Hudson Taylor and Missions to China: A Gallery of Gritty Pioneers
"Failed” first Protestant missionary
As he sailed into the port of Canton in 1807, 25-year-old Robert Morrison was filled with a driving passion to see the Chinese people come to know Christ. By the time he died in China 27 years later, however, he had baptized only ten Chinese. But if Morrison died discouraged, his pioneering work, which included a six-volume Chinese dictionary and a translation of the Bible, opened the door for other missionaries and thus for the millions of conversions he had only dreamed of.
Morrison was raised in a stern Scotch-Presbyterian home where reading missionary stories in a church magazine whetted his interest in foreign missions. His mother, however, made him promise not to go abroad while she was alive. Only after his mother died, during Morrison’s early twenties, did he take up ministerial training in London. After two years of study, he was accepted into the London Missionary Society. While waiting to find a male colleague to go with him to China, he studied language for one year with a Chinese scholar living in England. When no partner was forthcoming, Morrison left for China alone. He was forced to go via the United States, since the East India Company, which owned most of the English ships going to China, refused him passage.
Morrison’s lifelong relationship with the East India Company was one of mutual need and mutual distrust. The company guarded its commercial interests in China by strictly refusing to let Westerners such as Morrison evangelize. They feared missionaries would offend their Chinese trade partners. But after Morrison’s arrival in China, company officials learned of his language skills and hired him as a translator. They gave Morrison a salary but also attempted to restrict his missions activities. In 1815, for example, the company threatened to deport him when it learned that Morrison had completed, in secret, a translation of the New Testament.
In 1809 Morrison married Mary Morton. After six years and two children, a seriously ill Mary returned to England with their children. It was six years before they returned to Canton to see their father and husband. When Mary died, Morrison sent the children back to England, and three years later traveled there himself for his first and only furlough. When he returned to Canton, he brought with him the children and a new wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had four more children and a happy marriage.
In 1834, two months after pioneer missionary William Carey’s death in India, Morrison died. When as a young man Morrison had first sailed to China, he was asked, “Do you really expect to make an impression on the idolatry of the great Chinese empire?” In reply, Morrison spoke more prophetically than he knew: “No, sir, but I expect God will.”
Karl F.A. Gützlaff
One historian described him as, variously, “a saint, a crank, a visionary, a true pioneer, and a deluded fanatic.” Karl Gützlaff provides a poignant example of how Christ is preached even through those with many shortcomings.
In the waning years of Robert Morrison’s life, a younger, equally zealous Gützlaff was skirting the coast of China in his boat, delivering Chinese tracts translated by Morrison. The free-lance missionary had recently lost his wife and daughter after several years of mission work in Indonesia and Thailand.
By the late 1840s, the reports from Gützlaff’s work in China were glowing: the 300 Chinese Gützlaff had trained to evangelize China in one generation had distributed thousands of New Testaments and counted no fewer than 2,871 baptized converts. Supporters back home were enthusiastic—until the hoax was discovered in 1850.
Gützlaff was in Europe promoting his mission work at the time, but evidence suggests he already knew he had been deceived by his Chinese workers. They had concocted the conversion numbers and had secretly sold back to the printer New Testaments Gützlaff had paid to have printed in the first place. The printer would sell them again to an unsuspecting Gützlaff.
More serious still: for fear of losing financial support, Gützlaff chose to gloss over the growing discrepancies. When this all came to light, he was disgraced. A disheartened Gützlaff returned to China to try and pick up the pieces. One year later he died.
If history judges Gützlaff as a “deluded fanatic,” it must add that he was a fool and a fanatic for Christ. In Indonesia and in Thailand (where he and his wife translated the complete Bible into Siamese) and in China, he was foolish enough to dress, eat, and live like those he sought to evangelize—a radical step in his day. He deftly blended evangelism with social concern, as when he helped to negotiate the end to the First Opium War, in 1842.
And though the mission organization he founded, Chinese Union, died with him, out of its soil grew the Chinese Evangelization Society, which sent Hudson Taylor to China in 1853, only two years after Gützlaff’s death. Taylor himself remembered and honored Gützlaff by calling him “the grandfather of the China Inland Mission.”
Greatest evangelist to China
Jonathan Goforth lay bleeding after having been hacked in the back, neck, and head with a sword. He thought surely he would be the next of the dozens of China missionaries to be killed during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. But miraculously he survived, and with his wife, Rosalind, fled south to safety—to continue a missionary life that would earn him one historian’s accolade as “China’s most outstanding evangelist.”
His strategy (which Rosalind at first objected to for the sake of their children’s health), was to spend one month evangelizing in one region or city, leaving behind a native evangelist to nurture the new believers. Once or twice a year, they returned to these sites to encourage the fledgling congregations.
Jonathan was known for his ceaseless energy. Often he preached eight hours a day, on several occasions to crowds of 25,000 people. The Goforths’ itinerant work took them for a time to Manchuria and Korea, but their most lasting impact was in China, where more than 13,000 Chinese became Christians between 1908 and 1913.
In 1918 he led a Pentecostal-type revival attended by a number of Chinese soldiers, including the Christian General Feng Yu-hsiang. After two weeks of preaching, a Communion service was held for nearly 5,000 officers and soldiers.
The Goforths endured their share of controversy and heartache. During the 1920s, when the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy reached a crescendo, Goforth battled younger Presbyterian missionaries whom he said preached a watered-down gospel. They also buried five of their eleven children on Chinese soil.
The Goforths finally retired to Canada in 1934 after 74-year-old Jonathan had already lost his eyesight. Less than two years later, Jonathan died.
Patron saint of Southern Baptist Missions.
The best man among our missionaries.” That’s how the Southern Baptist Missions’ journal hailed Lottie Moon, 72, when she died on Christmas Eve, 1912, after a lifetime of work in China. Moon had bucked the chauvinist limitations placed on missionary women. She also succeeded in rooting the gospel among the Chinese in ways unprecedented in Baptist missions.
Reared in an aristocratic Virginian family during the Civil War, this highly cultured and educated Southern belle made an unlikely missionary candidate: she viewed Christianity with skepticism during her college years. But her family influenced her even more. She had an uncle, James Barclay, who was the first Christian Church missionary to Jerusalem, a devout mother, who prayed for her salvation, and a younger sister, who preceded Moon to China (by several years) and would eventually invite Moon to join her. Moon experienced a crisis conversion during her graduate studies, then taught school for several years while she prepared to follow her sister to China. She refused a marriage proposal from C. H. Toy, a man with missionary plans of his own and a future Harvard professor: though she loved him, she didn’t think his acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution made them a good match.
In China she served as a school teacher but soon felt this traditional woman’s role limited her evangelistic gifts. “Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust,” she wrote in the Baptist missions periodical, “the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls. She add“What women want who come to China is free opportunity to do the largest possible work. . . . What women have a right to demand is perfect equality.”
Differing philosophically with her male field director in China, Moon, now a seasoned missionary and 44 years old, moved to P'ing-tu, where she attempted to begin a church. Initially the work was difficult and discouraging, but soon Moon reported she had found “something I had never seen before in China. Such eagerness to learn! Such spiritual desires!” And, she added, “Surely there can be no deeper joy than that of saving souls.”
One such soul was Li Shou Ting, who became pastor of the church and, in the two decades that followed, baptized more than a thousand converts.
This joy, however, turned to despair during a severe famine in Henchow. She spent her last years pleading for funds and food for the starving thousands. With little help forthcoming from the United States, she emptied her own bank account, but still there was so much need. She lapsed into depression and quit eating. Her health declined, and finally she died.
Nonetheless, her legacy lives on. Eighty five years after her death, the Southern Baptists annually raise millions of mission dollars through the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.”
John and Betty Stam
Martyrs who inspired a generation of missionaries.
As John and Betty Stam were led to certain execution by their communist captors, someone asked, “Where are you going?”
After saying he didn’t know where the guards were going, John added, “But we’re going to heaven.”
John and Betty Stam met at Moody Bible Institute, where both felt God calling them to missions in China. A year after Betty returned to China, where her parents were veteran missionaries, John followed but was stationed in a different region. A year later, on October 25, 1933, the two married, and in September 1934, they became the proud parents of Helen Priscilla.
Three months later, when 2,000 communists mounted a surprise attack on Tsingteh (Ching-te), where the Stams lived, John, Betty and the baby were taken into custody. For several days, they were watched closely, but John was allowed to send letters to CIM headquarters. In one letter, he relayed their captors’ demand for a $20,000 ransom and then closed with, “The Lord bless you and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.”
They were aware of the strong anti-Western, anti-Christian sentiments of the Red Army, but they were nevertheless shocked when they overheard the soldiers discussing how to dispose of their baby. On the morning of December 8, as the solders prepared to kill Helen Priscilla, a farmer who had heard about their situation, stepped forward and pleaded for the baby’s life. The farmer was told it would be his life for hers, and he agreed. He was killed on the spot.
The next morning, as Betty was bathing Helen, they were suddenly forced to leave the house—without the baby. Stripped to their undergarments, the two were paraded down the street, and a crowd gathered as they were sentenced to death. A Chinese doctor, a Christian, made a last-minute plea for their lives; without hesitation the communists condemned him to death. In turn, John begged for mercy for the doctor, to no avail. Then John and Betty were ordered to their knees, and in quick succession, both were beheaded.
Christians around the world learned of the young missionaries’ deaths as well as of a daring rescue by Chinese Christians of baby Helen—which included a hundred-mile trek with Helen hidden in a rice basket to deliver her to her grand-parents.
Despite serving only three years, John and Betty Stam inspired a generation through their courageous martyrdom. Hundreds volunteered for missionary service following the publication of the Stams’ biography. CH
By Kevin D. Miller
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #52 in 1996]Kevin D. Miller is assistant editor of Christianity Today.
Trying to Break Loose
It took some doing for Chinese Protestants to get free of missionary control.Daniel H. Bays
Was It Worth It?
Western Protestants poured money and people into China for a hundred years. Did it make a significant difference?the Editors
Interview — The Miracles after Missions
The missionaries are forgotten, but the prospects for Chinese Christianity have never looked better.Kim-Kwong Chan
What do you pack if you’re going to China as a British missionary in 1865?the Editors
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate