Born into a Christian home in Maryland on April 24, 1870, Robert E. Chambers was deeply influenced by the Christian faith from an early age. He decided to dedicate himself to missionary work when he was young. Upon graduation from the American Baptist Seminary, he was ordained as a pastor and started work at a Baptist church. In his heart, however, he cherished a further ambition, which was to go to China to preach the Gospel. Not long afterwards, his desire was granted. In 1895, he was assigned to Guangdong and Guangxi provinces to commence missionary work.
Not long after arriving in Guangzhou (Canton), Chambers took a boat to Guangxi to conduct evangelism. At that time, the people of Guangxi were extremely hostile to Western missionaries; this was especially true in Wuzhou. Previously, Southern Baptist missionaries, such as Rosewell H. Graves, E. Z. Simmons and others, had gone to Wuzhou to proclaim the Gospel, and had all suffered insults and persecution; some had even been put to death. The local literati (leading gentlemen) had even had a meeting and decided never to allow Western missionaries to enter the territory of Guangxi, and never to allow anyone to erect a Gospel chapel. These were the conditions under which Chambers entered Wuzhou.
In 1896, Chambers took a Chinese assistant, Tan Baode, with him to Wuzhou. They did not escape difficulty and danger, but after several setbacks they succeeded in buying a private home and turning it into a preaching station. They could not spread the Gospel in public due to the dangerous situation, but they seized the opportunity of renovation to talk about the Christian faith with the workers. The Holy Spirit opened their hearts and they had accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior before they completed the renovation. This preaching station became a major base for missionary work in Guangxi.
After three years of preaching in Wuzhou, Chambers returned to Guangzhou. He was not only skilled in preaching and teaching, but also in literature work. In 1899, he opened the China-America Baptist Publication Society (美華浸會書局) in the Baptist church in Dongshijiao, Guangzhou, and began to concentrate entirely upon literature ministry.
Here is an amazing story: Already in 1880, a Mr. Chen Jinsheng, an overseas Chinese living in New York City, through a Gospel tract which he picked up on the street, and come to know Jesus Christ and accept him as Savior. Right after his baptism, he committed his life to the Lord’s work. Afterwards, on a trip to Philadelphia, where he visited a Baptist publishing house, and conceived the desire that China would someday also have such a publishing house. When Mr. Chen returned to Guangzhou a few years later, he first worked at preaching in the Baptist church at Dongshijiao, and was later ordained as a Baptist pastor. Over the course of several years, he prayed ceaselessly that a publishing house would be opened, even until the day he died. Eight years after Chen’s decease, Robert Chambers fulfilled the desire of this older believer and opened a Baptist publishing house in Guangzhou. Chambers’ publications were many and varied. The works he authored in Chinese and English, ranging from brief Gospel tracts to large tomes of many thousand words. They included shorter devotional or literary publications as well as works of theology, among which What China Needs Today (中國今日之所需), co-authored with Zhang Yijing, was particularly appreciated by Chinese, selling more than 150,0000 copies. Volumes in English included the Biography of Rosewell H. Graves, which Chinese readers really enjoyed. After it was published in Chinese, it was serialized in 22 issues of True Light (Zhen Guang) magazine. Not only did it vividly portray the life of the Rev. Mr. Graves, but it also realistically reflected China’s current situation and historic transformation, and holds considerable value today for those who study modern Chinese history.
Robert Chambers was a man not only of wide learning; he was also a visionary and an intelligent and capable man of action. Even more importantly, he had keen insight and unusual talent at managing human resources. When he established the American-Chinese Publishing House, his chief printing assistant was Mr. Li Huizhen; in writing, his main colleague was Mr. Chen Yuting, both of these men were from Xinhui, Guangdong. Chen Yuting’s writing style and learning were excellent; all of Chambers’ Chinese publications first passed through his editing and polishing of style. The Rev. Mr. Graves and Mr. Chen Meng’nan assisted in translation. In addition, Mr. Zhang Yijing, who was very active in the Christian literary world helped him to edit the True Light magazine. A common aspiration made these two bosom friends; many compared their relationship to the friendship of David and Jonathan. The Rev. E. Z. Simmons and Dr. William Ashmore of Shantou (Swatow), as well as others, did all they could to offer financial support. Dr. Ashmore donated a large sum of money to furnish a building for the use of the publishing house.
Chambers established the China-America Baptist Publication Society in the Dongshijiao Baptist Church in 1899; in 1902 it moved into a new building in Sha’mian, Guangzhou. At the same time, he started the True Light magazine, the earliest Chinese language Christian periodical in China. Not only was True Light a pioneer publication, it later became the most outstanding. Especially in 1924, when the Anti-Christian Movement raged the fiercest, True Light stepped forwardly bravely and took a position in defense of Christianity and refuted the anti-Christian position with persuasive and powerful arguments, evoking admiration from many opponents. Many people began to read the Bible after they had read True Light, and a number turned from opposing the Christian faith to strong believers.
In 1915, as a product of Chambers’ planning, the Baptist Publication Society erected a building in the center of Guangzhou, with the name “Light House.” In 1925, reeling from the workers strike in Guangzhou, they decided to move the publishing house to the flourishing commercial center of Shanghai. In 1932, the eight-storey “True Light Building” was erected on Yuanmingyuan Road. When the move was completed, the name was formally changed to China Baptist Publication Society. Thereafter, the publishing house not only supplied the needs of the church in southern China, but expanded its reach to the entire nation. Its contribution to the church in China became even greater, and its influence upon Chinese Christians even more deep and broad. The professional quality of its work progressed by leaps and bounds. Very sadly, just after the erection of the new building, Robert Chambers fell ill and died. His remains were buried in Shanghai. Dr. J. T. Williams assumed the general editorship of the Society.
From 1899 until Robert Chambers rested from his labors in 1932, the China Baptist Publication Society published approximately four hundred different types of books, with sales amounting to more than 100,000 volumes, among which were Manifesting the Truth 《表彰真道》, Repudiating Evil and Turning to the Right Way《闢邪歸正》， Jesus and Confucius 《耶儒辨》,Jesus and Mo-tse《耶墨辨), Darkness Is Broken by the Great Light《大光破暗集》, Five Answers to the Fundamental Themes《要道五答》, What China Needs Today 《中國今日之所需》, and others. Not only did these books reach the entire nation, but were sold in Chinese churches around the world. There is no way to estimate the number of those who were saved, edified, or revived by reading them. Another of Chambers’ contributions had to do with the Chinese customs office. After negotiating with all his might, he finally obtained duty-free status for imported books, so that Chinese scholars could read famous authors from all over the world at a relatively low price.
Robert Chambers has passed from the scene, but the results of his work and of his example remained a long time, influencing countless people to gain freedom from darkness and enter into the Light, renounce what is false and return to the Truth.
- C. C. Au-yeung, Forerunner’s Characteristic. Hong Kong: Baptist Press, May, 1984.
- Wu, Lile, Brief historical sketches of Baptist missions in China. Hong Kong: Baptist Press, reprint, 1970.
- References from internet.