Laying the Foundation: A review of Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism

As the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison laid a foundation for what would become the imposing edifice of today’s Chinese church. Morrison was quite conscious of his role, and worked deliberately to prepare for others, Chinese and Western, to follow. We have much to learn from him today.The basic facts are well known, and Hancock’s sparkling narrative presents them in a clear and orderly fasion. He relies primarily upon “a close re-reading” of the two-volume Memoirs of the Life and Labours of the late Robert Morrison, composed by his second wife Eliza, but draws freely upon other sources, both primary and secondary. From Eliza we learn of Morrison’s inner conflicts about work for the East India Company while trying also to fulfill his missionary calling, as well as intimate details of his family life. Morrison comes across as a real man, flawed, to be sure, and a bit stiff and formal at times, but devoted to his family, his mission and his Lord.For the record: Robert Morrison compiled an English-Chinese dictionary in several volumes; published a translation of the entire Bible in Chinese (with essential assistance from an existing translation of part of the New Testament, Chinese helpers, and William Milne); a grammar of the Chinese language; translations of the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts; several monographs and many shorter works on Chinese history, culture, literature, etc., along with translations of Chinese literary works; a history of Christian missions among the Chinese; a vocabulary of the Cantonese dialect; and several dozen other works in English and Chinese.The monumental literary achievements, not to mention other aspects of his ministry, which were all wrought in an atmosphere of constant pressure from Chinese and EIC, flowed from a man whose character is described as marked by “untiring perseverance,” “the most ardent zeal – [and] indefatigable diligence.” Beset by headaches, fatigue, and multiple physical ailments; always conscious that his Chinese helpers, his precious books and printing-blocks, and his own person could be at any time threatened by Chinese officials; restrained both by law and by the labor required by his job with the EIC; far from home and friends; working alone most of the time; longing for his family – Morrison started from almost nothing and built an edifice of scholarship surpassed by few.That is why Morrison’s own character forms a major sub-theme of this account of his life and work. Both his virtues and his shortcomings receive balanced attention. “His capacity to endure and consistency of vision are remarkable.” “For all his bullish single-mindedness and (to some) priggish self-righteousness, Morrison had a remarkable capacity to love and be loved.” Not surprisingly, “Morrison’s will often outran his body in later years. He was always better at exhausting himself than resting well.”Hancock refers often to the strong Calvinistic convictions which animated Morrison and which enabled him to endure repeated setbacks that would have sent a lesser man home. This same confidence in God’s benign, sovereign purposes fortified him against the awful losses of his beloved wife Mary and his close friend and colleague, William Milne. Not that he did not suffer from a “profound” grief when Mary died, such that Eliza could write that his “health and spirits suffered considerably for some time,” but that, in Hancock’s words, “as before, Morrison turned adversity into energy: ‘I purpose, by God’s grace, to be more and more devoted to the good cause’ although he recognized that ‘God alone can give success to the labours of Christian missionaries’.”The author also quite properly records the multi-faceted nature of Morrison’s activities, including, of course, his diligent service of the EIC, but also his care for both the physical and spiritual state and needs of seamen and other foreigners in Canton; his wide-ranging study of all that could be known about China – geography, history, literature, culture, flora and fauna, medicine, politics, etc.; his far-sighted foundation of t he Anglo-College in Malacca, the forerunner of what would become the vast educational enterprise of later missionaries; his assiduous promotion of China’s need for Christian missionaries; and his insistence that these be properly trained and educated.We glimpse Morrison’s realism in the way he both admired China’s ancient and rich culture, and sharply criticized the ways in which this culture ignored or violated God’s revealed truth. He was, after all, a Christian missionary, convinced that all peoples and cultures need the Gospel.We are presented here with a man whose broad-minded grasp of the complexities both of China itself and of any effective methods of reaching its people with the Gospel opened a path and set a pattern for thousands of others, down to the present.Hancock’s literary style makes this biography a delight to read.. A few examples must suffice:

Too astute to be a modern ‘fundamentalist’, he nevertheless believed his gospel true, his life dispensable, and his hopes of heaven secure.”“Battered alike by censure and praise, Morrison sought to hold firm, a gospel lighthouse in a dark, stormy world.”[On Morrison’s decision later in life to concentrate upon teaching Christianity to the Chinese] “Here the already ageing missionary restricted himself for the sake of achievement, his idealism bowing before realism and the passage of time. Here the eminent elder statesman of Southeast Asian Christianity defined a principle, a parameter, a priority for his heirs and successors; controversial to some, commendable to others. Here the wise servant, aware of ‘more’ opted for ‘less’ to achieve his pre-eminent ambition; namely, to teach Christianity to the Chinese.

Evaluation of Morrison

Critics, then and now, have questioned Morrison’s connection with the East India Company. While acknowledging Morrison’s ongoing agony over both the crushing work load entailed by employment with the EIC and the frustrations he felt at being associated with an enterprise which did not have the interests either of the Gospel or of the Chinese at heart, Hancock seems to accept at face value Morrison’s belief that he had no choice but to use his service to the Company as his principal means of support and only legal means of living in China.Both aspects of this have been challenged, however. Could Morrison not, like other missionaries, have relied on the London Missionary Society to provide for his material needs? More importantly, was residence in China itself necessary? His colleague William Milne, after a short time with Morrison in Canton, continued translation, preaching, and educational work in Malacca, far from the prying eyes of Qing secret police. Others followed the same course, laboring among the numerous Chinese population in South East Asia for decades, until the treaties imposed by the Western powers after two wars blasted open China’s doors to residence by merchants and missionaries alike.Binding himself to the EIC meant that Morrison had to live separately from his wife for half the year; it strained his health by forcing him to do his translation at night; and it tainted him – and the Western missionary movement - with the brush of both opium and gunboats from then until now.Morrison attached himself to the EIC in order to obtain legal residence in China. He remained in Canton when his second wife Eliza, never to see her again, for the same purpose – to die in China. But why this obsession with a physical presence in China? Could this have been part of some missionary ideal, rather than a necessary choice? Others worked well from the periphery of the closed Middle Kingdom. The same question might be asked of foreign Christians seeking to reach China today.Considering the damage done to the reputation of Christianity by its association with imperialism at its worst, and the lasting impact of the example of missionaries who, in the name of a “higher calling,” essentially neglected their wives and children, whom they dearly loved, one wonders whether Robert Morrison might have lived longer and accomplished even more of what he considered to be his primary mission had he trusted more in God’s provision to come through the LMS.I am not saying that it is wrong for Christians to engage in non-religious, “secular” work – far from it! But I wonder whether those whose primary purpose is to preach the Gospel should entangle themselves unnecessarily in the affairs of this world, especially those who are being sent out as missionaries. Other forms of work (medical, educational, commercial, diplomatic) are equally legitimate, and may be even more effective in bearing witness, and Christians should enter these fields. But should those who have been set aside for missionary service enter the country under such a guise, or bind themselves to fulfill these roles, just to have a “cover” for living in a China whose government does not allow direct “missionary” activity? This question, first raised by Morrison, his supporters, and his critics, challenges us still.That having been said, Christopher Hancock has given us a beautiful book about a great man, whose “ministry … managed the seemingly impossible conflicts of mind and heart, study and activity, isolation and engagement, obscurity and eminence, faith and work, law and grace.” In all this, we see “Morrison’s deeply intentional cross-shaped spirituality,” from which, as we said at the outset, we all have much to learn.

ReviewsJason Truell