a clinic—which eventually developed into a hospital—in Suqian. Her husband aided her in tending to male patients, as she was typically restrained to tending to only other females because of traditional Chinese culture.

In the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson’s 1904 pamphlet, we learn that the mission at Suqian (spelled Suchien in the document) was manned by seven missionary workers, including Annie and her husband. At the mission chapel, services are held twelve times each week—six services each for Christians and strangers. Additionally, there are three women-only services conducted weekly.

The Patterson’s Return to the U.S.

In 1926, a civil war broke out in China that pushed Annie and Craig to flee from their station. They briefly took refuge in Kobe, Japan, before returning home to America—just in time for their regular furlough. While on furlough, Annie was asked by the Christian Observer to write an article about the “glorious achievements of the Foreign Missions in your field.” This led Annie to contemplate not only her career as a missionary, but the reality of the current situation: that churches were being burned down and Christians were being targeted in China during the civil war. Many of her colleagues had begun to question whether it had all been worth it—was it all just a waste of money now that turmoil had pushed the missionaries to retreat to the US?

Annie's article in the Christian Observer. View the PDF here.

Annie’s article was published in the January 25, 1928, edition of the Christian Observer. Rather than detail any “glorious achievements,” however, Annie focused on the current situation in China, and defended the missions as being meaningful and, ultimately, having a long-lasting effect. She said that, “If our Church people could see the spiritual lives of our Christians—their faith; their struggles; their poverty; their courage; their life of prayer—I know they would feel foreign missions worth while.”

The Pattersons continued serving as missionaries until 1940, when they retired from service. They settled down in Augusta County, Virginia, where Craig spent his childhood. They lived on a farm that had its roots stretched far back into Craig’s family history, and there they raised pigs and a cow, kept chickens, gardened, and hosted family and friends, including acquaintances from their time in China. Craig passed before his wife, on September 18, 1953. Annie died five months later, at the age of 87, on February 9, 1954.

The church in Jackson, Mississippi, that had supported and sponsored much of Annie’s career in China, presented her with a silver goblet upon her retirement in commemoration of her work. The inscription read: “Mrs. Anne Houston Patterson, M.D. Missionary in China 1891-1940, Non ministrari sed ministrare.” This phrase, which was taken from Mark 10:45, means “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”


Read the biographical pamphlet compiled by Annie R. Houston Patterson's great-grandson here.