The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy

The invitation to write a review of the new two-volume edition of this magisterial work came as I was about one-third of the way through Volume Six of the previous version. Having gone through the whole set two times now, I am even more convinced that this is a marvelous book about a great man and the movement which he led.

The Man

That James Hudson Taylor, FRCS, deserves the epithet ‘great’ is undisputed. At his death, those who had known him long and well during his many temptations bore eloquent testimony to his character, conduct, and contribution to the spread of the Gospel among China’s millions. Let us savor a few extracts:W.A.P. Martin, with whom Taylor disagreed on several important points, called him “the Loyola of Protestant missions in China’ and “added that like Martin Luther he needed no honorific title.”His successor spoke of Taylor’s “complete consecration to the fulfillment of his divinely-appointed trust and calling… We can witness to his beautiful character… the sources of his influence lay… in his humility, love and sympathy.”The pioneer missionary and eminent sinologist Griffith John said, “It was impossible to come into close contact with Mr Taylor without feeling that he was not an ordinary man and that as a Christian he towered far above most men… God and His love; Christ and His Cross, the Gospel as God’s one remedy for China and the whole world, were realities to him. His trust in God was implicit…He lived in Christ and Christ lived in him…His heart was full of love.”One close companion observed that “Hudson Taylor was gifted with remarkable powers of organization. He paid the greatest attention to detail.”Other comments: “He did a mighty work for China, and he did a mighty work for the Church at home.” He was “a great missionary, a great leader of missions, and in a very profound sense a prince in the Church of Christ.”A colleague of many decades, whom Taylor had passed over to follow him as leader of the CIM, offered this tribute:His meekness and lowliness of mind… made him pre-eminently gracious, gentle, and courteous in his bearing to all.. Besides his long seasons of private devotion in the stillness of the night or early morning… ‘Pray without ceasing’ was his constant habit in considering any question or difficulty…Taylor was a man of simple faith, but not a simpleton. As a Non-conformist (i.e., non-Anglican) he could not study at Cambridge or Oxford, but in order to matriculate as a student at London University Medical College, he had to demonstrate “his general education” by a mastery of Latin, Greek, French, German, history, mathematics, and a variety of sciences. Daily, he searched the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, and went through the English Bible annually for forty years. Reading widely, especially in medicine, throughout his life, he impressed everyone around him with his amazing “sanity,” broad knowledge, and good sense, but above all by a sanctity of life and singleness of purpose as rare then as they are now.The familiar story comes alive once more in the author’s graceful prose. He describes Taylor’s parentage, childhood, conversion (through the prayers of his mother and sister), and call to serve among the Chinese. We read of his intentional preparation for a life of dependence on God alone; of his rigorous self-denial; his regular ministry of evangelism among the poor of England. The picture that emerges presages no ordinary life.Apprenticeship to a surgeon in England is followed by several years as a medical missionary in China with the inept Chinese Missionary Society. There he served both with a veteran physician, and with intrepid itinerant missionaries who taught how to get out among the people, preaching and selling Christian literature. His lifelong commitment to widespread sowing of the Gospel grew from those first few years, as did his later founding of a Mission built upon trust in God to provide funds, not upon the vain promises of men.

The Mission

The China Inland Mission began in 1865 with only a name and ten pounds in the bank, and grew into the largest Protestant society in China, if not the world, by the time of Taylor’s death in 1905. Often criticized then and now, its principles and practices receive both full description and reasoned defense, remarkably objective coming from a member of CIM’s successor organization, OMF. (Disclaimer: As a former member of OMF, I cannot be fully unbiased in this assessment, even though I am not uncritical of either Taylor or the CIM.)Rather than being fanatical folly, Taylor’s insistence that no funds should be solicited grew from his desire not to draw support from established agencies, as well as his belief that “God’s work, done in God’s way, will not lack God’s supply.” Influenced by his friend and supporters, he took the “faith principle” to new heights of apparent “risk” and demonstrated the efficacy of prayer and the faithfulness of a prayer-hearing God. OMF International, successor to the CIM, fields a thousand workers in Asia in the same way today.In particular, Broomhall shows how Taylor’s passion for evangelizing the unreached millions of China’s inland was meant to be followed by systematic, steady work in cities, towns, and villages. Kenneth S. Latourette’s picture of the CIM as merely a band of traveling preachers is shown to be woefully inadequate.Furthermore, the CIM, like other foreign organizations, depended heavily upon Chinese colporteurs, evangelists, and pastors to reach their own people. Never did they imagine that a healthy Chinese church would spring from foreign soil.Or foreign control. Taylor agreed with the genuine “self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating” methods of his close friend Nevius, and sought to incorporate them into CIM mission strategy and tactics from the very beginning – long before the “Three Self-Patriotic Movement” was organized under the supervision of the Communist government.Broomhall candidly relates the disagreements between Taylor and W.A.P. Martin on the admissibility of ancestor worship, and Timothy Richard on the methods and goals of missions. But he also reminds us that these men remained friends for life, and gives ample evidence that Taylor’s “conservative” approach reaped a far greater and more lasting spiritual harvest.At the same time, we read of the heroic and sacrificial labors of Taylor and other CIM missionaries to relieve human suffering and advance Chinese society. From a small start, medical work grew into a major component of CIM work. Famine relief occupied time, energy, and money during times of crisis. Hundreds of schools for children of Christians (and many non-believers as well) prepared them for making a contribution to society, and Bible schools equipped workers for the church.Taylor did not support the establishment of “Christian” universities, for he foresaw that they would graduate people only nominally connected with Christ or his church. Broomhall cites evidence from a variety of sources to show that very few graduates from the mission-sponsored universities become active Christians; they were more committed to modernization than to Christ.When the foreign powers imposed crushing indemnities upon China for the huge loss of life and property during the Boxer Rebellion (the story of which is recounted in moving detail), Taylor instructed his mission to take not a penny, preferring rather to accept suffering and robbery without retaliation or recompense. Stunned Chinese rewarded this attitude with even greater openness to the Gospel.To bring the story up to date (as of 1988), the author covers the tumults of twentieth century and the triumph of “The Chinese church that would not die.” A participant in some of the events, he writes with sustained eloquence combined with cool passion, creating a narrative that virtually flies and leaves the reader moved with awe and gratitude for what God has done in China. At the end, he is forced to point out that the repeated accusations of the Communists, as well as some of the leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, against Hudson Taylor, are simply silly.

The Book

Broomhall chronicles the life of Taylor and the growth of the China Inland Mission in meticulous detail, drawing upon archives and previously-unused letters, as well as standard histories such as John K. Fairbank’s volume in the Cambridge History of China. The new edition retains all the previous content, but in a format which is much easier to read. The original line drawings and black-and-white photos are quaint but effective. Copious notes document the sources and substantiate the account.Sadly, the omission of the extensive index of the original deprives the new set of much of the previous ready research value. This lack will be remedied in the future with a separate publication, I am told..Broomhall’s work has been criticized for (1) excessive length, (2) a reverential, even uncritical, attitude towards Taylor, and (3) occasional inaccuracies or infelicities of style.(1) True, the set is very long! Broomhall anticipates this criticism, and invites someone to make an abridgment, but he believed that the full story needed to be told in detail in order to convey a sense of the magnitude of the achievement of Taylor and his early colleagues.(2) Not having known Taylor personally, I cannot judge the accuracy of the author’s portrait, which is certainly less hagiographical than the typically nineteenth-century treatment of his son and daughter-in-law. Considering the evaluation of those who knew him well, both friend and foe; the character of the organization which grew out of his personal life and work; and the lasting nature of his contribution, our difficulty may rather be with the rarity of people like Hudson Taylor.(3) No one now would repeat the earlier use of the word “occupy” to describe a missionary’s settling down in a particular place, or employ the military metaphors for the advance of the Gospel. Further, fresh information has come to light since he did his historical research in the 1970s and 80s. One would want to make full use of newer works by specialists, including Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China, and Fairbanks’ China: A New History.The new title (chosen by the publisher, not the author) is both ambitious and controversial. I prefer the original one. Will the unwary think that Broomhall has attempted a comprehensive history, as Spence and Fairbank succeeded in writing? Or that Taylor aimed at a “modern” China, as did Timothy Richard? Still, we cannot deny that the spread of Protestant Christianity during “China’s Open Century” had a powerful impact upon the nation, and that Hudson Taylor and the CIM played a pivotal role in that epochal development.All in all, I believe that Broomhall has given us an outstanding work that will remain an invaluable resource for years to come. The two-volume biography by Taylor’s son and daughter-in-law (available also in abridged form under various titles), Taylor’s own autobiography of his early years, John Pollock’s imaginative Hudson Taylor and Maria, the beautiful new pictorial Christ Alone, and especially Roger Steer’s Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ, all have their considerable value. But I think that I shall continue to pick up Broomhall’s book whenever I need to fix my eyes on a larger goal, and a greater God.

ReviewsJason Truell