Chinatown in NYC

Christianity in China

Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China

Review by Martha Stockment
Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China, Christopher A. Daily. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

C
hristopher Daily’s book on Robert Morrison is anything but a typical biography. In his work, Daily explores the ways in which Morrison was influenced by his missionary training and to what extent he carried out the plan handed to him by his instructor, Dr. David Bogue. Daily eschews the biographies that would portray Morrison as the founder of the Protestant strategy in China and shows that Morrison did not conceive of the plan for China and, instead, executed what he had been taught. Daily primarily relies on archival materials from the libraries in London, Edinburgh, and Hong Kong for his research rather than Eliza Morrison’s Memoirs, since her words are not without bias. By using the archival materials, Daily believes he can more fairly evaluate the truth of Eliza Morrison’s claims in her Memoirs.

This book offers us a critical narrative of Robert Morrison’s work in China and presents us with a different perspective on what Robert Morrison and William Milne did there. Daily credits David Bogue and his training academy at Gosport with the strategy Morrison implemented. Not wanting to take anything away from Morrison and his many accomplishments, Daily simply wishes to give long overdue credit to Bogue as the one who trained both Morrison and Milne.

Daily insists that we cannot understand Morrison without recognizing the influence of his missions education and seeing him through that lens. Morrison attended the Gosport Training Academy, founded by David Bogue, who belonged to the LMS. There, Bogue taught his students a three-pronged approach to missions: learn the language, translate the Scriptures, and establish a seminary, in that order. Morrison successfully implemented all three of these instructions during his time in China. Since Christopher Hancock’s superb biography has given such a detailed account of Morrison’s life and work, this review will focus on the main point of Daily’s volume: Morrison and Milne followed the instructions they were given by Bogue.

Daily opens the book by giving us an introduction to the background of the birth of British evangelicalism and the disappointment of the earliest attempts of the London Missionary Society (LMS). He describes the theory behind the failed South Seas Mission, which sent missionaries to Tahiti, Tonga, and the Marquesas Islands. These first missionaries were sent on the basis of an idea termed the “godly mechanic” strategy, which suggested that missionaries need only possess piety and zeal to be successful, and that further, specialized education was unnecessary. After the failure of these early missionaries, however, the LMS turned to David Bogue for a new mission strategy.

Bogue’s approach to missions included three years of systemized theological education at Gosport Academy. Having been influenced by the philosophical school of Scottish Realism founded by Thomas Reid, Bogue believed in the concept of common sense. This theory held that all humans possessed common sense (or the ability to identify reality and truth), and that if people were just given access to texts containing knowledge (specifically, Scripture), they would recognize the truths contained in them. As a consequence, Bogue thought that translating the Scriptures and giving people the tools to read those Scriptures was of the utmost importance. Once people had access to the Gospel and the ability to read it, Christianity would begin to grow in foreign countries. He taught his students that “The publication of books…spreads divine truth more extensively. Books may be carried far and wide where missionaries can not go.” (153)

Bogue imparted special missionary instructions to his students at Gosport, emphasizing the importance of conversation and preaching in exposing people to the Gospel. In addition to theology, Bogue instructed his students in a wide range of scientific and humanistic disciplines. He expected his pupils to reproduce his program for the natives once they built evangelical schools in their mission fields. His students received lessons they could teach abroad as well as copies of his lecture notes that they could distribute to their own students. Bogue believed that by establishing a local evangelical school, the missionaries could be successful in maintaining evangelicalism in the country of their assignment.

Morrison attended Bogue’s Gosport Academy for a period of fourteen months before he was appointed to China to acquire the language and translate the Scriptures. He received preliminary tutoring in Chinese from a man named Saam Tak in London. He continued studying the language on board the ship that carried him to Canton (Guangzhou). Upon arriving in China, Morrison found it difficult to find anyone willing to tutor him in Chinese, since the Chinese government had forbidden their people from teaching the language to any foreigners. He asked George Staunton, an official of the East India Company, for assistance, and Staunton helped Morrison connect with a Chinese convert to Roman Catholicism, who became Morrison’s language instructor. With the aid of this tutor, along with another Chinese Christian teacher, Morrison gradually acquired fluency in Chinese.

Towards the end of 1809, Morrison accepted the position of “The Office of Chinese Translator to the English Factory at Canton” with the East India Company. He struggled with his decision to work for the politically aggressive East India Company, but he needed the salary, and the job secured his legal residence in Canton. Although Bogue had advised his students to avoid the political arena, he had also given them the option of accepting employment if it worked towards the benefit of the mission. Morrison decided that the positives of accepting the position outweighed the negatives, as his duties would improve his language skills and the salary would benefit his mission. Throughout the rest of his time in China, however, Morrison struggled with the reality that his work robbed him of time he could otherwise spend translating Scriptures. Although he thought his decision was for the best, it was not without much reluctance that he accepted this position.

Lacking the time he desired to work on translation, Morrison employed the help of his two language tutors to begin the work of translating the Scriptures into Chinese, a strategy which had been suggested by Bogue. Morrison followed Bogue’s instructions about translations precisely, composing his texts in the order Bogue had suggested. He started his translations with the Bible, followed by a Chinese dictionary and grammar, and then commentaries and explanations of Scriptures.

The translation process was complex, and Morrison made slow progress. In time, he became concerned that he would not be able to complete the third step of Bogue’s mission strategy (founding a seminary) because the translations were taking so long. He asked the LMS for aid in his assignment. In response, the LMS deployed another missionary to Morrison’s aid: William Milne. Milne was charged with assisting Morrison in his translations and establishing a seminary. With Milne’s help, Morrison was able to finish his translation of the Bible, his composition of the Chinese-English dictionary, and his Chinese grammar. Milne also translated Bogue’s lecture notes for use in the seminary.

After assisting Morrison with these translations, Milne began to search for a suitable location for establishing the school. He selected Malacca as their base and began the work of constructing an academy there. The LMS deployed another missionary to Malacca to assist Milne in his printing work. This new missionary was not Gosport-trained, however, and Milne did not see eye-to-eye with him. Consequently, Morrison and Milne established a committee and drew up a series of resolutions to assert their administrative power over the operations in Malacca. This action became a source of controversy between Morrison and the LMS, who believed Morrison’s approach to religious education at the Anglo-Chinese College was too liberal. Eventually, this disagreement caused the LMS to virtually abandon Morrison.

In 1818, the first stone was laid for the foundation of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. The college opened its doors in 1820, and Milne taught his students using translations of Bogue’s lecture notes. Seventeen people completed the program before Milne died in 1822. Morrison took over the responsibility for the college in 1823, spending time in Malacca giving lectures to the students and expanding the school’s library with more translations. The library and curriculum at the Anglo-Chinese College essentially mirrored that of Gosport.

Morrison’s later years were spent training several locals in operating the printing press and composing evangelical texts. By preparing local converts to carry on Bogue’s mission strategy after he was gone, Morrison successfully completed all that Bogue had assigned him to do. The mission would not end with the departure or death of Morrison. The converts would carry on, founding new mission centers, distributing texts, continuing translations, and educating other local converts, “thus extending the circle wider and wider from year to year.” (190)

Morrison never deserted the Gosport strategy. He bought into it wholeheartedly and carried it out precisely. Despite losing the support of the LMS and the isolation that followed, Morrison was successful in his mission. By the time he died in 1834, he had completed Bogue’s assignments in full and China possessed a Chinese Bible, a selection of Chinese Protestant texts, and a handful of converts dedicated to spreading Christianity.

Daily’s purpose in this book is not to deny the monumental accomplishments of Morrison, but to ask how and why Morrison came to accomplish these things. Morrison indeed laid the foundation for future missionaries in China. When he arrived, China was hostile to missionaries, and Morrison had an uphill battle to fight. Over time, as he toiled away, he prepared the soil of China for future missionaries to come and share the gospel. Through his translations of Scriptures and other religious tracts, he spread the Good News farther than he would physically have been able to reach. By founding a seminary in Malacca, he was able to train up native Christians who could continue his work. Daily recognizes the part Morrison and Milne played in breaking new ground in China and does not wish to take away from their work, but wishes simply to shift some of the credit to Bogue. After all, it was Bogue who formulated the strategy Morrison followed, and it was that strategy that planted a unique Chinese Protestant religion. This is an important book for students of Chinese Protestantism to read in order to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the early missions to China.