Early Life

Mary was born at Belle Grove Plantation on May 20, 1811, although her family’s home was actually a place called Cedar Grove. Her father was Dr. Cornelius Elijah Baldwin and mother Eleanor (Nelly) Conway Hite Baldwin, who was the daughter of Major Isaac Hite, Jr. and Eleanor (Nelly) Madison Hite. She was the second of Dr. and Mrs. Baldwin’s six children:

  • Eleanor Conway Baldwin, born in 1810
  • Dr. Isaac Hite Baldwin, born in 1813
  • Ann Maury Baldwin Hay, born in 1819
  • James Madison Baldwin, born in 1820
  • Robert Stewart Baldwin, born in 1824

All her life, Mary was known as kind, patient, and thoughtful. She always had a mind of her own and embraced originality over imitation. However, it was never her intention to go against the grain or be provocative.

Baldwin’s confrontation with life was personal, conducted (safely, we might be tempted to say) within the private institutional framework of family and religion rather than in public political terms – although it was unorthodox in her Virginia context.

Joanna B. Gillespie (Gillespie, 1988, p. 65)

Did you know?

Mary was James Madison’s grandniece. Her grandmother, Eleanor (Nelly) Madison Hite, was Madison’s sister.

A family tree of Mary’s parents and grandparents

The loss of her parents

Grief knows no bounds and is a prevalent theme in every day life, particularly in Mary’s time. Within just a couple of years of each other, she lost both of her parents. Her father, Dr. Baldwin, died on September 14,1828. Shortly thereafter, her mother, Nelly Baldwin, fell ill, so Mary and her eldest sister, Eleanor, tended to and nursed her as she approached her death. Nelly ultimately died of consumption on August 30, 1830, leaving behind six orphaned children.

After Nelly died, Mary and Eleanor tended to their younger siblings, with the help of their maternal grandparents, Major Hite and his new wife, Ann Tunstall Maury Hite. After about a year under Mary and Eleanor’s supervision, their younger brothers went to public school and the girls went to live at Belle Grove with Ann Tunstall Maury Hite.

Mary described this time following the death of her parents as follows:

My mind was filled with domestic cares, my sister Eleanor and myself having determined, according to the wish of our departed mother, to carry on the family establishment and assume the care of the younger children. We had the charge of our younger sister and three brothers, our eldest brother being obliged to be absent to attend to his studies. We assumed this responsibility, and maintained it for about a year after mother’s death, but at the expiration of that time it was necessary for our brothers to go to a public school, so then we broke up housekeeping and went to Staunton.

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 9)

This trip to Staunton that Mary mentions forever changed the trajectory of her life.

What is consumption?

If you look through historical records, even those as recently as the early 20th century, you will notice that a lot of people died of consumption. But what exactly is consumption? It’s what we call tuberculosis today. During Mary’s time, consumption was a term used to describe the wasting away of a body with intense bouts of coughing, fatigue, and severe lung pain. The lack of hygiene during this time contributed to a lot of these cases and spread quite easily due to the lack of understanding of the disease.

Mary’s relationship with her grandmother

Mary was remarkably close to her step grandmother, Ann Tunstall Maury Hite, who was her grandfather’s second wife after the death of his first wife, Nelly Madison Hite. Ann helped Mary and Eleanor take care of their younger siblings after the death of their mother and father. Even after Mary decided to travel to Greece, it was their shared religious devotion that continued to bond them, even from afar.

In 1846, Mary visited her home in Virginia, spending a good bit of time with Ann, knowing that it was likely going to be the last time they would ever see each other. She wrote a letter to Ann just before heading back to Greece, which expresses her love of and connection to her original home:

How sacred this spot seems to me! I feel a holy and sanctifying influence while attending the services here, most precious and soothing. How I should enjoy to be a student at the seminary! And yet I felt while in church that if I were a student, I should be unwilling to leave it. But then, no doubt, I should feel as I did before I went to Greece. We are not to enjoy heaven before the appointed time. My visit to this spot will be a valuable one to me; I only wish I could stay longer. It has awakened in me the zeal and enthusiasm I felt in years gone by. I shall return to Greece with all the experience of the past twelve years, and the same strength of body, and energy and zeal for my Master’s cause, which I had when twelve years younger, and before I head learned so much of the stern and chilling realities of life, and human nature.

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 114)

Trip to Staunton

When Mary was about 20-years-old, she took a trip to Staunton, Virginia. During this time in her life, she expressed feeling that God had given her talents that she needed to use for a greater purpose.

After the death of my beloved mother I went with my elder sister Eleanor to Staunton, to spend some time with my relatives there, of whom we had a number. After remaining more than a year, visiting from one family to another, I became weary of what seemed to me a very unprofitable life, that of pleasure-seeking only, and I felt that such a life as I was then leading was not in accordance with God’s design concerning us. I felt that a life of mere pleasure produced no ‘fruit unto holiness.’

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 8)

During the 1830s, while Mary was finding her way and considering the paths in front of her, there was a growing sense of empowerment amongst Christian women through foreign mission work. This time was also marked with an awareness of the power associated with educating women – the benefits were far reaching. She knew she always wanted to be engaged in some sort of Christian mission work, spreading the Gospel, but she also knew that, as a woman, she would never be able to enter the ministry. So she considered missionary work, which, too, seemed unattainable for a woman of her time.

Deep down, Mary was the eternal student, always wanting to learn and grow, so she thought that perhaps teaching would be a good calling, traveling to more rural parts of the country and building missionary schools where religion would be the foundation. She began telling her family and friends about her goals of finishing her education, which had been derailed after the death of her parents and her role as caretaker, to which she received some pushback:

As some ridiculed the idea, and some thought it a strange notion of mine, I felt that I had to content with some feelings of mortification, but by bearing in mind the word of God, ‘He that humbleth himself shall be exalted,’ I was able to overcome them.

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 10)

Mary Baldwin University’s Administration Building in 1844 (Founding and Re-Founding Mary Baldwin University, n.d.)
Did you know?

Mary Baldwin University is named after one of Mary’s cousins, Mary Julia Baldwin. Mary Julia’s father was William Daniel Baldwin, Mary Briscoe’s uncle, who was the younger brother of her father, Dr. Cornelius Baldwin. To learn more about the history of Mary Baldwin University, visit the university’s history page.

The Herbarium Book

One final token of her admiration for Ann is the herbarium book that she made for her grandmother in 1850 with plants picked in and around Athens, Greece. An herbarium book is a collection of dried plants bound together in a book.

Are you interested in making your own herbarium book? See the Be your own botanist section on the Learning Activities page for instructions on how to do so.

The opportunity of a lifetime

Mary stayed with an aunt and focused intently on her studies for nearly two years with Mrs. Sheffey, who ultimately asked Mary to become an assistant teacher. This position afforded Mary the opportunity to practice teaching while also finishing her studies. Around the same time she was teaching at Mrs. Sheffey’s boarding school, The Protestant Episcopal Society was looking for a woman to travel to Athens, Greece to help Mrs. Hill in her schools.

Mary viewed the opportunity to travel to Greece as a calling directly from God, but she still remained unsure of her path. She reflected that during this time, she tried very hard to dissect this opportunity, looking at not just the positive but also the negatives – she essentially crafted a pro-con list!

I could not but feel that God had Himself called me to the enjoyment of what my heart had been so strongly and ardently set upon to become a missionary. This desire, however, as I have said, I had set aside as being far beyond my reach, and had subsequently turned my attention to preparing myself for doing good at home in a sphere which I felt was within my reach. But, lo! Just as the time was at hand when I hoped to commence active work at home (for which I had been for more than two years preparing myself), God opened to me a field of labour which I had not thought of occupying during all this preparation […]

Thus I saw that God knew what was in my heart – that in its deepest recesses were hidden slumbering desires for a high and broad field of usefulness to my fellow-creatures, which desires I had lulled to quietness from a consciousness of my own capacity.

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 13)

When Mary decided that she was ready to take the leap of faith and travel to Greece, she didn’t need anyone’s permission seeing as she was an adult, but she did talk with her step grandmother, Ann Maury Tunstall Hite, who emphatically encouraged her dream. She decided to spend the last summer before her trip with her eldest sister, Eleanor, who was living in their childhood home of Cedar Grove with her family.

I found my purpose still steadfast. I examined myself strictly to see whether I was prepared to meet and overcome difficulties and trials, and to make sacrifices of personal comfort and ease, as well as to bear a long, and perhaps, final separation from my kindred and country. I questioned myself further, to discover whether my faith and trust in God’s promises was so steadfastly established in me, as that I could without fear leave the bosom of a large circle of kindred, from whom I had never yet been separated, and go forth alone – that is, unmarried – to encounter the dangers of the mighty deep and all the uncertainties of social life, amongst those with whom I must live and labour. From each and all of these points of view, as I looked at them in imagination, my heart said, ‘I am prepared, for Christ’s sake, to meet all these, believing that He who called me would give me all needful faith and strength to meet, bear with, and overcome all things.’

Mary Briscoe Baldwin (Pitman, 1880, p. 14)

Her relationship with Bishop William Meade

Bishop Meade of the Diocese of Virginia was a great influence to Mary while she was growing up. He was connected with the Protestant Episcopal Church of America and encouraged her to seek more than the earthly world could offer. In her early 20s, while she was still grieving the loss of her parents, figuring out how to take care of her younger siblings, and sorting through her purpose in life, she was also struggling with her religion. During this time, she spent time with Bishop Meade, talking with and confiding in him, which resulted in a lifelong commitment to God.

Go to next section, Life in Athens

Founding and Re-Founding Mary Baldwin University. (n.d.). Mary Baldwin University. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://marybaldwin.edu/about/history/2019-founders-day-speech/

Gillespie, J. B. (1988). Mary Briscoe Baldwin (1811–1877), Single Woman Missionary and “Very Much My Own. Anglican and Episcopal History, 57(1), 63–92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42610242

Pitman, E. R. (1880). Mission Life in Greece and Palestine: Memorials of Mary Briscoe Baldwin, Missionary to Athens and Joppa. Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.

Sparrow, W. (1867). A Memoir of the Life of the Right Rev. William Meade, D.D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. Innes.