The Language of Flowers: Clippings from Lives of Shared Ministry

Intricately detailed front cover of Louise Pierson’s Photo Album in Collection 720: Papers of Louise H. Pierson.

Across the wide distances of global missions, a key relationship for many missionaries remained that of their connection to their homeland, supporting churches, and missionary societies. Even as missionaries forged new ties on the mission field they also reached back to the old, to share successes and failures, the wonders and terrors of new lands, and key to their work, elicit financial and spiritual support for their mission. Many materials in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives document these important ties between the mission field and the homeland, from prayer letters, to missionary cards, to photographs and films.

This month we celebrate the dynamic interplay between missionaries and their supporters at home by featuring a new collection added to the Archives this spring, Collection 720: The Papers of Louise H. Pierson, composed of a single scrapbook with flower pressings, pictures, newsletters, and other mission memorabilia from the world and work of Louise Pierson and other women missionaries in South and East Asia during the late nineteenth century.

Undated portrait of Louise Pierson from Photo File: Woman’s Union Missionary Society.

Mrs. Louise Henrietta Pierson, along with Mrs. Mary Putnam Pruyn and Miss Julia Nielson Crosby, embarked for Japan under the Woman’s Union Missionary Society of America (WUMS) in the early 1870s with a mission to educate and minister to Japanese girls. The three missionaries arrived in Yokohama, Japan in June 1871.

An inscription to Mrs. Miller from Mary Pruyn of the American Mission Home. Found on page 8, side 2 of Louise Pierson’s Photo Album.

While endeavoring to learn Japanese, the women began plans for a school, opening the American Mission Home in August 1871. The school offered board or day school to girls, as well as day school to boys. Although pupils were initially slow to come, an endorsement by Nakamura Masanao, a prominent Japanese educator and scholar, greatly increased the school’s profile and attendance grew quickly. The mission was a success and the school continues today as the Doremus Junior and Senior High School, renamed for the founder of WUMS, Sarah Platt Doremus.

Album front piece inscription found on page 1. The inscription reads: “Collected on a trip to the Mountains, Hakone—during vacation—by Mrs. Louise Pierson, Yokohama, Japan. 1880.”

Looking closely at this scrapbook, a small bookplate on the inside of the front cover places the origin of the album book to a bookseller in Yokohama, Japan and the inscription at the front piece of the album dates many of the flower pressings to an 1880 trip Louise Pierson took to Hakone, a mountain town in Japan.

While the scrapbook has clear connections to Louise Pierson, her mission work, and indeed came to the archives under the description of “scrapbook from Louise Pierson,” the exact origins of the item remain unclear. Unlike bound texts, which, especially in this current era, carry their author, their publisher, their date of publication, and the totality of their narrative content neatly between two covers, archival material by its very nature is often fragmentary and isolated. A letter, even one with the pinnacle of contextual information – a legible date, location, recipient, and signed name – still offers only one side of the conversation. The history and context of such lone items must then be constructed from any available pieces, small or large.

Etching of the American Mission Home published in a WUMS mission bands publication titled “Our Japan Home,” Found on page 1, side 2 the Photo Album. Undated.

However, the variety of material dated after Mrs. Pierson’s death in 1899 and the inclusion of a number of items in the scrapbook addressed to a “Mrs. Miller,” strongly points to the existence of another contributor, possibly a Mrs. John A. Miller, the secretary of the Louisville, Kentucky Branch of WUMS and a consistent supporter of Louise Pierson and the American Mission Home. One likely possibility is that Mrs. Miller received this album, from Louise Pierson or someone connected to her, and then added the majority of the content from her own correspondence or interactions with various women missionaries from Syria to China, as well as the American Mission Home in Japan.

An inscription to Mrs. Miller from Mrs. Graham of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, N.Y. Found on page 16 side 2.

Itself a testament to the interactions between the mission field and the homeland in the legacy of its two contributors, the scrapbook also contains multiple examples of direct correspondence between those on the mission field and their supporters at home.

One such correspondent, Seki, a Japanese student from the American Mission Home writes gratefully to American supporters –

A portrait of Seki. Found on page 3, side 2. Undated

“I am very much obliged to you for sending money to this school for us – I am also truly happy because when the Japanese people here did not know the only living and true God and that Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for us, and were worshipping idols, God sent the Bible and missionaries to teach us – and by the grace of God we have become Christians… I always feel, though I do not see now, bye and bye [sic] I will see you in heaven…”  [Translation from Japanese, May 15, 1875, Page 2, Side 2 of Photo Album: Pierson, Louise I]

A letter from Seki, a student at the American Mission Home, thanking the “Dear Ladies” in the United States who supported the home. Found on page 2, side 2 Louise Pierson’s Photo Album.

Bridging the large geographical divide between east and west, Seki’s letter invites these distant American women into a communion of celebration for their contribution to the work of spreading the gospel.

While words and images remain some of the more dominant ways missionaries communicated with the homeland, one of the defining and unique features of this scrapbook is the numerous flower pressings carefully preserved within its pages. A celebrated art form in Japan dating from the 16th century, the increased cultural interaction between east and west throughout the 18th century supported the popularization of flower pressings as an artistic expression, pastime, travelogue, and common gift between distant friends for many American and British women. The following flower pressings are possibly from Hakone, Japan in 1880.

Originally sheltered by sheets of translucent paper, some of which also exhibit Japanese characters, the flower pressings in this scrapbook are arranged into delicate and beautiful pictures of the flora of the Japanese countryside, as well as the possible later travels of Mrs. Miller. From lightly faded pink blooms to the still-robust green of fern fronds, these pressings quite literally brought pieces of the mission field back to the homeland.

More information on the ministry of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society of America, both abroad and at home, as well as that of Louise Pierson in Japan, can be found by visiting the finding aids for Collections 379 and 720.

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