Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter I. Mary Bird--Her Ancestry, Early Life, and Personality

MARY REBECCA STEWART BIRD was a member of a large and well-known family who have given men and women of note to the Church, to civil and political life, to travel and research, to urge the claims of philanthropy, and to administer the Oversea Dependencies of the Empire. For example, the family was doubly connected with the Wilbcrforces; Mrs. Bishop, nee Isabella Bird, one of the most intrepid of women travellers, was a cousin of Mary Bird's father; and, rather farther removed in relationship, were the brother bishops, John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Charles R. Sumner, Bishop of Winchester. The family tree shows the connexion of these and others with the subject of this memoir. Here, her nearer relatives claim attention.

Her grandfather, Robert Merttins Bird, was the greatest of the administrators of the United Provinces (then the North-West Provinces), India. As head of the Revenue Department, he successfully conducted the survey and land settlement of that territory during the second quarter of the last century. Dr. G. Smith mentions James Thomason, John Lawrence, and William Muir as coming "under the spell of Merttins Bird." ["Twelve Indian Statesmen," p. 75.] Sir Richard Temple says that in his day there was no civil officer to equal him, that he was a born leader of men, and that he and James Thomason "formed the great school of administrators in the North-West Provinces." ["Men and Events of My Time in India," p. 49.] He retired to England in 1842 a convinced advocate of missionary work in India. His son, the Rev. Charles Robinson Bird, M.A., Oxon, Rector of Castle Eden, Co. Durham, and Rural Dean of Easington, Mary Bird's father, married Harriet O. Watson, daughter of a well-known physician in Bath.

It is difficult to understand the development of character and genius unless we know the root from which it springs. Doubtless much of Mary Bird's strength of mind and of purpose was due to the generations of character and fine exploits of her ancestors. She inherited elements of great value, but the harmony of her life would seem to consist in holding lightly many of them desirable in themselves, and accentuating the one that to her mattered most--her ever-deepening understanding of the need of men, and of the all-sufficiency of the Christ to meet that need. In her we sec how an accurate knowledge of one subject, and a carefully nurtured sense of the relativity of that subject to other subjects, implies great sell-control and self-development. Life to her was a wonderful, ever moving, ever growing thing, without pauses for stagnation. She was made for action and she was ready for it, while this capacity for work owed much to her belief in the ultimate realization of her ideal.

Mary Bird began life on 23 June, 1859, at Castle Eden Rectory, Co. Durham, being the fifth child in a family of six. She was physically small and delicate, and on this account was called "Tiny" by her brothers and sisters, but her nature was a large unselfish one, from which jealousy seemed absent. Even as a child she quickly grasped a situation, defended the absent, and never spoke slightingly of others. She always championed the cause of the oppressed, and her indignant exclamation when a cat was discovered killed in the garden, "Oh! what a shame to kill a cat," became a family proverb. Though not strong enough to romp and play, she was a merry little soul and ready for any escapade seated on her brother's shoulders!

She was educated at home where, unconsciously, her bright, hopeful nature made her of real use to others and where, as through all her life, her frail body was dominated by the ardour and strength of her soul. Might it not have been said to her

Thou whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul's immensity;
Thou best philosopher who yet dost keep
Thy heritage . . .
. . . Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest
Which we are toiling all our lives to find.

Her mother's loving influence, and the circumstances and ideals of her childhood exercised a strong formative influence on her character. As a tiny child of five a missionary, who was her father's guest, took her on his knee and told her stories of African children whose mothers could never tell them of the love of Jesus, because they did not know of it themselves. He asked her if one day she would like to go and fell them. "Yes," she replied, and always after considered herself pledged to this work. Twelve years later at the time of a visit to Castle Eden Rectory of Dr. Farquhar, Staff Surgeon to Lord Lawrence in India, and Dr. Eugene Stock, she reached the starting point of missionary enthusiasm, when personal knowledge of the "Saviour of the world" became a reality, and then she really longed to work among the girls of Africa.

Until her father's death in 1886 she was his constant companion and helper, and was trusted with all his affairs. She worked untiringly among children and factory girls, lastingly influencing many of them. Also both in Castle Eden and York many home duties devolved upon her, and she gained valuable experience for after years. During a time of complex claims of life at home and abroad, she refused an offer of marriage from one for whom she had the greatest affection, as she had already offered to go abroad and was convinced that her life-work lay in some foreign land, then unknown to her, and that a life of comparative ease in England was not for her.

This uncertainty was soon over, for in 1891 she was asked to go to Persia as a pioneer of women's work. Face to face with this new and unexpected prospect, feeling that sonic definite training was necessary, she went fur a few months to "The Willows," a training college for women workers. This proved rather a difficult time for her as she had been accustomed to work on her own initiative and to do or leave undone many things according to her own inclination. She liked practical work and was always energetic and ready for any secular task, but there was evident disinclination for definitely spiritual work. As the weeks went on she realized her lack of power in God's service, and understanding the difficulty she fearlessly faced it. Help came to her in many ways, chiefly through some Divinity lectures, and one evening she went to the Principal's room and said, "It is all right, I know now what I never knew before--that spiritual work can only be done in the power of the Spirit of God." From that time onwards she was ready for whatever came of spiritual or secular work, and her whole attitude towards the present and the future was one of rest and joy in the confidence which was now her strength. After this the intense side of her character was the religious one, but being coupled with the widest tolerance and a glad recognition of all that was true and noble and unselfish whenever she saw it and whatever guise it took, she was not looked upon as a woman with a narrow outlook, or a prejudiced mind. Rather was she recognized as one worth knowing--with her well-informed mind, level judgment, and breadth of view. Her powers of observation were marvellous, her sense of humour keen, and she was full of amusing stories of what she saw and heard. Though absolutely unfettered in her daily work, whatever it might be, she was conscious of the ties which bound her to society. In her rare moments of leisure she was a charming visitor. She met people with heartiness and natural ease, and not only possessed a ready tongue, but a sympathetic ear. She was keenly critical, but never hurt people by what she said, nor proved her own right by another's wrong. She had one standard of effort for herself and another, less strenuous, for those about her. Difficulties were often stepping-stones; for instance, though naturally frail and timid she made herself an exceptionally good traveller, and might have become famous in that respect if she had devoted her life to travelling instead of to missionary work.

A part of Mary Bird's unfailing charm was that she knew how to choose and wear pretty though simple clothes; she liked to look fresh and always to be suitably dressed. Her face was young and eager looking, full of force and character, yet her personality was much greater than her appearance, her doings much greater than her sayings. She hardly knew the word "impossible," and yet she clearly saw her own limitations. If she ever overestimated possibilities, this was a safer defect than not to be conscious of them. A sense of fellowship in the joys and sorrows of humanity was hers. She exemplified the truth of the Indian proverb, "I met a hundred men on the way to Delhi, and they were all my brothers." This was not merely the result of imagination and tenderness of feeling; she was really in harmony with the children of men, and walked with them through the low gateways of darkness and sorrow, just as gladly as on the house tops of clear vision and joy. She lived, too, be it reverently said, in harmony with God, and so was able to tell of the secret of peace and of joy to those by whose side she walked along the road of life.

Such was the Mary Bird who gave the best years of her life to Persia and its women. The account of her life and work which follows, will to some extent show the personality of the strong, beloved, great woman, unique in an originality which it is hard to picture in words. One who only knew her during the last two years of her life said, "I know nothing of her teaching, I only saw it through her life."

Reaching Persia in May, 1891, she lived and worked in Julfa and Isfahan for six years, returning to England in 1897 for a much needed rest. As a pleader for the Persians she had few equals. She spoke constantly in England, and also went for a few weeks to Canada, where her stories of the early converts aroused deep interest. She left England again early in 1899 for another five years in Persia, spent in Yezd and Kerman, rather before the end of which she felt it to be her duty and her privilege to take the place at home of her younger sister who had just married.

During the eight years which followed she put her untiring, selfless energy into work in Liverpool, vitalizing and enlarging the missionary outlook. Then in 1911, when her work for her mother was ended, she was ready to go back at the earliest moment at her own charges, to the land she loved, as "a cracked pitcher" she said, but as cheerfully capable as ever, and caring even less for her own comfort. The welcome given to her by every one was remarkable. This, the last chapter of her life, was a short one, for on 16 August, 1914, she passed to her eternal rest. Bishop Stileman, writing at the time, said, "She has been one of the greatest missionaries of her generation."

Though a precious stone may not need a setting, yet such seldom fails to bring out the beauty and the excellence of the jewel which it surrounds. A flower may be seen under varying conditions: alone--when it is appreciated for its own perfection; in a desert--where the very contrast intensifies its life and its beauty; in a garden--where it is a part of a glorious whole. So Mary Bird to be fully appreciated must be seen as a precious stone in her Persian setting, and, as a flower--in her individuality, in the desert life of dust and stones, and in the garden of friendship and fellowship.

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