Born in England in 1823 and a graduate of London University, Joseph Edkins was ordained in 1847 and served with the London Missionary Society. He was an adventurous pioneer evangelist, translator, philologist, author, and expert in Chinese religions. He “had the apostolic urge to carry the gospel to places where it had not been preached before” (Broomhall).
Edkins joined W.H. Medhurst in Shanghai in 1848. He, along with Medhurst, W. Lockhart, A. Wylie, and W. Milne, preached in Shanghai and the surrounding countryside and taught at a training school for pastors. Within six years, he was “thoroughly at home among the Chinese” (Broomhall). Though there were restrictions on Westerners near Shanghai because of unrest between the British and Chinese, Edkins visited Songjiang (Sungkiang) in 1854, where he was welcomed and preached every day to large crowds.
Gifted in language and learned in Chinese literature, Edkins wrote extensively on China. His works most notably include: A Vocabulary of the Shanghai Dialect; A Grammar of Colloquial Chinese;Introduction to the Study of Chinese Characters; The Evolution of the Chinese Language; China’s Place in Philology; Progressive Lessons in the Chinese Spoken Language; “Phases in the Development of Tauism,” in Transactions of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society; “On Early Tauist Alchemy,” in the North China Herald; The Religious Condition of the Chinese; The Miau-tsi Tribes;Chinese Buddhism; Opium; and The Revenue and Taxation of the Chinese Empire. His religious works asserted that Buddhism should be viewed as a kind of preparation for Christianity, especially its eschatology. He also helped translate a Mandarin version of the New Testament. An active member of the China and North China branches of the Royal Asiatic Society, he was one of the leading sinologues of his time, and was awarded a DD for oriental research from Edinburgh University.
Edkins was a close friend and mentor of Hudson Taylor. He introduced Taylor to other missionaries and was an example of how to live among the Chinese. Edkins was likely Taylor’s inspiration in adopting Chinese dress, as he himself did. He also impressed on Taylor the importance of itinerant evangelism and medical care, taking him on various missionary excursions. In September 1854, they were able to travel to Huangpu to pass out tracts and Scriptures to the seamen there. Their hope was that the Scriptures would find their way to the inaccessible parts of China through these men. On another occasion, they took a trip into the interior, which was forbidden by the Treaty of Nanking. On their way to Jiaxing (Kiahsing), they passed through Songjiang and Jiashan, preaching, distributing tracts and Scripture, and treating the sick. Later (c. 1854), Edkins and William Aitchison were arrested in Suzhou because of their violation of the Treaty and were escorted back to their consuls in Shanghai.
Soon, however, Edkins was again penetrating the Chinese interior, preaching and distributing literature throughout Jiangsu, including Zhenjiang, along with John Burdon and William Aitchison. In 1856, they were able to rent a house in Pinghu, near Shanghai. Though many were still prejudiced against the “foreign barbarians,” these missionaries were gradually granted more liberty and received a warmer reception. They said, “while human treaties exclude us from the perishing millions of the vast interior, we gladly take possession in Christ’s name, of any spot outside the ‘five ports’” (Broomhall). Soon, Edkins taught Bible studies to over 30 Chinese Christians. That year, he and John Burdon entered Suzhou in disguise, and in 1857 he and Griffith John were the first foreigners to enter the city undisguised.
In 1856, Edkins proposed to Maria Dyer, who turned him down with giggles because he was twenty years older than she. She was reproved by another woman for her thoughtless response, especially as Edkins had sacrificed his younger years to the singleness which enabled him to do the risky work of a pioneer missionary. Maria later married Hudson Taylor. Edkins returned for a time to Britain in 1858, where he married Jane Rowbotham Stobbs in February 1859, returning with her to Shanghai in September. He then traveled with Aitchison to Hangzhou and its West Lake, a stronghold of Chinese Buddhism, where they conversed with educated priests and Manchus.
Edkins was well-known to the Taiping rulers, and had known Hong Rengan (Hung Jen-kan) before he joined the Taipings and was renamed Kan Wang (“Shield King”). In order to understand the beliefs of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Edkins decided to made contact with several of its leaders. Though Edkins was not allowed to enter Suzhou in February, 1860, he was admitted in March along with Griffith John, Macgowan, and Hall. Not only were they allowed into the city, but they were escorted directly to Zhong Wang (Li Xiucheng, “The Loyal King”) accompanied by loud music, banners, and silk-clad attendants. They gave him Bibles and other books, and he questioned them about their beliefs. During their visit, more Chinese joined the churches in Suzhou and Songjiang. Edkins’ glowing report was published in the North China Herald.
Though traveling between rebel and free territory was extremely dangerous, Edkins returned to Suzhou and spoke with Hong Rengan. Hong went as far as to talk in private with Burdon, Edkins, and Griffith John without his royal attire, seeking to renew the fellowship he had shared with missionaries before he joined the Heavenly Kingdom. He led them in a hymn and Edkins prayed.
Despite the heretical beliefs of the Taipings and the barbaric actions of their armies, the welcome the foreign missionaries received from the rulers brought Edkins to think that if the rebels could be taught correct doctrine, they could become the avenue through which all of China could be evangelized. He supported the idea of the West aiding the Taipings in the civil war, which he thought could lead to a Christianized government. Other missionaries like John Burdon disagreed, however, believing that the heresies and atrocities of the Taipings were beyond repair.
The British and French decided to oppose the Taipings, but Hong Rengan and Zhong Wang urged Edkins and other Western missionaries to come to Nanjing in order to preach. Hong Ren even asked them to return to “instruct him more perfectly in the way of salvation.” Edkins was planning on living among the rebels with his wife, but for various reasons he decided against it.
Edkins then lived in Yantai (Chefoo) for several months in 1860-61, and then served in Tianjin (Tientsin) in 1861, gaining his first converts within a few months. He also served in Shandong and Yantai during this time. He visited newly-opened Beijing in 1862 and baptized three men who became the first members of the Protestant church there. After the death of his first wife, Edkins married Janet Wood White in 1863. Leaving a successor in Tianjin, he moved to Beijing that year, being one of the first Protestant missionaries to live there. In 1866, he and Muirhead traveled to Mongolia.
In 1869, Edkins wrote the “Missionary Memorandum” in cooperation with Burdon, Collins, and Dudgeon. It responded to threats from the British government to restrain missionary activity to the treaty ports in order to protect British trade, particularly the opium trade. This defense of missionaries was considered by Sir Rutherford Alcock and Lord Clarendon, a member of the House of Lords. The letter was also published in the Chinese Recorder. Edkins spent 1873-76 on furlough in England. At the Second General Missionary Conference in Shanghai in 1877, he delivered a paper focusing on Daoism and Buddhism, and how writings from these religions could be used to aid in making the Gospel understandable to the Chinese. The conference as a whole was dubbed by Hudson Taylor, “the most important step China missions have yet taken.”
In 1880, while in Beijing, Edkins retired from the LMS (though he continued his involvement with missions) and became a translator for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. His second wife also died, and he married Johanna Schmidt in 1881. Edkins moved back to Shanghai in 1893 and continued writing. Having served China for fifty-seven years, he died in 1905.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates, 308, 395.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Over the Treaty Wall, 135, 137, 142-43, 148, 151, 187-9, 198, 213-19, 228, 237-8, 263, 280-81, 292, 307-8, 346, 353.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: If I Had A Thousand Lives, 23, 41-2, 52-3, 70, 80, 98, 108, 133, 150-2, 203-4, 210-11, 213, 252, 261, 277, 429.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Survivor’s Pact, 217-19.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Refiner’s Fire, 147, 184, 354.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Assault on the Nine, 104, 110-11, 114, 202, 307.
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, 247, 293, 364-65, 436.
- Ralph R. Covell, “Edkins, Joseph,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson, (1998).
- For more details and bibliographic information, see the article on Joseph Edkins in the Ricci Roundtable.