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Robert Morrison and the Multicultural Beginning of Chinese Protestantism

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Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the first Protestant missionary to operate in China, was sent alone to his East Asian post by the London Missionary Society in 1807. He spent more than half his life (he died at his station in Guangzhou) planting a foothold in China for the benefit of evangelical Christianity, and, consequently, he established the foundation upon which all subsequent Protestant missions to China rested. While sinologists are generally familiar with the checklist of Morrison’s accomplishments in the areas of translating and publishing, less has been written about the multicultural nature of Morrison’s mission. His approach to China derived from a strain of British evangelical dissent, and the Protestantism that he planted reflected this cultural background. It follows that his converts absorbed many of these particularly evangelical traits. However, although Morrison was in China to execute this dissenting plan, it cannot go unnoticed that the actual execution of this plan relied on the Chinese. This essay explores the multicultural relationships that led to the beginning of Chinese Protestantism. In the first half of the article I demonstrate how Morrison pro-actively followed his British mission strategy; whilst in the second part I analyze his mission from an alternate viewpoint to show how he was shaped by the Chinese, for example in his speed of language study and in the print opportunities or difficulties he encountered. My aim is to demonstrate not only the degree to which Morrison planted his evangelical version of Protestantism in China, but also that the pioneer responsible for the foundations of Chinese Protestantism and Anglophone sinology only found success through the help of his interactions with the Chinese. Résumé Premier missionnaire à travailler en Chine, Robert Morrison (1782-1834) fut envoyé seul en mission par la London Missionary Society en 1807. Il y passa plus de la moitié de sa vie (il mourut à la station missionnaire de Guangzhou) à poser les jalons d’un christianisme évangélique et, en conséquence, il établit les fondations sur lesquelles reposèrent toutes les missions protestantes en Chine. Si les sinologues connaissent bien les succès de Morrison dans le domaine de la traduction et de la publication, la nature multiculturelle de son travail missionnaire reste peu connue. Son approche dérivait d’un courant évangélique britannique dissident, et le protestantisme qu’il implanta reflétait cette origine culturelle. Les personnes qu’il convertit elles aussi absorbèrent beaucoup de ces caractéristiques très évangéliques. Mais, même si Morrison était en Chine pour réaliser un plan dissident, la mise en œuvre de son projet n’en reposait pas moins sur les Chinois eux-mêmes. Cet article explore les relations multiculturelles qui marquèrent les débuts du Protestantisme en Chine. Dans la première section de l’article, je montre comment Morrison suivit pro-activement la stratégie de sa mission britannique ; dans la deuxième partie, j’analyse son travail missionnaire à partir d’un autre point de vue afin de montrer comment il a été façonné par les Chinois, notamment en relation à la rapidité de son apprentissage de la langue et en relation à ses opportunités de publication ou aux difficultés qu’il rencontra. Mon but est de montrer non seulement jusqu’ à quel point Morrison a réussi à implanter sa version évangélique du Protestantisme en Chine, mais aussi de montrer que le pionnier qui bâtit les fondations du protestantisme chinois et de la sinologie anglophone ne réussit en fait que grâce à son interaction avec les Chinois.

1. fn11) For more on this, see Christopher A. Daily, “From Gosport to Canton. A New Approach to Robert Morrison and the Beginnings of Protestant Missions in China,” unpublished PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 2010. A published version of this doctoral dissertation is forthcoming.
2. fn22) See, for example, Marshall Broomhall, Robert Morrison, a Master-Builder, London: Livingstone Press, 1924; Christopher Hancock, Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism, London: T&T Clark, 2008; Ernest Henry Hayes, Robert Morrison: China’s Pioneer, London: Livingstone Press, 1925; Rev. William W. Moseley, The Origin of the Protestant Mission to China, and the History of the Events which Induced the Attempt, London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1842; Lindsay Ride, Robert Morrison. The Scholar and the Man, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1957; T. Dixon Rutherford, Cleaving the Rock. The Story of Robert Morrison, Christian Pioneer in China, London: London Missionary Society, 1902; Margaret Thomas and Millicent Thomas, The Years behind the Wall, London: Livingstone Press, 1936; William John Townsend, Robert Morrison. The Pioneer of Chinese Missions, London: S.W. Partridge & Co., 1890; and Vera E. Walker, Four Lessons on Robert Morrison, London: London Missionary Society, 1920.
3. fn33) See, for example, William Ellis, The History of the London Missionary Society, Vol. I, London: John Snow, 1844; The London Missionary Society, Robert Morrison and the Centenary of Protestant Missions in China, London: London Missionary Society, 1907; Richard Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society, 1795-1895, Vol. II, London: Oxford University Press, 1899; John Morison, Fathers and Founders of the London Missionary Society, Vol. II, London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1840; Murray Rubinstein, The Origins of the Anglo-American Missionary Enterprise in China, 1807-1840, London: The Scarecrow Press, 1996; or George John Williams, Three Typical Missionaries, London: London Missionary Society, 1908.
4. fn44) Eliza Morrison, Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, D.D., Compiled by His Widow, London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1839.
5. fn55) See Christopher A. Daily, “From Gosport to Canton…”, p.167, fn1.
6. fn66) This work belongs to a new genre of literature that critically analyzes different aspects of Morrison and his mission. Already published within this field are critical studies on Morrison’s dependency upon the Basset manuscript for his translation of the Bible into Chinese. See, for example, Jost Oliver Zetzsche, The Bible in China. The History of the Union Version or the Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 45, Nettetal, Germany: Monumenta Serica, 1999 and Thomas Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004, 54-66p., 80p. See also Christopher A. Daily, “From Gosport to Canton….”, p.206-213.
7. fn77) Suzanne Wilson Barnett and John King Fairbank, eds., Christianity in China. Early Protestant Missionary Writings, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, 9p.
8. fn88) The lengthy process of the indigenization of Protestantism in China has been written about elsewhere, although the topic has hardly been expounded. For example, see Suzanne Wilson Barnett and John King Fairbank, eds., Christianity in China…. This edited volume contains helpful work on the sinicization of Protestantism mostly from the Protestant missionary point-of-view. See, within this text, essays by Fairbank, pp. 1-18, Daniel H. Bays, pp. 19-34, and P. Richard Bohr, pp. 35-46, for work that is especially relevant to the beginning of this tradition. Daniel Bays’s edited text further contributed to this growing discourse on the indigenization of Protestantism in China. This work contains a vast array of helpful research by many scholars who have looked into the growth of this tradition, taking into consideration the contribution of the Chinese and covering a historical time period that spans nearly two centuries. Daniel H. Bays, ed., Christianity in China. From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
9. fn99) The Gosport Academy curriculum can be examined by reading any of the surviving lecture notes taken by various alumni. Versions of this manuscript, although not all complete sets, can be found at: David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by Isaac Lowndes, Dr. Williams Library (DWL), L.14.1-L.14.9; David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by Richard Elliot DWL L.14/10; David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by Rev. William Johns, Chetham Library (UK), A.2.123; David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by John Angell James, London Congregationalist Library (LCL) Archives, ii.9., 43-45; David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by Joseph Frey, New College (NC) Archives, University of Edinburgh, MSS BOG 1-MSS BOG 7; David Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by unknown author, Council for World Missions/London Missionary Society (CWM/LMS), School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Home Odds, Box 25; or Bogue Lecture Notes, transcribed by unknown author, University of Wales, Lampeter, Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, UWL GB 1953 DBLN. The lecture notes cited below are those of Isaac Lowndes (DWL, L.14.1-L.14.9), the most legible and complete of the known surviving sets.
10. fn1010) For a very in-depth, step-by-step analysis of Morrison’s dependency upon the Gosport program, see Christopher A. Daily, “From Gosport to Canton….”
11. fn1111) Bogue Lecture Notes, DWL, L.14/9, Appendix, Lecture 6.
12. fn1212) The Basset manuscript is an incomplete Chinese translation of the New Testament. At the time of Morrison’s studies in London it was held at the British Museum as part of the Sloane Collection. It is believed that the manuscript was the work of Roman Catholic missionary Jean Basset (c. 1661-1707), imported into Britain by Sir Hans Sloane Bart in the eighteenth century. It is comprised of 377 handwritten folios that mix European and Chinese paper. Contents include segments from the Latin Vulgate New Testament, such as a Harmony of the Gospels and the first chapter of Hebrews. It also includes all of Acts of the Apostles and all of the Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. The manuscript can currently be consulted at the British library at: Transcription of Jean Basset’s incomplete Chinese New Testament, British Library (BL) Archives, Department of Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections, Sloane MS 3599.
13. fn1313) Council for World Mission/London Missionary Society (CWM/LMS) archives, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), South China, Journals, Journal 2, August 4, 1807.
14. fn1414) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, September 14, 1807.
15. fn1515) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, September 18, 1807.
16. fn1616) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, October 4, 1807.
17. fn1717) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, September 14, 1807.
18. fn1818) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, October 26, 1807.
19. fn1919) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, October 26, 1807.
20. fn2020) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, September 17, 1807.
21. fn2121) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, October 24, 1807.
22. fn2222) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, October 15-29, 1807.
23. fn2323) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 6, January 5-7, 1808.
24. fn2424) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, September 15, 1807.
25. fn2525) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, October 4, 1807.
26. fn2626) See, for example, CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journals 4 and 5.
27. fn2727) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, November 3, 1807.
28. fn2828) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, November 7, 1807; CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 4, November 2, 1807.
29. fn2929) It is possible that Sêensang is a Romanization of 先生 (pinyin xiānsheng), meaning ‘Mr.’ or ‘teacher’. However, the Memoirs do not contain any Chinese characters to support such an assumption so I have resisted any temptation to enforce my own conclusions. Elsewhere, in the archives, Morrison refers to a language instructor as ‘Ko-sien-sang’ (CWM/LMS, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 1, Jacket C, December 4, 1809). A similar issue surrounds ‘sien-sang’, which one might assume implies ‘Mr. Ko’ rather than a complete personal name. However, because this, too, is unaccompanied by characters to enable one to be sure I have made no such leap in my transcriptions. To allow Morrison to (finally) speak for himself I have uniformly transcribed all of the material from his archives without imposing any interventions on his personal writings.
30. fn3030) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 3, November 7, 1807.
31. fn3131) Eliza Morrison, Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, Vol. I, p.168.
32. fn3232) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 1, Jacket C, October 20, 1808.
33. fn3333) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 6, November 6, 1808.
34. fn3434) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 6, November 10, 1808.
35. fn3535) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 1, Jacket C, December 10, 1809.
36. fn3636) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 1, Jacket C, December 14, 1809.
37. fn3737) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 1, Jacket C, December 4, 1809.
38. fn3838) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 2, Jacket B, October 11, 1812.
39. fn3939) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Jacket D, Folder 1, December 28, 1810.
40. fn4040) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Jacket A, Folder 2, January 7, 1811.
41. fn4141) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Jacket A, Folder 2, January 7, 1811.
42. fn4242) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Jacket A, Folder 2, January 18, 1811.
43. fn4343) For a study on Morrison’s dependency upon the Basset manuscript, see Jost Oliver Zetzsche, The Bible in China….
44. fn4444) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence: Box 1B, Folder 4, Jacket B, November 4, 27 and 28, 1815.
45. fn4545) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 2, Jacket B, December 22, 1812.
46. fn4646) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 2, Jacket B, October 11, 1812.
47. fn4747) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 3, Jacket A, February 14, 1813.
48. fn4848) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 3, Jacket B, January 16, 1814.
49. fn4949) For helpful studies on Dutch Malacca, see N. Hussin, “Social Life in Two Colonial Port-Towns: Dutch-Melaka and English-Penang. 1780-1830”, Malaysian Journal of Tropical Geography, Vol. 33, No. 1&2, 2002, and N. Hussin, “A Tale of Two Colonial Port-Towns in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang”, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 75, Part 2, December 2002.
50. fn5050) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 1B, Folder 4, Jacket B, October 11, 1815.
51. fn5151) Liang Afa, or Liang Fa, receives by far the most attention of Morrison and Milne’s Chinese helpers within the scholarly literature. Most of the scholars who include him in their work focus on his contribution to the later Taiping movement. See, for example, Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996 or Thomas Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom…. Other scholars correctly note his importance to the early Protestant mission as an active participant and convert. See, for example, Brian Harrison, Waiting for China. The Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca, 1818-1843, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1979, or Murray Rubinstein, The Origins of the Anglo-American Missionary Enterprise in China…. For a biographical sketch of Liang, see P. Richard Bohr, “Liang Fa’s Quest for Moral Power” in Suzanne Wilson Barnett and John King Fairbank, eds., Christianity in China. Early Protestant Missionary Writings…, pp. 35-46.
52. fn5252) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 13, November 20, 1816.
53. fn5353) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 13, November 3, 1816; November 28, 1816.
54. fn5454) William Milne, A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China, Malacca: Anglo-Chinese Press, 1820, 158p.
55. fn5555) William Milne, A Retrospect of the First Ten Years…, pp. 157-159.
56. fn5656) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 13, November 3, 1816. The baptismal ceremony, recorded by Milne, can be read at CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Journals, Journal 13, November 3, 1816.
57. fn5757) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 3, Jacket A, February 19, 1823.
58. fn5858) See Su Ching, The Printing Presses of the London Missionary Society Among the Chinese, Unpublished PhD Thesis, The School of Library, Archive, and Information Studies, University College London (University of London), 1996, 140p.
59. fn5959) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Folder 3, Jacket C, November 3, 1828. The eleven tracts were entitled: “Objections to the Heathen”; “A Christian Catechism for Children”; “Conversations with the Heathen”; “A Tract on Redemption by Jesus Christ”; “Notes on the 3 rd Chapter of Colossians”; “Short Essays on Important Texts”; “On the Being and Perfections of God”; “Metrical Paraphrases or Hymns, on Texts of Scripture”; “An Essay against False gods and demons”; “Against the Transmigration of Souls”; and “Against Buddhism”.
60. fn6060) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 3, Jacket B, January 16, 1828; February 4, 1828; September 18, 1828.
61. fn6161) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 3, Jacket B, February 4, 1828; Box 2, Folder 3, Jacket C, November 3, 1828.
62. fn6262) Su Ching, The Printing Presses of the London Missionary Society…, p.89.
63. fn6363) CWM/LMS archives, SOAS, South China, Incoming Correspondence, Box 3, Folder 1, Jacket A, November 1830, “Tracts Circulated in China Proper”.
64. fn6464) Bogue Lecture Notes, DWL, L.14/9, Appendix, Lecture 6.
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2012-01-01
2015-08-01

Affiliations: 1: Department of the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK

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