China's Millions: The China Inland Mission and Late Qing Society, 1832-1905


This review was posted some time ago, but recent recommendations of China's Millions present an opportunity for re-posting the review.

Alvyn Austin is a Canadian who has written extensively on missionaries from Canada. His earlier work, Saving China, established him as an authority on the Canadian missionary movement in China. His parents were members of the China Inland Mission.

Although containing much useful information, some illuminating insights, and a fresh perspective on the early years of the China Inland Mission, this revisionist history is almost fatally flawed by a profound prejudice that prevents objectivity in dealing with the sources and leads to misinterpretation and at times even misrepresentation.

Before looking at examples of the serious faults of this book, let us glance at the content and acknowledge some of the merits of Austin’s rendering of the story.


China’s Millions traces the life of Hudson Taylor from his birth in Barnsley to his death in China. Along the way, he describes the growth of the China Inland Mission from a tiny bank account to a huge “octopus” with tentacles extending throughout China, Great Britain, Europe, North America, and the lands Down Under.

Because of its intrinsic interest, its importance to the CIM, and its role as the incubator for many of the CIM’s leaders, the province of Shanxi receives most of Austin’s attention. Here we meet rebellious members of the CIM; Taylor’s antagonist Timothy Richard; the remarkable Pastor Hsi (Xi Shengmo, “Conqueror of Demons”); the colorful Cambridge Seven, including one of the few characters Austin seems to admire, D.E. Hoste; the murderous Boxers, abetted by the villainous governor Yu Hsien (Yuxian); and the intrepid Trio – Mildred Cable and the French sisters.

Austin has certainly mined the available sources for all sorts of data which shed light upon the rise and growth of the largest mission in China.

Helpful charts show the geographical and denominational background of members admitted to the North American branch in the 19th century. Research into the religious background of the first adherents to Protestant churches reveals that those coming from reformist Buddhist and Daoist sects often made the quickest and most zealous converts.

The author carefully tracks the career of numerous lesser-known members of the CIM, and reveals how many of them were crushed by the rigors of cross-cultural living. The famous “Cambridge Seven” are followed closely, and much of the romanticism surrounding them is dispelled by the light of fact. Drawing upon a variety of sources, he paints a grisly picture of the horrors endured during the Boxer Rebellion.

After a bitter experience in his early years, Hudson Taylor held to the principle of not seeking protection from foreign governments or reparations from the Qing government for losses sustained at the hands of local violence. Austin shows how this policy departed from that of most missions, especially after the Boxer Rebellion.

Official minutes and personal letters shed light upon the tensions between CIM leaders in America and England, and the difficult choices Hudson Taylor had to make as General Director. Different accounts of the same incidents highlight the inevitable editorial processes which have colored the history of the mission.

Extensive research into the use of morphia to wean opium addicts from their habit leads to a new view of Pastor Hsi and the opium refuges run by him and by the CIM. Austin wonders whether morphine was merely substituted for opium, and whether many of the so-called “converts” who had been “delivered” from opium were in fact merely made into morphine addicts.

Austin is at his best when he explains the theological and sociological factors involved in the expansion and composition of the CIM and similar evangelical organizations. Likewise, he helps us understand some of the sociological and religious background to the spread of Christianity among Shanxi’s peasants. He pens a starkly somber narrative - “warts and all” - of a wide variety of missionaries, some of them quite idiosyncratic.

Major themes in the narrative include the use of the “wordless book” to share the gospel among illiterate people; the rise of “fundamentalism”; the role of demon exorcism and healing in the work of Pastor Hsi and CIM missionaries, and the challenge this posed for staid Victorian Christianity; the conflicts between North American and British leaders.

Austin quite rightly points out the severe strain that life in the CIM imposed on some marriages. In particular, a stringent furlough policy sometimes kept couples apart.


Overall, and with some exceptions, China’s Millions presents a generally negative description and interpretation of Hudson Taylor and his immediate family; Pastor Hsi; Henry Frost; and the CIM as an organization.

Austin’s chief complaint seems to be that the sources – essential material for the historian – have been tainted, doctored, or destroyed. From the tone of his treatment, one is led to believe that, from the very beginning, leaders of the CIM sought to prevent the truth from being told. Only an approved, sanitized version was allowed to see the light of day. The resulting hagiographical accounts need to be de-constructed and reinterpreted to give us an accurate picture.

Modern readers do cringe at the “sweetness and light” of Victorian biographies. No one could have been that good!

Furthermore, Austin appears to cite hard evidence for this claim, citing even “the official historian,” A.J. Broomhall, who “used terms like ‘a conspiracy of silence,’ and ‘cocoons of silence’” (16).

The problems with this blanket charge are several and serious, however.

Austin spots a conspiracy behind almost every bush, even where neutral observers would perceive only or typical Victorian biography. This was, after all, the period of the “great man” theory of history.

When we turn to the actual pages on which Broomhall’s words are found, we discover that “conspiracy of silence” echoes an often-voiced criticism that, in its effort to avoid public solicitation of funds, the CIM even withheld information about actual financial needs from potential donors. “Cocoon of silence” merely describes Taylor’s ability to concentrate in a noisy environment!

Austin refers repeatedly to Hudson Taylor’s “authoritarian” style of leadership. But A.J. Broomhall has effectively refuted this old charge with quotations from Taylor’s instructions to his lieutenants in China and his private correspondence to his wife and others (The Shaping of Modern China, Volume II, 529-530, and elsewhere, including numerous passages showing how Taylor dealt with difficult missionaries). Broomhall’s conclusion: “Time and again the myth of Hudson Taylor being authoritarian is shown … to be hollow.”

More importantly, though he records Taylor’s clearly-stated principle at the founding of the CIM that workers would all submit to him personally, Austin does not give adequate weight to the fact that all new workers joined the CIM fully aware of this condition for membership and service. The “Shanxi spirit” was first and foremost a deliberate renunciation of a covenant made by those who had found its terms – especially wearing Chinese dress and living simply- difficult to fulfill.

Austin frequently describes Taylor’s strategy and methods for reaching China as “blitz evangelism.” In his view the most outrageous instance of this was the idea that all of China’s families could be evangelized by one thousand missionaries within a period of three years. He creates the impression that this plan was nothing short of bizarre.

But Broomhall gives more information (The Shaping of Modern China, Volume Two, 531), and shows that Taylor meant only that all of China’s households could be given the chance to hear the simple gospel once; that he was talking only of the initial sowing; that he intended for missionaries to return often to the same place and teach the whole counsel of God; and that the goal was a settled work in each area. In other words, “responsible evangelism” was what Taylor had in mind. (“This calculation takes no account of the help to be given by the 1,000 missionary workers now in China…and it takes no account of the help to be given by native Christians, which of course would be immense and invaluable” China’s Millions, Dec. 1889, p. 172.)

Furthermore, answering the charge that only telling people the bare Gospel once was insufficient, Taylor had responded, first, with many examples of Chinese who had been truly converted after only one hearing of the message and, second, with the rhetorical question, “If one offer of the gospel is insufficient, what shall we think of none?”

We are told by Austin that Taylor’s policy was, “Only sell success” (in a quotation from Norman Cliff’s Flame of Sacred Love, p.53), but Cliff gives no citation for thus supposed quote.

Austin asserts that the CIM deliberately misled the Christian public about Pastor Hsi’s more controversial activities, “even if it meant relocating or firing missionaries and censoring their reports” (443), but this claim rests on highly questionable readings of several strands of testimony, and fails to take a variety of factors into consideration.

He tells us that one of the “dirtiest secrets” of the CIM was the high incidence of unhappy marriages (233). To be sure, as we have noted, one might surmise that some missionary couples were not happy with each other. But if this is a “secret,” how does he know? And if he has evidence, why did he not produce it?

In the early years especially, Taylor and his CIM peripatetic pioneers exasperated Chinese officials and British consular officers alike with their aggressive itineration beyond legal boundaries. Austin quotes several hostile critics at length. He admits that Taylor also “had friends in high places,” but does not give us their perspective (18).

Several stories, such as Taylor’s dedication at birth for China service by his parents, are called “pious legends” – that is, unfounded myths – without any substantiating documentation to back up this claim.

Sometimes he gets important facts wrong. For example, Taylor’s grandson, Hudson Taylor II, did not resign from the CIM because of a belief that those who had not heard the gospel would be saved. Austin notes that, almost from the beginning, most CIM missionaries worked in settled stations, but that does not deter him from repeating his charge that Taylor believed in, and planned for, “blitz conversion” – a concept Taylor explicitly renounced. Austin states categorically that after Taylor retired as General Director, the CIM ceased pioneer and peripatetic work; Broomhall’s history proves just the opposite. But Austin himself had shown in various places that both settled and itinerant preaching had been the policy from the inception of the CIM’s work in China, as part of Taylor’s overall strategy.

The author frequently accuses Taylor of sending out ill-trained and inexperienced missionaries, implying that they bumbled along with no idea what they were doing. But he also describes in detail the incredibly demanding language curriculum required of all CIM workers, and admits that the CIM was known for its high standard of linguistic and culture acquisition. Again, he notes Taylor’s belief in on-the-job training during the language learning period, through the mentoring system of Senior/Junior missionaries, but does not integrate this into his negative evaluation.

Austin contrasts Timothy Richard’s outreach to the Confucian elites to Taylor’s “blitz evangelism” (see above), and then contradicts himself by telling us that CIM male missionaries targeted students emerging from the annual examinations (442). Inherent in the story of Pastor Hsi is further evidence of this typical misreading of Taylor and the CIM: Hsi was, after all, a Confucian scholar. As Broomhall shows, CIM missionaries often sought to befriend and win the literati, though without much success.

Austin tells us that Taylor’s initial problem with the first interracial marriage in the CIM was “not just racialism” – as if that were a factor at all. Broomhall – and even Austin himself, in the same sentence – proves that prudential considerations were the only reasons for not wanting to approve this union (239).

Austin repeatedly states that Taylor did not believe in the possibility that those who had not believed in Christ could be saved. Broomhall quotes a very late assertion of this conviction from Taylor’s pen in 1902 (The Shaping of Modern China, Volume Two, 740). But then Austin writes that that Taylor told Frost in 1904 (or 1905 – Austin is not clear) that his “position was ‘a temptation of the evil one,’” and that Taylor had changed his own views on the fate of the unrepentant. Broomhall’s account puts the focus of their conflict on Frost’s insistence upon applying current standards to members who had joined the CIM under a previous understanding, not on the fate of those of had not trusted in Christ.

According to Austin, at some unspecified time after 1900, Hudson Taylor “slipped into senility” but – inexplicably – he records a variety of statements by Taylor after that, even on the day before his death in China in 1905, which demonstrate that the old man was still mentally sharp.

On his last trip to China, Taylor is described as “a tiny aged elf with wild white hair and a long white beard,” but the famous picture of Taylor with Griffith John and W.A.P. Martin shows that Taylor’s hair was well groomed.

Despite ample evidence, in Broomhall and elsewhere, that Hudson Taylor was an extraordinarily practical man, Austin portrays him as an other-worldly mystic, in contrast to the practical Timothy Richard.

Although he relates the origins of Taylor’s insistence upon having the mission be governed from China by those with firsthand knowledge of conditions there, Austin narrates the conflict between the China council and the London council as if this were not a factor, indeed the crucial ingredient, in the dispute.

Austin introduces a cute but confusing modification of the term “Shanxi spirit,” which originally referred to the rebellious, and doctrinally suspect, actions and opinions of some members of the CIM in Shanxi who had fallen under the influence of Timothy Richard. Austin notes that use, but then expands the phrase – even making “spirit” plural – to refer to several different things, including the practice of casting out evil spirits.

Austin uses rhetoric to make key points, including pejorative adjectives (“militant fundamentalism”; “radical evangelicalism”; “radical Protestant congregations” – i.e., unregistered house churches in today’s China) and nouns which meant one thing at one time but now carry negative connotations (e.g., fundamentalism). He inaccurately describes Taylor’s family as a “dynasty”: Unlike the heirs of Chinese emperors, neither Taylor’s son nor his grandson succeeded him. He invents attitudes and even vocal expressions (“Taylor sniffed” (273); “He said bloodlessly”). The word “bloodlessly” was Austin’s interpretation of Taylor’s observation that Mandarin is best learned when one is young. As one who started that difficult language at the age of 32, I consider Taylor’s opinion wise and prudent. Not until page 349 are we given a one-sentence list of his moral, personal, and leadership virtues. On page 355 Austin does comment with admiration upon this otherwise “frail” missionary’s incredible physical stamina.

Referring several times to Taylor’s diminutive stature (as we have seen), Austin seems intent on making him seem like a pygmy. But how could his less-than-life-sized man have moved thousands with his spoken and written words and his personal conduct, as eye-witness accounts uniformly attest? China’s Millions does not adequately account for Taylor’s reputation and influence at the time. Why did the Shanghai Missionary Conference of 1890 so heartily support his call for one thousand new missionaries (340)? Why did the delegates accede to his highly irregular calling of the question in the debate over W.A.P. Martin’s acceptance of Confucian ancestor worship rite (341), and vote overwhelmingly for his motion?

Austin’s rendering of the tale does not account for the possibility that even a fraction of the comments made after Taylor’s death by those who knew him best might be true. Like many today, he clearly believes that Taylor rejected Chinese culture out of hand, and spent his life “busily trying to stamp out heathenism.” Later, however, he quotes a CIM missionary’s description of that “heathenism” in such a way as to leave a careful reader in no doubt that 19th-century Chinese society, including that of the cultured elite, was often ugly. Even today, both Christian and non-Christian Chinese – and a host of trained foreign reporters – paint a picture that is not very pretty.

Furthermore, many Chinese considered Taylor and the CIM as outstanding in their attempt to identify with as much as possible within Chinese culture, while pointing out the parts of it that clashed with biblical norms.

The author’s treatment of Pastor Hsi and CIM North American Director Henry Frost, likewise, provides with no explanation of why these men were so highly regarded, and unusually influential, despite the manifold faults and failings which are portrayed by Austin in Technicolor. Hsi (a Confucian scholar in traditional, paternalistic Chinese society) is made out to be a petty demagogue, and Frost (a Princeton University graduate) comes across as a depressive neurotic and panderer to the rich and famous.

Writing of one key North American supporter, Austin opines, “Without putting too fine a point on it, Coleman, who became a member of the North American council and generous donor for thirty years, bought his way into the CIM” (445). Such a judgment, to carry historical significance, must be backed up by proof that money was the main cause and element of Coleman’s involvement with the CIM, and that his money purchased undue influence.

Austin frequently invents – or cleverly implies – impure motives for Taylor, Hsi, and Frost. Taylor’s consistent position against accepting compensation from the Chinese for damages is also “a good selling point at home” – as if that were a real reason for the CIM’s response to the Boxer Rebellion (425). Hsi supposedly expanded his operations because he saw a chance to make money.

Before giving the very weighty reasons why Frost thought he should move the North American headquarters in Toronto back to the United States, Austin colors the narrative: “Like many expatriate Americans,” Frost never “gave up looking for a new movement of the cloud, this time back to the States” (445).

He interprets Frost’s concern for the shift towards theological liberalism in the Unites States as part of the “dark night of the soul” that he had experienced in his trips to China, rather than to Frost’s own theological convictions.

Austin’s interpretation of Frost rests upon the latter’s unpublished Memoirs. This fact deserves at least two comments: First, this reviewer has no way of assessing the accuracy of his treatment. Any doubts about Austin’s objectivity arise from his handling of the sources about Taylor and the CIM which are available. Second, should we not give Frost some sort of credit for producing a document that apparently displays his own shortcomings? Does that not say something about a man whom Austin seems to disdain so thoroughly?

As with Taylor, Hsi, and Frost, the mission as a whole is usually depicted negatively. A few examples:

In the Introduction, he repeats, without qualification, the words of a hostile British consul who

described the outer pilgrimage of the China Inland Mission: the religious mania in Europe that sent uneducated and impulsive young men and women into the interior of Chinese, where their religious fervor evaporated in the apathetic Chinese environment. Some lost their minds, some lost their nerve (29).

Ignoring evidence in Broomhall for Taylor’s real position on “comity” – the practice of seeking to avoid competition among missionary societies - Austin gives us a CIM that resembles the expanding British Empire (273, though he himself does not make that comparison).

From the beginning, and from his sad experience with the Chinese Evangelization Society, Taylor intended for his missionaries to live “by faith” – that is, without open and direct solicitation of funds – and simply, as close to the Chinese as possible. Austin connects these two in one paragraph, and does so in a critical manner. First, we hear of “the CIM’s claim to support a missionary for $250” (309; emphasis mine). The word “claim” casts doubt on the veracity of Taylor, Frost and the CIM leaders – a consistent theme of this book.

Then, the frugal lifestyle of the CIM workers is described in condescending terms, using the derogatory words of a missionary from another organization. Austin’s narrative takes one of the assets of the CIM and turns it into a liability.

Sometimes, he suppresses the ample evidence from both Christian and non-Christian, Chinese and non-Chinese sources that most CIM workers were highly admired and quite successful (see, for example, The Shaping of Modern China, Volume Two, 741).

Again, in a section on the minutes of the CIM China Council that does contain some quite interesting information, Austin sees a glass more than half empty: “The Chinese council minutes make melancholy reading, sad litanies of the walking wounded…” He cites a few cases, and concludes, “And so on, year after sad year” (352).

I leave the reader to judge the historical quality of this passage from the Introduction:

As [Pastor] Hsi spiraled out of control, the CIM decided to support him at all costs, hush up his tantrums, because everything depended on the stories he concocted out of smoke and mirrors. Opium was the case that made the CIM famous (14-15).

At the end of the book Austin asks very important and provocative questions about the stance of the CIM and its successor the OMF towards the charismatic movement. But his treatment is too brief and one-sided to be really helpful.

For example, he asserts that the “fundamentalist” position absolutely excluded an openness to the more extraordinary workings of the Spirit, such as casting out demons. But in 1975 – thirty years before the publication of this book – new workers were being given specific training on how to exorcise demons at the Orientation Course in Singapore.

The discussion also lacks theological precision. Austin claims that the CIM “would condone manifestations of Chinese folk religion such as exorcism…” without adequately taking into account the belief by missionaries that exorcism had been practiced by Jesus and the Apostles and was part of frontier evangelism (456). The matter is more complex than he allows.

The book simply does not account for the most important phenomena which it describes. As such, it fails as history. The author’s suppression, distortion, and misinterpretation of sources equal or surpass anything of which he thinks he has shown Taylor and his “dynasty” to be guilty.

China’s Millions contains much information that could be used for a concise, objective, and accurate history of the CIM under the leadership of Hudson Taylor. Alas, that book remains to be written.

Seldom have I disagreed more strongly with the commendatory comments on the back of a book – and never more reluctantly, given my high admiration for those who wrote them.

Caveat lector.

Disclosure: The author of this review joined the Overseas Missionary Fellowship in 1975 and resigned in 1989 over differences with OMF policy. He does not consider himself a “fundamentalist”; holds views on the charismatic movement that seem similar to those implied in China’s Millions by Alvyn Austin; and has serious reservations about some of Hudson Taylor’s actions.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle