Encountering China

The Evolution of Timothy Richard's Missionary Thought (1870-1891)

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Andrew T. Kaiser
Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , March
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is a truism that China-bound Christian missionaries in the late 19th century were not simply the caricatured imperialist-colluding, single-minded proselytizers, but complicated individuals who were transformed through their encounters abroad. In recent years, critical scholarship by historians of Christian missions in China have sought to highlight this complexity, by drawing attention to the ways in which prolonged interaction with Chinese culture and interlocutors in fact “liberalized” the missionaries—transforming them from proselytizers of the Christian gospel to critics of empire.

The book under review, Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870-1891) by Andrew Kaiser, is notably not part of this wave of new scholarship. Rather, it is an attempt to rescue the legacy of the Welsh Baptist missionary Timothy Richard from being re-historicized as a “liberal” Protestant who “departed from the original missionary vocation” (223). For Kaiser, such a reading would be a distortion of Richard’s missionary work in his first twenty years (1870–1891), in which Richard demonstrated a persistent evangelical commitment and overarching vision of saving souls, however broadly defined. Thus, while Kaiser underscores how Richard’s missionary thought and practice transformed as a result of his encounter with China, he argues that Richard’s evangelistic commitments remained resolute in the period under question.

This book, which emerged from Kaiser’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, is an attempt to use an example from Victorian Protestant missions in China in order to challenge the conservative/liberal dichotomy most influential in describing early 20th-century American Protestants in China (vii). Whereas existing treatments of Richard have focused on the more humanistic aspects of his legacy drawn predominantly from the latter-part of his career in China—Richard as reformer, relief administrator, scholar of Buddhism, educator—Kaiser emphasizes that Richard as missionary must be the starting point from which Richard’s later social and intellectual contributions are understood. In Kaiser’s account, Richard’s missionary commitments were not constrained by his evangelicalism, but instead gradually expanded his purview of Christian missions through personal encounters in China. Thus, Richard was able to hold in tension two competing impulses: winning converts to Christianity but also acculturation and local adaptation based on growing empathy for Chinese culture and practical considerations.

Following an introductory chapter that reviews the existing scholarship on Richard, the book is structured in three parts, providing a chronological account of Richard’s missionary work in North China. The first section, “Richard Encountering China,” situates Richard within his background in nonconformist Welsh Protestantism and his forays into China with the British Baptists. Kaiser traces in detail Richard’s transition from street preaching and itinerant evangelism, which yielded lackluster results, into a more eclectic series of adaptations and synthesis from personal encounters with Chinese sectarian traditions and other Western missionaries into his own missionary thought. This adaptation resulted in Richard’s early focus on influencing those individuals he identified as “worthy,” or truly interested in the gospel message (90).

In section 2, the author foregrounds Richard’s encounter with and experience of the North China Famine, which exposed him to unprecedented human suffering and prompted a broadening of his mission to saving physical bodies in this life as a key component of saving souls, which involved constant collaboration and dialogue with local officials in Shanxi (144). Kaiser reads these innovations not as secularization but rather Richard’s expansion of evangelism, or indigenization of Christianity, towards an ultimate goal of growing the church (155).

The final section revisits debates surrounding Richard’s relationship with another influential British missionary organization in Shanxi—the China Inland Mission (CIM)—as well as Richard’s increasingly fractured relationship with his own Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). According to Kaiser, Richard retained his commitments to evangelical orthodoxy even into 1891, when he left the BMS to assume a more prominent national role with Christian literary and educational work in Shanghai, departing from an earlier trajectory of traditional Christian missions and direct evangelism.

Encountering China is based upon extensive archival research in the United Kingdom, in particular, and perusal of personal correspondences, letters, reports, and Richard’s publications in Chinese and English language Christian periodicals, which provide insight into Richard’s evolving stance on Christian missions absent in Richard’s own 1916 biography Forty-Five Years in China (Frederick A . Stokes Company, 1916). Kaiser’s portrayal of the period from 1870 to 1891 is largely convincing, and his interventions into understanding individual episodes of Richard’s life history—for example: Richard’s relative unimportance in the controversy with the CIM (chapter 7) and his lack of attempts to convert local officials in Shanxi (chapter 6)—should be authoritative in future histories of 19th-century Protestant missions in China.

However, I wonder whether Kaiser’s decision to focus on 1870 to 1891 stems from a desire to rehabilitate the “evangelical” Richard of that period; Kaiser’s own admission that many existing histories of Richard foreground his later career could simply evidence the greater significance of Richard’s maturing intellectual output. Thus, it might not actually be an accurate comparison between Richard’s resolute (early) evangelical commitments, and the life-histories of other early 20th-century liberal missionaries like David Hume, John Rawlinson, or Pearl Buck (Lian Xi, The Conversion of Missionaries, Penn State Press, 1997). While Kaiser critiques the “liberalization” thesis, I wonder how Kaiser would position Richard’s empathy and engagement with China’s sectarian religious milieu, alongside his claim of Richard’s “confident drive to seek the more rapid conversion of the Chinese people” at a moment when other liberal Protestant missionaries were repudiating the radically exclusivist claims of the social gospel (229). That remains an open question that cannot be fully answered without a further consideration of Richard’s later career. 

Nevertheless, Kaiser’s respect for Richard’s ability to synthesize his own evangelical commitments, deep empathy for China, and innovative missionary pragmatism, comes forth in the book. Despite some evidence that the manuscript has not been significantly edited from the dissertation, this is an eminently readable book, which should be of interest to students of Christian missions in China. Given Kaiser’s ultimate affirmation of Richard as a model for successful missionary acculturation, this book may also serve to legitimate missionary practitioners today, at a moment of unprecedented exchange between global South Christians and their interlocutors in the West.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Tan is a doctoral student in History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Date of Review: 
November 18, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew T. Kaiser and his family have been living in Shanxi since 1997, serving the people of the province through professional work and public benefit projects.


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