Voyage to China

by Ronald Clements, UK

“The wind whistles shrilly through the rigging, the sails roar again with the violence of the wind and rain, the masks crack, the ship reels and lies over, and the seas as they strike her make every timber vibrate.”

James Hudson Taylor was 82 days into his first voyage to China when he recorded these words in his diary. The Dumfries had left her moorings in Liverpool on September 19, 1853, headed for Shanghai. By the New Year the barque was around 500 miles from Australia and still had over 4,000 miles to negotiate.

Taylor was the only passenger on board the cargo ship. He enjoyed a good relationship with the captain and one or two of the crew. Most, however, were ambivalent towards the budding missionary, some occasionally hostile.

But Taylor was not idle. He employed his skills as a doctor, helped out on deck, reefed sails and sketched details of islands to aid navigation.

On Sundays Taylor organized morning and evening services. The crew, however, were not eager to tolerate his passion for preaching. When he extended a service by 40 minutes no one turned up for the next meeting. But they were glad of his prayers when becalmed. On more than one occasion his appeal for a breeze to speed them forward was answered.

It was February 22 before Taylor’s first view of China, as theDumfries headed up the east coast of Taiwan and towards the mainland. Three days later they anchored off Gutzlaff’s Island – named after Charles Gutzlaff, a key figure in colonial affairs and early Protestant mission within China.

Boats carrying fishermen approached the ship offering guidance to Shanghai for a fee. For Taylor it was his first sight of the Chinese and he was stirred to write, “How I did long to be able to preach the gospel to them.”

It wasn’t until March 1 that the passenger was able to disembark and set foot on land. At five in the afternoon Taylor fulfilled his dream to stand on Chinese soil, rubbing shoulders with the nation he wanted to evangelize.

“My feelings on arriving at last among the people cannot be described. My heart felt as tho’ it would burst from its place – as tho’ there was not room for it.”

Taylor was the first China missionary of the London based Chinese Evangelisation Society (CES), an agency initiated by Gutzlaff. In his pocket Taylor carried three letters of introduction.

Yet although Taylor’s heart exulted at having entered the country which would lay claim to the rest of his life, there were no colleagues to greet him. A visit to the consulate revealed that two of his three letters were useless – one prospective helper had died five months previously, a second had returned to the States two years before.

He was directed to the home of Dr. Walter Medhurst, a prominent member of the London Missionary Society (LMS). But to Taylor’s dismay it was clear that Medhurst and his wife were away. Not an encouraging start for a 21-year-old fledgling missionary!

Taylor was “rescued” by members of the LMS, found accommodation, given help in settling into life in Shanghai, advised on learning Mandarin and included in their mission activities.

Taylor’s own agency, the CES, proved totally unhelpful in providing support and finances. On his first visit to the post office he received just two copies of the organization’s magazine. He had to wait four months for a reply to his requests for guidance and funds.

If his personal difficulties weren’t enough, the China Taylor had entered was stricken with uncertainty and was at war with itself. Taylor records “…the report of cannon shakes the house… the windows ring violently. I found… the half buried headless corpse of a man.”

The Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1850, was an uprising grouped around Hong Xiuquan, a visionary who initially melded Christian beliefs and practices with a desire for power.

Hong’s forces seized swathes of territory in the south – cutting China in half, setting up government in Nanjing and threatening to march on the emperor’s seat of power in Beijing. The imperialist forces were ill prepared and demoralised.

A third force was also in the ascendancy. These were the Triads who, seeing the opportunity afforded by the Taipings’ success, had taken up arms; sometimes in league with the Taipings, often acting independently. It was the Triads who now occupied areas of Shanghai and fought daily battles with the imperialist forces.

Taylor and other missionaries were constantly in danger from stray bullets and cannonballs. Violence was common as people were abducted for ransoms or beaten. Bodies lay unburied on the streets.

While there was some encouragement in Taylor’s initial missionary work, there were also disappointments. One of the Dumfries’ crew who had shown interest in the gospel was drowned in the river after a drinking binge.

But Taylor, despite this discouragement, was driven with a deep passion for the salvation of the Chinese. Within days of his arrival he was handing out tracts within the city and soon traveled into the surrounding countryside, aiding LMS missionaries.

Taylor learned many lessons from these early experiences, which he addressed in the formation of the China Inland Mission 11 years later.

In a country of 400 million there were around 350 Chinese Christians with 55 Protestant missionaries from a handful of societies. Activities were concentrated in a few centers along the east and south coasts. The immense inland areas were untouched.

There was little doubt in Taylor’s mind that “the door is wide open… there is a great harvest.” However, his concern was equally imperative – “but few ready to reap.”

  • 1 March 1854 – Hudson Taylor’s first visit to China. He goes as a member of the CES (Chinese Evangelisation Society).
  • 1857 – Taylor’s relationship with the CES ends. He and a fellow missionary start a new work in Ningbo, south of Shanghai.
  • 1860 – Taylor returns to the UK with his wife Maria.
  • 1865 – the formation of the CIM (China Inland Mission).
  • 1866 – Taylor leaves for China on the Lammermuir.
  • 1952 – after its significant impact on the spread of Christianity across China, the CIM withdraws due to the triumph of communism.
  • 2004 – today, as OMF International, our 1,300 members from 30 nations work throughout East Asia.