Liang Fa embodies the indigenization of Chinese Christianity—a process that proceeded with bursts and stops, periods of foreign patronage and internal persecution, and struggles over what it meant to be Christian and Chinese. In his early life, Liang grew up in a village where he participated in local religious life. As a young adult in the employ of the recently arrived London Missionary Society, Liang experienced a strong conversion that soon led to the baptism of family members and work as the first ordained evangelist. By midlife, he was participating in most of the institutions of the early Protestant missionary movement (the missionary press, proto-churches, schools, a hospital, etc.). In late life, he remained steadfast to his faith, although he was troubled by the slow spread of Christianity and problems in his own family. Liang showed a tendency towards iconoclasm, and embraced a form of Christianity that was strident in rejecting idolatry. His family life became more complicated as he aged, but showed several layers of conflicts that marked becoming Christian: the real risk in professing faith in Christ, the challenge of participating in religious or ritual life, and tensions over the next generation. Liang Fa is often described as the first fruit or the seed of the indigenous Chinese Church, and his story is fascinating.
Liang Fa was born in Samchow (Sanzhou) in 1789, in the village of Lohtsun (Gulao Cun). At age eleven, Liang began his schooling. Though his family was relatively poor, they made the effort to help him begin the classical process of studying and writing. In 1804, Liang left for the big city, Canton (now Guangzhou), seeking work. His first job in Canton was as a pen maker, but he soon became apprenticed as a printer and worked under a master for four years.
Liang’s first contact with the London Missionary Society mission was through another Chinese assistant, Tsae Low-heen, who helped supervise the printing of the New Testament under the direction of Robert Morrison. Although Morrison already had a number of assistants, over the coming years Liang proved himself to be the most faithful.
The bigger influence on Liang, however, was not Morrison but his younger colleague William Milne. Milne had arrived in Macao July 4, 1813. He was aided in language study by Liang, and Liang eventually accompanied him to the start of the Malacca mission in April 1815. Liang was not the first convert. This was Tsae A-ko, one of three Tsae brothers engaged in the mission. However, Tsae’s legacy was more ambivalent—he left only a short conversion account translated into English, was often criticized by the missionaries for his behavior, and died apart from the mission, perhaps having left the faith. By contrast, Liang comes across as a mirror to Morrison—pious and reliable—and the adjective McNeur applies to Liang more than a dozen times is “faithful.” The word denotes Liang’s craftsmanship, his service to the ministry, and his faith.
Liang’s baptism forms an exceptional story recounted not only by the missionaries, but by Liang himself. There are two main accounts, one by Milne which was written at the time of the baptism, and another fifteen years later by Liang that was included in his work Good News. Taken together, the narratives provide a three-dimensional description of what becoming Christian meant for Liang and Milne.
In April 1815, Liang had travelled with Milne to Malacca, where he worked on the publication of Milne’s Treatise of the Life of Christ. Milne records a first person account by Liang of his conversion, which was circulated widely. In it, Liang describes his religious upbringing. He says he “seldom went to the temples” and “sometimes prayed towards heaven, but lived in careless indifference” (Milne, 178). He drank occasionally and mentions unnamed vices, adding, “before I came hither, I knew not God; now I desire to serve him.” Milne writes that “a more than usual attention to the truth was observed in a Chinese employed as a printer to the Mission” (Milne, 177). Milne adds that he instructed Liang carefully and prayed with him often. In time, Liang came to accept the faith as his own and requested baptism. Milne described the baptism in a brief narrative that would be reproduced many times in missionary publications:
Nov. 3—Sabbath.—At twelve o’clock this day I baptized, in the name of the adorable Trinity, Leang-kung-făh, whose name has already been mentioned. The service was performed privately, in a room of the mission house. Care had been taken, by private conversation, instruction, and prayer, to prepare him for this sacred ordinance: this had been continued for a considerable time. Finding him full steadfast in his wish to become a Christian, I baptized him. The change produced in his sentiments and conduct is, I hope, the effect of Christian truth, and of that alone,—yet, who of mortals can know the heart? (Milne, 177)
Liang’s own account is described in a thirty-page section of Good News. In this version, Liang notes that he used to worship or baibai on the first and fifteenth of each month, and that he sometimes chanted the Heart Sutra. Liang said he struggled with “lust and evil thoughts” and a “mouth of falsehoods and evil words” (Lai, 84). Despite his effort to be a better person and to refrain from evil thoughts, he found himself continuously struggling. With the arrival of the LMS missionaries, he found a new way. At the baptism, he read from the scriptures and was examined by Milne. Liang writes: “[Milne] sprinkled water on my head, and I received the ceremony of baptism with thanksgiving to God in Heaven. I again asked Mr. Milne, ‘When people believe in Jesus, what sign is there?’ Mr. Milne replied, ‘with your whole heart follow goodness: this is the sign that you have faith in Jesus’” (Liang, 302). The baptism provided new energy and hope to Liang:
“I trusted that I had obtained the remission of sins and that Heavenly God on High had purified my great sins. Then I took a name for myself, called, ‘Student of the Good,’ [Xueshanzhe] and from then on, my heart turned from evil and I studied the good” (Liang, 302-303).
Initially, Liang writes that he was cautious in sharing about his faith, but in time he became more and more bold. P. Richard Bohr writes that after Liang’s baptism, “Both Morrison and Milne noted a remarkable personality change in their convert” (Bohr, 40). Liang’s story of baptism anchored his conversion and remade him as the Student of the Good, a penname he would use in subsequent years.
The years after baptism were one of the most productive periods of the ministry. The 1810s through mid-1820s saw the conversion of Liang’s wife and the birth of a son, Liang’s ordination as a preacher, and major transitions in the LMS mission. Liang was present for the establishment of the Anglo-Chinese College in 1818, an institution that was moved to Hong Kong by William Legge many years later.
There is a fair amount of information on Liang’s evangelistic work. Liang’s own conversion came about through the efforts of Milne and Morrison, and he seems to have absorbed their individualistic and focused approach to evangelism. His travel diary, for instance, devotes a lot of space to dialogues he had with others, most notably with a Mr. Lam (Lin). Lam was also a printer, so much of his work would have been printing tracts, sutras, or other materials for Buddhists and popular religionists. For Lam, to become Christian would certainly have threatened his livelihood, and so much of the conversation is comprised of Liang’s criticism of Chinese religions. In this context, Liang quoted Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (NRSV). As the first Chinese pastor, Liang inevitably faced frequent rejection.
Despite Liang’s early struggles, McNeur describes the years 1831-35 as Liang’s “most fruitful” in Canton. This period saw his baptism of Lam and several others, including Li San, who would become an assistant preacher. The small community of Christians rose to around ten, a modest number given the years of Liang’s service, but also the kernel of what would grow in the years ahead. In one year, Liang printed seventy-thousand tracts. Many of these were distributed to the tens of thousands of candidates who participated in the exams which allowed for entry into government service.
During this time, Liang published his most famous book, Good News to Admonish the Ages (Quan Shi Liang Yan). Good News is widely known for its influence on the Taiping (see below), but it also possesses interest as a work in its own right. Good News is actually a five hundred page tome, divided into nine chapters, although, for publication, individual chapters seem to have circulated separately and it apparently often circulated in four volumes. The work fits within the English tract tradition, which sought to be comprehensive or to promote a singular vision (different from the modern variation, where a tract often consists of just one or two pages).
Good News included earlier tracts Liang had written, and was notable for two unique sections: a criticism of Chinese religions and the story of his conversion. It is hard to know how Liang himself understood the work. Was it to be his magnum opus—an effort to communicate Christianity in an idiom slightly different from that of the missionaries? Or was it more like many of the other missionary publications of the generation—a first-draft effort to explain Christianity? Regardless of how Liang understood it, it stands as a hallmark of Chinese Christian literature. Liang showed genuine creativity in his efforts to expound the basic tenets of Christianity, including the use of novel names for God.
In August 1834, Robert Morrison died. The loss of Morrison made Liang’s position more precarious. Just a few weeks later, and several days into a period of distributing tracts to provincial exam candidates, the police came for Liang and those who accompanied him. An assistant and materials were seized. Liang fled, but soldiers searching for him seized several family members in Samchow. Eventually, Liang made his way to Macao. With the help of John Morrison (Robert Morrison’s son), Liang received ransom money for his family members. Liang’s troubles were likely the result of the English diplomatic mission under Lord Napier (Britain’s Chief Superintendent of Trade at Canton), which had produced materials in Chinese arguing for the British position. As a printer who worked with foreigners, Liang was particularly vulnerable in this type of international conflict. That it was still illegal to teach Chinese to foreigners or to print foreign materials only exacerbated the situation.
A major part of Liang’s work was the distribution of tracts, and candidates for the imperial exams were a major target, since the events brought together thousands of aspiring intellectuals or literati. Liang’s presence at one set of exams appears to have led to one of the most historically interesting syntheses of Christianity and Chinese religions. According to McNeur, it was during the few days before he fled Canton in 1834 that Liang handed a set of his tracts to Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan), the leader of the Taiping Rebellion. Out of this small encounter the largest revolution of the era was born.
Liang’s goal was a mode of discipleship which would lead other Christians along the same path he had walked. This was a journey on which Liang was frequently frustrated, since few he encountered became Christian, fewer still stayed within the church, and of those only one or two in his generation became a leader of similar stature. Nonetheless, Liang’s influence follows several important lines: his contribution to the work of missionaries like Peter Parker, Samuel Dyer, and Benjamin Hobson, his efforts toward the nurture of a small Christian community, and the legacy he left through writing (and perhaps family).
During the mid- to late-1830s, Liang worked in Malacca and Singapore with many of the major missionaries of the day. In 1835, Peter Parker, an American medical missionary, opened a hospital in Canton. When Parker spoke before the US Congress in 1841 he reportedly quoted Liang in saying, “When I meet men in the streets and villages and tell them the folly of worshipping idols they laugh at me. Their hearts are very hard. But when men are sick and are healed their hearts are very soft” (McNeur, 89). In 1845 (after the First Opium War), Liang went to serve as the chaplain for Parker’s hospital. His duties included leading worship regularly and visiting patients. According to Parker’s accounts, Liang often shared his own story of conversion and taught from the scriptures.
The other missionary with whom Liang formed a close partnership was Benjamin Hobson, who had married Robert Morrison’s oldest daughter. Liang helped him locate housing and space to establish a small medical center. Hobson’s dispensary could treat more than two hundred people a day, and Liang moved his evangelistic work from Parker’s hospital to Hobson’s. Liang gathered ten people, four men and six women, in the new chapel. When public worship was offered, more than two hundred people sometimes gathered to watch the event. The hospital served as an ideal site for Liang, providing a steady stream of people to consult him about his faith.
One important aspect of Liang’s ministry was his collaboration with missionaries and locals, which influenced institutional work and ministry. McNeur tells the story of a Mr. Chau, a friend of Liang’s with literary aspirations. He was willing to help Hobson with illustrations for his translation of a physiology text. In time, Chau became a Christian. He eventually served as a pastor, succeeding Liang at Hobson’s hospital after Liang’s death and eventually serving for approximately forty-five years. In this setting, Liang acted as friend and recruiter, as well as mentor and model.
Liang died on April 12, 1855. He had preached the two days prior, speaking on Matthew 10:28 (“Be not afraid of them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” KJV). In his final days, according to Hosbson, he is said to have spoken with his oldest son, Jinde. Liang hoped his son would honor the Sabbath, and leave the government position which prevented him from doing so. After Liang’s son notified him of his father’s death, Hobson gathered three Chinese Christians and two recently-arrived Wesleyan missionaries. They returned to Liang’s house and read scripture and offered prayer.
Liang’s family history and ministry challenges highlight his humanity and the dilemma that Chinese Christians often faced. While his minority status was exceptional compared to today—it is hard to know if he would have found any candidates for marriage in the tiny Christian community of his day—the general difficulties he faced are often typical of Chinese Christians. Many of Liang’s deepest struggles continue to vex first generation Christians: how should Christians witness in a pluralistic community, choose and support leaders, find spouses and rear children, and create an identity that is distinct from the missionary religion while sustainable and clearly Chinese? How can one be Christian in a society which suppresses or resists Christian witness? What does it mean for Christianity to be indigenous?
Liang remains exceptional for a number of reasons, most related to the status he gained as the first fruit of mission. He was baptized, ordained, and served admirably. Liang ministered in the context of a “first draft” Chinese Protestantism—one which required great flexibility and diligence. Other accomplishments bore witness to his own personal traits: his persistence, his creativity, and his ability to cooperate with foreigners. Almost every milestone attributed to the missionaries—the translation of the Bible, the creation of grammars and dictionaries, the start of churches, schools, and hospitals—occurred with the help of “Chinese assistants.” Liang and his Chinese colleagues were largely responsible for these tasks. They negotiated, translated, corrected, taught, printed, prayed, preached, and facilitated most of the work of the early generations of missionaries.
It is worth remembering his efforts towards the translation and indigenization of a faith that must have at first sounded so incoherent and foreign. Liang’s story of call, conversion, and ministry echoes others throughout Christian history, even as it was accented and inflected in new ways. Liang was a key source of guidance and aid during this process. In a period of turmoil, Liang provided a source of continuity for two generations of mission and indigenization.
-Abridgement by Martha Stockment of chapter by Jonathan Seitz on “Liang A Fa” in Builders of the Chinese Church, edited by G. Wright Doyle (forthcoming)
- McNeur, George Hunter. Liang A-Fa: China’s First Preacher, 1789-1855. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013.
- Milne, William. A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China Now, in Connection with the Malay, Denominated the Ultra-Ganges Missions: Accompanied with Miscellaneous Remarks on the Literature, History, and Mythology of China. Malacca: Anglo-Chinese Press, 1820.
- Fa, Liang. Quan shi liang yan [Good News to Admonish the Ages]. Taibei Shi: Taiwan xue sheng shu ju, 1965.
- Bohr, P. Richard. “Liang Fa’s Quest for Moral Power,” 35-46, in Suzanne Barnett and John King Fairbank, eds., Christianity in China: Early Protestant Missionary Writings (Cambridge: Harvard, 1985).
- Lai, Whalen. “The First Chinese Christian Gospel: Liang A-Fa’s ‘Good Words to Admonish the World,’” Ching Feng 38:2 (May 1995).