Searching for Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder

Recently a post on the Brethren in Christ historical website caught my attention: “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells us about Brethren in Christ Life.”1 I was captured by the fine pensmanship of the witness: Mrs. Mary M. Yoder. Denominational historian Morris Sider has characterized Davidson as “one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership in the denomination.”2 Who was the witness that attested Davidson’s bold declaration of life-long commitment to mission, underscored by the striking of the “entire section of the form dealing with returning to the States!”3 Are there clues that suggest why Frances chose Mary to accompany her to the notary’s office on that October day in 1897? In the bigger picture, will discovering more about Mary provide further insights into the Brethren in Christ of the time?

I knew Mary Yoder to be Frances’s half sister, the eldest of their father Henry Davidson’s thirteen children. Geneological research has revealed that she was among his numerous offspring who exited the Brethren in Christ denomination.4 It also suggests that she was the namesake of her paternal grandmother Mary (Young) Davidson. Mary Mathilda Davidson was fifteen when Frances was born; by the end of her step-mother Fannie (Rice) Davidson’s child-bearing years, Mary had become the eldest of thirteen. Married at age twenty-two to Christian B. Yoder, she gave birth to Effa when Frances was eight years old; by the time Fannie birthed her last child, Ida, Mary was mother to three.5 The birth of LeRoy Isaiah would complete the family. Edwin’s death as a small child must have torn at Mary’s heart; her decision to name her two younger sons for her full brothers William and Isaiah, likely brought her comfort and suggests the closeness of the larger family circle which had been wrenched with the death of their biological mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson when Mary and her siblings were still children.6

Mary would continue to suffer and navigate significant losses. In 1893, four years before she signed her sister’s passport, she had been widowed; she was not yet fifty. Mary’s married name suggests that her husband Christian B. Yoder had Amish roots. They were both raised on farms close to Smithville, Ohio, where they had met and married. Christian had practiced a variety of trades including building, contracting, and grocering, ultimately becoming a hotel manager. The purchase of Eastern House in the nearby city of Wooster brought him to the pinnacle of his career. Only a year before his death he had become “proprietor of the hotel bearing his name,” Hotel Yoder, described in Caldwell’s Atlas in 1897 as “the Oldest Reliable Hotel in the city.”7

Although it remains unclear what role Mary played in Christian’s business enterprise, her identity as entrepreneur is underscored by her decision to hold Christian’s funeral at Yoder House, rather than the Methodist Episcopal Church where they were members. Shortly, Mary M. Yoder herself became the proprietor of Yoder House where,,with the assistance of her sons William and Roy, she continued to run the hotel renovated and branded by her husband Christian only a year before his untimely death.8

Eighteen months later tragedy again devastated Mary and her family. Twenty year old Roy succumbed to typhoid; Mary lost her son to the same disease that had taken her mother Hannah forty years earlier. Demonstrating a strength of character reminiscent of that for which her sister Frances is known, Mary continued to run Yoder Hotel with her remaining son William as manager.9 Census records reveal that Mary employed eleven live-in servants and employees – a laundress, cooks, chambermaids, waitresses, a porter and a solicitor – to keep the establishment running.10

Why did Frances Davidson, the renowned Brethren in Christ pioneer missionary, have her sister, the Methodist Episcopal owner of a prestigious downtown hotel, witness her first passport? Why did Frances choose Mary to attest to subsequent passports? A brief exploration of the Methodist Episcopal Church where Mary and Christian Yoder held their membership gives a clue. The denomination was a strong proponant of missions overseas and at home, working in “some of the most deprived urban areas of the nation.”11 Was Mary an active supporter of the local missionary societies in the Wooster Methodist Episcopal Church? Confirmation would require further research.

The 1914 Brechbill Reunion in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa

What is becoming clear is Mary’s unflagging support of her younger sister’s mission. Not only was Mary Davidson Yoder recorded as witness on each one of Frances’s passports through the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), it is quite likely that we have Mary to thank for Frances’s travelogue.12 As Frances noted in her journal on 26 December 1908, “Sister Mary writes that she wants me to be sure and keep up my diary. Well, I have never kept a diary only these few jottings in a journal which are so few that they give only a general outline of our life and scarcely that.”13 A few months later, she confided to her journal: “I have not told any one of my resignation except I wrote it to Sister Mary, as also some of the particulars. She is away from the rest.”14

Does this sideline into family history have anything to tell us about the history of the Brethren in Christ? Brethren in Christ history has been assessed and written, for the most part, by insiders, to build a denominational identity.15 The excerpts from Frances Davidson’s journal published in Brethren in Christ History & Life some decades back were edited for just this purpose. Missing excerpts, which can now be found on the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives website, if read closely, reveal just how important Frances Davidson’s family relationships were, including the many siblings and nieces and nephews outside of the denomination.16

Elsewhere I have argued that Mary’s and Frances’s father Henry Davidson used his influence as editor of The Evangelical Visitor to bring the denomination into the burgeoning nineteenth-century mainstream evangelical movement with its promotion of education and mission.17 While family history suggests that their father was disappointed that so few of his children remained in the Brethren in Christ denomination, Mary M. Yoder’s signature on Hannah Frances Davidson’s passport confirms a closeness and common vision for mission between the two sisters.18

This brief glimpse into the life of the witness to a late nineteeth-century passport that symbolizes dramatic changes in the Brethren in Christ, leaves significant questions. What influence did Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder have on her father Henry Davidson? Did her immersion in mainstream culture by virtue of membership in a prominent evangelical church ultimately influence the direction of the Brethren in Christ? Although history is still silent on this count, the Davidson family’s decision to lay their father to rest next to his first wife and Mary’s mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson, in the circle that included her husband Christian and sons LeRoy and Edwin Yoder hints at the relationship of father and daughter. Mary’s unflagging support of her sister Frances Davidson during the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias suggests a heretofore undiscovered cheerleader and supporter for her sister held up by the Brethren in Christ for her role as pioneer missionary.


1. Devin C. Thomas, “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells ua about Brethren in Christ Life.” Brethren in Christ Historical Society https://bic-history.org/i-am-about-to-go-abroad-as-a-missionary-h-frances-davidsons-passport-application-and-what-it-tells-us-about-brethren-in-christ-life-2/ ; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #.496 – 01 October 1897-31 October 1897, Ancestry.com ,U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007; Accessed 14 May 2020. Thomas has made several insightful observations about what the passport can tell us about the mindset of the Brethren in Christ of the late nineteenth century, especially as he put it, Davidson’s “unwavering commitment to her church’s foreign mission endeavor.”

2. Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 159.

3. Thomas declares this to be his favourite part of the document.

4. Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 26, 34.

5. “Henry R. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision, Brethren in Christ History & Life XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-117, n. 2, 3 4, 10, 11; Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 52, 55-57.

6. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; reprinted from The Wayne County (Wooster, Ohio) Herald (9 February 1893); Year: 1870, Census Place: Orrville, Wayne, Ohio; Roll 14593_1280; page 242B, 1870 U.S. Federal Census [data base-on-line], Provost, USA, Ancestry.com operations, Inc. Accessed 13 June 2020.

7. “Peace to His Ashes,” Wooster Daily Republican (6 February 1893); Caldwell’s Atlas (1897), Wooster, Ohio https://wiki.wcpl.info/w/index.php?title=Caldwell%27s_Atlas_(1897)/Wooster,_Ohio Accessed 27 May 2020.

8. Although “Peace to his Ashes,” ibid., gives no inkling of church affiliation, it does tell us that “’Christ’ Yoder was a quiet, unassuming Christian gentleman who enjoyed the confidence of all with whom he did business, a father who loved his family and lived for them.” The obituary in the Wayne County Herald gives a brief nod to his membership in “the M.E. Church;” reprinted in “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor (1 March 1893), 80; “Our Dead,” LeRoy Yoder, Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894), reprinted from Wayne County Herald.

9. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 56; LeRoy Yoder obituary, Wayne County Herald, cited in “Our Dead,” Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894).

10. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; Wm. W. Yoder, 1900 US Federal Census, Census Place: Mansfield Ward 6, Richland, Ohio, 13, Ancestry.com, 1900 US Federal Census database on line], Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2014, Accessed 18 May 2020.

11. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianitiy: Vol. II The Reformation to the Present Day, revised and updated (NY: Harper and Collins, 2010), 339; see also Diarmaid McCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 903; “Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman%27s_Foreign_Missionary_Society_of_the_Methodist_Episcopal_Church Accessed 11 June 2020.

12. The photo, labeled Brechbill Reunion 1914, took place in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Publishing House, 1915). The photo is scanned from “The Journal of Frances Davidson. Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life IX, no. 3 (December 1986), 286. Images of Davidson’s passports appear in Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line] (Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007); Original data: Selected Passports, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed 15 May 2020.

13. H. Frances Davidson Diaries 6 (December 26, 1908) http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_6_aug_19,1906_to_dec_31,1909.pdf Accessed 22 June 2020.

14. Ibid. HFD Diaries 6 (April 21, 1909). Their father Henry Davidson’s obituary reveals that the Brethren in Christ contingent of the family lived in Abilene, Kansas and Garrett, Indiana. Mary had remained in Ohio. Wooster Weekly Republican, (25 March 1903), p. 4, col. 3, p. 5, col. 1.

15. Wendy Urban-Meade’s perspective on the Brethren in Christ mission in the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia) as an outsider to the denomination has illustrated the inward focus of most history of the Brethren in Christ. Please see “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899-1906,” 94-116, in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960, edited by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010); and The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2015); Morris Sider’s recently published retrospective “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020) gives helpful insight into his motivation for dedicating his professional career to advancing the history of the Brethren in Christ.

16. H. Frances Davidson Diaries http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_2_sept_17,1893_to_may_17,1898.pdf Accessed 28 May 2020.

17. “Henry R. And Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 148; Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk, Evangelicalism:ComparativeStudiesofPopularProtestantisminNorthAmerica,TheBritishIsles,andBeyond,1700-1990 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 6, 9.

18. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 142; I have told of my search for Henry Davidson’s burial site in “Life and Vision,” 117, n. 9.

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