Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa
Everyone interested in the history and practice of Christian witness in any culture should read this short book.
Andrew Song, himself from China, provides us with a careful description of the origins of Chinese Protestant Christianity, a powerful case study of how to mentor the next generation of Christian workers, and a model for effective cross-cultural missionary work – and all in only eighty-two pages!
The author arrived in Canada as a Buddhist lay minister, was converted to Christ through reading Matthew’s Gospel and the testimony of believers, and is now a PhD student in Church History. This book is his master’s thesis. He writes, therefore, not only from the “inside,” as a Chinese convert to Christianity, but also from the “outside,” as a scholar of the history of Christianity in China, having become familiar with documentary sources and theoretical writings that provide both the basic content of his thesis and also a solid framework for interpreting the crucial relationship between William Milne and Liang Fa.
The book begins with the usual scholarly introduction to a thesis. He wants to show “how Milne led Liang to Christ through mentorship, and further helped Liang to become an evangelist.” He notes that until recently very little work has been done on William Milne, who has been overshadowed by Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, and that even now he receives attention mostly as Morrison’s co-worker.
Song has two purposes for this study: first, to remember and honor William Milne, and second, to argue for mentorship (as described below) as the most important strategy for missionary work.
Song believes that “the most urgent issue in Chinese churches is . . . the lack of theological foundations, that is, a lack of reformed pastors. A pastor is not merely a product of seminary training . . . but is called and moulded by God through various means,” the most effective of which is mentorship. Song does not seek to provide a full biography of Milne or a biblical study on mentorship, but to show “how Morrison and Milne’s primary goal was seeking Chinese conversions, and that mentorship was the most effective missiological method used in their historical setting.”
Chapter One: Historical Background
The author first traces the historical background necessary to understand the two worlds from which Milne and Liang came. Confucianism had been adopted by Chinese emperors as a means of inculcating the people’s obedience. For about 1,500 years, the pattern of state control of religion has continued in China.
In the nineteenth century, the East India Company served as an instrument of British imperial expansion, but unlike Roman Catholic missions, the Company strictly forbade missionary activity among the inhabitants of the countries where it exercised influence. Song challenges a received idea by citing recent Chinese scholarship to show that the emperors had originally sanctioned the trade in opium through Malacca but later banned it because what once had been the privilege of the elite had become a pleasure shared also by the masses. Meanwhile, Britain was happy to derive significant income from this lucrative commerce and resisted efforts to restrict it.
It is commonly known that Christianity in other forms had already entered China. Song notes that “Nestorian” missionaries in China made significant use of Buddhist and Daoist terminology, and that they “in practice . . . lived in a manner very similar to adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism.” Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits gained many converts among the elites, but they “failed to reach the commoners, due to their targeting of officials and intellectuals, and playing politics. This prevented the gospel’s engagement of the common culture in a common language.”
A new era in missionary endeavor arrived with the foundation of the Baptist Missionary Society in a reaction to High Calvinists and with the mission of William Carey and his colleagues to India. Later, Paedo-Baptists formed the London Missionary Society. After disastrous failures in the South Seas, they adopted the recommendation of David Bogue that future missionaries receive solid training before being sent out and thus established the Gosport Academy for this purpose. As Christopher Daily has shown, Morrison and Milne carefully followed the model they were taught by Bogue. (See the review of Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China, also posted on this website.)
Robert Morrison received excellent mentorship from his pastor at Wells Street Chapel, Alexander Waugh. Upon his arrival in China, he set himself to learn the language, culture, and manners of the Chinese as well as possible. His persistent pleas for a missionary colleague were finally answered when William and Rachel Cowie Milne were sent to China in 1813.
Chapter Two: The Making of China’s First Evangelist
William Milne (1785–1822) was converted when he was sixteen through the testimony of an older believer, and he was nurtured theologically by the writings of Calvinists and mentored by his pastor, George Cowie. After studying for three years under Bogue at Gosport Academy for three years, he was ordained in 1812. He married Rachel Cowie a few weeks later. The two sailed for China a month after their wedding, arriving in Macao in July 1813.
Forbidden by Portuguese authorities to remain in Macao, the Milnes moved to Canton, where he began studying Chinese. Later, he and Morrison agreed that conditions there and in Macao made it necessary to find another place where Milne could live and work, so they transferred their base to Malacca in 1815. Liang Fa, Morrison’s printer, went with them. Malacca was meant to be a base where they could freely minister among the Chinese and a headquarters for the young mission.
In Malacca, Milne set himself to several tasks: Establishing a mission station; starting and serving as principal of the Anglo-Chinese College to train both western and Chinese students for mission among the Chinese; printing; writing and editing; and establishing the Ultra-Ganges Mission in 1818. “In addition . . . Milne also devoted time to mentoring his printer Liang Fa, leading him from a heathen to a believer, and from a believer to a solid Gospel apologist and evangelist.”
Liang Fa had memorized the Four Books, the Five Classics, and the Sacred Edict, which were the essential Confucian books; he was also a sincere Buddhist for a while. While engaged in the printing of Milne’s seventy-one-page tract, “Life of Christ,” Liang changed his view of religion. He began reading Morrison’s New Testament, attended services where Milne preached, and sought Milne’s help in understanding the Bible. In time, he evidenced a sincere faith in Christ and a profound change of character, so Milne baptized him in November 1816.
Song briefly narrates the story of Liang Fa’s life and sacrificial ministry as a Christian and of Milne’s remaining years of service until his early death from overwork in 1822.
Chapter Three: The Theology of William Milne
Milne was brought up in the evangelical wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In his early years he memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Willison’s Mother’s Catechism, both of which served as models for the catechism he later composed in Chinese. At Bogue’s academy, Milne was instructed in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, as well as of other Puritans such as John Owen. The emphasis, therefore, was upon sound conversion, intimacy with Christ, and growth in grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Song disagrees with Daily’s understanding of the Anglo-Chinese Academy as an instrument primarily of academic education. It was, rather, intended as a means of conversion through education in the Christian faith and mentorship by the teacher in the company of other students. Jonathan Edwards’s influence can be seen also in the overall mission strategy of Bogue and his students, including Morrison and Milne. From seven Edwardsean missional principles, Song selects two as of special importance:
First, Edwards’s understanding of original sin and the manner in which God, by the Word and Holy Spirit, frees a person’s will to turn from idols and to commit himself completely to God led to an emphasis upon widespread preaching of the gospel and to a complete reliance upon God for the results. In other words, hasty, man-centered “conversions” were not the goal, but radical transformation of the whole person into someone who loves God with his entire being.
Second, Edwards used a dialogical method of education in which student and teacher were both involved, as the student responded to the lectures and assigned readings in conversation with the instructor, so that comprehension, rather than memorization, could be attained.
With this background, we are in a position to understand how Milne sought to be a mentor to Liang Fa.
Chapter Four: Mentorship of Liang Fa
Song distinguishes between “discipleship” and “mentoring.” The former refers to “the beginning of a new life in intimate fellowship with a living Master and Savior.” Its “ultimate goal is for [people] ‘to be conformed to Jesus’ image,’ and ‘live out a life of witness in word and deed to the world that Jesus is Lord.’ Such growth takes place in the community of disciples . . . and is a ‘wholistic’ and life-long process.” Mentoring “means that a master, expert, or someone with significant experience is imparting knowledge and skill to a novice in an atmosphere of discipline, commitment, and accountability.”
Clearly, the two terms describe overlapping processes. Song wants to highlight mentoring as “training future leaders in the church, which means the making of such a mentorship relationship is found in discipleship,” as both mentor and his protégé “commit to and practice the shared belief in Jesus Christ.” He shows this was Paul’s method with Timothy and the means advocated by missionary strategists like Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, and John L. Nevius.
Accordingly, Morrison and Milne aimed not only to evangelize both large groups and individuals and to disciple those who were truly converted, but also to train workers for the church through mentorship.
First, the author explains how Milne tried to lead Liang Fa to Christ: He communicated the whole gospel to him, not just parts of it; he lived out in Liang’s presence a life devoted to Christ, setting an example of prayer, Bible study, and family living; and he engaged in robust and rounded apologetics, both answering Liang’s many questions and showing him that faith in God is foundational for all saving knowledge of the truth.
Second, Song traces the ways in which Milne sought to encourage Liang’s growth in grace and to equip him for ministry. Discipleship “was performed through private meetings in conversation, prayers, Scripture explanation,” and encouragement to daily Scripture reading, along with worship services, prayer meetings, and Liang’s own private reading of the Bible.Mentoring for future ministry took place “in the context of a group of disciples” and in the setting of a church. Milne saw himself also as a disciple in the process of maturing in Christ and shared his life openly and humbly with Liang. He involved Liang not only in printing but also in editing the mission’s magazine. He applied discipline in the form of gentle rebuke when Liang erred, but he demonstrated grace in communicating love and acceptance.
By reading the Scriptures with Liang several times a week, he not only taught the truths of the faith, but also inculcated a Bible-centered life and ministry. Of supreme importance was Milne’s own example of godly living and zealous evangelism. From the beginning he tried to prepare Liang for a life of independent ministry. Finally, he provided resources for Liang to grow in knowledge, such as the Dialogues between Chang and Yuen, a catechism, a commentary on Ephesians, and other works, of which the translation of the Scriptures and hymns into Chinese were the most important.
Song’s conclusion, like the entire book, deserves careful and repeated reading. He reminds us that Morrison and Milne saw themselves as human instruments in the hand of a sovereign and gracious God. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, they worked as hard as they could to communicate a Christ-centered message, but they looked to God alone to change the hearts of their hearers and to transform them into mature disciples of Christ. Contrary to what some say, they sought not to transmit Western culture through education, but to make genuine disciples of Jesus Christ.
By focusing on God and the Scriptures, which they translated into Chinese as well as they could, they aimed at conversions of the mind as well as of the heart, so that Chinese Christians could not only demonstrate the character of Christ but also communicate a gospel that would penetrate to the core of Chinese culture. In other words, they hoped that Christianity would be fully contextualized through their work and the labors of their converts.
The only defect in this fine study is the presence of many errors of grammar and style – the result, apparently, of miscommunication between author and publisher. A second and thoroughly edited version needs to be issued soon.
Song says he wanted to “help the Chinese church to rediscover its theological heritage, which is Edwardsean Calvinism” and to “help the church and missionary organizations to rediscover the biblical missiological methods practiced by Paul the apostle, especially in the mentorship of disciples and future leaders.”
In my opinion, he has admirably succeeded.
For practical implications of this book for ministry among the Chinese today, see my article "Learning from the Pioneers" on the China Institute website.