Born in Sumner County, Tennessee, Roberts was ordained after a term at South Carolina’s Furman Academy. In 1837 he financed his own passage to Macao, where he preached in a colony for persons with leprosy. Joining the Foreign Mission Board of the Baptist Triennial Convention in 1841, he became the first permanent resident Protestant missionary in Hong Kong in 1842, and in June of that year he baptized the first China convert in Hong Kong. He affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board following the Baptist schism in 1845 but became an independent missionary in 1852. In 1844, inspired by Karl Gutzlaff’s millennialist hope for the “blitzconversion” of China, he became the first Protestant missionary to move outside the foreign trade area of Canton (Guangzhou) to conduct evangelistic ministries. Between March and May 1847, he gave daily catechism to Hung Hsiu-ch’uan (Hong Xiu-quan), founder and “Heavenly King” of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Roberts’s evangelical zeal, moral rectitude, condemnation of “idolatry,” liturgy, and church constitution were linked by Hung with Chinese elements to form Taiping doctrine, worship, and organization. This religious synthesis inspired and guided the Taiping millenarian campaign to supplant the Manchu dynasty and Confucianism with a theocratic “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” along biblical lines in China.
For 15 months between 1860 and 1862, Roberts served as the Taiping’s “director of foreign affairs” at their “Heavenly Capital” in Nanking (Nanjing). Initially, he worked hard to rally Western support for the Taiping’s cause but later turned against the rebels after Hung refused to abandon his claim to being Jesus Christ’s younger brother. In 1866 Roberts retired to Upper Alton, Illinois, where he eventually succumbed to complications from the leprosy he had contracted earlier in Macao.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- P. Richard Bohr, “The Politics of Eschatology: Hung Hsiu-ch’uan and the Rise of the Taipings, 1837-1853” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California. Davis, 1978); Margaret Morgan Coughlin, “Strangers in the House: J. Lewis Shuck and Issachar Roberts, First American Baptist Missionaries to China” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Virginia, 1972); William R. Doezema, “Western Seeds of Eastern Heterodoxy: The Impact of Protestant Revivalism on the Christianity of Taiping Rebel Leader Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, 1836-1864.” Fides et Historia 25 (1993): 73-98; George B. Pruden, Jr., “Issachar Jacox Roberts and American Diplomacy in China during the Taiping Rebellion” (Ph.D. diss., American Univ., 1977); Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996); Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion,” Journal of Asian Studies 23, no. 1 (1963): 55-67.