Early life and studies
Samuel Dyer was the fourth son of John Dyer, Secretary of the Royal Hospital for seamen at Greenwich, England, where Samuel was born. For the first twelve years he was educated by his parents at home, but later he entered a boarding school led by a Non-conformist minister. In 1820 the Dyers moved to Paddington, where Samuel was converted under the ministry of a minister named James Stratton, pastor of Paddington Chapel. Dyer cherished a warm affection for, and the admiration of, Mr. Stratton for the rest of his life.
After gaining experience by teaching in Sunday school, and winning the hearts of his students in the process, Dyer proceeded to Cambridge University, where he began to study law at Trinity Hall. He was a man of many interests, and became fascinated with mathematics. Though almost assured of a brilliant career in law, he sensed God’s leading to become a foreign missionary, largely as a result of reading a sermon preached at the funeral of a godly woman, entitled, “All for Christ and the good of souls.” Dyer applied in 1824 to the London Missionary Society. Graduation from Cambridge required agreement to everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, which Dyer could not do, so he left the university and transferred to a missionary training school.
Always a diligent student, Dyer excelled in all branches of language, but especially Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and French. During this time of preparatory training, and to some degree moved by the example of Robert Morrison, Dyer began to feel a strong desire to serve God in China. He applied himself to theology; read books on China donated by Morrison; study medicine; and acquired skill in the arts of printing. Later, in London, he began to study Chinese under Morrison, who was then on furlough in London. He advanced to the point where he could read the Bible devotionally in that language. Morrison also challenged Dyer to study how movable metallic type could be introduced in Chinese printing.
Already at this time Dyer had become known for his piety, amiable disposition, humility, hard work, zeal for knowledge, and utter consecration to Christ and to the spread of the Gospel.
Dyer had originally been assigned to teach at the Anglo-Chinese College established by Robert Morrison, where William Milne had served as first principal, but upon arrival in Penang in 1827 he discovered that the LMS missionary force had been so reduced by death and disease that he decided to stay there and help. Building upon the foundation laid in England, and by dint of assiduous study, he was soon able to make himself understood in the Hokkien, the dialect of Fujian (though he did acquire proficiency in other dialects as well), as well as Malay, the language of the local inhabitants. In time, he became so expert in speaking and writing that Chinese people considered him a “prodigy.”
Shortly before leaving England, Dyer married Maria Tarn, daughter of a director of the British and Foreign Bible Society, who had also studied Chinese with Robert Morrison . With her help, he set up schools for Chinese boys and girls, in which English, Bible, and other subjects were taught. The Dyers believed that such schools were an important form of outreach and (potentially) discipleship, and also serving, among other purposes, to build a link between the missionaries and the people among whom they lived. St. Margaret’s Girls’ School in Singapore was established by Maria Dyer in 1842.
He also dispensed medicines; visited the homes of Chinese each night to share the Gospel; spoke to the Chinese who came daily to his home; preached two sermons a week in a Chinese worship service; and ministered to foreigners in Penang.
Above all, however, Dyer early on saw the necessity of revising the translation of the Bible made by Morrison and Milne, though he greatly respected both the men and their immense achievement, and he made this his chief aim as a missionary. His own exact knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, plus his rapidly increasing command of Chinese, alerted him to inaccuracies and barbarisms which made the Bible difficult, and sometimes impossible, to understand. Always a man of extraordinary diligence and meticulous method, he painstakingly combed Morrison’s Bible, the Chinese Classics and Romance of the Three Kingdoms to compile a vocabulary list for a basic Chinese font for Bible translation and Christian literature. He sought the most precise Chinese equivalent for each Biblical word and phrase, alert to the complex problems of translation in a way that modern linguists would admire. To assist himself and others, he developed a concordant index of Chinese literature that allowed him to find both the word and its various uses in different literary contexts.
These findings were written up and published in a series of articles which were then circulated among missionaries, gaining Dyer great respect for his learning and insight, and winning influence in the next stages of the revision of Morrison’s version of the Bible. He listed three guiding principles for translation: “I. Perspicuity and simplicity. II. Closeness to the original, as far as is consistent with perspicuity. III. Classical purity of language, as far as is consistent with closeness to the original and perspicuity; ever remember that we labour principally among the poor and illiterate.”
Like many others, the more closely he examined the Scriptures in the original languages, the more he believed that they were the very words of God, for his careful comparison of apparently contradictory passages enabled him to resolve numerous difficulties.
At the same time, Samuel Dyer expended immense effort to produce a font of movable metal types that could be used in printing the Scriptures and other Christian literature - for he always esteemed the provision of suitable Christian materials to be a high importance. Though not actually the inventor of Chinese metal type, he so perfected the art of punch cutting as to be recognized by Chinese and Japanese scholars as the first to produce printed materials that were elegant and relatively economical to make and to use, and soon replaced the costly use of woodcut blocks.
Dyer first had to calculate which Chinese characters must be selected from the 40,000 that exist; he chose 3,200 that were necessary for Christian publications. Then he made careful calculations of the relative frequency of use of each character, to figure out the proper number of punches needed for each character, in order to have enough in the font for printing. Next came the arduous process, first of devising a way to cut punches that would please the Chinese eye, and then of producing each in sufficient quantity.
In the end, Dyer had created both a larger and smaller font of metal type that were used to print Bibles, tracts, and books for Chinese - an achievement of the first order.
In the midst of all these tasks, Dyer did not neglect his family, his fellow missionaries, or his supporters at home, to whom he wrote long letters filled with information and affection.
Dyer moved to Malacca in 1835, where he worked on printing with Liang Fa, whom he highly respected. After two years of furlough in England, the Dyers returned to Singapore, bringing a Miss Buckland, who taught their children, thus freeing Maria to focus on girls’ education. Dyer worked with John Stronach, preaching, visiting homes, Scripture revision, preparing books in Chinese, making punches for his Chinese fonts, and drawing up a comparative vocabulary list of Hokkien and Chaozhou dialects.
After the conclusion of the Opium War in 1842, though he deplored the opium trade - “one of the vilest that has ever polluted human hands” - and the “earthly, sensual, and devilish” actions of the European imperialists, he believed that the opening of five treaty ports was the work of God’s mysterious providence, and called for English Christians to make the evangelization of China a high priority.
In July, 1843, he sailed to Hong Kong to attend two conferences, one for LMS missionaries to discuss their designation in the newly opened treaty ports and the other, a General Missionary Conference that discussed Bible translation. Serving as secretary to the proceedings of both conferences, he overtaxed his health and succumbed to a fever and died in nearby Macao in October of the same year. He was buried near the grave of Robert Morrison, the two men being united in death as they had been in their labors and love for the Chinese.
He could not have accomplished as much as he did without strict discipline of his time, and a remarkably efficient note-taking and filing system, which allowed him to recover the fruits of previous research with ease. His first biographer wrote that,
“he never attempted to read everything in Chinese or any other language, but no man ever laboured harder to acquire an accurate knowledge of the idioms and purity of that language… His habit was to read less, but well, so that his knowledge was only in truth greater than if he had extended his reading over a larger surface, but it was compact, and always at command, ready for use. So he was an accurate, as well as a practical man.”
Samuel Dyer was loved and respected as a man of intense devotion to Christ and to the spread of the Gospel among the Chinese. Battered, as were all his colleagues, by a variety of trials and setbacks, he could still write,
“I am happy, oh, very happy, in this blessed work, although the least and meanest [most unimportant] of all the labourers in the vineyard.” “I am happy…to bear, in my humble way, the name of Jesus in this Gentile land. Happy to tell with stammering lips [he was fluent in Chinese] that Jesus died for the chief of sinners. Happy to bear the burden and heat of the day. Happy to carry from house to house the bread of life. - Oh, I am very very happy!”
Close friends honored him as a man of self-sacrificing love, deep humility, constant war against indwelling sin, and carefulness of speech. He seemed to have his mind set on heaven, even as he kept his feet firmly planted on earth. As a missionary, he “succeeded to admiration in looking at everything with the mind and the eye of a genuine Chinaman [sic]… He not only knew the taste of the people among whom he laboured, but possessed it.” “To labour for China was the sole object of his existence.”
His first-born, a girl, and last-born, a son, both died in infancy. The Dyers had a son, Samuel, who years later served with the British & Foreign Bible Society in China. Much earlier his two sisters, Burella, who married John Burdon, and Maria, who became the first wife of J. Hudson Taylor, also served as missionaries in China.
By G. Wright Doyle, with Dr. James H. Taylor, III
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century, 7 vols., Book One: Barbarians at the Gates. Sevenoaks, OMF, 1981.
- Evan Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer. London, John Snow, 1846.
- Jocelyn Murray, “Dyer, Samuel,” in Gerald H. Anderson, editor, Biographical Dictionary of Christians Missions Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998
- Valerie Griffiths, Not Less than Everything. Oxford, Monarch, 2004