Mary Lyon

(Pioneer Christian Educator)

"She sought to have God's law so hidden in the heart that no direct exercise of authority would be required, and thus to govern from within rather than from without." 

"She assumed that all had a benevolent spirit."

Quotations of Mary Lyons

"Selfishness is our greatest enemy."

"When in doubt which of two courses to take, follow that which involves the most self-denial. You will then find yourself in the safe and happier path."

"Jesus was never seeking a place where to live, but a place where he could deny himself for others."

"Go where no one else will go, not seeking the praise of man, but the favor which comes from God only." 

"Could I so plead in behalf of the perishing heathen that all our missionary concerts should be filled with hearts prostrate together before God, it might not be so important a duty for me as to carry my own feeble petition to the throne of mercy, and there in the name of our blessed Redeemer plead the promises with an earnestness which cannot be denied."

"Be perfect in all the requirements here," she used to say, "and you will have power to control yourself any where." 

"If work needs to be done, and no one wants to do it, that is the work for you. Much of the work of the world, if done at all, must be done for love - not for pecuniary returns."

"The throwing out of your whole soul in powerful, disinterested, vigorous action for others, no matter how self-denying, will make you receive a hundred-fold even in this life."

"Loving self supremely continually disappoints."

"Privilege and responsibility go hand in hand." 

"It is a serious thing to live, to have responsibility not only for your own life, but for your conscious and unconscious influence. No act and no word can be known to be without future consequences." 

"Parents often speak of a child's possessing a strong will as a very great calamity. It is certainly a calamity to have an unsubdued will, but a blessing to have strong desires yielded to a higher and holier will."

"Never speak lightly of a pupil."

"Lively girls—rightly directed—do the best work."

"The seminary is his, built by his direction."

"Avoid every unnecessary exposure of ... faults."

"I felt that in the sight of God, my duty in my own little sphere and with my own feeble ability was more to me than the duty of all the world besides. Could I call thousands into the treasury of the Lord, it might not be so important a duty for me as to give from my own purse that last farthing which God requires."

"The yielding of the will to the parent or teacher is often the schoolmaster that leads to Christ. Thank God if you have learned to submit your will to that of your parents."

"We can train benevolent workers only by being benevolent ourselves. The Levites had no portion among the tribes; the Lord was their inheritance; but out of their living they gave their tithes to the Lord. Let us live in the same spirit."

Mary Lyon's Life

A Brief Biography

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) was a pioneer educator, who established the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, MA, and the Mount Holyoke School in South Hadley, MA, and promoted an educational philosophy that combined intellectual rigor and moral/spiritual development. Some of her students took their training and her educational philosophy, and established schools in other places such as the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington, South Africa, and the school developed by Fedelia Fiske in Persia.

Mary Lyon had a challenging childhood as a result of losing her father at the age of six. As a result the entire family had to work hard to keep things going. At the age of 13 her mother remarried and moved away, leaving a brother Aaron in charge, for whom Mary kept house. She attended various schools in the area, and began teaching in 1814. Later she attended Sanderson Academy in Ashland, and Byfield Seminary in eastern, MA. At Byfield she adopted the headmaster’s philosophy of academic rigor and Christian commitment. 

In 1822 she was baptized into the Congregational Church. Following this she taught at academies, including one of her own in Buckland. It was during this time that she refined the educational philosophy that was eventually used in establishing the school at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Mount Holyoke opened in 1837. Seeking to maintain high academic standards, she had entrance exams, admitted no students under the age of 16, limited tuition to $60/year—which was about 1/3 of the going rate, and required students to help with domestic tasks. Soon the school had 200 students.

She died on March 5, 1849 from a disease that may have been contracted from one of the students she was caring for.—Adapted from Wiki

Mary Lyon's Conversion

It was a beautiful Sabbath afternoon of May, 1816, in which Mary Lyon first said, with full heart, “Abba, Father”; “Jesus my Saviour.” Her home was in the humble cottage at the foot of the hill. She had that day, as was her wont, mingled with the worshipers in the little Baptist church at the Three Corners. Good old Elder Smith talked both morning and afternoon of the character and government of God. At the close of the last service, the silver-haired man rose to bless his flock. He gazed upon them for a moment with more than paternal interest, and then said with deep solemnity, “Remember, my friends, it is a fearful thing and a very wicked thing, too, not to love such a God as I have told you about to-day.” The fatherly hand was raised; there was heard “Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all”; and the congregation scattered. Mary took the “wild winding way” to her home. She trod that way but slowly, for her heart was too full for haste. As she approached the dwelling, an inexpressible feeling of tenderness stole over her. She remembered a scene in the “north room” thirteen years before, when, a little child of six years, she heard her dying father say with faltering voice: “My dear children. What shall I say to you? God bless you, my children!” and then he was parted from them. The never-to-be-forgotten prayers of her mother passed before her and she exclaimed, “Why should I not be blessed of my parents’ God?” and turned away from her home to the hilltop to be alone with her Father in heaven. She dwelt upon his wisdom, holiness, mercy, and justice till peace came to her troubled soul and she exclaimed, “O God, thy ways are perfect; be thou my Father and the guide of my youth, my everlasting portion.” Her heart now melted in love to him who had reconciled her to his Father and her Father. She looked upon the far off mountains in all their grandeur, on the deep valleys with the widely extended plains and the smiling villages below, and then thought of the kingdoms of the world, and, to use her own words, “longed to lay them all at the feet of him who had redeemed her.” Twelve years afterward she wrote, “I remember that moment as though it were but yesterday.”

The desire which she thus felt and expressed at the age of nineteen was to become the inspiration of her life, but unbounded thirst for knowledge deferred for a time a life of consecration. At Byfield five years later, the self-classification, which Mr. Emerson desired of his pupils, brought her to face the question of her personal relationship to God. She was greatly agitated, for though the friends of Christ were her chosen friends, she had not consciously classed herself among them. She did so then only after much deliberation, and with fear and trembling; but she was grateful ever after that she had been called to meet this test. Its salutary effect upon herself led to a carefully guarded use of the same measure in her own schools.—Adapted from Recollections of Mary Lyon, by Fidelia Fiske

Mary Lyons on Various Subjects

On God's Will:

"We are so constituted that we have strong desires. We would not have it otherwise. But we would have our desires lost in God’s will. Parents often speak of a child’s possessing a strong will as a very great calamity. It is certainly a calamity to have an unsubdued will, but a blessing to have strong desires yielded to a higher and holier will. The yielding of the will to the parent or teacher is often the schoolmaster that leads to Christ. Thank God if you have learned to submit your will to that of your parents. You have had but little occasion to practice submission now, but I trust yon will treasure up this passage of Scripture in your hearts and practice it all your lives. You will often be called to yield your will where you least expected it, and perhaps to those to whom you would not naturally yield it. This is often true in the family relations. Unhappiness in domestic circles might almost always be avoided, if there were only those found to say from the heart, “ Not my will, but thine be done.” 

"We may, perhaps, be submissive to the will of God in great events, where we can see his hand, but when his will is made known through the agency of man, find ourselves unsubmissive. This should not be so. His providence makes known his will, and not his audible voice. All that is sent upon you is at his bidding, and he stands ready to help you to know no will but his. We may become like little children, willing to be led just where God would have us go. When we find ourselves ready to give up even lawful pleasures and possessions, how happy is our life! When we can relinquish health and friends and our smile not be disturbed, how much we enjoy them! I think our feelings are somewhat like those of Abraham and Sarah when Isaac was given back to them from Moriah. It is a blessed life to be conscious of doing all we do because God would have it done, and feeling that all we possess is his, and if taken from us will still be found in safe keeping.—From Recollections of Mary Lyons by Fidelia Fiske

On Seeking the Things of the Spirit:

"He who sows to the Spirit and denies himself will have an increase of happiness and great spiritual growth, while those who sow to the flesh, loving self, reap only corruption. The most wretched beings in this world are those who think only of themselves, having no interest in others. How many do we see around us seeking for ease, honor, pleasure, or improvement, just to gratify self. If their object is attained there comes little of happiness with it, because all is expended upon self. We ought to turn the current of feeling toward others. Let it flow out in a thousand streams. How much happier you will be to live in a thousand than to live in yourself alone. The throwing out of your whole soul in powerful, disinterested, vigorous action for others, no matter how self-denying, will make you to receive a hundred-fold even in this life. It is our duty to exhibit to the universe a being enjoying all the happiness for which we were created. How is this to be done? By a forgetfulness of self, and devotion of thought, time, feeling, and money to the interests of others. Thus there will be a constantly-increasing inward realization of real happiness. No one, let him do all he can for others, can make the sacrifice that Christ has made for us. His natural life was as dear to him as any one’s, but he gave it all for the good of others. Selfishness contains within itself a canker-worm. Loving self supremely continually disappoints.

"Selfishness is our greatest enemy. We may be in danger of following the advice of friends who would lead us to practice less self-denial. I should be afraid to dissuade any one from exercising self-denial. If a sister or a friend is inclined to give up some article of dress, that she may give more to a benevolent object, although she may scarcely meet your ideas of respectability without it, do nothing to change her inclination. If one has or has not a desire to practice self-denial, do nothing which may prevent the exercise of it. The act brings a rich reward, the most blessed recompense that can be asked.

"When in doubt which of two courses to take, follow that which involves the most self-denial. You will then find yourself in the safer and happier path, and walking with Him who denied himself for our sakes. We are told many times in the Bible that we are not to seek our own ease, that our life does not consist in the abundance of the things we possess. We are taught to renounce self. We should first give ourselves to Christ, and then seek, like him, to do good to all about us. He was never seeking a place where to live, but a place where he could deny himself for others.—From Recollections of Mary Lyons, p. 229-331, by Fidelia Fiske

On Benevolence:

"In gifts of charity, she valued less the amount than intelligent and prayerful interest in the call for it, and the habit of liberality with the means at disposal whether large or small; and therefore kept her pupils informed concerning the progress of the Lord's work at home and abroad and gave them the opportunity to share in its support. She thought it essential to the cultivation of right principles that students while spending for themselves should also spend for the Lord, not excusing themselves under the plea that the personal outlay was to fit them for the Lord's service, lest they form the habit of feeling that their offerings must first serve themselves."

"Inculcating the spirit of David, who would not offer to the Lord that which cost him nothing, she taught how to look for ways of economy and self-denial, and not only enabled those to find them who thought they had nothing to give, but made giving a matter not of impulse, but of principle; and believing that "practice makes more lasting impression than any amount of instruction without it," she provided stated opportunities for offering gifts to the Lord through well approved channels, and herself set a worthy example."

Mary Lyon's Methods

Mary Lyon designed her seminary to train woman for the greatest possible usefulness, which included receiving the best possible education, being molded in the likeness of Christ and being trained for His service. 

Teachers were not only educators, but “moral architects.”

She was strongly committed to physical, mental and moral self-reliance. She recognized that spiritual growth was progressive and adapted her methods accordingly.

Lyon also wanted her students to enjoy good health, believing that a sound mind and a sound body went together, and accordingly sought a healthful location that would have an unfailing supply of pure water, and make sure the rooms had good lighting, ventilation and heating. She tried to provide the best wholesome food available, and tried to make sure that everything was done in the most sanitary way. She required regular hours for meals, rising and retiring, daily work, and exercise in the open air. She also wanted the students to have suitable clothing for the climate. 

The studies prescribed not only developed the imagination and refined the taste, but also strengthened the practical faculties, matured the understanding, and established a firm foundation for a moral character. Reviews were made weekly for every study before students moved on to the next, and a certain standard had to be met to advance. The students recited on the topic four days per week, which helped with the written essays which were required the last day of the week. Appeals for excellence were always directed to the highest motives, thus minimizing competition.

Mary Lyon wanted every student to succeed, but wished that only those who would be a blessing to the world would complete the course. Regardless of whether a person graduated or not, she earnestly desired that all would attain a higher moral standard as a result of attending her school.—a brief adaptation from the first part of Methods Adopted at Mount Holyoke Seminary by Sarah Stoke.

Books About Mary Lyon

Beth Gilchrist: The Life of Mary Lyon

(Probably the book read by the Murray family in South Africa)

Fidelia Fiske: Recollections of Mary Lyon

(Includes much primary source material)

Edward Hitchcock: The Power of Christian Benevolence

(An excellent early biography of Mary Lyon)

A Returned Missionary: Woman and Her Saviour in Persia

(About one of Mary Lyon's students who worked in Persia)

Mrs. John Douglas: Life Story of Mary Lyon

(Another biography on her life)