Rachel Cowie Milne was the wife of Protestant missionary William Milne, who was the second missionary ever sent to China by the London Missionary Society, after Robert Morrison. She has the distinction of being the first wife of a missionary to China to die in the mission field.
Rachel Cowie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1783. Her father, Charles Cowie, was a tradesman, who was engaged as a stocking manufacturer and hosier. Rachel was brought up a devout Protestant Christian, unlike her husband William, who was converted through his own exploration of theological texts during his teenage years. From family members’ first memories of her, she was a pious and serious child, often found praying or deep in thought. Her father had made enough money in his younger days to support and educate a large family, but by the time Rachel was born, the family had fallen on hard times, and she was not able to be taught nearly as much as her young mind desired. When both parents fell ill and her siblings were unable to do anything, she took a small sum of money that she had saved, invested it in the millinery business, and with a steady head and an intelligent mind, she was able to profit enough to purchase her own house, bring her parents to live with her, and nurse them back to health. During a trip to London in her youth, Rachel Cowie attended the anniversary ceremony of the London Mission Society. She later mourned the fact that being a woman would prevent her from taking up the cross herself and spreading the gospel to distant lands. This dream never left her, and her passion for missionary work is likely one of the reasons that she got along so well with William Milne, her future husband.
Rachel Cowie and William Milne first met because they both attended St. Leonard’s Parish Church in Shoreditch. Rachel’s kind heart and intelligent spirit won over William, who had originally been, at his own admission, far too distracted by his religious studies to think about marriage. They bonded over their shared passion for the gospel of Christ, and their desire to travel and spread the news of Christ in foreign countries. In 1812, when Rachel was 29 and William was 27, they were married at St. Leonard’s, the very same place where they had originally met. According to Robert Phillip, who attended the wedding and would later go on to write a biography of William Milne, William was in a carriage accident on his way to the church and was half an hour late to the wedding, which worried Rachel to no end. Philip says that this is the only time he ever saw Rachel agitated or worried, which is indicative of her sweet and gentle disposition. William did, of course, eventually make it to the church, and the couple were happy and relieved to be joined in matrimony at last. Milne had been ordained as a minister of the gospel just a month before their wedding after receiving three years of training from the London Missionary Society.
Journey to China
Less than a year after being married, Rachel found herself journeying to an entirely new world and having very different experiences from most women of her time. It was not merely William’s decision to go to China, but Rachel’s as well, as it had been her secret ambition for many years. Robert Philip’s biography of Milne describes her as being very sympathetic to the suffering of people in China, and eager to do her part to help. As Philip puts it, “She gloried in her mission!” He also states that those who saw the Milnes off on their journey from London thought that Robert Morrison would be receiving the finest of all Christian couples. In a letter to Philip just after her arrival, Rachel expressed joy that she was considered worthy to make the sacrifice of leaving her home and family to promote the cause of the Lord. She also told the story of an incident on the ship, when the passengers were sure they were about to be set upon by pirates. While all the women and their servants went below deck to shield themselves, Rachel stayed on deck to watch what happened. Clearly, this woman, who had been ready to leave all that was familiar and known to her to help preach the gospel, was not afraid of a few pirates.
The passage was rough and long. To reach China from England, one had to navigate around the entire continent of Africa. Rachel records in her letter that while they were on the crossing, she and William taught Scripture, hymns, and catechisms to six boys that worked on the ship, Rachel focusing her efforts on the two who could not read. Throughout the Milnes’ work, Rachel’s strongest vocation was the education of young children, and she was deeply moved when she saw foreign children learning the way of her Lord. After an encounter with a Hottentot tribe in South Africa during their passage, she wrote in a letter to Phillip, “I left these places with a heart filled with gratitude to God, for what I have been permitted to hear and see by the power of his grace on the heart of these poor Hottentots…and exclaiming ‘Who would not be a missionary?’”
The Milnes arrived on the coast of China in 1813, joining Robert Morrison, who had been there since 1807. The coastal regions were more easily accessible to missionaries than the inland, due to the Chinese government’s restrictions on foreign missionaries. While the Milnes were with Morrison, Rachel became very good friends with Morrison’s wife, Mary. This bond was very crucial to their mental health, as they were the only two English-speaking women for miles and miles. They considered each other to be as close as sisters.
In the next six years, along with giving birth to six children, Rachel accompanied William to homes ranging from the Chinese coast to Southeast Asian countries. Over the years, they lived and worked in Canton, Java, Penang, and Malacca. They had originally intended to settle in Macao, rather than Canton (where Morrison worked) due to the Qing government’s prohibition on missionary activity there. However, in 1815, they were evicted from Macao by the government. They next settled in Malacca, a state of what is now Malaysia, which was under Dutch control at the time, where the London Missionary Society established an Anglo-Chinese college, with William as the first principal.
Family and Character
Rachel Milne’s courage, strong spirit, devotion to mission work, and conviction that she and her husband should be equal partners in marriage led to a stronger partnership than many at the time enjoyed. Like many missionary wives, Milne threw herself fully into working beside her husband in ministry. She worked hard to learn the Chinese language and managed the family’s affairs when William went on missionary trips to nearby islands. She took charge of the education and care of their three living children, a daughter and twin sons, as well as ensuring that the family led spiritually invigorating lives. She assisted in the education of the children of the converts as well, teaching them scriptures, hymns, and catechisms. Rachel and William’s truly happy and mutually beneficial bond impressed everyone who met them. Robert Morrison says in his notes, “They were much attached to each other, and lived happily.” According to Liang Fa, the Milnes’ first Chinese convert, it was his observation of Rachel and William’s powerful bond that encouraged him to go against the traditional Qing plural marriage culture of the time and marry only one woman.
Rachel Milne gave birth to her final child, a son called Farquhar, while suffering from a serious illness caused by the unfamiliar tropical climate. Rachel had been insistent that her son be taken to the house of the Lord and presented to God, just as Samuel had been presented by Hannah in the Old Testament. William arranged for Farquhar to be baptized at his mother’s bedside. While his wife was passing, William allowed no one else to tend to her, and he stayed by her side attending to her every need for nearly six days. He prayed, and read scripture and hymns to her, to distract her from her suffering. Rachel Milne died in Klebang, Malacca in March of 1819 and was buried there, in a Dutch cemetery, beside her two children who had died in infancy, David and Sarah. Left behind were her husband William, daughter Rachel Amelia, and three sons: William Charles, Robert George Milne, and the newly born Farquhar. Emphasizing the importance of education until the end, in her will she indicated a strong desire for her daughter Amelia to receive a “proper education,” and as a result Amelia would later be sent to England to study under the Revered Andrew Reed. In his memoirs, William recorded that she often said, “I have never wished for riches, or fame for our children; but that they may truly fear God, and be good and useful members of society.” Her wish came true, as her son William Charles would later become an LMS missionary in China like his father before him, serving in Shanghai, and her son Robert George would serve as a Dissenting minister in Lancaster, England.
Rachel Milne was a highly influential woman in the communities served by her and her husband, spreading Christian love and charity to many, as well as emphasizing the importance of a good education for children, both spiritual and worldly. It is highly unlikely that William’s missionary efforts would have been as successful as they were without having her by his side to befriend other women and show them the light that Christianity could bring to their family lives. She served as a missionary with her husband William, not because she felt compelled by a sense of wifely duty and obedience, but because she felt pulled by a strong and compassionate faith that she wanted to share with the world.
1. Song, B.A. “William married Rachel today 203 years ago!” From Scotland to China (blog). Blogspot, August 4, 2015. https://milneofchina.blogspot.com/.
4. Philip, Robert. The Life and Opinions of the Rev. William Milne, D.D., Missionary to China, Illustrated by Biographical Annals of Asiatic Missions, from Primitive to Protestant Times; Intended As a Guide to Missionary Spirit. Philadelphia, PA: H. Hooker, 1840.
9. Milne, William. A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China: (Now, in Connection with the Malay, Denominated the Ultra-Ganges Missions) Accompanied with Miscellaneous Remarks on the Literature, History, and Mythology of China &C. Malacca: Printed at the Anglo-Chinese Press, 1820.
13. Song. Training Laborers.
Harrison, Brian. Waiting for China: The Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca, 1818-1843, and Early Nineteenth-Century Missions. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1979.
Milne, William, and Robert Morrison. Memoirs of the Rev. William Milne, Late Missionary to China, and Principal of the Anglo-Chinese College. Malacca: Printed at the Mission Press, 1824.
Milne, William. A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China: (Now, in Connection with the Malay, Denominated the Ultra-Ganges Missions) Accompanied with Miscellaneous Remarks on the Literature, History, and Mythology of China &C. Malacca: Printed at the Anglo-Chinese Press, 1820.
Philip, Robert. The Life and Opinions of the Rev. William Milne, D.D., Missionary to China, Illustrated by Biographical Annals of Asiatic Missions, from Primitive to Protestant Times; Intended As a Guide to Missionary Spirit. Philadelphia, PA: H. Hooker, 1840.
Song, Baiyu Andrew. Training Laborers for His Harvest: a Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015.
Song, Baiyu Andrew. “William married Rachel today 203 years ago!” From Scotland to China (blog). Blogspot, August 4, 2015. https://milneofchina.blogspot.com/.