Maria Jane Dyer, the youngest child of pioneer missionary Samuel Dyer and his wife Maria, was born in Penang, Malaya. Her father died in 1843. Her mother, Mary Tarn Dyer, married fellow missionary J.G. Bausum in 1845 and remained in Penang. She died the next year, however, so Maria and her older sister Burella were sent back to England to live with their uncle, William Tarn, a director of the Religious Tract Society, and his wife, who were their guardians. The sisters were inseparable, so Maria accompanied Burella when she went to college to train as a teacher, and again when she set sail for China in 1852 at the invitation of Miss M.A. Aldersey to help in her school for girls in Ningbo.
She had been brought up as an Anglican, but her religion was merely formal until sometime during the voyage to China, when she placed her trust in Christ alone as Savior from sin. The girls were taught Chinese during the journey, having learned a bit when they were children in Penang. After arriving in Ningbo at the age of sixteen, she pursued language study and became quite fluent in the Ningbo dialect, able to read straight from an English book, translating it into Chinese for her students as she went. In addition to helping in Miss Aldersey’s school, she ran “an infant school.”
Three years later, she was described as “vivacious, witty and intelligent, a very attractive nineteenth-year-old with her fine, warm light-brown hair and slim figure.” (HTCOC 3.40) Like most educated women of her time, she played the piano-forte.
Hudson Taylor by this time was living in Ningbo. As members of a very small circle of Protestant missionaries, he and Maria saw each other at meals, worship services, and other functions. Very quickly, she developed an affection for him, which she kept hidden. Soon, however, he began to think that she was the woman for whom he had been so desperately longing as a companion in his life work. In a letter to his sister, Hudson Taylor described her as “a good looking girl,” “despite the slightest cast of the eye.” (HTCOC 3.28) He began actively to pursue her, though greatly restricted by convention and by Miss Aldersey.
Because of his lack of ordination or an academic degree, his lack of an affiliation with a recognized missionary body (he had resigned from the Chinese Evangelization Society), and his wearing of Chinese dress, Hudson Taylor was considered by Miss Aldersey as totally unacceptable as a match for Maria, whom she wrongly considered her ward. She put up a determined resistance to their growing romance, only finally being overwhelmed by a letter from Maria’s true guardians, the Tarns, that they approved the match, though not without gentle criticism both of the two young lovers and of Miss Aldersey and her supporters. Sober hindsight has judged that all parties to this unhappy process acted in a manner that was not without fault, and highlights the general truth that in matters of the heart, the heart itself is no sure guide!
They were married on January 23, 1858, one week after Maria turned twenty-one. They started life together with patterns that would mark their marriage: Daily study of the Greek New Testament before breakfast and regular evangelism of Chinese whom they encountered along the way. Maria had not yet adopted Chinese dress, nor did Hudson expect her to do so. From the beginning, they were blissfully happy together, and never ceased to cherish anything but the most ardent affection for each other. Their romance never faded.
Maria immediately became Hudson Taylor’s indispensable companion and partner in ministering to Chinese of all sorts, but principally the poor. She continued visiting Chinese women and receiving them in their home in Ningbo, while he engaged in preaching, medical work, and constant interviews with inquirers and new believers. The congregation soon grew.
After a bit more than two years, however, Hudson Taylor’s unremitting labors led to a breakdown in health, so they returned to England, where they took up residence in London. One daughter, Gracie, had been born to them in Ningbo; now three sons joined the family. (Another daughter, Jane Dyer Taylor, lived only an hour after birth in December, 1865; labor had been induced because Maria, who had been ill all during the pregnancy, was in great danger.) In 1865, when Hudson Taylor received his sense of leading to found the China Inland Mission, Maria fully supported him. In the early years of the Mission, “Her hand wrote for him, her faith strengthened his own, her prayers undergirded the whole work and her practical experience and loving heart made her the Mother of the whole Mission.” (HTSS, 115).
Their home began to fill up with candidates for service in China, while Maria not only ran the household but served as Hudson’s secretary. On the four months’ journey to China on the Lammeruir with the first batch of new missionaries, Hudson Taylor taught them Chinese in the mornings and Maria in the afternoons, though she was ill most of the time. After arriving in Shanghai in October, 1866, they all changed into Chinese dress, Maria helping the women make the adaptation, though at first wearing Chinese costume was a real trial to her. A keen observer of the Chinese, she knew the additional responsibilities which this change would entail:
I feel there is considerably more danger of our offending Chinese prejudice in the native costume than in our own. Things which are tolerated in us as foreigners in foreign dress could not be allowed for one moment in (Chinese) ladies. . . The nearer we come to (the Chinese) in outward appearance, the more severely will any breach of their notions of propriety be criticized. Henceforth I must never be guilty, for instance, of taking my husband’s arm in the street. And in fifty or a hundred other ways we may most inadvertently shock the Chinese by our grossly immodest and unfeminine conduct. (HTCOC 4.230).
They moved up the Yangzi River in houseboats, finally stopping in Hangzhou, where the party of missionaries moved into what had been a mandarin’s residence. A dispensary, a chapel, and the usual activities of missionary work commenced. Maria began an “Industrial School for Women.” “While the women worked, mostly at sewing, Maria talked and read to them, with the result that they became familiar with the gospels. Several were among the first to be baptized.” (HTCOC 4.311) The Taylors commenced their practice of having one or more unmarried missionary women attached to their household for training as well as to help them; they became especially close to Emily Blatchley and Jennie Faulding. Their familiarity of these single women with Hudson Taylor occasioned some criticism, but both they and Maria insisted that his relations with them were entirely pure and proper. Frequently, Maria kept things going while Hudson made pioneer trips into the interior. “Though ‘always ailing,’ . . . Maria was the one to whom others turned.” (HTCOC 4.330) Writing virtually as his deputy, she kept the home office informed of difficulties and advances. Once, hearing that he was gravely ill in another city, she took her baby and an amah with her in a small boat to reach him as quickly as possible. “When the rowers tired she even took turns at the oars,” (HTCOC 5.81) so anxious was she to get to him.
Living conditions were primitive, and access to the second floor, where the Taylors slept, was by ladder. When eight months pregnant, Maria fell down this ladder at night after stepping on a cat, but there was no apparent damage to her or her child. Within a few months, however, their first child, eight-year-old Gracie, died of a fever in the heat of summer. Re-consecrating themselves to missionary work, the Taylors watched as a small church grew up and Chinese leadership made their move to another place feasible.
After two months on houseboats in the summer of 1868, they settled in Yangzhou. Initial friendliness gave way to murderous hatred as a vicious crowd, stirred up by the local literati, threatened to storm their house. When they first learned of looming danger, it was proposed that the women and children go elsewhere to safety. Maria recounted later, “With one consent we (women) begged him not to do so. For us to have gone away at that juncture would probably have been to increase to those that remained any danger that there might be.” (HTCOC 5.87). When the mob finally stormed the house, Hudson Taylor ran to the mandarin’s residence for help, while Maria and others held off the rioters. Some missionaries escaped from the second story when the house was set on fire, but then, as Emily Blatchley wrote, “a tall, strong man, naked to the waist, came into the room. . . . [Maria] went up to the man as he entered, and asked him, ‘You see we are all women and children; are you not ashamed to molest us?’ . . . She kept him parleying for a few minutes, but he soon began to lay hands upon us, and to search our persons for money, etc. . . Mrs. Taylor was speaking to him, with her hand raised, when he caught sight of her wedding-ring, shining in the candle-light, and tore it from her finger. . . “ When an assailant tried to throw one of the men off the roof, “Mrs. Taylor and I together caught hold of him and dragged him into the room. The man (then) snatched an immense brick from the wall which had been partly broken down in the scuffle and lifted his arm to dash it at Mr. Rudland’s head.” Rudland continued the narrative:
“Mrs. Taylor put up her hand and stopped the blow; whereupon the man turned to strike her with the brick, but she said to him, ‘Would you strike a defenceless woman?’ The man, hearing her speak his own language and with such beautiful calmness, was amazed and dropped the brick.” Finally she and the others jumped out the window to the ground, about fifteen feet below. She was six months pregnant with their fourth son, Charles Edward. She received some injury to her ankle, was almost faint from loss of blood, and feared she might have a miscarriage, “But God was our stay, and He forsook us not. That confidence He gave me - that he would surely work good for China out of our distress.” (HTCOC 5.97-100)
They were sent off by the mandarin to Zhenjiang. A CIM missionary who visited them wrote, “When I saw them there Mrs. Hudson Taylor was sitting down in the middle of the room amidst all this confusion as composedly as possible, going on with the composition of the Ningbo Dictionary. She had a wonderful power of concentration. Mr. Taylor lay sick on a bed in the same room . . . She struck me as remarkable for her Christian faith and courage. She had a delicate, sweet face - a fragile body, but a sweet expressive face of indomitable perseverance and courage.” (HTCOC 5.106)
When order was restored and they were welcome to return to Yangzhou, they moved back into the same premises, eager to display Christian love and forgiveness. The baby was born December 1, 1868, after the populace that had been won over by the gentle, forgiving spirit of the missionaries. Writing from the room whence she had leapt for safety, Maria said, “God had given me the desire of my heart . . . that if safety to myself and my infant permitted, I would rather it were born in this city, in this house, in this room, than in any other place.” (HTCOC 5.159)
She had suffered permanent injury, however, and became more and more frail and sickly. Still, when Hudson Taylor traveled she occasionally went with him, especially when he was called upon for help with the delivery of a child. She “sometimes joined him at his patient’s home to nurse the mother and infant after Hudson’s work was done.” Always, she kept up his correspondence along with Emily Blatchley.
At a time when Hudson Taylor was going through the intense spiritual struggle that would lead to his learning of “the exchanged life,” a missionary wrote of Maria, “Only Maria was unmoved, wondering ‘what we are all groping after,’ . . . an experience she had long been living in the enjoyment of. I have rarely met as Christlike a Christian as Mrs. Taylor.” Another said, “It gave her that beautiful calmness and confidence in God (in which) up to that time she so surpassed her husband.” (HTCOC 5.211)
In 1870, with the approach of the heat of summer, the Taylors saw that their children were suffering from the heat and the privations of life in China, and decided that they must be sent home to England. Miss Emily Blatchley offered to care for them. Even before they sailed, however, the chronic condition of the youngest son Samuel, who was five years old, worsened dramatically. He was buried in a cemetery in Zhenjiang, on the Yangzi River upstream from Shanghai, whence the others departed shortly thereafter.
Others in the Mission became sick as well, and had to be tended by the Taylors. When the wife of one worker was desperately ill and Hudson Taylor could not leave another patient, Maria went herself, arriving in the middle of the night in a wheelbarrow (a most uncomfortable conveyance). Her husband recalled:
Suffering though Mrs. Taylor was at the time and worn with hard travelling, she insisted on my going to bed and that she would undertake the nursing. Nothing would induce her to rest. “No, “ she said, “you have quite enough to bear without sitting up at night any more. Go to bed, for I shall stay with your wife whether you do or not.” Never can I forget that firmness and love with which it was said - her face meanwhile shining with the tenderness of Him in whom it was her joy and strength to abide. (HTSS, 169)
After the massacre of French Roman Catholic missionaries in Tianjin in 1870, CIM workers gathered in Zhenjiang, so that the mission home because quite crowded. Hudson Taylor slept “on the floor in sitting-room or passage so that she might share their room with other ladies.” (HTSS, 171) Teaching the Scriptures to the Chinese did not stop during all this time of great pressure.
Later in the summer, another son, Noel, was born, but Maria was stricken with cholera and could not adequately nurse him; he died after only one week, on July 20, before a suitable Chinese nurse could be found. Maria’s condition, tuberculosis enteritis, worsened and soon she was dying also. Years later, Hudson Taylor wrote this:
When I said, “My darling, do you know you are dying?” She said, “I am so sorry, dear,” and paused, as if half correcting herself for venturing to feel sorry. I said, “You are not sorry to go to be with Jesus, dear?” I shall never forget the look she gave me, and as looking right into my eyes, she said, “Oh, no, it is not that; you know, darling there has not been a cloud between my soul and my Savior for ten years past; I cannot be sorry to go to Him. But I am sorry to leave you alone at this time.” (HTCOC 5.265)
It was July 23, 1870. She was thirty-three, and they had been married twelve and a half years. To the end, their love remained strong, even passionate. Despite many separations, they were always one in heart and spirit. Sometimes, to preserve privacy, Hudson sent her letters in the Romanized Ningbo dialect to express his tenderest thoughts. They wrote to each other constantly, letters “full of business details interspersed with love.” “My heart yearns for you,” Hudson wrote often, and she was no less affectionate.
The four children who survived her - Herbert Hudson, Frederick Howard, Maria Hudson, and Charles Edward - went on to become CIM missionaries.