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Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China

Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China

Thomas Jansen12 Feb 2014Leave a comment


Written by Naomi Thurston

Daily, Christopher A. Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China. Royal Asiatic Society Books. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013. xiii, 261 pp. US$60.00 (hb). ISBN 978-988-8208-03-6

Robert Morrison (Ma Lixun 馬禮遜, 17821834), as sympathetic biographers have long argued, was a pioneer missionary in every sense of the word: the firstProtestant missionary to reach Chinese shores, he translated (with assistance) the first complete versions of the Old and New Testaments into Chinese; he established the AngloChinese College at Malacca, the first of its kind to train Protestant evangelists for the work of propagating evangelical Christianity throughout China; andto support this missionhe compiled a dictionary and composed (chiefly translated) and printed a number of theological and pedagogical texts. As Christopher Daily stresses in his portrayal of the Scottish missionary’s pioneering work for Chinese Protestantism, Morrison Studies have for nearly two centuries been onesidedly informed by the hagiographical discourse of Morrison’s admiring contemporaries and nearcontemporaries, despite the availability of archival resources for a more critical engagement.

Daily thus tackles questions previously neglected: Where did Robert Morrison take his marching orders, to what extent did he follow them and how did this affect the early nineteenth-century Protestant China mission? These questions are of interest to China scholars and missionary historians alike. Many historical studies on Chinese Christianity have probed either the influence of prescriptions restricting Christian expression or Christianity’s thriving in China despite antagonistic policy. In contrast, Daily looks at the other side of prescriptive mandating, what he calls the “Gosport Legacy,” a missions template conceived by Morrison’s evangelical English tutor, David Bogue (17501825). It was a plan that accompanied Morrison all the way to China, where, in defiance of unfavourable circumstances, Morrison implemented the prescribed strategy with unwavering religious zeal.

Daily’s study draws on archival material from seven locations, including the British Library, the Hong Kong Congregationalist Library, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives (Lampeter), Dr. Williams’s Library (London) and New College, University of Edinburgh. The examined materials comprise a transcription of Jean Basset’s incomplete Chinese New Testament; Bogue’s lecture notes (from four locations); “plans for missions,” (p. 240) student addresses, a diary (Bogue); “Dr. Morrison’s Day Book” (p. 240); and London Missionary Society Board Minutes (from 17951839). Owing to his extensive analysis of archival sources, Daily is able to reconstruct in some detail the missionary strategy developed by Bogue at his Gosport Academy, which in 1800 became the official missionary training school for the London Missionary Society (LMS), sending off both Morrison and later his co-worker William Milne (1785–1822). Bogue was commissioned with the training of LMS missionaries after the society had been forced to rethink its “godly mechanic missionary strategy” (p. 25) for missions, an approach popularized by the Moravian Church and advocated by LMS man Thomas Haweis (17331820) as the strategy of choice for the society’s inaugural mission to Tahitia mission that failed miserably. Bogue’s “new” strategy, as Daily notes, was to “acquire the native languages; to translate the Scriptures and compose a dictionary, grammar, and a supply of evangelical texts; and to establish a seminary for converts” (p. 82).

This particular missionary method veered far off the course prescribed by the above-mentioned “godly mechanic” strategy that the Moravians had implemented in the 1730s in their pioneer mission to the Caribbean, when they sent a potter and a carpenter to evangelize “unknown” peoples. Daily describes the rationale for breaking with the Moravian model: the primary difficulty in the way it was adapted by British evangelicals was that the missionaries, due to emphasizing technical skills over language learning and cultural engagement, never established relationships with locals and ended up having to abandon their mission.

As Daily’s work convincingly demonstrates, Morrison followed the template, heeding Bogue’s advice almost to the letter. By sending off the academy’s graduates equipped with three years’ worth of Bogue’s lecture notes to refer to throughout their missionary service, “the LMS missionaries could always recall” their British tutor’s instructions. Thus, “Gosport Academy would remain the driving force behind their missions” (ibid.).

The author’s claim may seem exaggerated until the reader notes just how meticulously and in how many instances Morrison observed the various components of Bogue’s plan once in China. Whether or not this “plan” should be depicted as the “driving force” of Morrison’s work is a matter of perspective. Certainly Morrison’s writings provide enough reason to believe that the man was driven by spiritual devotion and a desire to see the “heathen” come to Christ no less than by loyalty to the Gosport plan. Further, the originality that Daily attributes to Bogue’s strategy ought not to be exaggerated. Bogue’s advice with regard to the final stage of the mission for exampleto train faithful converts who would continue the work of proselytizingis taken directly from the New Testament. But Daily’s concern is to show that Morrison’s plan for China was not his own brainchild, emphasizing instead that even the sort of initiative that Morrison in his writing presents as based on his own “opinion”due to experiences gained from actually living abroad“hardly seemed original” (p. 119).

The author makes some proposals for further research, including the suggestion that future studies investigate how the sources consulted for his book “permanently alter our understanding of the beginning of Protestantism in China” (p. 199).

One question I would like to ask Daily is why the book, since it is of interest to Sinologists and linguists, gets by without introducing or discussing a single Chinese character. On the one hand, the omission adds to the book’s readability and general appeal; on the other hand, especially at certain points such as when the author compares the Roman Catholics’ rendering of “God” (天主 tianzhu) and Morrison’s contemplations, the omission strikes me as glaring.

Any drawbacks of the Protestant Plan are minor compared to the book’s overall contribution. More than re-examining the impact of Morrison’s early pioneer work, especially his critical Chinese translation of the Bible and other linguistic feats, Daily manages to extract the intimate connection between the entry of Protestantism into Imperial China and the particular brand of evangelical instruction he received in England along with a detailed “mandate” for Gosport graduates to follow at their “foreign posts”not unlike the mandate of a diplomatic mission, except that in the case of nineteenth-century evangelicalism the Christian “ambassadors” were rarely invited by their host countries. Daily proves that the Bogue-China mission connection was strong, persistent and, in the end, intensely influential. No doubt other similar connections in the history of Protestant missions and missionary training are yet to be unearthed, projects for which Daily’s book provides incentive and solid food for thought. In fact, this is the work’s significant contribution to mission studies: a new analytic focus on the relationships and influences that drove the nineteenth-century century Protestant missionary movement. It is these, less frequently highlighted currents sometimes apparently hidden in the crevices of unexpended archival treasury which—in addition to the general suspect foci of postcolonial perspective—are deserving of scholarly attention and debate.

Naomi Thurston
University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter

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