Robert Morrison was the very first protestant missionary to China. His abiding legacy is the first translation of the Scriptures into the complicated language of this most populous nation on earth. He spent 27 years there, with only one visit home. Before Robert left England, a shipping agent asked him if he expected to have any spiritual impact on the Chinese. He answered, "No sir, but I expect God will!"
He was born in Bullers Green, near Morpeth, the youngest son of the eight children of James Morrison, a Scottish farm labourer, and Hannah Nicholson, an English woman, who had married in 1768. In 1785 the family moved to Newcastle where his father found work in the shoe trade.
Conversion and Call
When he was 12, Robert could recite all of Psalm 119 from memory, word perfect! He left school at 14, and entered his father's business, making wooden shoe trees. But he fell into bad company, disregarding his Christian upbringing, and occasionally indulged in drink, until, at the age of 16, he was (in his own words) "awakened to a sense of sin…and brought to a serious concern about my soul", and was truly saved.
Manual labour was 12-14 hours a day but he found time to read his Bible, usually open on his work bench. He also read The Evangelical Magazine and The Missionary Magazine, becoming deeply impressed and wanting to get involved. But his parents opposed this. He promised his mother that he would not go abroad as long as she lived. He started learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as systematic theology and shorthand. He regularly visited the sick, taught poor children, and was greatly concerned for the conversion of his friends and family. In January, 1803 he began training as a Congregationalist minister in London.
He cared for his mother in her last illness, and before she died in 1804 she gave him her blessing to go abroad. He applied to the London Missionary Society, was accepted at once, and took further training in Gosport. He was torn between Africa and China as possible fields of service, and prayed that "God would station him in that part of the missionary field where the difficulties were greatest and to all human appearances the most insurmountable".
It was China that Morrison was led to. He wrote to a friend, "I wish I could persuade you to accompany me. Take into account the 350 million souls in China who have not the means of knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour…". In London he studied medicine and astronomy, and also began to learn Chinese from a student with whom he shared lodgings. He rapidly made progress in speaking and writing this most difficult language.
The Challenge of China
On 31st January, 1807 Robert Morrison set sail for China, but via New York in a stormy voyage on the Remittance. After a month there he boarded the Trident, bound for Macau, having secured the goodwill of the American Consul at Canton. He would need this, for all foreigners entering China were interrogated as to their purpose and business. They were sent away on the next ship if the authorities were not satisfied. Chinese people were absolutely forbidden to deal with foreigners except for trading purposes.
After another 113 days at sea, the Trident arrived in Macau. He was kindly received by Englishmen and Americans, but they warned him of great obstacles in the way of his mission. Firstly, their government forbade Chinamen to teach their language to anyone, under penalty of death. Secondly, no one could remain in China except for trading purposes. Thirdly, established Roman Catholic missionaries were bitterly hostile and in fact expelled him from Macau. Some American factory owners at Canton took him in while he gave himself to language study, but he could not leave his books in the open in case his mission was discovered. He wanted to become fluent in the dialect of the common people, not the Mandarin of a comparatively small aristocratic class.
His trials and discouragements were great, living in almost complete seclusion. His Chinese teacher and servants cheated and robbed him. He tried to live like one of them, but the food and bad housing told on his health. His finances became precarious and prospects seemed cheerless. Political troubles between Britain and China also increased, and foreigners such as he were increasingly under suspicion. The disgraceful "opium wars" were soon to come, where might would be on the side of British, and right on the side of China, and further progress of the gospel into China would be badly jeopardised for some time to come.
He was able to return to Macau in June, 1808, but to miserable lodgings at an exorbitant price. He toiled on at his Chinese dictionary, in his private prayers pouring out his soul to God in broken Chinese to help him master the native tongue. It was an answer to his prayers when a year later he was appointed translator to the East India Company with an annual salary of £500 a year. Now with some security he continued his work - translating increased his familiarity with the language, and gave more opportunity for conversation with the Chinese.
In 1812 his Chinese grammar was finished. It became a pivotal piece of work for enabling England and America to understand China. He sent it to Bengal for printing, but he heard nothing about it for three long years. He went on to print a tract and a catechism, and to translate the Acts and the Gospel of Luke – all of which the Roman Catholic bishop ordered to be burned as heretical. When the Chinese authorities read some of his works they declared it a capital crime to print and publish Christian books in Chinese. Aware of what this meant, Morrison forwarded a translation of their edict to England, at the same time announcing that he purposed to go forward quietly and resolutely.
To avoid the restrictions in China, he established in Malacca an Anglo-Chinese College where printing and training would be done to promote evangelism in the East in years to come. He also wrote home, urging people to learn Chinese, a language, he said, which is the speech of about one-third of mankind. "Tens of thousands of English boys and girls are taught dead languages. Surely some can learn this living one, and so be enabled to make known the Christian faith in the many lands where it is spoken."
In 1814 the first Chinese believer, Tsae A-Ko, was baptised and a local church was begun. Also the Bible Society financed the printing of the New Testament, and a director of the East India Company bequeathed to him $1,000. He used this to produce a pocket size New Testament suitable for hiding among the belongings of the many Chinese who travelled into the interior. After years of work the whole Chinese Bible was printed.
In 1809, he had married Mary Morton in Macau, but she died of cholera on 10th June, 1821 when Robert was 39. Their position was always dangerous and lonely, and this gave Mary much anxiety. Their first child, James, died at birth on 5th March, 1811, and in deep sorrow Robert himself had to bury the little one on a mountainside. They had two more children, Mary (July, 1812), and John (April, 1814).
He returned to England in 1824, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He presented his Chinese Bible to King George IV, and became greatly respected. He taught Chinese to some of the upper classes, stirring up interest and sympathy on behalf of China. Before returning there he was married in November, 1824 to Eliza Armstrong, with whom he had five more children. The new Mrs Morrison and the children from his first marriage returned with him to China in 1826 where he saw further expansion of his work for God.
On 1st August, 1834 this pioneer missionary to China died in his son's arms at his residence in Hong at the age of 52 and was buried in Macau beside his first wife and child.
He had written to the LMS: "I know that the labours of God's servants in the gloom of the dungeon have often illuminated succeeding ages, and I am cheered with the hope that my labours in my present confinement will be of some service to the millions of China.
What a service it was and what a heritage millions received! Although the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century banned the Bible, in the last 25 years 100 million Bibles have been printed in Nanjing, more than 60 million for China itself, yet not enough to satisfy the demand.
To be continued.
- More details are available from C P Hallihan in Quarterly Record, Trinitarian Bible Society, 585, Oct 2008.