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  • The Journal of EcclesiasticalHistory

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    Evangelist at the Gate: Robert Morrison's Viewson Mission


    The Journal of Ecclesiastical History / Volume 63 / Issue 02 / April 2012, pp 306 - 330DOI: 10.1017/S0022046910001107, Published online: 15 March 2012

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    How to cite this article:FUK-TSANG YING (2012). Evangelist at the Gate: Robert Morrison's Views onMission. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 63, pp 306-330 doi:10.1017/S0022046910001107

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  • Evangelist at the Gate : RobertMorrisons Views on Mission

    by FUK-TSANG YINGChinese University of Hong Kong

    E-mail : [email protected]

    The arrival of Robert Morrison in Macau on 4 September 1807 marked the beginning of the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement in China. The most familiar and important legacy of Morrisonis his translation of the Bible into Chinese and the compilation of A dictionary of the Chineselanguage. When Morrison concluded his work in 1832, only ten Chinese had been baptised. However,the true measure of his accomplishment is not to be sought in the harvest of souls, but in the foundationsthat he laid for future work. As a pioneer missionary in the nineteenth century, Morrison lived in an alienheathen world for twenty-five years. How did he hold on to his evangelistic vision and passion in such anadverse and unfavourable environment ? This article aims to sketch Robert Morrisons views on mission,focusing on the way in which he responded to traditional Chinese culture and religion and the huge politicalobstacles in early nineteenth-century China.

    O n Tuesday 4 September 1832 Robert Morrison read the final proofsof a report co-signed by E. G. Bridgman that reviewed his missionin China. He recalled his missionary work with a joyful heart :Twenty-five years have this day elapsed, since the first Protestant Missionary arrivedin China, alone, and in the midst of perfect strangers, with but few friends, andwith many foes. Divine Providence, however, prepared a quiet residence for him;and, by the help of God, he has continued to the present time, and can now rejoice inwhat God has wrought.1

    As Morrison wrote this, he must have recalled the day, twenty-five yearspreviously, on 12 May 1807 when, as a twenty-five-year-old, he boarded theTrident to China from New York. When the captain of the ship found out that

    CR=Chinese Repository ; CWM=Church World Mission Archives ; EMS=The Evangelist andMiscellanea Sinica

    1 Robert Morrison (comp. Eliza A. Morrison), Memoirs, London 1839, ii. 470.

    Jnl of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 63, No. 2, April 2012. f Cambridge University Press 2012 306doi:10.1017/S0022046910001107

  • he was a missionary to China, he asked him scornfully, And so, Mr.Morrison, you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatryof the great Chinese Empire? Morrison answered with the assertion, No,Sir, I expect God will. 2

    The Trident reached the Portuguese colony of Macau on 4 September.Two days later, Morrison took a ship along the Pearl River to Guangzhou(then known in English as Canton). Under the one-trading-port policy ofthe Qing government, Guangzhou and Macau were the most importanttrading ports at that time, and many British and American merchants weredoing business there despite the many restrictions. These merchants wantedwestern governments to build up normal and equal diplomatic relations withthe Qing government in order to improve the business environment, thusallowing them to realise their dream of opening up China. As the firstmissionary of the London Missionary Society (LMS) to China, Morrison hada clear view of his objective. Although he had to join the East India Company(EIC) in 1809 to obtain legal permission to stay in Guangzhou, he neverforgot his identity as an evangelist. His greatest dream had always been tolead the Chinese to God. He lived in China for twenty-five years except forthe period when he returned to Britain on furlough in 18246, and from 1833published the occasional journal The Evangelist and Miscellanea Sinica in Macau,the name of which explicitly reveals his attachment to his evangelist identity. Morrison died in Guangzhou on 1 August 1834, at which time theQing government was still maintaining its policy against foreign religions.Morrison was a pioneer of the modern western missionary movement in

    China. William Milne and Walter H. Medhurst of the LMS had come to theEast in 1813 and 1817 respectively but, restricted by the policy againstforeigners, had worked mainly in Malacca and Batavia. The missionary workin Malacca was undertaken as part of the Ultra-Ganges Mission establishedby Morrison, and its main products were the establishment of the Anglo-Chinese College and the compilation and publication of Chinese religioustracts.3 For most of his years in China, Morrison stayed on the frontline inGuangzhou andMacau. Much of our knowledge of Morrison comes from hisChinese translation of the Bible and his other written works, such as A dictionaryof the Chinese language.4 Scholars have lauded these preparatory works aslaying an important foundation for future missionary work in China.5

    2 Ibid. i. 136.3 Brian Harrison,Waiting for China : the Anglo-Chinese college at Malacca, 18181843, Hong Kong

    1979.4 Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant missionaries to the Chinese : giving a list of their

    publications, and obituary notices of the deceased, Shanghai 1867, 39.5 Paul A. Cohen, Christian missions and their impact to 1900, in Denis Twitchett and

    John K. Fairbank (eds), The Cambridge history of China, X: Late Ching, 18001911, I, Cambridge1978, 548; J. Barton Starr, The legacy of Robert Morrison, International Bulletin of MissionaryResearch xxii (1998), 73.


  • Morrisons work in China was certainly important. This paper aims tosketch his views on mission in two ways. First, as a pioneer of the missionarymovement in China in the nineteenth century, Morrison lived in a paganenvironment for a long time. It would thus be interesting to examine howMorrison perceived the traditional Chinese culture and religions, and toexplore his thought from the perspective of cultural adaptation. Second,during his years in China, Morrison faced many political obstacles from theChinese empire that he could not affect. His internal struggles and hisspiritual journey, especially his insistence on attempting to evangelise theChinese in this disadvantaged environment, are aspects that merit attentionin exploring his thought.

    Exploring a kingdom of heathens

    Thousands of Poo Saat !6

    After arriving in Guangzhou, Morrison encountered both the Qinggovernments policy against foreign religions and the East India Companysunfriendly attitude toward missionaries. In the beginning, he could only workin Guangzhou as an American,7 and it was not until February 1809 that hewas able to resolve his residency status by working for the Company as aninterpreter. Morrison understood his role as a pioneer well, and knew that inorder to spread the Gospel to the Chinese he must first learn the Chineselanguage.8 In his efforts to learn the language, he did not miss a chance todiscover more about Chinese society, especially the religious traditions andpractices of the Chinese.

    On the first day of the journey to Guangzhou by boat, Morrison wasattracted by the other boats going to and fro and by the boat-people, whowere burning incense.9 This first encounter with the Poo Saat (pusa) deitiesof the Chinese was a great shock to him, and he could not help but ask in his

    6 Strictly speaking, Poo Saat (pusa) is a Buddhist term (bodhisattva). In MahayanaBuddhism, an ordinary person who has engendered bodhictta (generated a desire forenlightenment in order to save all beings from suffering) and taken a bodhisattva vow is abodhisattva, but there are also celestial bodhisattvas such as Manjusri and Avalokitesvara,who are almost Buddhas in their attainments. See John Bowker (ed.), The Oxford dictionary ofworld religion, Oxford 1997, 155. However, in the context of Chinese popular religion, pusabecome a general term refering to all kind of deities. It was very difficult for Morrison, in hisearliest accounts, to understand the complexity of the relationship between Buddhism,Taoism and Chinese popular religion.

    7 Christopher Hancock, Robert Morrison and the birth of Chinese Protestantism, London 2008, 42.8 Morrison, Memoirs, i. 218. 9 Ibid. i. 152.


  • journal : Who is sufficient to turn this crowd of people from their burialidols to the living God? What can I do?10

    During his early days in Guangzhou, Morrison had a pressing urge to findout about the religious world of the Chinese. On 16 September heexperienced his first traditional festival, the mid-autumn festival. The ritualsof the Chinese on that day opened his eyes, and he described what he saw indetail in his journal. The experience helped him to understand the oldChinese custom but also pained him because the Chinese made sacrifices tothe evil spirit . Will any day [come when] the Chinese are not idolaters? ,he asked, and sought to know the reason behind these religious practices.11

    Morrison put many questions about the Chinese religious practice to amerchant named Ting-qua, whom he met on 17 September. He found outthat praying to Poo Saat was a kind of reward for the help of