There was only one passenger aboard the clipper Dumfries when she set sail for China on September 19, 1853. The ship spent her first twelve days out of Liverpool caught in a violent storm in the Irish Sea, and almost foundered.
The passenger, Hudson Taylor, was a twenty-one-year-old, half-trained physician and entirely untrained missionary. Stowed in the cargo hold, he worried about his family and about the investment in his fare made by the newly-formed China Evangelical Society (CES) – money badly spent, if he should be lost at sea. “The Captain,” he wrote later, “was calm and courageous, trusting in the Lord for his soul’s salvation. The steward said he knew that he was nothing, but Christ was all. I felt thankful for them, but I did pray earnestly that God would have mercy on us and spare us for the sake of the unconverted crew.”
His mother had insisted he take a swimming-belt with him on the long sea voyage, but the young missionary felt that to wear it was to show a lack of trust in God. He gave it away to one of the clipper’s crew. “I was,” the passenger wrote later, “a very young believer, and had not sufficient faith in God to see Him in and through his use of means.” In other words, it simply hadn’t occurred to him that God might actually want to save him through his mother’s foresight, and a bit of Victorian safety equipment. After he gave away the swimming-belt, “strange to say, I put several light things together, likely to float [if the ship went down], without any thought of inconsistency or scruple.” This paradoxical attitude – casting himself entirely on God but being canny and intelligent in the way that he did so – was something of Hudson Taylor’s hallmark.
In the event, the Dumfries did not go down, and five months later, her sole passenger landed safely at Shanghai.
It was a moment Taylor had dreamed of since 1837, when, as a child of five he told his parents, “When I am a man, I mean to be a missionary and go to China.” After a powerful Evangelical conversion when he was a teenager, Taylor’s conviction that he was being called to China only strengthened.
One day, deep in prayer, he felt that call affirmed: “I felt I was in the presence of God, entering into covenant with the Almighty. I felt as though I wished to withdraw my promise, but could not. Something seemed to say ‘Your prayer is answered, your conditions are accepted.’ And from that time the conviction never left me that I was called to China.”
By age eighteen, Taylor was studying Mandarin, training as a physician, and writing to mission boards to find a way of traveling to a nation that was, at that time, largely unknown to Europeans. The missionary movement, driven by a heartfelt sense of the obligations imposed upon all Christians by the Great Commission “to preach the gospel to every creature” was in full swing. Eventually Taylor found his way to the CES, which paid his fare, promised to support him on his arrival, and then sent him off into the storms of the Atlantic.
He arrived at Shanghai in the midst of another storm: this time, a political one. In 1842 the First Opium War ended in British victory. The Chinese empire’s attempt to prevent British traders smuggling opium from India into China failed: the emperor was forced to consent to the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. It is known in China to this day as the first of the “Unequal Treaties.” British warships kept their guns trained on Nanjing until the government agreed to sign the articles of the treaty, one of which opened five port cities to foreign trade. Another permitted foreign missionaries to live in the country. Neither clause was welcome to the Chinese government.
But even under the new treaty, much of China remained effectively closed to outsiders, and foreigners were left relying on rumors to make sense of the political and social turbulence wracking the empire. In 1850, three years before the Dumfries arrived in Shanghai, a self-proclaimed prophet in South China named Hong Xiuquan had declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Denouncing China’s ruling Qing dynasty as demonic, he established a new state – the “Heavenly Kingdom” – in opposition. Hong sought to convert China to his own syncretistic version of Christianity, a blend of Protestantism – gleaned from missionary tracts – Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion, all of which had, he said, been revealed to him in visions.
Xiuquan’s rebellion, often called the Taiping Rebellion, would leave 20 million dead. When Hudson Taylor arrived in Shanghai, the war had been fought for three years and would continue for eleven more.
Between the war, debilitating cold, lack of funds or long-term housing, and, despite his study of Mandarin, his inability to communicate with native speakers, Taylor’s first year in Shanghai was daunting. Letters – and money from home – took months to arrive. Even as Taylor worked to help the CES understand conditions in Shanghai, he struggled to find inner peace: “Jesus is here, and though unknown to the majority and uncared for by many who might know Him, He is present and precious to His own.”
While studying local dialects Taylor began preaching journeys up the Yangtze and Hwangpu Rivers, always accompanied by a more fluent missionary, a Chinese teacher, and a hired navigator, using houseboats to reach the more distant cities and islands. He often joined forces with another doctor, and together they combined preaching the gospel with care for the sick.
Hudson Taylor was careful never to suggest the gospel was the possession of Europeans.
In many cases, the missionaries were met with great interest and keen curiosity. But they also found themselves threatened by crowds who suspected foreigners of aiding and abetting Xiuquan’s rebellion (given their talk of Jesus), or of expanding the opium trade. On occasion, Taylor’s group was attacked by soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Once they returned to see Shanghai in flames, besieged by the forces of the Heavenly Kingdom.
“I hope to go inland again in a few days,” Taylor wrote to a colleague at one point. “You will join us in thanking the Lord for His protection in recent dangers. The Rebellion, especially since foreigners have enlisted themselves on both sides, has made access to the interior no easy matter. But the Word of God must go, and we must not be hindered by slight obstacles in the way of its dissemination.”
Realizing early on that his European dress and habits made him an object of suspicion, Taylor took up the clothing styles and food of his adopted country, to the disapproval of the staid British subjects in the “foreigners’ compound” where he lived in Shanghai. But the missionary found that along with this decision, his relationships with people in China became deeper, his conversations about the gospel more thoughtful. Taylor would wear Chinese clothing for the rest of his life, and he asked this of his coworkers as well, as a gesture of respect for the culture that was hosting them.
In this attitude, Taylor was in sharp opposition to most missionaries of the day. Taylor was careful never to suggest the gospel was the possession of the English, or of Europeans: Christ loved all men and women in every country and showed no partiality. The English had converted because centuries before, unnamed missionaries had brought Christ’s message to Britain’s native Saxons and Celts. That flame of faith had, from Taylor’s perspective, been renewed regularly in those islands, most recently in the preaching of John and Charles Wesley. Taylor’s father had been a Methodist lay preacher, and although Taylor was himself a Baptist, his missionary work had an ecumenically Protestant basis.
Taylor’s writings show reverence for the ancient culture in which he found himself, and reveal the love and honor in which he held its people. This sympathetic approach to Chinese culture, and Taylor’s adoption of Chinese clothing, were frequently misunderstood and mocked by Europeans, including some who worked with him.
On one journey south to the city of Ningbo, he visited a small outpost of missionaries: there, he met the two daughters of Reverend Samuel Dyer. Dyer had been among the first missionaries in China, and had left his daughters orphans when they were very young. Maria, then age eighteen, and her sister were working as schoolteachers in Ningbo when Taylor arrived in the city. Maria was fluent in Mandarin and several other languages, wholeheartedly dedicated to mission work, and impatient with anything that smacked of security or privilege. The previous year, she had turned down the proposal of Sir Robert Hart, then serving as a diplomat with the British consulate. It was Taylor’s first encounter with his future bride.
By 1857, he had moved south to Ningbo to found a mission hospital. Having severed ties with the Chinese Evangelical Society, he relied on prayer and the donations of friends in England. Several new Christians joined him, for which he was thankful, most notably Wang Laiquan, Feng Ninggui, Ni Yongfa, and Qiu Guogui: men who would be Taylor’s most important colleagues for the work ahead. Whether supporting the hospital work or evangelizing through the city and later, the provinces, these four and soon others reached thousands in sharing their faith.
Ningbo brought Taylor into closer association with Maria Dyer; they were soon deeply in love. Maria’s employer, the woman who ran the school, had little faith in Taylor’s modus operandi of trust in God for all practical matters, with no safety net. Even Taylor doubted whether he should ask Maria to live so daringly, but she proved just as confident in God’s providence as he.
Taylor’s writings show reverence for the ancient culture in which he found himself, and reveal the love and honor in which he held its people.
She also proved a good bit more businesslike: when they married, she took up much of his administration and correspondence, while counseling and holding prayer meetings for women. And her linguistic ability, in major languages and in dialects, was exceptional: she was so fluent in Ningbo that she could translate English books into the dialect on the spot while teaching classes. With Maria, Taylor founded the China Inland Mission.
CIM grew, under Taylor’s direction, gradually assuming responsibility for the work of eight hundred European missionaries and five hundred Chinese missionaries in all eighteen provinces. Together, the Taylors started 125 schools and 300 other stations of work, supporting various ministries including medical workers. Taylor eventually completed his own medical degree, and later recruited other doctors to the mission. Before his death in 1905, fifty-one years after that first landing, he saw twenty thousand people come to Christ as the result of the China Inland Mission. He never lost his awareness of his calling: to offer Christ to anyone who would receive him.