A graduate of Hamilton College and Union Theological Seminary, New York, and self-educated in Chinese classics and culture, Reid began his 45-year career in China in 1882 as a Presbyterian missionary. Frustrated by unsuccessful efforts to help the Ching (Qing) government manage the yearly flooding of the Yellow River and by the violent opposition of local officials as he sought to buy mission property in Tsinan (Jinan), Shantung (Shandong) Province, he proposed a new focus for missionary work.
He saw clearly that the principal opposition to Christianity in China came from the "higher classes"---ministers of state in the capital, local officials, and the local elite. This led him in 1894 to propose founding the Mission among the Higher Classes in China (MHCC). This vision was too radical for his Presbyterian board to accept, and Reid was forced to resign. His approach was to make friends with officials rather than to evangelize, and to help them to see how the Christian faith and other religions would give moral stamina and spiritual vision to the country.
The MHCC, later called the International Institute of China, was officially sanctioned by the government in 1897 and influenced significantly the Chinese reformers of 1898. Failure of the reform movement and the Boxer uprising caused Reid to move the MHCC to newly erected facilities in Shanghai, where it was approved both by the Manchu government in 1909 and the new republic in 1914. In this new setting the MHCC promoted the values of Western civilization and better understanding between Westerners and Chinese.