William Milne was born in April, 1875, at Braeside of Cults, in the parish of Kennethmount, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He was baptized on April 27 of the same year. His father, a farm worker, died when Milne was six years old. His early education was provided by his mother. The only son, Milne had to work as a shepherd from an early age. He learned to swear and “the natural depravity of [his] heart began very soon to [discover itself,” in sins such as “lying, swearing, and blaspheming God’s holy name” (Song 17).
Nevertheless, being brought up in the local parish church, he came under godly influences. In order to be like his peers, and to gain the favor of the minister, he memorized The Westminster Shorter Catechism and John Willison’s Mother’s Catechism. Once, while walking alone in the fields when he was ten, he was struck with horror at the thought of eternal punishment and hell, and made resolutions to reform, but these were soon forgotten.
When he was thirteen, he began to attend Sunday evening classes taught by George Cowie, the minister of the church. A variety of events, persons, and actions spurred him towards the use of spiritual means of grace: The experience of nearly drowning a river one day; books like John Willison’s Treatise Concerning the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day, and Seven Sermons on Different Important Subjects, by Robert Russel. In addition to Cowie, two other godly men also impacted him. One was Adam Wievwright, a basket maker who taught Milne Christian things while making baskets. In the Sunday classes, he quickly memorized enough Scriptures to feed his pride. He organized prayer meetings with his sisters and other children, but all was, according to his later writings, born of pride. He later became a carpenter.
By the time he was sixteen, Milne left his mother’s house and moved in with a family who were not religious. During this time, however, he often visited a pious Christian, who introduced him to family worship. As he prayed with them, Milne learned how to pray, and would often go off by himself to a sheep-cote, so he could commune with God in secret. He also read Christian devotional literature, including The Cloud of Witnesses, containing narratives of Scottish Covenanters who suffered for their faith, and Thomas Boston’s Human nature in Its Fourfold State. He later wrote, “From this time my enjoyment and pursuit of pleasure in the world were marred, and a beauty and excellence discovered in religion, which I had never seen in any past period of my life, and which led me to choose and follow after it as the only object deserving the chief attention of an immortal creature” (Song 19, quoting Robert Morrison’s Memoirs of the Rev. William Milne, and Robert Philip, The Life and Opinions of the Rev. William Milne).
Two sermons further spurred him towards conversion: Thomas Boston’s, “The Soul’s Espousals to Christ” (on 2 Corinthians 11:2) and George Cowie’s sermon on Revelation 22:21. By these he was convinced that Christ had died as man’s sin-bearer and substitute, and that he could be forgiven by God’s grace alone through faith alone.
He soon made a personal commitment of faith, in which he “professed to choose the Lord as my God, Father, Saviour, and everlasting portion; and to offer up myself to his service, to be ruled, sanctified, and saved by him” (Song 22). Thereafter, his life underwent a profound change. ASsMorrison later recalled, Milne possessed a very ardent and passionate nature, but God gave him a new mildness of temper, and new objects of his passion, namely God and his kingdom. His prayer life also intensified, so that he became known among his peers as a man of prayer.
He wanted to leave the Church of Scotland congregation in which he had been brought up and baptized because of the shallow sermons he heard there but, in consideration of the opinions of his mother and relatives, waited for two years before transferring to George Cowie’s Congregational church at Huntly. Cowie’s was a very missions-minded congregation, and Milne’s own interest in overseas missions was kindled during his stay there.
He was especially touched by reading Jonathan Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd, as well as the stories of missionaries found in magazines like The Evangelical Magazine. After praying and consulting with friends, he submitted an application to the London Missionary Society. While waiting for their response, he spent time in prayer and in reading the LMS’ Transactions of the Missionary Society, Andrew Fuller’s Life of the Rev. Samuel Pearce, and an article entitled “To Pious Young Men” in The Evangelical Magazine.
The LMS committee at first rejected his application, but he begged them to allow him to serve overseas, even if it were only as “a hewer of wood, or a drawer of water” (Song 23). In 1809, when Milne was twenty-four, the committee relented, accepted his application, and sent him to be trained by David Bogue at the Gosport Academy.
Training for Missionary Work at Gosport Academy
After the disastrous failures of its first missionaries to the South Sea Islands, the London Missionary Society heeded the advice of David Bogue to require future candidates to undergo stringent and thorough training before being sent out to a foreign land as missionaries. In 1800, Bogue’s Gosport Academy was disignated its official seminary, with Robert Morrison as one of the first students. Milne entered the Academy in 1809, after Morrison had arrived in China.
Bogie’s curriculum focused on theology and the Bible, including the biblical languages as well as Latin and French. In addition, students had to learn “rhetoric, Jewish antiquities, English philosophy, evidences of Christianity, history, pastoral office, geography, and astronomy. “ Bogue explained his educational philosophy further:
“… as it is Scriptural knowledge that is the desirable qualification for a Christian missionary, the direction of their studies will point more directly towards this great object… They must attend especially to missionary subjects… the communication of Christian and missionary knowledge must be connected with the promotion of similar dispositions in the heart… the instructions must chiefly refer to the heart, and instead of cherishing the desire of shining in the world by distinguished talents, must aim at subduing every elating thought, and at mortifying the vain propensities of our nature… Our students are to learn how they may be patient and submissive under disappointments, persevering under long discouragements, ready to meet sufferings or even death, if such should be the divine appointment. The education of a missionary is to prepare him for a work in which he must calculate labour and danger, opposition and reproach“ (Quoted in Daily 46).
Bogue had a clear idea of what missionaries should attempt to do: Learn the language and culture as well as possible; translate the Bible and other Christian writings into the local language; establish a school system in which local boys could be trained in all aspects of knowledge and especially the Christian faith, and from which some could go on to be Christian leaders.
To provide future missionaries with the knowledge for such an ambitious program, he required them to study a “wide multitude of scientific and humanistic disciplines, including but not limited to astronomy, theology, geography, philosophy, history, rhetoric, and linguistics” (Daily 48). The exacting course of study, which took three years of ten months of school each year, also included church history, logic and metaphysics, composition.
Bogue did not use the lecture method exclusively, but presented the students with an outline and a list of required readings, which they were to use in filling in the outline, and which they would then present orally in class. In other words, he taught them how to study, how to think, how to write, and how to teach others what they had learned. He spent a great deal of effort training students how to communicate the great truths of the faith, through preaching of course, but also through conversation and systematic catechizing. For the last purpose, they were to translate or compose catechisms suitable for seekers and new believer in their host culture.
With biblical history, church history, and the terrible experiences of the South Sea Island missions, Bogue prepared his students for all forms of opposition, and instructed them how to respond to objections and how to meet danger and even death.
Bogue put forth David Brainerd as the model missionary, along with John Eliot. We have already seen how Jonathan Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd had made a huge impact upon Milne; that was only deepened by the way in which Bogue pointed to Brainerd’s hard study of the Indian language, his immense labors, apostolic sufferings, and early death from disease. We may assume that Milne consciously modeled his own missionary life and work upon Brainerd’s pattern.
Marriage and First Years as a Missionary
Milne was ordained soon after having graduated from the Gosport Academy in July, 1812. He and Rachel Cowie (1783-1819), the daughter of the minister of his home church, were married less than a month later, on August 4th. They had met in her father’s church before Milne went off for missionary training. After he graduated, he returned to his home church, noticed her kindred missionary spirit, and “saw her charming and joyful heart” (Song 25).
One month after the wedding, on September 4, 1812, they sailed for Macao by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Milne kept himself busy while on the ship by studying Scripture and the Chinese language, evangelizing fellow passengers and the ship’s crew, and leading worship and Bible study regularly. They arrived in Macao on July 4 and were warmly welcomed by Robert and Mary Morrison, who had waited for years for helpers to come.
Less than a week later, the Portuguese governor, under pressure from the Roman Catholic clergy in Macao, ordered Milne and his wife to leave immediately. Morrison tried to get Milne hired by the East India Company, where he was employed, and was disappointed when they refused this request. On July 20th, Milne sailed for Canton (Guangzhou), leaving his pregnant wife in the care of Mary Morrison. He remained in Canton for the winter months. Rachel gave birth to a daughter, Amelia, in Macao.
In Canton, Milne had to hide himself at a “factory” (i.e., warehouse used by foreign commercial interests) at a very high cost, so as to escape the notice of the suspicious and anti-foreign Chinese authorities. One day, after seeing mainland China from the top of a hill, he wrote in his diary, “My thoughts were ‘O that God would give this land to the churches, that we, their Messengers, might walk through the length and breadth of it, to publish the glory of His salvation!’ … I think [the Chinese people] exceedingly corrupt in their morals. They are a civilized and industrious people, but their land is full of idols” (Philip, “Life and Opinions of William Milne,” quoted in Song, 27).
He spent his time there carrying out Morrison’s plan for acquiring Chinese: “1. to learn the colloquial dialect first, to enable questions and conversation; 2. to commit much to memory [as the Chinese do themselves]; 3. to pay attention to characters. A few characters should every day be written and carefully analyzed” (Quoted in Song, 28).
In a now-famous description of the difficulty of learning Chinese, he wrote that it is “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of spring-steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah!” (Song 28).
At Morrison’s suggestion, in 1814 Milne took a seven-month journey to places such as Java, Batavia, and Malacca, distributing more than 2,000 copies of the Chinese New Testament and tracts and sharing the Christian message wherever he could. Returning to Canton, he opened his home to expatriates and seaman for worship services.
Ministry in Malacca
Realizing that both Roman Catholic and Chinese official hostility made continued residence in Canton or Macao impossible for Milne, he and Morrison decided that he should move with his family to Malacca, a British colony under the governorship of William Farquhar, who was friendly to missionaries. Rachel was pregnant again in April, 1815, when they sailed, and gave birth to twin boys, William Charles and Robert George, on the voyage.
Despite having to work at a distance from each other, he and Morrison “developed a highly effective working relationship… Milne soon proved himself a creative, hard-working, and adventurous colleague” (Hancock 96).
Once settled in Malacca, Milne set out to establish a temporary base, free from persecution, for continued work among Chinese. Malacca would serve as the headquarters of the mission, where missionaries could consult with each other and rest from their labors, receive and train new workers, and whence missionaries could be sent out to other places. In keeping with their overall strategy, they planned to establish a church, a printing press, and a school to educate both local and English boys. The Anglo-Chinese College was opened in 1818, with Milne as principal and chief instructor. He taught the first year class geography, Euclid, astronomy, ethics, and English. A local Chinese instructed the twenty to sixty students in their language.
Milne outlined his tasks: “To purchase land and establish mission houses; 2. Oral labors – preaching and teaching; 3. Education, specifically being the principal of the Anglo-Chinese College; 4. Printing; 5. Writing and editing; 6. Establishing the Ultra-Ganges [i.e., beyond India] Mission in 1818” (Song 30-31). He also undertook to mentor Liang Fa, the printer for the mission, who had come with him from to live in Malacca.
Milne wrote a 71-page booklet, “The Life of Christ,” in Chinese, which Liang printed for him, and through which Liang was greatly influenced to study Christianity. After a thorough examination of his faith, Liang was baptized by Milne in November, 1816. Milne mentored Liang through private Bible lessons and conversations, public worship, reading of Christian material, composition of his own tract, “Miscellaneous Exhortations,” and supervised work as a Christian teacher.
Rachel again gave birth, to David in 1816 and to Sarah in 1817. Both children died within a week of being born; their deaths were a terrible blow to Rachel. Their youngest son, William, was born in 1819. Rachel became ill immediately after childbirth and never recovered. She died on March 20, 1819. Because of her firm faith in God and desire to be delivered from her physical suffering and be with Christ, Milne was greatly comforted in the midst of his loss.
Walter Henry Medhurst arrived in 1817 to take over the printing press. He was the first of several younger missionaries whom Milne was able to train and deploy to other fields, though relationships between Medhurst and Milne were not always smooth.
In recognition of his contribution to the translation of the Chinese Bible, his many publications in Chinese and in English, and of his work in Malacca, the University of Glasgow bestowed an honorary Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) upon Milne in 1820. (In those days the D.D. was awarded much less frequently than it is now.)
The pressure of his multi-faceted work and the added burden of caring for the children took a heavy toll on Milne’s health. He became ill towards the end of 1821 and died on June 2, 1822 of lung disease. He was buried alongside Rachel and the two children who had died before him in the Dutch cemetery after a funeral in the Dutch Reformed church, with hundreds of Chinese and foreigners in attendance.
After his death, Robert Morrison wrote, “Great is the loss to this mission which the early removal of that faithful, devoted, and successful Chinese Missionary, has occasioned. His attainments in the difficult language of this great empire were eminent. His whole soul was in his work” (Hancock 157).
In addition to his part in the Chinese Bible (he translated the books Deuteronomy through Job), Milne wrote many other works. “In 1819 he published a tract The Two Friends, which became the most widely used Chinese Christian tract until the early twentieth century” (Bays BDCC). He also composed “A Catechism for Youth” in 1817, which adapted the Westminster Shorter Catechism to Chinese culture. For the Indo-Chinese Gleaner, Milne contributed articles on Chinese religion and culture. Their intimate and exact knowledge helped him and Morrison to avoid the kind of syncretistic adaptation to Chinese religion of which the Nestorians and Jesuits were later accused. For example, they chose the word “Shen” as the best translation for biblical words for “God,” since it did not carry all the connotations of “Shangdi.”
In 1819, Milne published Dialogues between Chang and Yuen, the first missionary novel cum catechism “in common Chinese,” which “became the best-selling tract in China” (Song 64). The full list of his publications shows twenty-one in Chinese and three in English, including regular articles in the quarterly journal, The Indo-Chinese Gleaner, published in Malacca from 1817 to 1822, and amounting to several hundred pages (Song 102-104). His Retrospect recounted the events and activities of the first few years of ministry in Asia.
Theology and Missiology
From his youth, William Milne was influenced by Calvinistic theology, but of the “evangelical” sort that believed we must preach the gospel to all and sundry, leaving to God the results. He accepted the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism”: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited (or particular) Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the saints. At the same time, he believed that all people should hear the gospel, so that God might save some through faith which was engendered by the Holy Spirit.
At Bogue’s Gosport Academy, he was further instructed in Puritan theology, including and especially the writings of Jonathan Edwards. The other theologians whom they read were also “Calvinist, Purityan English nonconformists [i.e., non-Anglican] or Scottish Presbyterian” (Song 50).
The pervasive impact of Jonathan Edwards’s writings meant that Gosport emphasized not only theological and biblical knowledge, but also fervent zeal for the salvation of souls and the spiritual growth of professing Christians into those who loved God from the heart. Like Edwards, they preached a message that was God-centered and focused on the saving work of Christ in the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
True faith was expected to be characterized by a transformed life, not just an oral profession of belief. This theology made Morrison and Milne cautious in baptizing Chinese who showed interest in the gospel; they waited until they saw evidence of the inner work of the Holy Spirit in the seeker’s conduct. To help people come to a saving knowledge of Christ, they were inculcated in a “dialogical” method of evangelism and education, as Milne’s major work, Dialogues between Chang and Yuen shows. That is, Chinese were taught to think, not just to memorize and accept a teaching without processing it thoroughly.
Throughout his Christian life, William Milne was known as a man of fervent and faithful prayer. At the same time, he threw himself fully into his work, whether it was studying theology or Chinese, writing, preaching, teaching, administering the LMS mission station at Malacca, or mentoring Liang Fa. His strong personality was gradually tempered over the years, so that he became increasingly mild and gentle. Liang Fa witnessed firsthand the loving relationship he enjoyed with Rachel, and the way he cared for his children. He did not spare himself, but sacrificed everything he had for the sake of communicating the gospel with Chinese people.
William Milne was survived by a daughter and three sons, one of whom, William Charles Milne (1815-1863), later became an LMS China missionary, serving at Tinghai on Chusan and then in Shanghai.
For decades after his death, his work lived on through the tireless and effective ministry of Liang Fa, into whom he had poured so much of his life. His writings also continued to impact both Westerners and Chinese. His prayers bore rich fruit. Above all, his example still inspires and challenges.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book One. Barbarians at the Gates. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981.
- Christopher A. Daily, Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.
- Christopher Hancock, Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.
- Baiyu Andrew Song, Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015