Virgil Chittenden Hart

by Cathy Green

My brother, Lawrence Crawford, and I are the great grandchildren of Virgil Chittenden Hart, who was superintendent of the first Canadian Methodist Mission in West China in the late 19th century.   As a farm boy near Watertown, New York, Virgil was inspired to become a Methodist minister. He worked his way through Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute by selling vegetables he grew and chopping wood. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity in 1865 and was offered several positions but chose to accept the appeal to go to China as a missionary with the American Methodist Episcopal Church.   He met and fell in love with Miss Adeline Gilliland of Athens, Ontario, who was visiting a cousin in Watertown.   He made it clear to her he was dedicating his life to serving Christ in China and she agreed to do the same.   They were married just after his ordination and they left for China when he was 25 and she just 19. They eventually had four sons and a daughter. Adeline was the first Canadian Methodist missionary in China.

Hart Family1

The Hart’s arrived in Fuzhou China in May 1866 after a voyage of almost 6 months on a clipper ship around Africa.   They spent a year there at the first Methodist Mission in China, learning Chinese.

Hart in Fuzhou2

So vital was knowledge of the language that Virgil continued studying with native teachers throughout his career and was an excellent linguist.   The following year the New York Board of Missions assigned him to open up work in Central China, including large portions of four provinces, with a population of close to 100 million. As the first Protestant missionary to reside in Jiujiang, he organized a school.

He traveled farther inland, preaching, exploring, opening chapels, and dispersing religious literature. Travel was difficult: by sedan chair, horseback, native boats, even by wheelbarrow.   Accommodations for the itinerant missionary were often filthy inns, filled with vermin, fleas and opium smokers.   When he and his coolies’ lives were threatened by mobs of native Chinese they would return to the very spot where these encounters took place, to prove his lack of fear of them.   He eventually purchased a sailboat he named the “Stella” on which he and his family made many trips on the Yangtze and other waterways of Central China.

The Stella

As a master evangelist eager to convert the Chinese to Christianity he realized the importance of humanitarian agencies. People could be more effectively reached through the establishment of schools and hospitals.   Between 1866-1888 Hart built the first western dispensaries, hospitals, boys and girls schools in Yangzhou, Nanchang and Wuhu. Other missionaries were sent to help him as he established six more stations. He pleaded with the Board of Missions to send doctors as he knew they would be welcomed where teachers and preachers were scarcely tolerated.   He purchased property for a boys’ orphanage in Chongqing and helped the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society buy property for a girls’ school. Rev. Hart learned through experience how to protect against fraud in negotiating for land and making contracts for buildings. His ability and perseverance in purchasing land and getting building materials, despite much opposition from local authorities, enabled the projects to be executed.

The Harts had furloughs to America in 1871 and 1881. During the latter one they bought a home in a Toronto suburb where he could recuperate from recurring bouts of malaria and Mrs. Hart could stay near relatives for their five children’s education.

Inspired by his wife’s suggestion that he should build a hospital in Nanjing, one of the greatest cities on the Yangtze River, he gained permission from his Mission Board.   The crowning glory of his superintendence in Central China was the hospital, theological college and other institutions he initiated in Nanjing which were expanded by succeeding missionaries to become the University of Nanjing. The hospital opened in 1886.

Nanjing Hospital1

Most significant to our family was the mission he opened in Wuhu. The first hospital in the Province of Anhui was built there and it is now one of the largest in the province.

Wuhu Hospital1

Dr. Edgerton H. Hart, second son of Virgil and our grandfather, served as physician there for 17 years from 1895 to 1913 when he died of typhus fever contracted from famine and flood sufferers. Our grandmother Caroline Maddock Hart was his second wife and the hospital’s head nurse from 1905-1913. She was one of three founders and first president of the China Association of Nurses, an organization that is still in existence.

Our mother and her seven siblings were born in Wuhu. My brother and I were able to visit their home and see the busy modern hospital several years ago.


In 1887, Rev. Hart was asked to forgo his furlough in order to go to Chongqing as superintendent of the West China Mission and re-establish the work that had been tragically ended by anti-foreign riots in 1886.   Hart was assigned the task of securing indemnity from the Chinese government for all the losses sustained by the Methodists. Three missionaries joined him for the 1,000-mile trip from Shanghai to gain knowledge of the Sichuan people’s response to foreigners and search for future missions sites. Rev. Olin Cady stayed in Chongqing while Rev. Faber went to Leshan.   Hart and Dr. Arthur Morley traveled overland in sedan chairs to Chengdu, the capitol of the largest province in China.   This allowed close interaction with the people as they distributed religious literature and learned of their customs, legends, beliefs and superstitions. The men visited many Buddhist and Taoist temples and priests.

Chengdu Street

Rev. Hart found Sichuan a beautiful area of rich soil and great mineral resources. A large variety of crops could be grown there but unfortunately much land was used for poppies. It saddened the men to see the deathly pallor of the people from smoking opium and drinking alcohol. Half the population suffered from numerous diseases with ineffective remedies. Slavery had full official sanction and was a major export. Female foot binding and infanticide were prevalent.

The four men met again at the beautiful 11,000-foot Mt. Omei, site of many Buddhist and Taoist shrines. They shared Christian literature with pilgrims and priests as they visited the monasteries and temples. Rev. Hart was a student of Chinese history and religions, dating back 4000 years and had great respect for the writings of Confucius that were fundamental to the Chinese. He befriended the Abbott of the Buddhist monastery on Mt. Omei who offered land upon which future missionary families built summer homes.

Hart and Abbot1

Rev. Hart’s health was impaired again by malaria and at the end of 1887 he left China to return to his family in Canada. He published his first book that was considered an authority on Western China and also one on Confucianism entitled The Temple and the Sage.

Book pages1

The former book detailed his travels through Sichuan and concluded with his ideas for future missions there. He declared they needed experienced physicians and sufficient funds to open dispensaries, hospitals, and schools, then a press to awaken and enlighten the people. Missionaries needed superior intelligence and talent to demand respect of the literati class and hearts with a conviction that China is a land worthy of their greatest efforts.   For his lengthy years of service in China and these literary works he was elected a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and conferred a Doctorate of Divinity by his Alma Mater, the Garrett Biblical Institute in 1888. .

Unable to regain his strength, he resigned the superintendence of missions in Central and West China in 1889 and eventually purchased a small fruit farm in Burlington, Ontario, where his health was restored.

The Methodist Church in Canada at this time had only one foreign mission in Japan. In 1890 the Mission Board decided to expand their work to China, but was uncertain as to where. Fortunately Mission Board member Rev. Dr. Wakefield was the pastor of the Burlington church and sought Dr. Hart’s opinion on a prospective location. He emphatically suggested Sichuan and met with the Committee of Consultation and Finance who approved opening mission work in Chengdu, the capital. After getting approval from the American Methodist Episcopal Church, he accepted with unbounded enthusiasm the invitation to assume leadership of the mission. Several young Canadians had already volunteered to go to China when their studies were completed in 1891.

The goal of the Canadian mission was to establish institutions for the Chinese so they might extricate them selves from the problems of their society and to foster a Chinese Christian Church. The precedent the Canadians set was to send two evangelists and two doctors who could tell patients about the “Great Physician.” The pioneer band of Canadian missionaries consisted of Dr. and Mrs. Hart, their daughter Estelle, Dr. and Mrs. Omar L. Kilborn, Rev. and Mrs. George E. Hartwell, Dr. D. W. Stevenson and Miss Amelia Brown, a nurse representing the Woman’s Missionary Society.

Group Missionaries1

They sailed from Vancouver in October 1891. While in Kioto, Japan, they experienced an earthquake. Upon arrival in Shanghai they learned of recent violence against missions, so they stayed there for three months studying the Chinese language. Dr. Stevenson and Miss Brown were married in February 1892. That month all but Mrs. And Miss Hart took a steamer up the Yangtze River to Hankou.   Dr. Hart traveled ahead of the group to secure lodging and boats for the trip through the treacherous Yangtze River gorges, often pulled by trackers.

Boat in Yangtse2

At Chongqing they visited the mission Dr. Hart had re-established 5 years before.   Rev. Cady greeted them in Leshan and accompanied them to Chengdu, where he offered his home to them until Dr. Hart could find suitable quarters. He found an old supposedly haunted mansion, on Pearly Sand Street and directed renovations of the compound to provide accommodations for 5 of the missionaries, a room for a dispensary, wards for 8 or 10 patients, a reading room, chapel and quarters for servants.

The Doctors Kilborn and Stevenson began treating an average of 50 patients one day a week and studied the Chinese language the other days. Communication with patients became a problem and they were forced to temporarily close the dispensary while they applied themselves fulltime to learning Chinese. Only Rev. Hart was fluent and he left for Shanghai to bring his wife and daughter up to Chengdu.

In July Mrs. Kilborn became ill with cholera and died within 18 hours.   She was one of 40,000 to die from the epidemic in Chengdu. The remaining five Canadians retreated to a Taoist temple forty-five miles away until early September. When the Harts returned to Chengdu that fall Rev. Hart searched for a larger compound, purchased a field with a prominent temple in it and began building the city’s first foreign designed building. Construction stopped when a mob destroyed all the building materials. They were persuaded to re-locate with full indemnity paid by the local officials but were advised not to construct foreign designed buildings in the city. Superintendent Hart acquired a property near the East Military Parade Ground where the native styled buildings were transformed into three dwellings and two school buildings. This remained a permanent mission site where the Chengdu Hospital #2 is located.

Canadian Methodist Hospital

Dr. Hart was entrusted by the Mission Board to allocate funds and the only member of the group with sufficient language skills to buy land and buildings materials.

Building was tedious work for missionaries who had to oversee all details of construction and ensure materials were not stolen. Hart was a good mediator, diplomatic and fair. The men all cooperated and divided the tasks as needed.

Dr. Hart, his daughter and a native teacher began teaching boys and girls and soon men eagerly joined the classes, necessitating a larger building and more teachers as attendance grew.   After Hart received a contribution of $1000 from a Nova Scotian friend in 1893 construction began on a brick chapel seating 300 people and bookroom, which opened in 1894.   Attendance grew but no Chinese were baptized until 1896. The book room drew thousands of Chinese who were fascinated to learn more about the earth and universe. Mr. Hartwell continued to carry on evangelistic and schoolwork on the Pearly Sand St. compound. Dr. Stevenson directed work on an eighty-bed hospital.

Dr. Kilborn was delegated to the 2,000-mile journey to meet and escort to West China the newly arrived missionaries, the Rev. James Endicott, and Dr. H. Mather Hare, and two representatives of the Woman’s Missionary Society, Dr. Retta Gifford and Miss Sara Brackbill. Dr. Kilborn brought the four of them safely upriver, despite being shipwrecked en route. The second Annual Council for the West China Mission was held in March 1894 with three evangelists and three doctors present. They decided to open a new mission station in Leshan, 120 miles south of Chengdu, with Dr. Kilborn chosen to begin the work. He soon married Dr. Retta Gifford and they became the only doctors in the city near Mt. Omei. The following year they returned to Chengdu and two evangelists Hart and Endicott, Mrs. Endicott and Dr. Hare went to Leshan. Mrs. Hart and Estella had returned to Canada.

In May 1895, a riot ensued in Chengdu, caused by rumors that the mission doctors drugged and murdered Chinese children in order that they might use their hearts and eyes for medicine. Mobs swarmed into their compound destroying everything. The missionaries in Chengdu and Leshan all escaped to Chongqing with the help of some officials and native Christians. Some city officials in Chengdu promoted the anti-foreigner hostilities.

Before leaving Chongqing, the missionaries and other foreigners drew up a paper to be presented to both British and American Ministers at Peking stating their grievances and demanding redress. Dr. Hart was commissioned to go to Peking to represent the petitioners and Dr. Hare accompanied him. The result of their demands was the degradation of the Viceroy of Sichuan, dismissal of all guilty officials; full recognition of the status of the missionaries in the province, and the payment of sufficient money indemnity for all losses, much of which the ex-viceroy had to pay himself. It was a great victory of missionary diplomacy. Thirteen Chinese were executed after the riot as punishment.

Dr. and Mrs. Stevenson and Mrs. Hartwell decided to return to Canada; others remained in Shanghai. Reverends Hart and Hartwell returned to Chengdu where they met with goodwill, many thanks to their former students who stood faithfully by their teachers, staunchly denying the rumors about the missionaries that incited the riots. They were able to buy new property and start rebuilding. Dr. Hart went to Leshan to initiate rebuilding there.

Tired and again in poor health, Hart returned to Canada in February 1896, for a years furlough.   When he, Mrs. Hart and Estella sailed back to China in the spring of 1897, they stopped in Japan and Estella married Dr. Hare. After visiting Dr. Edgerton Hart in Wuhu, Virgil and Adeline returned to Sichuan where they found 7 or 8 new buildings, including a fine brick church in Chengdu, seating over 400 people, and a little chapel in Leshan, built during his absence. The annual reports of the missionaries indicate overall team- work and cooperation among them. The Kilborns had rebuilt the burned out hospital and Dr. Retta Kilborn was authorized to have the first hospital for women and children built. Both were one story Chinese-style buildings.

One of the most significant areas of work undertaken by the Canadian mission as a whole was the printing department. While on furlough in Canada (1896-97) Dr. Hart toured churches pleading for money for printing presses that were essential for evangelism as much of their literature was destroyed by shipping accidents in the Yangtze Gorges.   He collected enough to take back two presses and purchased Chinese type in Shanghai. These were the first presses to be used by a mission in China west of Hankou.

Press in Kiating1

His printing operation grew rapidly and was self-supporting except for the missionary’s salary and the cost of the building. Printing orders came from other mission societies, helping finance the Canadian work. Dr. Hart had great faith that the work of the press could spread God’s word everywhere. The presswork grew to millions of pages in 4 or 5 languages, with a staff of over 60.

In 1899, representatives of the 7 Protestant missionary societies in Sichuan met in Chongqing and an Advisory Board was formed to divide the province into ecclesiastical “spheres of influence”. The sphere assigned to the Canadian Methodist Church included Chengdu, Leshan, Zigong, Renshou and Luzhou.   The Advisory Board agreed upon a common hymnal, organized the evangelical West China Tract Society and provided funds for a missionary journal, the West China Missionary News that was published for many decades by the Canadian Mission Press in Chengdu. It was one of the most enduring magazines sponsored by Western missionaries.

During the Boxer movement of 1900 the missionaries in Chengdu and Leshan were forced to leave under military escort to the coast. Dr. Hart’s health was precarious so he and Mrs. Hart returned to their beloved farm in Canada.

Hart and his wife1

I trust he believed Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” He never regained his strength and died in 1904, at age 64.   Mrs. Hart died in 1915.

The erection of Hart College commemorated the contributions of Dr. Virgil C. Hart and Mr. Jarius Hart of Halifax, Canada, the donor. It became the West China Union University in 1910.

Dr. Hare and his wife Estelle Hart Hare retired from the mission in 1901.

The Harts’ son, Dr. Edgerton Haskell Hart, our grandfather, was the director of the Wuhu General Hospital and its head surgeon in Anhui Province for 17 years.

Two of Edgerton’s daughters were teachers at American schools until their marriages: Rose Hart in Shanghai and Dorothea Hart in Lushan.

Hart College

Stanley Crawford is the forth generation of the extended Hart family to live and work in China between 2003 and 2015, teaching English in medical schools related to hospitals Dr. V. C. Hart helped build in Jiujiang, Wuhu and Chengdu.  He contributed numerous photos to museums in those and other cities from our family’s archives and has published four books. He received Lushan Reward from Jiangxi Governor in China in the November of 2009.

Stan Crawford