James Hudson Taylor is widely regarded as one of the important and influential missionaries of all time, and certainly one of the most significant missionaries to China in the 19th century.
His reputation rests largely upon the founding of the China Inland Mission, whose members were known for their penetration into parts of China where few, if any, Protestant Westerners had gone and hardly any had dared to live; for their dressing, eating, and living like the Chinese among whom they dwelt; by the very high standard of proficiency in the Chinese language which was required of them; their extensive evangelistic, medical, and educational work; and their refusal to seek protection from consular authorities when threatened with danger or even when attacked by local Chinese mobs.
Behind this organization, however, lay the character and conduct of its founder, surely a remarkable Christian leader by any standard of measurement, though not without weaknesses and failings.
Small in stature, he struggled with the illnesses that often felled Westerners in China, including dysentery, which was frequently fatal. Headaches, kidney stones, and a variety of other ailments sapped his strength. Disease and injuries (such as two to his spine) had him aside on occasion, sometimes for months and even years at a time. His friends and family believed that overwork frequently contributed to his ill health.
Taylor maintained a disciplined devotional life, reading the Bible through annually for forty consecutive years until his death. Traveling companions would remark upon his habit of rising in the middle of the night to study the Scriptures while others slept, before returning to bed until day broke.
Hudson Taylor was a diligent student. His daily Bible reading was done in Hebrew, Greek, and English. To gain entrance to medical school, he had to pass examinations in Latin, Greek, German, and French, as well as geography, mathematics, mechanics, chemistry, zoology and botany. After qualifying as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and then receiving his Licentiate in Midwifery, he continued his study of medicine, both Western and Chinese, but also read widely in mathematics, astronomy, magnetism and chemistry, Chinese history and culture, and theology. He was an avid naturalist, observing and classifying the varied flora and fauna of China which so fascinated him. For his reports on such subjects and on the topography and cities of China, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
He eventually learned not only Mandarin, but also Shanghainese, the Tiechiu dialect of Swatow, and the Ningbo dialect, the last well enough to revise a vernacular version of the New Testament which had been made for speakers of that tongue.
Early missionary training
Hudson Taylor was mentored by some of the finest missionaries when he first arrived in Shanghai. From these men, Taylor learned how to acquire the Chinese language, move freely among the people, dress like the Chinese, and engage in itinerant evangelism.
Hudson Taylor was tormented by the thought that millions of Chinese were dying annually without a saving knowledge of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Proverbs 24:11-12 imposed upon him a duty to spread the Christian message as widely as possible and to mobilize others to do the same. From another direction, his own gratitude to God for forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation moved him to want others to share the same blessings.
Like some other missionaries, but not most, Taylor believed that the Great Commission gave Christians not only the right, but the obligation, to disobey rulers who forbade the preaching of the gospel. For that reason, he transgressed the treaty stipulations that limited foreigners to five ports and their immediate environs. The debate over the propriety of Christians engaging in illegal evangelistic activity in China continues today.
His illegal itinerations were met with mostly warm welcomes by the crowds who came to hear him preach and to receive medical treatment, but angry protests by Chinese mandarins to the British consular authorities. He was willing to accept fines and even suffering for breaking the law, but not to endanger his Chinese co-workers and new converts, so he reluctantly abided by the orders of the British consul.
Hudson Taylor’s missionary strategy changed over time. Although at first he relied upon itinerant preaching and the sale of Christian literature, he quickly came to believe that settled work, cooperation with Chinese Christian evangelists, and preaching to explain the printed message were necessary. His mature plan was to send out a Western missionary with an experienced Chinese worker to train him and demonstrate truly Chinese methods of preaching. Working sys thematically, they would circle a major city for some time, moving gradually closer as the people began to lose their fear and suspicion of the messengers of a new religion, and finally settle in the town.
Taylor’s own experience treating sick Chinese convinced him of the value of medical work, and the CIM laid great stress on caring for bodies as well as souls. Typically, a chapel and a medical clinic combined in holistic ministry.
Always, he aimed to plant Chinese churches presided over by Chinese leaders, with the missionary assisting until he was no longer needed and could move on to open another field.
Wherever possible, he and his colleagues sought to make friends with the literati to share the Gospel with these influential members of the community, often by first engaging them as language teachers.
Almost from the beginning, Hudson Taylor acutely sensed the need for Western Christian women to reach Chinese women with the gospel. Chinese etiquette forbade men from talking with women except within the home, so they were essentially unreachable to him and his male colleagues. Both his first wife Maria Dyer and Jennie Faulding, whom he married after Maria died, were exceptionally effective in communicating truth and love to women and girls.
What became a major element of his evangelistic strategy began slowly, with the recruitment of a few single women to accompany other missionaries to China. Their usefulness was soon proved, so Taylor took an even more radical step: In addition to serving on teams with married couples and single men, women were sent out two-by-two, as pioneer missionaries to open up new fields.
This policy evoked harsh criticism at first, because it was feared that unprotected Western women would fall prey to unscrupulous and even violent men, but hardly any such incidents took place, while dozens of women labored successfully in remote regions.
In recent years, with the huge gender imbalance in the Chinese church, Taylor’s policy of using women without men to open new mission stations has come under closer scrutiny. Some have suggested that single women missionaries planted churches in which women and girls predominated, and that Christianity, like popular Chinese religion, thus came to be considered a thing for women and not men.
Like other missions, the China Inland Mission devoted huge amounts of resources, including personnel, to help combat the horrible famines in China at the end of the 19th century. Hudson Taylor could not leave England at the time, so he and his second wife Jennie decided that she must go to help out.
Education for Chinese
From his earliest days as a missionary in Shanghai, Taylor demonstrated the high value of education by opening a school for Chinese children himself and then making primary and secondary education a major CIM strategy both of evangelism and of building up the nascent Chinese church. He did not think that higher education, especially that which aimed to spread Western civilization as a means of “Christianizing” China, as a useful means of spreading the Gospel, so he focused on training young men to be Christian leaders and preachers, and girls to be wives for them.
Attitude towards Chinese culture
On the one hand, Hudson Taylor evinced unusual respect for many features of traditional Chinese culture, as we see from his adoption of local customs of dress, eating, dwelling, and etiquette, not to mention learning the oral and written language. On the other hand, like other missionaries, he believed that Chinese religion would not lead either to eternal salvation or to ethical transformation, and he considered the lofty principles of Confucianism to be ineffective in changing lives.
Taylor did not think that the Confucian rites of ancestor reverence were merely expressive of respect. For most Chinese, they involved also a belief in the continued existence of departed loved ones and a profound fear of “angry ghosts.” He thus opposed Martin’s motion to the Missionary Convention of 1890, and was supported in this by the overwhelming majority of delegates.
Hudson Taylor combined extraordinary vision with unusual administrative ability. He knew how to train others and then to delegate authority and responsibility to them. A great deal of Hudson Taylor’s impact on others flowed from excellent communication. As a speaker, he wielded unusual sway over large audiences; in person, despite a humble quiet demeanor, he quickly won trust and allegiance; and as a writer, he reached many thousands of avid readers, especially through his many articles in the CIM’s magazine, China’s millions.
Though adamant on principles of action, he was patient with those who opposed him. All who became members of the CIM knew that they were placing themselves under his authority as Director. In that sense, his leadership was “authoritarian,” but in no way did he act like a despot or tyrant. He led, rather, by example; prayer; clearly-enunciated principles; constant communication; and great forbearance towards recalcitrant members, including those who spread malicious slander and fomented open rebellion against him.
Love for people
Hudson Taylor possessed an amazing capacity to love. His letters to his first wife Maria Dyer and then, after her death, to his second wife Jenny Faulding, reveal a man with a tender heart and a rare passion that lasted well beyond the honeymoon. This love extended to those around him; to other missionaries in need; to the Chinese for whose salvation he ardently longed and labored; and even to his enemies.
In keeping with contemporary British Christian values, Hudson Taylor considered his calling as a missionary to take precedence over family life, though he deeply cared for his wives and children. When duty called, the family had to endure long separations, which were keenly painful to him.
Even his severest modern critics have acknowledged that he possessed extraordinary perseverance. His capacity to endure hardship, weariness, pain, and labor was almost phenomenal.
Faith in God
At the root of Hudson Taylor’s labors and influence lay his strong faith in God. This trust in a loving heavenly Father supplied constantly-renewed resources of patience, inner peace, and persuasive influence over other people.
One visible manifestation of Taylor’s confidence in God struck others forcefully: When they were worried, he was calm. Under great stress, he could be cheerful. Even at the last, when his weakness and illness rendered him almost immobile, he evinced a quiet joy that would not be quenched.
When he died, J. Hudson Taylor not only left behind the largest foreign missionary organization in China, but several other missionary societies had been brought into being largely as a result of Taylor’s itinerant work of promoting the cause of China in Europe, North America, and Australia. His son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great grandson all followed him into lifelong ministry among the Chinese, who highly revere the memory of one who loved them enough to become one of them.
- A standard work on Hudson Taylor is the two volume work by his son and daughter-in-law, Howard and Mary Geraldine Taylor: Hudson Taylor in Early Years (1912) andHudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: The Growth of a Work of God (1919).
- A one-volume work is Marshall Broomhall, Hudson Taylor: The Man Who Believed God(1929);
- John Pollock, Hudson Taylor and Maria (1962), focuses on the early phase of Taylor’s work in China.
- The most definitive work is James Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, 7 vols, (1981-1989).
In addition to the sources cited above, the following may also be consulted:
- Alvyn Austin, China’s Millions: The China Inland Mission and Late Qing Society, 1832-1905, though fundamentally inaccurate on Taylor and the CIM, contains some useful information. A review may be found at www.globalchinacenter.org.
- A.J. Broomhall’s 7-volume biography has been re-published in two volumes with the title The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy.
- Irene Chang and others, editors, Christ Alone: A Pictorial Presentation of Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy.
- China Group, “Taylor, James Hudson,” in Scott W. Sunquist, editor, A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, is an excellent summary of his life.
- Jim Cromarty, The Pigtail and Chopsticks man: The story of J. Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission is a good book for children.
- J. Herbert Kane, “J. Hudson Taylor,” in Gerald Anderson and others, editors, Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement.
- Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II.
- Lauren F. Pfister, “Rethinking Mission in China: James Hudson Taylor and Timothy Richard,” in Andrew Porter, editor, The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914.
- Roger Steer, Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ is perhaps the best short biography.
- J. Hudson Taylor, Looking Back: An Autobiography (originally published as Retrospect).