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Foster Family Papers

Call Number: RG 1

Scope and Contents

The Foster Family Papers date from the mid-nineteenth century, encompassing over one hundred years and three generations of Fosters. The bulk of the material concerns the years 1888-1916, and although some business correspondence is included, the papers primarily deal with family affairs .

The first series, Correspondence, mainly consists of letters received by various members of the Foster family. With the exception of correspondence exchanged between John Barton Foster and John Marshall Foster, there is little material written by the Fosters. The series is divided into six sections:

  1. Correspondence of John May Foster
  2. Correspondence of John Barton Foster
  3. Correspondence of Elizabeth B. Foster
  4. Correspondence of John Marshall Foster
  5. Correspondence of Clara Hess Foster
  6. Correspondence of the Children of John and Clara Foster

There are two alphabetical sequences within some of these sections because of a major addendum to the papers.

The Correspondence of John May Foster (apparently the father of John Barton Foster) dates from the 1830s and is related to the settlement of an Estate. The Correspondence of John Barton Foster, although not extensive, contains material from 1851-1887. The material includes "Letters to the Editor" written while Foster was editor of Zion's Advocate, letters of condolence at the death of his first wife, Ann Doe Foster, and correspondence to his son. The latter was written primarily between 1884-1887, during John Marshall Fosters years at Newton Theological Institution.

The third section, Correspondence of Elizabeth B. Foster, includes material regarding legal and financial concerns at the death of her husband, John Barton Foster. A note addressed to "Cousin Lizzie" from Shailer Mathews, noted theologian and author, is of special interest. Mathews was Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School from 1908-1932, and Emeritus from 1932-1941. His wife, May Elden Mathews may have been a cousin of Elizabeth B. Foster.

The Correspondence of John Marshall Foster comprises the bulk of the Correspondence series. Prior to 1884, his first year at Newton Theological Institution, there is little material. The Newton years, 1884-1887, however, mark the beginning of a correspondence with his parents that lasted until 1914. The Correspondence of John Marshall Foster is complemented by the Journals which he kept from 1888-1916 (See Series II) Together they form an extensive record of his life and career with the American Baptist Missionary Society. Among the correspondents of John Marshall Foster is the Baptist missionary, Rev. William Ashmore, whose appeal for China volunteers in 1887 convinced Foster to take up field service.

The Correspondence of Clara Hess Foster contains material dating from 1889, the year of her marriage to John Marshall Foster, through 1916. Most of her letters were written to her husbands parents' Mr. and Mrs. John Barton Foster. The Journal of Clara Hess Foster, written during 1915-1916, supplements her correspondence.

The final Section, Correspondence of the Children of John and Clara Foster, consists primarily of letters of John Hess Foster. Of particular interest is the correspondence of 1926 and 1927, which describes the student strikes and labor disorders at Hunan Yale Hospital and the Foster family's ensuing departure. This section also contains letters written by Anna, John, Helen, Frank, Clarence, and Grace Foster to their grandparents and to each other.

The second series of the Foster Family Papers, Journals, contains the Journal of John Marshall Foster and the Journal of Clara Hess Foster. This material served as a combination of correspondence and narrative from the missionaries to their family. John Marshall Foster's early diary letters were sent directly to his parents in Waterville, Maine. The later journals, dating from approximately 1900, were read first by his wife and children in Washington state, and then forwarded to his stepmother, Elizabeth B. Foster.

The Journals of John Marshall Foster, written between 1888-1916, consist of approximately 3400 typed and handwritten pages. They form the single most extensive set of materials in the Foster Family Papers. The only interruption in the twenty-six year span of Foster's Journals occurs during his second furlough, 1903-1908, while he was President of Vashon College, Vashon Island, Washington. These Journals record daily life in Southern China, with note of political and religious matters. Of particular interest are the Journals written at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and those which describe Foster's travels.

The Journals of Clara Hess Foster were written between 1915-1916, after her return from a fifteen year absence from China. Clara's journals were sent to the United States to be read by her children. The material concerns primarily family and travel news.

Writings, the smallest series of the Foster Family Papers, includes material written by John Marshall Foster and three of his children. "Rev. J.B. Foster", a child's essay by Pete Glazier relates biographical information about the family's founder.

Personal Items and Memorabilia, the fourth series of the papers, consists of a wide variety of materials, including background information on the Foster Family, recipes, maps, and a financial record of the estate of John Barton Foster. A section of photographs is included at the end of this series.

The final Series, Printed Material, includes magazine and newspaper clippings, pamphlets, programs, and bound material. A workbook of the Chinese language, possibly written by Adele M. Fielde, a member of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, is of particular interest. The Historical Sketch of the South China Mission of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, a book written by Lida Scott Ashmore, covers the period 1860-1920 and contains biographical sketches of the Fosters and many of their associates.


  • 1836-1974


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Foster family


  1. I. Correspondence, 1836-1974
  2. II. Journals, 1888-1916
  3. III. Writings, 1872-1973
  4. IV. Personal Items and Memorabilia, 1865-1945
  5. V. Printed Material, 1853-1920


7 Linear Feet (22 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers relate to missionary work in China and Thailand from 1888-1927, to educational institutions with which the Fosters were involved, and to the personal and family life of several generations of Foster family members. Correspondence mainly consists of letters received by various members of the Foster family. Of particular interest are the journals of John Marshall Foster, 1888-1916, describing life and events in China, especially the effects of the Boxer Rebellion on the American missions. The Fosters were a family of American Baptist missionaries. John Barton Foster, was a teacher, editor of Zion's Advocate, minister and professor of Greek and Latin at Colby College. His son, John Marshall Foster, helped found the Baptist Church at Vassalboro, Maine, and was a missionary to China and Thailand from 1888 to 1921. Clara Hess Foster, the wife of J. M. Foster, and their children Frank, Anna, and John Hess also served as missionaries in China. John Hess Foster was on the medical staff of Yale-in-China.

Biographical / Historical

John Barton Foster, founder of this Baptist missionary family, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 8, 1822. Though there is little information regarding his parents, there is evidence of at least two or three possible siblings: Bina Kingsbury, Clymena Robinson, and Annie Richardson.

At the age of six, Foster became a resident of Waterville, Maine. He was one of the first pupils to enroll at the Waterville Academy, now Oak Grove-Coburn, when it opened in 1829. According to one obituary, Foster spent part of his time between 1836-1839 learning a trade, although none is specified. (See "Obituaries and Miscellaneous," Series 5, Box 16, Folder 120. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated are from this source.) In 1839, Foster entered Colby College, then called Waterville College, where he is recorded as having high rank as a scholar, especially in the classics. After graduation in 1843, Foster taught at academies at China, Maine, and Lexington, Massachusetts. Resigning his position in the latter institution in 1847, he entered Newton Theological Institution, and was graduated in 1850. The General Catalogue of The Newton Theological Institution 1826-1943 records John Barton Foster as an 1850 graduate, with experience teaching at China, Maine from 1844-1845, and at Lexington, Massachusetts from 1845-1846. A child's essay mentions that Foster was sent as a replacement for the first pastor of the Gardiner Village Baptist Church on January 9, 1846, serving there for three years. (See "Writings, Series 3, Box 13, Folder 6, for essay by Pete Glasier.)

During the summer following graduation, Mr. S.G. Smith, a former associate of Foster's from Newton Theological Institution, vacated the editorship of Zion's Advocate, a Baptist newspaper printed weekly at Portland, Maine. Foster assumed the position of editor. The September 20, 1850 issue of Zion's Advocate was the first to bear the imprint "J.B. Foster, Editor." It is likely that his marriage to Ann Doe, of whom little is known, occurred during this period. Foster's only child, John Marshall Foster, was born at Portland, Maine, on July 21, 1857.

Foster remained with the newspaper until 1858, when, like his predecessor, he joined the faculty at Colby College. Early in 1862 his wife, Ann Doe Foster, died. By 1872, Foster had remarried. His second wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Deacon J. W. Philbrook of Waterville, Maine.

Foster headed the Department of Latin and Greek Literature at Colby College for fifteen years. When the department divided in 1873, he retained the chair of Greek Literature. The college awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1876. In 1893 or 1894, Foster resigned to become Professor Emeritus .

In addition to his academic life, Foster participated in a host of religious activities. He taught an adult Bible class for over thirty years, and was on the Standing Committee of his church for nearly that long. He was also church treasurer, Supervisor of Waterville Public Schools, an occasional preacher, and Treasurer of the Maine Baptist Missionary Convention from 1863-1893. The "limitation of physical infirmity", noted in one obituary, is the only mention of a possible handicap. Foster died on August 19, 1897, at the age of seventy-five.

John Marshall Foster was born John May Foster and changed his middle name at an unknown date. He shared his father's academic and religious interests. After graduating from Coburn Classical Institute, now Oak Grove-Coburn, Foster joined the Class of 1877 at Colby College. In 1877, he probably entered a business venture in New Britain, Connecticut. A telegram to his stepmother asking that she come to New Britain immediately as her stepson was seriously ill is one of the few traces of this period.

Foster entered Newton Theological Institution in 1884, was ordained three years later on October 17, 1887, and helped found the Baptist Church at Vassalboro, Maine, during this period. It was also in 1887 that Foster responded to an appeal for China volunteers made by Baptist missionary William Ashmore. Sailing from San Francisco later the same year, Foster's journey ended at Shantou (Swatow), center of the South China Mission on January 4, 1888. (Rev. William Ashmore, who had planned the opening of the Shantou (Swatow) station in 1858, began actual work at the mission in 1863. In 1872, he assumed the leadership of the station, which Clara Hess and John Marshall Foster arrived at a decade later. Ashmore's awareness of the need for a native ministry eventually resulted in the establishment of the Ashmore Theological Seminary, of which Foster served as acting President from 1909-1921, according to the General Catalogue of The Newton Theological Institution 1826-1943.)

In January 1889, Foster married fellow Baptist missionary Clara Hess, who had also been recruited by William Ashmore. Clara Hess (1859-1945), a native of Buffalo, New York, was one of thirteen children of immigrants from Baden-Baden, Germany. She taught German in Buffalo, New York, before her departure for Shantou (Swatow). Clara Joined the South China Mission on Christmas Day 1886 or 1887, with the purpose of assisting Adele M. Fielde. Miss Fielde had founded a training school for "Bible women", native women who performed Christian services and acted as the link between the missionaries and the native church. Clara studied the Chinese language under Miss Fielde's special supervision, using her published text, First Lessons in the Swatow Dialect, as a guide. Clara's time was spent immersed in women's activities, taking charge of women's field work, the women's school, and at one time, the girls' school as well. Her first child, Anna Elizabeth Foster, was born in January 1899. Five other children were to follow: John Hess, Helen, Frank Clifton, Clarence, and Grace.

The Fosters returned to the United States for their first furlough in 1894 and stayed for three years. After the first year, spent at Clifton Springs, New York, the family moved to Burton, Vashon Island, Washington, located between Seattle and Tacoma. John Marshall Foster had purchased property in Centralia, Washington, also near Tacoma, about 1893, which may have provided impetus for the move West.

At Burton, the Fosters helped establish the "Home for the Children of Foreign Missionaries", which lodged the three eldest Foster children when their father returned to China in 1897. Clara Hess Foster remained nearby with the younger children. In 1898, after the death of his father, John Marshall Foster returned briefly to the United States, arriving in May, sailing in November. Clara and the youngest children returned with him to China at this time.

The outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, however, forced Clara to return to America with the children. A postcard to his stepmother indicates that John Marshall Foster spent time in Bangkok, Thailand (then "Siam"), the location of another Baptist Mission, about 1902. In 1903, he began a second furlough and received an honorary D.D. degree from Colby College for his part in saving the Shantou (Swatow) mission during the Boxer Rebellion.

For the duration of the second furlough, 1903-1908, John Marshall Foster was President of Vashon College and Academy, at Burton, Washington. The institution, founded as a seminary for young women and a military academy for young men and boys, floundered under financial difficulty. Fire destroyed the administration building in 1909. This was apparently a trying period for the Foster family, as John Marshall Foster mentions "the hard time we have been through the past few years" and "the heavy strain of life" in an October 19, 1908 letter to his stepmother. A year later, October 22, 1909, he still notes "the storm and stress of the years we carried the load up at the college" in another letter to Elizabeth B. Foster.

In 1908, Foster began his third term of field service, while the family remained at Burton. At least part of the term probably 1909-1910 and 1912, was spent in Bangkok, Thailand. Foster became acting President of Ashmore Theological Seminary in 1909, a position he held until 1921. In 1914, he returned briefly to the United States via Siberia and England.

Foster's final term began in 1914, and again he visited Thailand (Siam). In 1915 Clara Hess Foster returned to China after an absence of fiteeen years. The following year, Frank Clifton Foster, their son, arrived at Shantou (Swatow). The eldest Foster child, Anna Elizabeth, returned to teach in her native land in 1917. Another Foster, John Hess, began teaching at Yale-in-China, Changsha, Hunan, two years later.

In 1921, John Marshall Foster's health began to fail, and he retired to Buffalo, New York. In a letter dated August 31, 1921(?), Frank Clifton Foster writes of an unexplained great shock which was expected to hospitalize his father for several weeks. John Marshall Foster died at Buffalo, New York, on May 9, 1924. Clara Hess Foster lived with her children until her death in 1949.

Anna Elizabeth, John Hess, and Frank Clifton, three of the children of Clara Hess and John Marshall Foster carried on the tradition of their parents by returning to China to work. Anna E. Foster returned to China in 1917 under the auspices of the American Baptist Mission Society. She taught at the Kwang Yit Girls' School in Meiheien, South China until 1940 when illness and the Communist take-over caused her return to the United States. She worked for twelve years as an officer at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham before her retirement. Anna E. Foster died May 25, 1968. Frank Clifton Foster, born in 1894, returned to China in 1916 and taught at the Swatow Academy in Shantou (Swatow) until 1919. When World War I broke out, Frank left to serve with the YMCA, American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia and Manchuria for six months. A graduate of Colby College, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University, Teachers College, he had a varied career serving as Professor of Education, University of Maine, Specialist Institutional Services, and Director, UNRRA, Germany, President of Asheville Normal and Teachers College, Asheville, North Carolina. He retired in 1970, and died in 1973.

John Hess Foster, born in 1891, graduated from Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1917 and returned to China in 1919 to spend almost nine years on the Medical Staff of the Hunan-Yale Hospital in Changsha. During the period 1919 to 1927 he spent one year (1923-1924) working and studying in the Boston City Hospital and as an Assistant in Medicine at Harvard University. In January, 1927, when a student strike finally closed the academic branches of Yale-in-China, John Hess, his wife, Helen, and children John and Ann, left Changsha along with a number of other Yale-in-China personnel. In February several of the families sailed to the United States on the "President Jackson". Later in the spring of 1927 the family settled in Waterbury, Connecticut where Dr. Foster began his private medical practice. John Hess Foster died March 2, 1985.

For further information regarding the Foster family see:

  1. Andover-Newton Bulletin Alumni Directory. 1960. 52, no. 4 (April 1960) .
  2. Ashmore, Lida Scott. Historical Sketch of the South China Mission. Shanghai: Methodist Publishing House, 1920.
  3. Pierce, Richard D. ed., General Catalogue of the Newton Theological Institution, 1825-1943. Newton Centre: The Newton Theological Institution, 1943.

Processing Information

Place names were modernized in the description, with the name originally used in the collection material or in an older version of the finding aid in parenthesis: e.g. “Beijing (Peking)” or “Benin (Dahomey)”.

Guide to the Foster Family Papers
Compiled by Lynn Buckley Aber and Jane S. Thomson
1974, 1976
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared According To Local Divinity Library Descriptive Practices
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Divinity Library Repository

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