CLEAR FORK VALLEY — This sounds impressive doesn’t it? – “Delegation From China Visits Bellville”.
If you saw five Chinese people making a video in some anonymous person’s Ross Road front yard this past week (May 14th), and standing all the while in the rain, then you know that it is true!
Let’s go back just a couple days. Tom Neel, Library Director at the Ohio Genealogical Society, received a phone call from Dr. Jia-Chu Liu of Cincinnati. He has just completed the first Chinese language translation of the book, Nathan Sites: An Epic of the East, published in 1912 by Sarah (Moore) Sites, the widow of Rev. Nathan Sites, a Methodist missionary in Fuzhou (Foochow), China. Dr. Liu said that he had a group of Chinese Methodist officials who were coming up to Bellville on Monday to see everything that was affiliated with Rev. Nathan Sites.
“Okay,” I replied.
First problem, we have never heard of Rev. Nathan Sites – no surname file in the library; not mentioned in the general historical works on Bellville and Richland County. What does a reference person do first? – Wikipedia! Sites had served as a Methodist Episcopal missionary in Fukien Province from 1861 to 1895. He ordained most of the earliest native Christian ministers in China. He fought for an independent Chinese church. And, the most important part, he was born on Nov. 6, 1830 in Bellville to Robert and Sarah (Fidler) Sites.
We quickly gathered together information on Rev. Sites. The missionary’s father, Robert Sites, bought his first land tract in Bellville in 1826 and by the 1850s had amassed 105 acres near the end of Ross Road, where a family of seven, including the future minister, lived. GoogleMaps gave us an overhead view of Section 20 today. It is hilly, all woods and a creek – they must have farmed everything back in the day. Maybe the poor land is what led the younger child to the ministry. Nathan Sites, in fact, obtained a degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1859.He was affiliated with the old wooden Methodist Church on Bell Street in Bellville. Yes, we stood across from the Bellville Post Office taking pictures of a parking lot – again, in a downpour.
Rev. Nathan Sites soon accepted a pastorate in Coshocton County and he was married there on March 6, 1861. But, the young adventurous couple were on their way to China. His passport image filed in the Coshocton County court actually shows up on Ancestry.com. Sites kept voluminous journals of their venture which his widow published in book form in 1912, the Epic of the East work translated by Dr. Liu this past year.
Sites served for 34 years in China before his death on Feb. 10, 1895. He chose to live amongst the villagers in the countryside and set up Chinese Methodist churches. He converted, trained, and ordained native Chinese to lead each church. This evangelism wasn’t always popular. During the construction of a church at Nanping, a mob in opposition formed and Sites was brutally beaten. The word “hero” was mentioned many times by the Chinese ministers who visited Bellville this past week. They currently have over 500 members in the local church that Sites founded. That certainly dwarfs most of our congregation sizes here in Ohio. There are buildings in China named after Rev. Sites. His Christian movement somehow survived the years of Maoist and Communist rule.
Rev. Sites was buried in Foochow Mission Cemetery, Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, although the tombstone is now held by the Cang Shan District Museum in Fuzhou. It was important for this delegation from China to visit the graves of their founding pastor’s parents, Robert and Sarah (Fidler) Sites in Bellville Cemetery. Their lot is near the highest spot, right next to the Bells, from Bellville’s founding family. The Chinese delegation had brought cut flowers to decorate the graves. They led a prayer, noting that Sites had left his Bellville home over 150 years ago to bring Christianity to China. He and his wife had remained there when their parents had died back in Ohio. Sarah remained in China another twenty years after her missionary husband had died. They were coming full circle and letting the parental Sites know that their son was valued and indeed a hero to the Chinese people. Much of the Chinese prayer was sung at the grave. Again, the rain fell. I could see the cemetery caretaker eyeing us from the safety of the office roof. But the Chinese were absolutely delighted in their visit.
Then the ladies at the Bellville-Jefferson Township Museum, Lynn Fox and Ruth Shinabarker, opened up just for us and located some old photographs of the Methodist church. The Chinese were also fascinated by an advertising broadside about a local Bellville store that sold “China Ware”. With little knowledge of English, they could not comprehend the connection of their grand China and our table dishes. The ladies directed the group to the Three Crosses United Methodist Fellowship in Butler that was formed, in part, by the Methodists of Bellville.
In two hours, the visit was over. They were headed to Elliott Hall at Ohio Wesleyan University, the original campus building (constructed in 1833), where Sites had received his degree in 1859. The Archives of Ohio United Methodism is also located in Delaware, and the archivists there possess several Sites manuscripts.
Over one thousand miles coming from distant China to chant prayers in a cemetery in the rain in Bellville — this Rev. Nathan Sites must have been an important man. You can bet that I will have a good-sized file on this Bellville native the next time someone asks!