Born in the village of Ffaldybrenin in Caermarthenshire, Wales, Timothy Richard was the youngest child in a family of blacksmiths and farmers. His parents were Non-conformists (non-Anglicans) and brought him up in a Christian atmosphere. During the Great Welsh Revival (1858-60) he made a profession of faith in Christ at the age of thirteen and was baptized by the Rev. John Davies in the Salem Baptist Church in May of 1859. While listening to a sermon on 1 Samuel 15:22, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” he sensed a call to become a foreign missionary.
As soon as he entered the school run by the Congregationalist church located on his father’s property, Richard showed great academic ability. When his formal education was to end at the age of fourteen, he persuaded his father to allow him to continue school rather than return to the farm. For several years, he financed his own education by teaching both children and adult miners. He was later hired to be schoolmaster at an endowed school, and taught with great success.
In 1869 he began four years of study at Haverfordwest Theological College in Pembrokeshire. He soon became dissatisfied with the curriculum, which included the study of Greek, Latin, Ancient and European history, metaphysics, and theology. He led a group of students in a petition for major changes, which would add courses in science and world history, considered “more useful” for the modern age. The faculty agreed, but required all students to pass a rigorous examination in Hebrew, which Richard did with flying colors.
He offered himself for service with the China Inland Missions (CIM) but, because he was a Baptist, was advised to apply instead to the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) In1869 he was assigned to the small BMS mission in Shandong (Shantung) Province. He arrived in Yantai (formerly Chefoo), Shandong in February, 1870, having spent the time on the ship learning the 212 radicals of the Chinese written language.
In 1875 he moved inland to Qing Zhou (Ch’ing - Chou Fu), an important administrative capital and religious center. He endured many hardships, living simply and traveling in rural areas, preaching, and distributing Christian literature as well as simple medical aid. Here he adopted Chinese dress like the members of the CIM, whose methods he admired at the time.
Within the first year he began the practice of seeking out devout religious men and engaging them in dialog. Soon he became convinced that the church in China must be self-supporting, and argued that itinerant evangelism should be left largely to Chinese Christians. Missionaries, he thought, should focus their attention on the key leaders of society, who in this context were the religious teachers and leaders of reforming religious sects and the scholar-gentry who ran the imperial civil service.
Though he was not the first to do so - James Legge was translating major works of Chinese religion - Richard was among the pioneers in grasping the importance of understanding various streams of Chinese tradition, not just the Confucianism of the literati. He began to read Buddhist and Daoist literature, and to express the gospel in terms familiar to Chinese rather than those in the Bible. Like most missionaries, Richard sensed the need for Christian literature in Chinese. He started translating various Christian books, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, into Chinese. After he married, he and his wife wrote and translated other books, including biographies, showing the impact of Christianity on individuals.
He sought to build relationships that would reduce the anti-Christian prejudice common among educated elites, and he used the method of instructing them in “secular” studies that would broaden their understanding of the world and the God-given laws which lay behind its workings. He hoped thereby also to free them from superstitions such a belief in feng-shui (geomancy) that hindered progress. In time, these lectures would develop into schemes for a network of schools in China.
Famine relief and afterwards
When the great famine of 1876-79 hit Shandong, Richard posted placards in several towns calling on the people to turn from idols, worship the one true God, and pray to him for rain. He not only distributed financial aid, but gave out tracts, portions of the New Testament, and hymns, requiring that these be memorized. Several churches grew out of this initiative (as they did throughout his ministry as a result of having both inquirers and believers memorize sections of the Bible). He later founded several orphanages to care for children of parents who had died, and poured his energies into raising funds for famine relief, distributing those funds, and suggesting reforms of various kinds that would reduce the severity of such disasters and perhaps even prevent them.
From this famine Richard became convinced that the great need for China was for education, especially in Western science, mechanics, industry, and organization, as well as the beneficial effects of Christianity upon Western civilization. He also began to make recommendations for political reforms, such as granting religious liberty.
Richard’s missionary strategy had developed into a total concentration upon the educated elite and upon leaders of reformist sects of Buddhism and other religions, who were often earnest seekers of the truth. He believed he biblical found warrant for this in Matthew 10:10, where Jesus tells his disciples to “seek the worthy” in the region, and stay with such a person. Wide-ranging reading brought intimacy with all the major religions of China.
By 1884, Richard sensed that his missionary labors must take a different direction. In 1885 he and his family returned to England for furlough and consultations with the leaders of the BMS. Richard intended to place before the Home Mission leaders of the Baptist Missionary Society the essentials of his new plan for the evangelization of China through the establishment missionary-staffed universities in all the promises of China. These would aim to train Chinese evangelists in Western learning as well as Christianity. He believed that such colleges would give scientific knowledge to Chinese officials that would help prevent future famines, open the scholars to the Christian faith; and lead to modernization and reform in China. A united effort by all mission societies would also eliminate duplication and competition among them.
The BMS denied his request, because their financial means were not sufficient for the huge cost. Richard took this refusal very hard, and felt he had been rejected. He spent the rest of his time at home taking courses in science, learning about higher education methods, and trying to enlist support from others.
Upon returning to China, Richard discovered that some of his younger colleagues in the BMS, along with members of the CIM in Shanxi, disagreed with several facets of his strategy for reaching Chinese. He was criticized for writing a catechism for evangelists that required various subjects of western learning, including science and medicine. He had also written a sympathetic biography of a Roman Catholic missionary, Matteo Ricci, whose focus upon the educated elite and efforts to accommodate his message to them Richard admired.
After he realized that further collaboration with missionaries in Shanxi would be impossible, he and his wife departed for Beijing. Richard spent the next few years seeking his next field of work. He tried for some time to return to Shandong, hoping to open a college and start a newspaper there. Though his BMS colleagues welcomed him, the BMS home committee did not approve of this plan. Meanwhile, Richard had become deathly ill as a result of helping with yet another famine in Shandong. He and his wife Mary lived in Beijing where, when in good health, he wrote articles and letters a long tracts in English in Chinese on the benefits of Christianity on British society, various systems of education, and other topics.
Eventually, he resigned from the BMS and became editor of The Times, a paper that reached Chinese intellectuals with news about the world and new advances in modernization. This paper had great influence, but funds for it were later withdrawn, again leaving Richard with no way of supporting himself. Just then, he was asked to become General Director of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge among Chinese (SDK, later called the Christian Literary Society or CLS). With the promise of three years’ support from the BMS, he and Mary moved to Shanghai in 1891, and the next phase of his career began.
His theology of mission then expanded into a focus on the “salvation” of the nation through education and reform, as a means of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. He believed that once Chinese were taught the laws of God operating in nature, they would reason upward to the existence of God himself, forsaking their ignorance and superstition, and thus removing barriers to the acceptance of Christianity.
One biographer calls this “the most fruitful and influential period of his life… For most of this time, he exerted a powerful influence on the direction of elite Chinese thought and politics, both directly and indirectly, through a host of publications.” (Johnson, 48) Having begun in the traditional roles of a missionary - preaching, teaching, and humanitarian work - he turned into an educator “in the broadest sense of the word.” His work included writing, translation, publishing, “briefing and mentoring national officials and scholars, as well as advising and lobbying the Imperial Court through petitions.” (Johnson, 48).
He was not alone, but stood at the center of a group of people, both Chinese and foreign, laboring for fundamental institutional changes in China. A skilled mobilizer, he enlisted the collaboration of gifted men for all his projects, thus widening his influence. Fellow missionaries in these efforts toward reform included Young J. Allen, Alexander Williamson, and Joseph Edkins. He had the strong support of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of China’s Imperial maritime Customs Service. Influential Chinese, such as Zhang Zhidong, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Li Hongzhang, welcomed Richard’s help in their efforts to reform China’s education and government.
As before, Richard continued to believe that ignorance of Western learning, including science and democracy, was the chief cause for the ineffective rule of the Chinese mandarins, and sought to dispel this ignorance through the written word and through proposals for a national system of Western education. His major publication at this time was the translation of Robert Mckenzie’s The Nineteenth Century: A History. Richard shared the book’s belief in “steady human progress through science… [it] also posited that Western civilization ‘s real strength came through possessing Judeo-Christian theological underpinnings.” (Johnson, 48)
He edited two journals, the Review of the Times and The Missionary Review. The former contained mostly articles with secular information, while the latter reported on missionary news. “In the 1890s and the first several years of the twentieth century, the CLS became the chief interpreter and conveyor of current events.” (Johnson, 81) The number of its publications, and demand for them, increased rapidly, as its influence penetrated nearly all provinces of the empire. Membership in the society climbed to more than two hundred.
After the humiliating defeat by Japan in 1895, the pressure for reform became urgent among many of China’s educated elite, all the way to the emperor himself. Richard played a crucial role in virtually all phases of the reform movement, including meetings with key reformers and several of the highest officials in the land. While on a trip to Beijing to present a memorial requesting full religious freedom in China, Richard met not only with Kang Youwei and Liang Zichao, but with the powerful Li Hongzhang and then Weng Tonghe, the prime minister, to whom he presented a comprehensive scheme for reform. He spoke with two of the emperor’s tutors, who were reading Richard’s translation of The Nineteenth Century: A History to the Emperor.
Richard took another furlough in 1897. He had not seen his two oldest daughters for ten years, and his wife had returned to Europe for the education of their two youngest daughters more than a year earlier, so the family enjoyed being together again. He presented evidence of his hard work to the BMS committee and sought further support from people in the United Kingdom.
After returning to China, Richard saw that the reform movement had gained great momentum. Richard believed that the many signs of growing impetus toward reform as indications that Chinese were losing their antipathy to Westerners and Western learning. He made it clear to his supporters that he was promoting not just Western civilization and its benefits, but “was seeking to guide public opinion in China to an understanding of the need for ‘the application of the healing powers of the Gospel to the social miseries of a great nation; it is a benevolent work, exemplifying the love of Christ, on the grandest scale … [which] needs most of all character and conscience, purity in the family life, integrity in the official life, and in order to get these, she needs a religious New Birth - she needs Christianity.’” (Johnson, 67)
When the reform movement was crushed by the Empress Dowager and six leaders were executed, Richard helped Kang and Liang to escape. He wrote that several of those killed and other reformers were “Christians in all but name, even to the point that several of the survivors had either applied for Christian baptism or become earnest inquirers.” (Johnson, 71)
As part of the settlement with Western powers after the suppression of the Boxer uprising, the proposal made by Richard that an imperial university be established in Shanxi - the province where the most missionaries had been killed - was accepted by the government. He hoped that this university would become “a lever for the uplifting of the leaders of the whole province to the level of the kingdom of Heaven as conceived in modern days.” (Johnson, 97) For that reason, he urged that missionaries be sent to this and other colleges as faculty and translators of textbooks, lest the institutions be denominated by secular learning only.
Richard was appointed co-chancellor with the governor, responsible for the Western branch of the college, of which a fellow missionary was president. Still, the arrangement called for full devolution to Chinese leadership, in keeping with Richard’s long-held conviction that missionaries should train local leaders to replace themselves. This took place in 1910, a year earlier than planned, at Richard’s initiative.
Believing that missionaries must speak with a single voice to the government, Richard constantly urged more common efforts, unified organization, and greater cooperation. In large part, he succeeded, at least among “mainline” mission societies.
Despite his great influence, Richard’s life was not without sorrow. His beloved wife Mary died in 1903. In the same year, he and Young J. Allen had a conflict which resulted in a parting of ways and acrimonious language between them that permanently prevented reconciliation. When the traditional examination system, based on mastery of Confucian classics, was abolished in 1905, the time was ripe for implementation of ideas he had advocated for decades, but Japanese influence supplanted that of Christian missionaries, at least for a while.
In time, Chinese took over their educational system. Lower-level schools were set up to inculcate “Patriotism, loyalty, and a concern for the common good,” rather than the Kingdom of God, as Richard had envisioned. With the deaths of leading reformist missionaries and the “old guard” of their Chinese colleagues, an era had come to an end. As one eminent historian pointed out, “The Chinese quickly discover[ed] that they could reject God and still have progress.” (John K. Fairbank, quoted in Broomhall, It is not Death to Die!, 525)
Richard married Dr. Ethel Tribe, a missionary in Japan, in 1914.
In his later years, Richard served as spokesman for the missionary movement to the government, arguing for full religious tolerance and freedom in China, presenting proposals for reforms in education and government, and promoting international peace in various forums. He also explored commonalities between Christianity and other religions, including Buddhism.
Timothy Richard left China for the last time in 1916. He died following surgery in April, 1919.
Timothy Richard possessed a powerful intellect, a strong will, and a great capacity for work. His life was lived fully, always in accord with his deepest convictions. He saw the necessity of studying all the Chinese religions, and of using this knowledge in forming friendships with “worthy” members of the elite who were willing to engage in dialogue with him. He eschewed confrontational methods of evangelism. After early experiments in traditional preaching, he switched to an “accomodationist” approach that began with language familiar to non-Christians.
His brilliance enabled him to translate foreign works into Chinese, and even (with Chinese help) to write books and articles that gained the admiration and even agreement of highly-educated Chinese scholars - an achievement matched by some missionaries, but not many.
His influence upon reforms of all sorts in China was unparalleled, and is rightly hailed even today as evidence that the Christian faith carries implications for all domains of life, and inevitably instills new energy, more clarity, and greater benevolence in societies largely permeated by biblical values.
His immense literary output, collaboration with other missionaries, public lectures, and relationships with individual Chinese leaders produced an impact upon the intellectual elite, including the highest government officials, that was perhaps unique. The Chinese government conferred upon him the highest decorations it could award a foreigner who was not a diplomat. Honors poured in from other places, too, in recognition of his immense contribution to the modernization of China. He was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, a D.D. by Emory College, Oxford, Georgia, and an LL.D by the University of Wales in Abersystwyth.
In 2002, to celebrate the centennial of their roles in co-founding the university in Shanxi, busts of Richard and of his Chinese co-founder were erected at the gate.
By any common measure, Timothy Richard was a very great man.
On the other hand, we must not completely discount criticisms of him made by fellow missionaries. Unlike W.A.P. Martin, who proposed modifications in ancestor rites to remove idolatrous elements, Richard never opposed ancestor worship. Though his fellow reformist missionary James Legge cleared him of charges of heresy, that only confirms that Richard never explicitly denied key tenets of the Christian faith. “Heresy” is often, especially at first, a matter of emphasis. Richard’s obsession with reform through education in order to overcome better the lot of the Chinese people and open doors for the gospel was laudable, but it did not seem to reflect an awareness of the depth of human sin as Christianity has traditionally taught. His energies seemed to be directed only towards progress in this world, and to neglect promises of the world to come.
Richard not only rejected the usual emphasis upon the content in most missionary preaching, but the form itself. His own disappointing experience with preaching in street chapels led him to eschew public preaching itself. In his autobiography, he relates how he once preached to a “vast crowd,” and comments, “I had not then learned that it was not the most effective way of doing missionary work.” (Richard, Forty-Five Years, 52) At the time when these words were penned, Jonathan Goforth was preaching to huge gatherings all over China, with dramatic - and lasting - results. For more than fifty years, other missionaries had found that public preaching, though not always immediately gaining converts, drew people into the circle of Christians and led to life-transforming repentance and faith. About ten years after Richard’s book was published, John Song’s evangelistic and revival meetings were seeing tens of thousands of people come to Christ.
Hardly anyone every claimed that preaching to large crowds was “the most effective” means of evangelism; but hardly any evangelical missionary denied the usefulness of such proclamation. In other words, Richard made his own experience into a general rule. Hudson Taylor’s comment was, “Richard is driving a good theory [i.e., focusing on the ‘worthy’] to death. He refuses to preach to the masses, is for circulation of moral and theistic tracts, not containing the name or work of Christ, to prepare the way, as he thinks, for the Gospel.” (Quoted in Broomhall, Assault, 291)
His account of the conflicts in Shanxi is incomplete, and does not mention several key ingredients: He not only declared that his evangelist methods were good, or even the best; he insisted that they were the only legitimate way. He not only tried to persuade fellow missionaries to join him in his new direction, but encouraged members of the CIM to leave their mission. His desire for a united congregation in Taiyuan overlooked what others considered to be profound differences not only in missionary methodology, but also theological belief.
Other missionaries also perceived the potential of educated Chinese in the spread of the gospel. Their biographies and records refer often to conversations with mandarins and scholars. From the beginning, Hudson Taylor was eager to engage in dialogue with the literati, and his second wife Jennie Faulding while still single was often invited to the homes of officials and other high-placed men by their wives. Nowhere was such dialogue disparaged by the CIM, though its focus on the interior naturally made contact with the educated elites, who lived mostly in cities, much less frequent than Richard’s.
Basing his decision to focus his attention almost exclusively on “the worthy” on Matthew 10:11, Richard seemed to ignore the context of the passage, which is Jesus’ instructions to itinerant preachers! The “worthy” were those who invited the traveling evangelists into their homes; they were not to be the exclusive recipients of their teaching about Christ.
Though Richard, like James Legge, studied written works of Buddhism and Daoism carefully, other missionaries recognized the need to understand these religions also. The CIM language curriculum, for example, included required knowledge of popular Chinese religion, and further study of Buddhism and Daoism was strongly recommended. He went further than others, however, in claiming that Mayahana Buddhism, especially writings of the Pure Land sect, was “so marvelously like Christianity in its central teaching that it might well be called Pre-Nestorian Christianity.” (Richard, New Testament of Higher Buddhism, 12).
He found in three Buddhist deities “a complete identification of the attributes of the Christianity Trinity.” (Ibid., 15) “[Buddhism’s] theology is Christian in everything almost but its nomenclature.” (Ibid. 27) “[The] Mahayana faith is not Buddhism, properly so called, but an Asiatic form of the same gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in Buddhist nomenclature.” (Ibid. 39)
“Thus both Christians and Buddhists, by dwelling on their respective ideals rather than on their respective imperfections, will find themselves inspired to co-operate and exert themselves more than ever before for the salvation of their fellow men.” (Ibid., 25) “The next step in religious evolution is not a monopoly of any one of these competitive religions but a federation of all.” (Ibid., 34) While Richard seemed to intimate that Christianity was superior to other religions, he nevertheless spoke of a Common religion “based on the best and highest in all of the different faiths.”
Comments like these, made publicly at the Shanghai Missionary Conference in 1907 and elsewhere, convinced long-time critics that the worrying trends in Richard’s thought that they observed decades previously had blossomed into full-blown error. He spoke of “saving” a nation through education and reform. Even his concept of “saving individual souls” did not seem to include salvation from sin through the atoning work of Christ on the Cross.
The core difference between him and evangelical missionaries seems to be that he lacked “a depth perception of sin” (in the words of Richard Lovelace). He does not seem to have believed that men and women are fundamentally corrupted by a sin nature that requires the atonement of Christ in order to bring forgiveness and peace with God. From the description of his conversion to the end of his 376-page autobiography, there is no mention of this cardinal doctrine of Christianity. Nor does he affirm the Cross of Christ as the only means of being reconciled to God. (He does say that he called upon sufferers of the great famine to “repent of their sins and turn to God” (Richard, Forty-Five Years, 100), but does not speak of Christ, and even this sort of message was heard from him less and less as the years passed.)
Thus, we should not be surprised that his comparison of Christianity and Buddhism contains no reference to a Buddhist counterpart to Christ’s sacrificial death for sinners.
If Richard believed in the saving work of Christ upon the Cross, he did not reflect Paul’s determination to preach “Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1), nor did his later evangelistic approach mirror Jesus’ distillation of the gospel as “repentance and remission of sins.” (Luke 24:47) Richard enjoyed supreme self-confidence. Though he gently pokes fun at his early mistakes, he ascribes them to ignorance; you do not hear him admitting his own sins. Indeed, one searches the pages of his long autobiography in vain for the kind of expressions of dedication to Christ and communion with him that are found, for example, in the writings of Hudson Taylor, with whom he is often contrasted and compared. Taylor’s piety was typical of most missionaries in China at the time. Richard’s concentration upon material and social problems and solutions (though not without reference to the overall benefits of Christianity to society) reflects the outlook of thousands who were to follow his example in seeking to build the kingdom of God on earth through education, medical work, and reform.
In short, though he never denied the core convictions of historic Christianity, he so neglected them for other convictions that he may be called a proto-liberal. For these reasons, and despite recent attempts to say that he and Hudson Taylor (and other conservative evangelicals) were not as far apart as both they and their contemporaries believed, the chasm between them was in fact both wide and deep.
Some common misperceptions stem from writers favorable to Richard, if not from his own claims. For example, he was not the first Western missionary to enter Shanxi, or the first to seek to alleviate the ravages of the famine of 1876-1979. The idea for refusing indemnity money for missionary lives lost in the Boxer uprising came from the CIM, not from Richard. He was not the only one to see the need for training Chinese evangelists; many missionaries, beginning with Robert Morrison, had been doing this for decades.
Timothy Richard is rightly hailed as perhaps the greatest representative of missionaries who sought the total welfare of the Chinese people, hoping thereby to make them more receptive to the gospel of Christ.
- Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Six, Assault on the Nine, 288-293; Book Seven, It Is Not Death to Die!, 523-525.
- Doyle, G. Wright, editor. Builders of the Chinese Church. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015.
- Johnson, Eunice V., Timothy Richard’s Vision: Education and Reform in China, 1880-1910. Edited by Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, Studies in Chinese Christianity, 2014.
- Pfister, Lauren F., “Rethinking Mission in China: James Hudson Taylor and Timothy Richard,” in Andrew Porter, editor, The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914.
- Richard, Timothy, D.D., Litt.D. Forty-Five Years in China: Reminiscences. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916. Reprinted by Forgotten Books (www.forgottenbooks.org), 2012.
- —-. The New Testament of Higher Buddhism. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1910. Reprinted in Miami, FL: HardPress Publishing.
- Walls, Andrew, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard: A Paradigm of Missionary Experience,” in Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002.
- Wang, Wenzong. “Timothy Richard: A Missionary who Impacted the Late Qing Dynasty,” in G. Wright Doyle, ed., Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer Protestant Missionaries and Chinese Church Leaders. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.