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Robert Morrison 1782-1834

Category Articles
Date December 12, 2016

First Protestant missionary to translate the Bible into Chinese

The great English poet and hymn writer William Cowper wrote the following well before Robert Morrison left for China:

Great offices will have great talents, and God gives to every man the virtues, temper, understanding and taste that lifts him into life and lets him fall just in the niche he was designed to fill

Robert Morrison was the man God raised up for His glory and destined him to become the first Protestant missionary to China and subsequently the first missionary to translate the Scriptures into classical Chinese.

Just imagine once, the times in which he lived…! China was an elusive and ancient country, far away from Europe and could only be reached after a 5 month journey by sailing ship. The emperors of China had pronounced the death sentence on any of its nationals that would teach a foreigner the Chinese language. They prohibited the import of western goods. They even forbade westerners to enter on Chinese soil. Silver was the only form of payment for goods, such as silk, tea and ginger, purchased from their country. Foreign religions were banned and prosecuted with the death sentence.

All the trade in those days between the British Empire and the Orient was conducted through the British East India Company. The East India Company, in pursuing its trade with China, likewise banned missionaries from its territories and blocked any attempt to spoil its lucrative opportunities. Such were the times when Robert Morrison left for China. From a human perspective, it was impossible. Not only was China a closed fortress, but Morrison’s own country, England, blocked him from going there. But what is impossible with man is possible with God. It was God’s time. He would send one of His servants to lay the groundwork for the translation of His Word to that ancient nation of China. Thus, Robert Morrison became the father of Protestant missions to China.

Born on January 5, 1782, in the town of Morpeth, England, Robert Morrison grew up in a Presbyterian family. His father James was a farmer and elder in High Bridge Presbyterian Church. As a teenager, Robert studied the Bible diligently and was moved by articles in missionary magazines. At the age of 15, his heart was exercised to become a missionary, and at the age of 20, he felt the Lord called him to become a missionary to Africa. The next year, in 1804, he was accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS), who appointed him as missionary. Robert soon began his study at the Missionary Academy and took additional studies in medicine and astronomy. Contrary to his expectations to go to Africa, the LMS asked him to go to China. The British and Foreign Bible Society sponsored this assignment, having a direct interest in the translation of the Bible into Chinese. Morrison accepted and began his preparation for China. He immediately began to study Chinese and could often be found in the British Library researching the collections of Chinese literature.

The aforementioned East India Company practiced a strict prohibition on missionaries wanting to go to China. Thus, he sailed on January 31, 1807 to the United States to ask for protection from the Consul of the United States in Canton (Guangzhou), China. After his arrival in New York, with letters of recommendation in hand, he proceeded to Philadelphia and was able, through some influential Christian friends, to obtain a letter from the then Secretary of State, James Madison, written to the Consul in Canton, asking for his protection and residence within the American quarters in this Chinese city.

On May 12, 1807, he sailed on the Trident and arrived in Canton on September 6, that same year. He took residence in the American section of a restricted enclave where the Chinese government allowed foreign traders to live and conduct business with Chinese traders. He immediately took up the task of learning the Chinese language. With the assistance of 2 local helpers and teachers, he was able to learn the language. This was conducted in extreme secrecy as these workers risked their lives doing this.

Robert Morrison moved back and forth a few times from Canton to Macao, a small island off the coast of south China. In either place, he was greatly restricted to do the work of evangelism and faced great resistance from the Roman Catholic bishop living on Macao. This bishop issued an anathema against any who had interaction with Morrison, received his books or supplied him with Chinese books. The Catholics had already established a presence on the island and were in good favour with the Portuguese governor. Meanwhile, Morrison continued to labour diligently to learn the Chinese language and began compiling a book on Chinese grammar.

In 1809, a couple of significant events took place in the life of Morrison. First, the East India Company had recognized his skill with the Chinese language and offered to employ him as their official translator and interpreter in all their official China affairs. This gave him a handsome wage, allowed him to reside there officially and gave him the opportunity to continue developing his language skills. Second, he fell in love with Mary Morton, who was the daughter of a surgeon of the Royal Irish Regiment there. They had a happy marriage and were blessed with two children. In 1815, Mary was forced to return to England with her two children due to her loss of health. This began a bleak time in the life of Morrison. His wife returned in 1820, but died of continued weakness in 1821. Mary was buried in Macao, and her two children were sent back to England. Morrison grieved many years over the loss of his dear wife Mary and missed his young children every day. Yet, he persevered in language study and compiled a 6-volume edition of an English-Chinese dictionary, which was ready for publication in 1822. This and his grammar book were huge accomplishments and used by the East India Company in teaching their employees involved with trade in China. With funds provided by the company, this was printed and distributed widely in Chinese-speaking territories of the then British empire.

Morrison was involved in Bible translation immediately upon his arrival in China. He published the book of Acts first as a result of him finding a copy in Chinese in the British Library before his departure. Three copies were sent back to England, which aroused a great enthusiasm among the LMS and the British and Foreign Bible Society. An additional amount of 500 pounds was allocated for the continuation of the translation efforts of Morrison. He came to realize that the task of translating the entire Bible was too much of a task for one person and requested the LMS to send him a helper. In 1912, William Milne was sent out by the London Missionary Society to assist Morrison in his arduous task of translating the Scriptures. He arrived in Macao 1813, transferred 3 days later to Canton, and began his language studies there. One of Milne’s famous statements on learning Chinese was: ‘Learning the Chinese language requires bodies of iron, lungs of brass, heads of oak, hands of spring steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.’ One can imagine what both men had to go through in those days, coupled with all the hardships and external powers resisting the work. Yet, the Lord raised up these men to persevere in the midst of immense difficulties and lay a foundation for many missionaries to enter into His service in years to come. Upon the advice of Morrison, Milne moved with his wife to Malacca (currently a Malaysian State) after six months in Canton, to find and establish a missionary base from which they could train new missionaries and continue the Bible translation without restraint. This base would also serve as a printing and distribution point from which the Scriptures could be sent out.

Together, they completed the entire Bible in 1819 and printed their first copy on a movable type printing press brought in from England. William Milne died one year before the first copy of the Bible was published in 1823. He is remembered as a faithful assistant to Morrison in the translation of the Chinese Bible. He was 37 years old. He is also remembered for establishing the English-Chinese College in Malacca. This college provided English-Chinese language training for future missionaries to China. Morrison grieved over the loss of his dear friend and helper William Milne as well as the loss of his first wife Mary.

The organization and preparations of publishing a Bible was immense. Every Chinese character had to be carved out of wood and positioned in the right order on the press plate of the printing press. Morrison ordered the carving of two sets of wooden movable type of all the characters of the then spoken language. Today, one needs to know about 3000 characters to read a newspaper. An educated reader will know up to 8000 characters. One can imagine the task to carve several thousand characters for the printing of the first Chinese Bible.

Often, Johannes Gutenberg has been accredited with the invention of the printing press in 1439. But, 400 years before his time, the Chinese were already printing with movable type. Around 1045, a Chinese inventor by the name Bi Sheng carved Chinese characters out of clay and glued them to a metal plate for printing. Later, these characters where carved from small wood blocks. Thus, the Chinese were already printing with movable type for almost 800 years by the time Morrison printed his first copies of the various Bible books.

Robert Morrison had become quite famous in England at this time and traveled there once while he was in China. During his visit to England, from 1824 through 1826, he was able to personally hand a copy of the Chinese Bible to King George IV. He was in great demand as a speaker, promoting the need for missionaries to go to China. He also married Elizabeth Armstrong on November 1825 and left again for China with his family in 1826.

Morrison continued to write and publish tracts and books on the Christian religion. He spontaneously contributed to articles in missionary journals worldwide to promote the cause of Christ’s Kingdom in China. He died on August 1, 1834, at the age of 52, from a fever and exhaustion. He was buried next to his first wife Mary and infant son James, at the Protestant cemetery in Macao. His grave can still be visited today.

During Morrison’s life, he developed a great respect for Chinese culture and language. His greatest contribution, next to his translation of the Bible, was to bring China to the attention of the Christian community in Europe and America. Thus, he served as a bridge between two very diverse cultures. His Bible translation paved the way for the precious Word of God to be brought by missionaries to the ancient people of China.

Taken with permission from Hudson Taylor Ministries September 2016

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