How History Haunts Us


A review of Opening China: Karl F. A. Gutzlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827-1852, by Jessie Gregory Lutz. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. Studies in the History of Christian Missions, R.E. Frykenberg and Brian Stanley, editors. ISBN978-0-8028-3180-4. Paper. 364 pages.

Who said history wasn’t relevant? Though at first glance a biography of a largely-discredited independent German missionary who was born almost two centuries ago might seem to have little to do with our current situation, Jessie Lutz’ masterful narrative and analysis of the life and times of Karl Gutzlaff provokes the question, Has anything changed?

Opening China sets Gutzlaff’s career in the intricate matrix of Sino-Western relations, which, in his day as in ours, feature pressure upon the rulers in Beijing to unlock China’s doors to free trade and to the propagation of the Christian faith. Obsessed with keeping a tight grip on their people, China’s leaders resist outside intrusion and insist upon their right to control de-stabilizing Western imports.

Then as now, evangelical Christians believed that more freedom for commerce would also entail increased liberty for foreign messengers and their converts to spread and receive the gospel of Christ. Nor were some of them unwilling to assist foreign powers in their attempt to apply political and even military force when persuasion and diplomacy failed. To make matters worse, many missionaries initially supported the Taiping rebellion, with its apparently strong “Christian” component, and would have rejoiced to see the Qing dynasty toppled. Not without reason, communist officials have wondered at the close connection between American Christians and the U.S. government, especially during the recent Bush administration.

The parallels with Gutzlaff go even further: Like thousands of his spiritual descendants, he flouted the laws against preaching the Christian faith within China, making repeated forays to evangelize and to distribute Christian literature, which was contraband. Citing the favorable response of the common people, he mocked their magistrates’ attempts to enforce the decrees of the emperor. He paid Chinese employees whom he hired to distribute Bibles and tracts illegally among the masses.

Alas, it doesn’t stop there, for Gutzlaff exemplifies the independent evangelistic entrepreneur so familiar to American evangelical culture. Though he began as a member of a missions society, he soon hived off to obey what he thought was God’s special leading in his life. For most of his career as a missionary, he launched out on his own, free from supervision, fully convinced that he was right, almost impervious to criticism, and depending upon direct links with supporters back home. In time, of course, he founded his own organization, the Chinese Union.

From his youth, Gutzlaff demonstrated pride, self-will, a tendency towards exaggeration, unbounded optimism which frequently defied reality, and unwillingness to heed criticism or submit to authority.

Convinced that only Chinese believers would be able to carry the gospel effectively to their people, Guztlaff strongly advocated, and practiced, what we would now call “indigenous missions” (though the term itself is an oxymoron). Why spend money on an expensive foreigner when you can hire a local, especially since he already knows the language and customs of his people? Imagine his heartbreak when many of his trusted workers turned out to be frauds.

A master communicator in many languages, Gutzlaff carried on an extensive correspondence with Christians in Europe and America, inspiring them with dramatic stories of his colorful campaigns to evangelize Western Christians to donate to his projects, even when evidence of their effectiveness was spotty at best. Exaggerated claims of conversions further inflated expectations, which were then crushed when his numbers were effectively challenged.

Indeed, one might ask, as Lutz and many of Gutzlaff’s contemporary critics did, What is “conversion,” anyway? Does it consist of a head knowledge of vital doctrines, plus an avowed intention to follow Christ? Or does true faith show itself in a solid understanding of the gospel accompanied by consistent Christian living? Holding the former “minimalist” view, Gutzlaff was happy to see Chinese memorize the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Ten Commandments, and then agree to distribute Bibles, books, and tracts – for a salary. Other missionaries looked for more than intellectual assent and some formal association with a Christian organization, and questioned the validity of untested professions of faith by people with hardly any other knowledge of the Bible.

Likewise, when we hear that China now has 130 million Christians, some dare to ask, “What do you mean by the word ‘Christian/?”

Gutzlaff remains controversial today also because he, perhaps more than any other contemporary missionary, played a variety of roles that could not but confuse the Chinese he meant to serve. He was took repeated trips on vessels engaged in the opium trade, though he abhorred it; he sought out information on the cultivation of tea in order to break China’s monopoly on its growth; he helped the British win the first Opium War and then served as Chinese secretary for the British administration of Hong for many years, all the while presenting himself to his supporters at home as a missionary.

This confusing mix of activities did a great deal to fuel Chinese suspicions of Western Christian’s intentions and of Christianity itself, down to the present day.

We can understand why many criticized him, but why did so many succumb to his charms?

Well, partly because he possessed many remarkable attributes and was himself an extraordinarily effective missionary to the Chinese. Unlike most Westerners seeking to evangelize the Chinese today, Gutzlaff became unusually fluent in several dialects of Chinese, so much so that he was regularly taken for a native speaker, though perhaps from a different region of the country. He wore Chinese clothing and mastered Chinese etiquette.

Well educated in biblical languages, Gutzlaff translated parts of the New Testament into Thai and the entire Bible into Chinese. Building upon the pioneer work of Robert Morrison, William Milne, and their Chinese helpers, he worked with several other missionaries to produce a revision of Morrison’s work. In later years, he revised both this version and his own translation of the New Testament in a style that was considered the most accessible to Chinese readers.

He studied Chinese history, geography, and culture so well that he could author authoritative scholarly and popular books to educate Westerners. The title of one of them, Opening China, was chosen by Jessie Lutz as the title for her biography because of its double meaning: Gutzlaff was providing information to British officials who sought to expand trade and diplomacy with China, but he was also trying to “”open” China to the minds of Westerners. He also composed many works on Western civilization in Chinese to broaden the horizons of narrow-minded scholars.

He even learned how to govern like a Chinese mandarin – only an honest one. After serving as guide, spy-master, and negotiator for the British in the first Opium War (1840-42), Gutzlaff administered the important port city of Ningbo so well that later missionaries benefited from his reputation among the people as a fair and decisive arbiter of justice. The Chinese knew that he held their interests in his heart and sought their welfare.

His passion for the evangelization of China’s millions motivated Christians in Europe and America to establish several dozen missionary societies and send workers to China, and his conviction that Chinese could best spread the gospel to their countrymen moved him to form the Chinese Union, as we have seen. In short, he mobilized both foreign and Chinese Christians to participate in the great task of reaching China with the truth. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the lasting impact he made upon J. Hudson Taylor, who inherited Gutzlaff’s vision and adopted many of his methods, with modifications gleaned from Gutzlaff’s bitter experience.

Perhaps most important of all, he loved the Chinese, and they knew it.

Jessie Lutz has written a superb biography, one which should remain the definitive work in English for a long time. Gutzlaff’s life is placed within the swirl of Sino-Western relations, in which he played a not insignificant part. He faults are not hidden, but his abilities and impressive accomplishments are duly and appreciatively recorded. Each chapter, and even each section, begins with a summary that provides the context for what follows.

The main drawback of the book stems from the author’s lack of sympathy for the evangelical faith and piety of most nineteenth-century missionaries, including Gutzlaff.. Thus, she cannot discuss his motives, both theological and personal, objectively.

Despite this major handicap, however, Lutz has tried very hard to write a more or less objective account of the career of a man whom she cannot fully admire. Given the enormity of Gutzlaff’s mistakes and the burden they have imposed on later missionaries and even Chinese Christians, she largely succeeds in conveying a sense of his great endeavors, accomplishments, and impact.

The author has meticulously documented her narrative with citations from original sources, including archives in German and in English, as well as primary Chinese materials. Clearly aware of the literature both of Gutzlaff’s era and of our own, she explores her subject’s significance not only for his time but for ours as well, making frequent “applications” to current issues.

For some thoughts on what we can learn from Gutzlaff’s life and ministry, go to

For a brief biography of Gutzlaff, see

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle