Ernst Faber was one of the most prolific German Protestant missionaries in 19th-century China. He enlisted with the Rhenish Missionary Society and was dispatched to work in Canton in 1864. A lifelong bachelor, Faber was able to devote himself to several areas of endeavour beyond Gospel dissemination. These included scientific discoveries and, though he was not a trained physician, the treatment of thousands of medical cases. He resigned his post in 1880 and worked independently with an increasing conviction that literary work was the most promising means of reaching educated Chinese; a conviction which was reinforced by throat problems which prevented him from continuing his public preaching ministry. He attached himself to the fledgling Allgemeiner Evangelisch-Protestantischer Missionsverein (General Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society) in 1885, to convert the “mind” of the Chinese. In 1886, he moved to Shanghai and spent the remainder of his career there. Recognised as one of the foremost scholars of China of his time, he produced numerous volumes in Chinese, English and German on fields as disparate as comparative religion, theology, history, and botany.
Faber wrote extensively on Confucianism and was one of the leading Western experts in the field of comparative religion. His Mission’s objective to “propagate the Christian religion and civilization amongst the non-Christian nations, building upon the elements of truth already present amongst them,” suggests an accommodating attitude towards other faiths. Indeed, he held that there were points of similarity between Confucianism and Christianity that must be acknowledged and admired. Among these points of agreement were the Golden Rule, the importance of prayer, moral duty, virtuous government, and the existence of a spiritual world. He was interested in what would today be called inter-faith dialogue and was even invited to read a paper on Confucianism at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. However, his research convinced him of the essential weakness of Confucianism as a practical creed. In Chronological Handbook of the History of China he concluded that “Christianity in China could not find a better advocate than a close examination of the fruits of Confucianism in Chinese History.”
Faber was best known in China as the author of Tzu hsi ts’u tung (Civilization: A Fruit of Christianity) or alternatively (Civilization: China and Christian). Civilization was first published independently in Hong Kong in 1884 and was re-printed by the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge among the Chinese (later Christian Literature Society for China - CLS) in 1888 and on numerous subsequent occasions over the next two decades. In 1888, 10,000 copies of the book were given to Nanjing missionaries to distribute at provincial civil service examinations. By 1902, sales of 54,000 copies were reported by the CLS. Over a century later, Civilization remains in print in China today!
Civilization represented a powerful reinforcement of the Faber’s belief that Western-style progress and Christianity were two sides of the same coin. He argued that material progress in a society was tied not only to improvements in technique, but to advances in virtue and morality. The ability to forgive one’s enemy or practice integrity in business dealings was as important as the ability to dig mines and build naval vessels.
Neither Faber’s study of comparative religion nor his affiliation with a self-styled “liberal” mission induced him to stray from a relatively conservative, evangelical theological position. A note found among his papers after his death makes his personal convictions clear:
As I do not know when the Lord my God will call me away to the heavenly home, I wish to state that in joyful faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour of all men, who has had mercy on me and prepared me by His Holy Spirit, I depart from this terrestrial world. The Kingdom of God in its glory is my hope.
He died in 1899 in Qingdao and was buried in a German cemetery there.
- E. Faber, Tzu hsi ts’u tung (Civilization: A Fruit of Christianity) (Shanghai: SDK), 1902 ed.
- E. Faber, Chronological Handbook of the History of China, (published posthumously and edited by P. Kranz) (Shanghai: General Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society of Germany, 1902)
- E. Faber, A Systematical Digest of the Doctrines of Confucius, Second edition (Shanghai: General Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society of Germany, 1902)
- R. Forsyth, Shantung: The Sacred Province of China (CLS, Shanghai, 1912)
- D. MacGillivray, A Century of Protestant Missions in China (1807-1907) (Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1907)
- Y. Xiong, Xixue dongjian yu wanqing shehui (The Disseminators of Western Learning and the Late Qing Society) (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1994)