How 19th Century Welsh Missionary Timothy Richard’s Cross-Cultural Approach Helped Him Share the Gospel With China

Timothy Richard

Article by Andrew Kaiser. Andrew T. Kaiser is the author of Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) and The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1878. He and his family have been living in China since 1997, providing professional services and public benefit projects.

When Welsh missionary to China Timothy Richard died in his London home on April 17, 1919, he was mourned by people across the globe. Political leaders and believers in the pews in both China and the West grieved the loss of “one of the greatest missionaries whom any branch of the Church, whether Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, or Protestant, has sent to China,” as dubbed by Kenneth Scott Latourette, the 20th-century scholar of Christianity in China.

Timothy Richard was born into a Baptist family in rural Wales in 1845 and was baptized during one of the mid-century revivals. He received his personal call to mission during a sermon on 1 Samuel 15:22, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” and shortly after enrolled at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest.

Richard quickly identified China as his destination, convinced that “being the most civilized of non-Christian nations,” China would be able in time to carry the gospel to the other “less advanced nations.” He originally applied to serve with Hudson Taylor’s brand new China Inland Mission, but with Taylor’s encouragement, he chose to stay with his own denomination. Richard joined the English Baptist Missionary Society and arrived in China in 1870.

Over the course of the next 45 years, Richard’s missionary career expanded to include a remarkable breadth of endeavor. During the devastating North China Famine (1876–1878), Richard was asked to spearhead missionary famine relief efforts that saved the lives of over 150,000 people in Shandong and Shanxi provinces. Richard remained in Shanxi after the devastation, establishing schools and orphanages with vocational training programs to support the local recovery efforts.

Richard’s famine relief efforts produced some of the first Protestant believers in Shanxi and opened the province to missionary work—with Richard organizing the different mission societies to distribute Scripture portions across the entire province. He was determined to avoid any future famines, using scientific lectures and publications to open the eyes of local elites. His efforts to introduce them to the gospel led to the conversion of Xi Shengmo, the once opium-addicted scholar known today as Pastor Hsi.

In 1892, Richard began serving as the director of the Christian Literature Society for China. Through the society’s many publications, Richard introduced China’s young scholar-officials to Christianity, science, and the modern world, directly influencing the course of China’s modernization and political reform at the turn of the century.

In the summer of 1900, discontented Chinese young people in the grips of poverty, oppression, and superstition ravaged Northern China in what later became known the Boxer Uprising. Called Boxers because of the martial arts used in their rituals to make them invincible to bullets, these armies of frustrated young men from the countryside targeted foreigners and their foreign religion—as well as local people who had embraced Christianity. In just a few short months nearly 200 foreign missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed.

Shanxi had been particularly violent, and local officials called on Richard to help negotiate a settlement with the various missionary groups. Richard convinced each of the societies that lost lives and property in Shanxi that summer to set aside their compensation claims and to instead accept money from the provincial government that Richard then used to establish the Imperial University of Shanxi, one of the first modern universities in China. It was Richard’s hope that modern education would remove the superstition that contributed to the Boxer violence, prevent future famines in the province, improve the local economy, and advance the spread of the gospel in Shanxi through the equipping of local evangelists.

Richard received multiple honors and awards in China and the West for all these accomplishments. Of course, like all missionaries, he remained stubbornly human: His boldness and confidence carried with it a strong personality that led to conflict with his colleagues in the Baptist Missionary Society and other mission agencies as well.

Richard’s evangelistic concern for Chinese elites, his commitment to contextualization, and his lack of interest in theologically precise language (Richard was always more passionate than accurate in his communications) caused him trouble toward the end of his ministry. To this day, many scholars interpret Richard’s unique readings of certain Chinese Buddhist and sectarian religious texts as evidence of a supposed turn toward universalism in his latter years in China.

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Source: Christianity Today