RECOVERED: The Life and Work of Miss Julia N. Crosby | Presbyterian Historical Society

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RECOVERED: The Life and Work of Miss Julia N. Crosby

August 29, 2022

It is 1917.

A crowd has gathered in Yokohama to watch a special ceremony take place. They wait with bated breath as an elderly woman, seated in an armchair, decorated for this special event, is carried on the shoulders of four men.

She approaches the office of the Governor of the Japanese prefecture. Governor Ariyoshi, speaking with the voice of Emperor Taishō, bestows upon the woman a medal.

Miss Julia N. Crosby, an eighty-five-year-old New Yorker, is gifted with a Blue Ribbon in the name of the Emperor, an honor seldom accorded.

A century later, a Presbyterian Historical Society staff member is exploring the organization’s museum collection. She rifles carefully through objects, opening cabinets with care. A small case catches her eye. Upon opening it, she discovers a medal with no accession number attached. There is only a handwritten note that reads, “Given to Julia Crosby by the Emperor of Japan.” The employee, a historian-cum-communications-associate, is aglow with the prospect of discovery. She takes the stairs two at a time back to her office, where the adventure begins.

Here is what she uncovered.


Who was Julia Crosby?

Portrait of Miss Crosby, courtesy of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL. 

Julia Neilson Crosby (July 31, 1833-July 4, 1918), who, at age eighty-five, was decorated with a medal by the Japanese Emperor, spent her childhood in New York City.

Julia was the eldest of the four Crosby children. Her parents, William Henry Crosby (1808-1892) and Josepha Matilda Neilson Crosby, experienced numerous losses, the first being a child named Harriet, who died after one year of life in 1832. Josepha gave birth to another little girl in 1835, Matilda, who would pass at age six; William, born in 1836, died in infancy; Neilson, born in 1840, passed at one year of age; and a second baby named William, born and died in 1850. Amidst these sorrows, the couple welcomed Julia (1833), Josepha (1835), Ellen (1837), and Arthur (1847). All three of the other Crosby children married and had children; Julia remained unmarried.

In June of 1871, at the age of forty-eight, Julia left for Japan. She did not go alone—at her side were two other women, Mrs. Louise Henrietta Pierson and Mrs. Mary Putnam Pruyn. The three missionaries, all members of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society of America (WUMS), were united by a shared goal: to educate and minister to Japanese girls, with the hopes of opening a school there.

Their hopes were, indeed, fulfilled, as just two months after arriving in Japan they succeeded in opening the American Mission Home in Yokohama (1). 


CONTEXT: What Was Happening in Japan

Julia Crosby arrived in Japan in 1871, three years after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Japan had formerly been ruled by shogunates—military dictatorships that were passed down from father to son. This ruling style had roots that stretched back to 1192. The shogun, legally, answered to the emperor of Japan.

Prior to 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived on Japan’s shore and demanded the country open its borders and its trade routes, the Tokugawa shogunate had refused all requested to establish trade relations. The Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed in 1858. Opposition to this foreign influence quickly grew, paving the way for assassinations, battles, disagreements, and, finally, the creation of a modern state with the Meiji Restoration.

In November of 1867, the last shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, yielded all his power to Emperor Meiji. A few months later, in January of 1868, an edict was issued restoring imperial rule. At the same time, a civil war broke out in Japan, that continued into 1869; this was the result of continued resistance to the new government, particularly in northern Japan.

In August of 1871, the Emperor turned the traditional domains of Japan into prefectures, abolishing the feudal system in Japan after 260 years.

Other notable events that occurred during this period include the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, one of the largest and most serious of various samurai uprising occurring at this time; the capital of Japan is renamed, from Edo to Tokyo; and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan in February of 1889 (2).


CONTEXT: The Presbyterian Presence in Japan

During the late 1830s, the Board of Foreign Missions began establishing new missions across the world. Because the PCUSA/PCUS division had not yet occurred, these early missions were established on behalf of Presbyterians in both the North and South. Stations were established in Liberia (1833), India (1836), China (1838), Thailand (1840), and Colombia (1856), before their sights turned to Japan in 1858. 

In 1858, the PCUSA Board of Foreign Missions appointed Dr. James C. Hepburn, and his wife, Clara, as the first Presbyterian missionaries to Japan. Arriving in Yokohama in October 1859, the Hepburns were met by several factors that inhibited their initial progress. Firstly, the Japanese population consisted of an overwhelmingly Buddhist predisposition. Secondly, the people held a deeply rooted resistance and hesitation to engage with the American missionaries. As time passed, the dislike, suspicion, and poor treatment of the Hepburns, and other missionaries and visitors like them, disseminated and faded into the background. By the beginning of the 20th century, its force had been spent. 

In 1869, the Tokyo station was opened, followed by Osaka in 1877. Two years later, a mission in Kanazawa—the largest city on Japan’s west coast, and a stronghold of conservative Buddhism—was established. The list of mission stations founded in Japan continued to grow: Hiroshima and Hokkaido in 1887, Kyoto in 1890, Otaru and Yamaguchi in 1894, and Maysuyama and Asanigawa in 1900. This continued into the early years of the 20th century. 

Like the goals of Crosby, Pruyn, and Pierson’s school, the mission’s work in Japan was primarily two-fold: focused on education and evangelism. The nation’s general lack of schooling for girls and young women was a foothold for the Presbyterian missionaries—a number of Christian secondary schools and collegiate institutions were created with a dedication to female education. As the years passed, the educational reach of the Presbyterian missions in Japan spread out, farther and father. Kindergartens, boys’ schools, colleges, and theological seminaries began to sprout up across the country. 

In 1877, representatives of the PC(USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland came together to establish the United Church of Christ in Yokohama, Japan—this institution was meant to serve as the national church in Japan. These groups were later joined by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) and the Reformed Church in the U.S. 

Later, when the schism occurred separating the PCUSA and the PCUS, the PCUS Executive Committee of Foreign Missions assigned their own missionaries to establish a station in Japan: The Rev. Randolph Bryan Grinnan and the Rev. Robert Eugenius McAlpine. They arrived in 1885. The borders of the PCUS Japan Mission were set at Kochi in the south and Nagoya in central Japan. McAlpine and his wife were joined in Nagoya in 1888, when Mrs. Annie Randolph began a school for girls there—which, in time, would become the largest Christian girls’ school in Japan, Kinjo Gakuin University. The PCUS mission continued to grow with the establishment of stations in Tokushima, Okazaki, Kobe, Takamatsu, and Susaki. In 1907, the PCUS mission established its own theological seminary in Kobe.


Crosby, Pierson, and Pruyn's School

American Mission Home, courtesy of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL.

The American Mission Home, located at 212 Bluff, was established in 1871 in Yokohama, Japan, by Julia Crosby, Louise Pierson, and Mary Pruyn. The school, created with the goal of educating young Japanese girls, “was the very first organization for this object in Japan" (3).

In the original agreement of founding, a four-page handwritten document drawn up by the three women and forwarded to the Women’s Union Missionary Society for approval, we learn that Pruyn was appointed as the school’s Superintendent, Crosby as the Assistant Superintendent, and Pierson as the head Teacher (4).

Upon its founding in 1871, the American Mission Home hoped to serve as a boarding school for Japanese girls as well as a day school for boys. An article posted in May of 2021 by the Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections team analyzed the scrapbooks and papers of Louise Pierson, one of the two women who journeyed to Japan alongside Ms. Crosby. The article said this of the ladies’ school: 

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 (5).

The first page of the four-page-long agreement to open the American Mission Home in Yokohama. Courtesy of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL.

Further searching uncovered information about this esteemed character, Nakamura Masanoa.Throughout his life, he served as professor, founder, and headmaster of various educational institutions, and was “noted for his promotion of educational opportunities for women” (6).

In the school’s 1886 report to the board of the WUMS, Crosby shares that, “We now have one hundred and seven pupils, of whom eighty-seven are borders. Our outside school in Kashidori, numbers nearly one hundred scholars” (7). By 1919, the name of the American Mission Home had been changed to the Doremus School.


PHS Findings

As I flipped through documents from various PHS archival collections, on the hunt for any mention of Ms. Crosby, I found, instead, a few items that referenced her school at 212 Bluff as well as the work of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society.



Crosby, Pruyn, and Pierson were all members of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, an organization founded in November of 1860. Borne from the shared concerns of American women, the WUMS’s mission was to minister to women living in Asian societies that had strict boundaries drawn between men and women, to the point that American missionaries—mostly men—could not reach women with their ministries. Members of the WUMS were disquieted by this idea and were concerned about the spiritual welfare of these isolated women. And so, the society was formed.

The Woman’s Union Missionary Society was “the first American organization to send single women to the mission field,” including Ms. Julia Crosby (8).

The records of the WUMS are held at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center Archives.


I discovered a pamphlet that provided insight into the workings of Crosby’s school during the early 20th century. Titled “Year-Book of the Council of Missions (Presbyterian and Reformed) Cooperating with the Church of Christ in Japan, Thirty-fifth Annual Report,” the pamphlet was published in in 1912 and provided detailed reports of the various mission schools, day schools, and boarding schools established across Japan.
According to this “Year-Book,” 212 Bluff consisted of two separate programs. One, the Woman’s Theological School, was a “direct Evangelistic force, the students teaching and managing twenty Sunday Schools where Nine hundred or more children are being taught a regular course of lessons.” The second is what I believe to be a kindergarten program, referred to as “Kyoritsu Joshi Shin Gakko.” The reports sang praises of both programs:

In April Kyoritsu Jo Gakko welcomed an entering class of thirty-eight pupils, the largest for several years. The loyalty of the graduates, the faithfulness of the teaches, and the obedience and happiness of the girls are subjects of thanksgiving. The Woman’s Theological School of this same mission has had much encouragement in the calls to open new work, and also in the consecration of the students.

Year-Book of the Council of Missions...Cooperating with the Church of Christ in Japan, item from PHS Archives.

Toward the end of the “Year-Book” was a “roll-call,” a list of members of the Council of Missions (Presbyterian and Reformed). To my great happiness, I saw a familiar name listed under the Woman’s Missionary Union ladies. The meaning of the asterisks next to other names remains unclear, but I found my proof of Julia Crosby’s existence within our archives at PHS nonetheless. No matter how small, any remnant of her story that connects with the artifact in our museum collection is important and insightful.


A Side Note

Another document—the UPCUSA’s Annual Report of 1886, handwritten and, unfortunately, very fragile—offered a glimpse into the number of participants and institutions that this sect of the church had established thus far in Japan. If in 1886, 15 years after Crosby’s school was founded, there were 16 schools in total, with over 100 staff members working with the Japanese schoolchildren, imagine what those numbers were in 1912, at the time of this annual report.


Celebrating Crosby

For forty-seven years, Ms. Crosby served in Yokohama. Japan became her home—it’s where her body is buried. Forty-plus years is certainly cause for celebration, and there were many instances in which her work in Japan was celebrated by her friends, pupils, colleagues, and all who she touched.

In June of 1911, an invite was sent out, welcoming folks to attend a reception “in honor of The Fortieth Anniversary of Miss Crosby’s Arrival in Japan.” The venue of the celebration was, of course, the school she helped establish at 212 Bluff, Yokohama. The four-hour-long event opened in prayer, followed by recitations of various psalms, the history of the school and Miss Crosby’s influences, songs, as well as “games for children” and “scenes from ‘As You Like It,’” performed by Miss Crosby’s fellow teachers.

Invitation to the 40th Anniversary Celebration of Miss Crosby's work in Japan. Courtesy of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL.

One song’s lyrics were included in the invitation packet. The second verse went like this:

How at those three ladies strange the Japanese did stare,
How they feared to put their girls beneath those ladies care,
But at last they learned that no one was so safe as there
With our ever faithful Miss Crosby.

All were encouraged to join in, and voices lifted to sing the chorus:

Hurrah! Hurrah! We hail her jubilee;
Hurrah! Hurrah! Sing all in joyous glee;
So we’ll sing this chorus now, glad, merrily and free,
Long live our own dear Miss Crosby.


Crosby Earns a Medal

The first time I encountered Miss Julia Crosby was by chance. I was rifling through the cabinets that hold PHS’s museum collections when I stumbled upon a small black box. Inside, a silver medal lay nestled in red velvet. A small note attached to the velvet reads: Presented by the Emperor of Japan to Julia N. Crosby for her service to the girls in Japan.

Medal given to Julia N. Crosby by the Emperor of Japan. No accession number, no other information. Found on Shelf 3 of Cabinet 2 of the PHS Museum Collection. 

I had to know more—but there wasn’t mention of her in any of PHS’s online databases. So, I widened my search. As you can tell from the rest of this lengthy essay, I found quite a few helpful documents that allowed me to gently outline the life of Julia Crosby, a woman so influential that the Emperor of Japan would gift her such a reward. One of the first things I stumbled upon was the November 30, 1917, edition of JAPAN SOCIETY, a bulletin produced in New York. This is where I read of the ceremony in which the Governor of the prefecture awarded her the Blue-Ribbon medal in the name of Emperor Taishō, the ruler of Japan at the time.

Along with the history of the school at 212 Bluff and the WUMS, most of which was gleaned from materials provided by Wheaton College’s Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections, I also stumbled across small mentions of Crosby’s medal ceremony in other places. In Volume 17 of The Christian Movement in the Japanese Empire, published for the Conference of Federated Missions in Japan, Ms. Crosby is quoted as having said the following in response to her earning the Blue-Ribbon medal in October of 1917 (9):

As I look back to the time when I arrived in Japan, forty six years ago, I see wonderful progress in every department of the government, especially in the department of education, but I hope that many more institutions of learning for women may be promoted in the near future, because a nation cannot be strong without well educated and high principled wives and mothers. When I think of my past work in the Kyoritsu Jo Gakko I feel I have done very little, and I wish that I were more worthy of the great honor which has been conferred upon me. The only points of which I can speak are, firstly, the fact that I was one of the first women to come to Japan, and secondly, that God has permitted me to remain so long in the work which I love in this dear land of my adoption.

Julia Crosby passed in July 1918, nine months after being pinned with the Blue-Ribbon medal—the medal that now calls the PHS archives its home. Through this research journey, I have become familiar with the memory of a woman who was fully committed to serving—serving her faith, her church, and, perhaps most importantly, the students who she dedicated forty-six years of her life to in Japan.



Wheaton College’s Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections proved to be an immense help in my research. The team there forwarded several documents that, upon my scouring, relayed some information about the school—directly from the lips of Ms. Crosby herself. Though the archivist assisting me in my remote research could not find anything directly related to the medal that Ms. Crosby was gifted, they sent over facsimiles of the WUMS journal, Missionary Link, as well as a scrapbook titled “Scenes of Japan, 1903-1911.” In addition, they uncovered the original agreement between Crosby, Pierson, and Pruyn, when WUMS committed to supporting the opening of the Yokohama Mission Home in the late 1890s. Without these materials, a lot of what I uncovered about Crosby would have existed in my mind, and in my research, sans-validation. I give my heartiest "thank you" to the staff that helped me out! 


Related Resources

Although my scouring of our holdings at PHS did not uncover specifics about Julia Crosby's life and work, they do hold a vast amount of information on other missionaries that worked in Japan. If you're curious about other Presbyterian involvement in Japan, check out some of these other resources offered by PHS.

Collections worth browsing:

Journeys of Faith: Artifacts fronm the Mission Field: JAPAN. This segment of our online exhibit Journeys of Faith features images of objects that belonged to Mary Fletcher Smythe (1890-1979), who served as a Presbyterian missionary in Japan for over thirty years. 

Mary Parke Thompson: A Missionary Calling. This blog series, the first post published in 2013, followed the work of PHS volunteer Sue Althouse as she processed the David D. Thompson family papers.  Sue, a retired missionary who served in Japan, drew on her field experience and knowledge of the Japanese language to arrange and describe the correspondence, diaries, sermons, and photographs of Rev. Thompson, one of the earliest Presbyterian missionaries in Japan, and his wife, Mary Parke Thompson. The collection includes Mary’s journals, which span most of her adult life, 1865 to 1924, and comment on her work as an educator, evangelist, wife, and mother. The series offers transcriptions of these journals, and a peek into what life in Japan during the 19th/20th centuries looked like for the Thompson family. 

Mary Miles in Modern Japan. This blog post from 2015 is about Presbyterian missionary and music teacher Mary Miles, who taught at the girls' school Hokuriko Jo Gakko in the early 1920s. "Miles's official duties consisted of ten hours of public-school music and fifteen of instrumental music per week, but her unofficial labors as a friend and confidante to her students, and as a witness to Imperial Japan's military and industrial rise distinguish her story from others'."