Born of Orthodox Jewish parents in the village of Tauroggen, Russian Lithuania, Schereschewsky was known as Joseph by his friends. His father was an Ashkenazic Jew; his mother, whose family was from Spain, was Sephardic. After both his parents died when he was a small boy, he was taken into the home of his adult half-brother, the son of his father by a previous marriage.
He was given the best education available, first under a local rabbi and then in the rabbinical school in the nearby town of Krazai. He would rise before dawn and trudge for miles to school. He spoke Yiddish at home; elsewhere, Russian or Polish, or both. In school he studied Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew was his best language, and he reportedly composed Hebrew poetry before the age of eighteen. All Jewish boys had to master a craft; he learned to be a glazier – one who cuts and fits stained glass for windows.
Around the age of fifteen he entered the rabbinical school at Zhitomir, about four hundred miles away. It was here that he first came into contact with Christianity, when a friend gave him a New Testament that had been distributed by a missionary to the Jews in Germany. By reading this book, he became intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity. He later wrote that his conversion took place during this period, but he was not sufficiently convinced to break with Judaism.
He was sent to Frankfurt, Germany at the age of 19 to be trained as a rabbi. Two years later, he enrolled in Breslan University. During his period of study, he became fluent in German. He supported himself by tutoring the children of Jewish families and by work as a glazier.
He could afford only the simplest food, which consisted of a single loaf of bread each day. “He was of a merry, enthusiastic disposition” and happy at school. “As for health, he was, until middle life, of a peculiarly vigorous constitution, lithe, spare, active, an inveterate walker, and a powerful swimmer” (Muller 29).
During these years he was drawn to a serious consideration of the Christian faith through contact with missionaries of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews. His daughter says that at some time while in Germany, he entered a Roman Catholic cathedral. “As he sat in the rear of the nave looking toward the altar, a shaft of light suddenly struck the crucifix, illuminating it with what seemed, for the moment, an unearthly glory. It appears to have been accompanied by a moment of inner illumination,” leading to his full acceptance of the Christian faith (Muller 30-31).
In 1854 he decided to emigrate to America. In Hamburg, he met a Christian Jew who gave him a letter of introduction to the Rev. John Neander, also a Christian Jew, who was pastor of a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn and a missionary to the Jews in New York.
After landing in New York, he became acquainted with other Christian Jews through Neander. In the spring of 1855, while celebrating the Passover with these believers, he finally committed himself to Christ. An observer wrote, “At last he rose, and in a voice stifled with emotion, said, ‘I can no longer deny my Lord. I will follow Him without the camp [a reference to Hebrews 13:13]’” (Muller 32).
He received baptism by immersion and for a while attended a Baptist church. Later, he became a Presbyterian, probably influenced by Presbyterian Jewish pastors. At this time, he sensed a call to become a minister of the gospel and enrolled in the Western Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Allegheny (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. A scholarship from the Presbyterian Board of Education enabled him to attend.
Early in 1858, after only two years at that seminary, he announced his intention to withdraw, to become a member of the Episcopal Church, and to enroll in the General Theological Seminary in New York. This decision caused consternation, not least because he had not shared his growing doubts about Calvinistic doctrines with the faculty. After an investigation, they accepted the testimony of his fellow students to his integrity, and let him go in peace.
Dr. Lyman, the Episcopal minister who had befriended him in Pittsburgh, wanted to get to know him better, so he had Schereschewsky reside and study at the College of St. James, an Episcopal institution in Maryland, for several months until he matriculated at General Seminary. He had been at General Seminary for less than half a year when Bishop William J. Boone of China visited the school and issued an appeal for men to offer themselves as missionaries to China.
This he did, declaring that he had “a strong desire to devote his whole life to the China Mission” (Muller 38). He had believed in Christian doctrines for seven years, had studied Christian theology for three years, and had convinced the faculty at General Seminary that his facilities in several languages, his knowledge of the Greek New Testament as well as the Hebrew Old Testament, his facility in English, and his balanced character warranted an early departure with Boone to China.
He sent his formal application to the Foreign Missions Committee and received their letter of acceptance on May 3, 1859.
“Late in life Schereschewsky told a friend that it was intimated to him that if he would stay in this country he might be forwarded to a teaching position at the General Seminary, and that Dr. Mahan, of the faculty there, expressed some surprise that anyone with his abilities should want to go to China. He replied that he wanted to go to China to translate the Bible into Chinese” (Muller 40).
On July 7 of that year he was ordained as a deacon, along with three men from the Virginia seminary, including Elliot Heber Thompson, who became his lifelong friend. (The office of deacon in the Episcopal denomination, as in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bodies, and unlike in Baptist and Presbyterian denominations, normally leads to ordination as a presbyter [priest], with full authority to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.)
Early Life in China
Bishop Boone and his party of new recruits sailed from New York on July 14th. During the journey, which took almost six months, they received instruction in Chinese, with the result that, by the time they landed in Shanghai, Schereschewsky could already write classical Chinese. With the Taiping rebellion still raging, the new missionaries continued studying Chinese rather than beginning ministry among Chinese.
Unlike some missionaries, Schereschewsky believed that anyone desiring to preach the gospel effectively to Chinese must acquire excellent facility in the languages – local dialects, Mandarin, and literary Chinese. For this, “great patience and perseverance are most necessary,” along with “very laborious study” for at least five years. Later, he told one new missionary, “People ask me how to learn Chinese. I know only one way – nine hours a day” (Muller 46).
Along with another missionary, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Boone on October 28, 1860.
A few months later, in his report to the Foreign Board on his missionary activities, he could only say that he had concentrated on language study, but “besides this…I have under my superintendence a day school in which instruction in native classics and in Christian books is daily imparted to some dozen boys. And…at the request of the Bishop I am now attempting to render the Psalms into the Shanghai colloquial” (Muller 48). That he had already been asked to undertake translation work is a tribute to the extraordinary progress he had made in learning Chinese.
Early in 1861, Bishop Boone asked Schereschewsky to serve as an interpreter to two British officers on leave who wanted to explore the areas along the Yangzi (Yangtse River). “The expedition,” the bishop wrote, “will serve to perfect [his] speaking of the Chinese, enlarge his missionary range, and I hope give much interesting information to the Christian world” (Muller 49-40). The expedition more than fulfilled his hopes.
Stopping in Nanjing, he was able to observe the Taiping capital first-hand, and concluded that they were “entirely unworthy of any Christian sympathy. The spurious Christianity which they pretend to profess, besides its horrid blasphemies, does not seem to have produced in them the slightest moral effect for the better” (Muller 51).
As they proceeded up the river, they met many Roman Catholic missionaries, whose zeal and success in gaining converts evoked their admiration, though Schereschewsky could not approve of Roman Catholic doctrines. He was the first Protestant missionary to penetrate that far into the hinterland. When they reached Pingshan, 1800 miles from the coast, they reluctantly turned back because of warnings about dangers from the rebels.
During and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), giving for missions dropped off dramatically, leaving missionaries with little money. With the approval of Bishop Boone, Schereschewsky accepted a position as an interpreter for the American minister, Anson Burlingame. He left Shanghai on July 2, 1862, with Burlingame and Dr. S. Wells Williams, who was secretary to the mission.
In this way, he would be able not only to improve his Mandarin but also obtain residence in the capital, which was otherwise forbidden to foreign missionaries. When Williams went south to Macao for seven months, Schereschewsky took his place. He lived in the same house as two other missionaries, Henry Blodget and John Shaw Burdon, forging a friendship that would blossom into close collaboration on translation projects.
Later, restrictions were lifted, and he opened a school, commenced his translation work, and began the study of Mongolian. Chinese officials treated him with great friendliness, explaining to him that their government would welcome Protestant missionaries, who seemed to want only to propagate their religion. Roman Catholic missionaries, in contrast, seemed to aim at creating a political movement hostile to the government. They also assumed the titles and status of high officials, further alienating the mandarins.
He preached often in the English chapel. He began translating the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese with Burdon, an Anglican, and he was part of a committee to translate the Bible. In light of his unique Jewish background, he was given responsibility for the Old Testament. A fellow missionary wrote, “I am told by a gentleman who is just down from Pekin that Mr. Schereschewsky is the finest Chinese speaker at Pekin and that he is very much liked by the Chinese” (Muller 65).
Schereschewsky also participated in the committee to translate the New Testament. This remarkable group included Burden, Blodget, Joseph Edkins, and W. A. P. Martin.
On the vexed Term Question – that is, how to translate the name of God into Chinese – he objected to Shang Di, “which, as the name of the chief deity in the Chinese pantheon was…no more appropriate for the Christian God than Jupiter or Baal. He had less objection to Shen, but favored Tian Zhu (Ti’en Chu), which had long been used by the Roman Catholics” (Muller 67).
“Late in 1867, he purchased a Buddhist temple outside the West Gate of the city, repaired it, and converted it into a chapel… Here he regularly preached for the next seven years” (Muller 70). A few months before that, after meeting some Chinese Jews who had come to Beijing, he had traveled to Kaifeng, about 450 miles away, and paid a visit to the small community of Jews there. He found that they had entirely assimilated into Chinese culture and society. In a few weeks, however, he was driven out of Kaifeng by a mob instigated by a scholar who had visited him.
In January, 1868, hearing that a single lady missionary was coming to China, Schereschewsky walked for seven hundred miles through winter weather to the Yangzi River, where he found an American gunboat that took him the remaining 200 miles to Shanghai. Two weeks after he presented himself to Susan Mary Waring (1837-1909), their engagement was announced. They were married on April 21 and left for Beijing at the end of May.
Susan Mary Warning was from Brooklyn, New York, a graduate of Packer Collegiate Institute, and had worked in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church for twelve years before applying for missionary work. A gifted writer, she had published short stories and articles in a publication for women. After settling in Beijing, she had to learn the language without a teacher, since the Episcopal mission did not furnish language instructors to married women. She eventually became very proficient.
Described as “gifted with a fine intellect, good judgment, and a most amiable disposition,” she became Schereschewsky’s indispensable companion, helper, co-worker, secretary, and - in later years – nurse (Muller 76, 258). Soon after arriving in Beijing, in addition to her domestic duties, which included training and supervising Chinese servants, she opened a day school for boys, in which she taught regularly. She also was preparing a class of several women and one young girl for baptism, and was holding a weekly prayer meeting for women.
Though the women of the neighborhood were at first afraid of her, after they learned that she could dispense simple medicines for their ailments, they soon warmed to her and came often to her home.
Translation took almost all of Schereschewsky’s time. Aside from Sunday preaching, he focused on what he considered to be his main task. Even the preaching, he discovered, bore little fruit in Beijing, where the implacable opposition and contempt of the scholars and officials made that city a hard place in which to proclaim the gospel. Though he spoke to an average congregation of about forty or forty-five each week, he baptized only twelve during his whole time there, and presented none for confirmation. People in the country were more receptive, and he baptized dozens in a village where a Chinese evangelist and catechist had worked, but he discovered that lasting fruit would require constant visitation from a missionary.
Translation, on the other hand, was the task for which he was most qualified. Employing two Chinese copyists, one for the day and another after supper until ten or later every night, he devoted himself entirely to this one form of ministry. “Mrs. Schereschewsky admitted that her patience was sometimes tried by his ability so to concentrate on his translating that he would hear or see nothing else. He would suffer no interruption, no matter how urgent she thought the occasion for it to be. And it was always a task to get him to bed” (Muller 86). She often found him still in his study at two o’clock in the morning.
Not only did he tax his body to the limit, but he neglected virtually everything else. “He begrudged the time taken for letter writing and, at this period of his life, was a proverbially impossible correspondent,” even when his bishop and mission leaders begged him to write something to the supporters at home (Muller 86).
The New Testament committee assigned to him the books of Matthew, Hebrews, and Revelation. Aside from translating these, he, like other members of the team, carefully read and commented on the books translated by others. The complete New Testament was published in 1872. Marshall Broomhall wrote: “The success of this version was more immediate, more widespread, and more permanent than the most sanguine of the translators had hoped. It marked an epoch in the history of the bible in China” (The Bible in China, quoted in Muller 88).
In the same year, the Book of Common Prayer appeared. Schereschewsky had translated Morning and Evening Prayer, the Collects (prayers assigned for particular days and occasions), and the Psalter. John Burdon, now Anglican bishop of Hong Kong, had translated the other parts. The two of them also translated a number of hymns.
Also in the same year, a translation of Matthew by Schereschewsky and Edkins was issued. Schereschewsky began to compile a dictionary of Mongolian, half of which was finished by 1875; he never completed this project.
His major efforts, however, were given to the Mandarin Old Testament, which was published in December, 1874. The American Bible Society had supported this project by paying the salaries of Schereschewsky and one of his Chinese assistants. Bishop Williams wrote: “The magnitude of the work, the amount of labor, the patience and care and thought and study necessary to accomplish such an undertaking can be fully appreciated by no one who has not attempted to translate the Bible into a language not his mother tongue,” and especially Mandarin Chinese, which is so different from Western languages (Muller 89).
It had taken fourteen years of “severe and unremitting toil,” noted the Board of Missions (Muller 90). Sixteen years later, his colleague Henry Blodget wrote, “The translation into the Mandarin was made by a master hand, seemingly raised up by God for this purpose” (Muller 90). Looking back after twenty-five years had passed, W. A. P. Martin said that Schereschewsky’s Old Testament “stands by itself and is not likely to be superseded. For that task, his qualifications were exceptional. By birth a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and running over with rabbinic lore, he had made himself a Chinese by adoption and by successful study. No man of that day equaled him in idiomatic command of the spoken Mandarin” (Muller 90).
In 1903 a representative of the American Bible Society in China wrote of his Mandarin Bible: “It gave a new impetus to all forms of missionary work and enabled the Churches of all denominations in Mandarin-speaking Chinese…to train an efficient native ministry and raise up an intelligent church” (Muller 90-91).
In 1871, in recognition of his scholarship, the Theological Seminary of the Diocese of Ohio at Gambier, had already awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity (a degree that meant much more in those days that it does today).
Furlough and Election as Bishop of China
In April, 1875, after putting off a much-needed furlough until he had completed the Old Testament translation, Schereschewsky and his family, which by then included a son, Joseph Williams, and a daughter, Caroline, left Beijing for the United States.
The Episcopal Board of Missions expressed their great appreciation for his translation work. While at home, Schereschewsky and his wife spoke often to various church and mission groups, challenging others with the great need for more missionaries in China, including the Foreign Board. Meanwhile, with Bishop Williams having moved to Japan to oversee American Episcopal missions both there and in China, almost everyone agreed that China needed its own bishop.
At a special meeting of the House of Bishops in October, 1875, Schereschewsky was elected Bishop of China. Considering himself “utterly unqualified” for this position, he refused to accept the bishops’ choice. Fellow missionaries on the field tended to agree that he was unsuited for the role and responsibilities of a bishop, thinking that his gifts and calling lay in translation, not leadership of other missionaries.
Another special meeting of the House of Bishops in October, 1876, after reading his letter of refusal, nevertheless elected him again and sent a delegation of three men whom he greatly respected to persuade him to accept. After great hesitation, and with many doubts, he yielded to their pleas and agreed to serve as Bishop of China. “May He who is the Strength of the weak and the Guide of the perplexed be my Strength and my Guide in this very solemn matter,” he wrote. “And if it is His will that I should be bishop in His Church, may He give me grace so to fulfil the duties connected with it as to justify my election, and not disappoint the expectations of the bishops who have appointed me to this very responsible and holy office” (Muller 105).
A “New Era in Missions”
From the beginning, Schereschewsky made it clear that as Bishop he would propose the foundation of “an institution of distinctly higher learning, whence would issue a steady stream of native leadership, lay and clerical, at once learned and Christian” (Muller 106). For this institution he wanted no less than one hundred thousand dollars as an initial endowment– a huge sum in those days, though it would yield only a modest income of $6,000 a year.
Schereschewsky had had this idea in mind since he first arrived in China.
Since the United States had been going through an economic depression since 1873, no action was taken by the Foreign Board, which so discouraged Schereschewsky that he formally withdrew his acceptance of the bishopric. Finally, the House of Bishops expressed their full support of his plan. He was consecrated Bishop of China on October 31, 1877 at Grace Church in New York. By the time of the Schereschewsky family’s departure for China in April, 1878, fifty thousand dollars had been pledged for the new institution.
Since the second Lambeth Conference of all the bishops of the Anglican Communion would soon be held in London, they stayed there for four months, during which Mary, who had “worked herself sick in America,” would have time to recuperate (Muller 117). The younger William Boones visited them there. Mrs. Boone recalled a visit to the zoo with Schereschewsky, who “had real knowledge of all he saw, not ostentatiously displayed, but naturally in an ordinary conversation.” She recalls the comment of the Archbishop of Canterbury that “the Bishop of Shanghai is one of six really learned men in the world” (Muller 119).
Addressing the conference on the progress of Anglican missions in China, he “stated that the Bible had been translated into the Mandarin dialect… [S]o modestly was the statement made that no one would have dreamed that he had any part in the noble project” (Bishop Bedell of Ohio, quoted in Muller 120).
The Schereschewkys returned to Shanghai in October 1878. Immediately, he set about his new project with great energy. He aimed to found “a missionary college where modern science and Christianity would be taught along with the Chinese classics” (Muller 105). After some astute reconnaissance, and with constant challenges from the Foreign Board at home, in January, 1879, he boldly leased the mission’s property in downtown Shanghai and took out a loan for a spacious lot five miles away.
At the ceremony during which the cornerstone was laid, he said, “We want an institution to train youth for the service of Christ. I believe the true apostles of China must be natives” (Muller 129). He and his wife moved into the new building in June. It was large enough to house eighty boys from the two Episcopal boarding schools at the beginning of the first term in September. Within the building were classrooms, a library, dining room, and chapel.
For faculty, the school employed Schereschewsky, who taught Chinese classics and served as president, and three other men, one of them Chinese (Y. K. Yen, who had a Masters degree from Kenyon College). In addition to sciences and history, there was a theological course, in which Schereschewsky taught Church History. A medical department opened in October, 1880.
The English department was headed by Mr. A.S. Koeh, who had also graduated from Kenyon College. Schereschewsky saw early that a strong English program “would attract the sons of well-do-do merchants” (Muller 132). In time, all instruction was given in English.
Schereschewsky had also wanted to unite two existing mission schools for girls into one. A new building, St. Mary’s Hall, was erected, and the school opened in 1881, with a Chinese woman as principal.
The Man – and His Wife
Schereschewsky’s daughter wrote that her father was “quick in all his apprehensions, quick tempered, of great energy of thought and physical expression…no diplomat…very straightforward and sincere… He was of medium height, he was very broad and deep-chested and had a fine head, a clear olive complexion, brilliant dark grey eyes, and black hair and beard, which became silver white in after years. He was very nervous and energetic in all his movements, and spoke with great rapidity” (Muller 139-140).
He spoke English fluently though with an accent, but, according to Chinese who knew him, he spoke Mandarin “like a native” (Muller 140).
His son Joseph added that Schereschewsky “seldom slept more than six hours. He was quick tempered and impatient with stupidity. Faulty reasoning, foolish questions, and failure to use one’s brains made him mad. But he was equally quick to make amends if he lost his temper. He seldom bore resentment, and was swift to find excuses for others. He had immense powers of concentration” (Muller 139). When engaged in translation work, he would pace up and down beside his desk, dictating to his Chinese assistant and stopping only to discuss questions on which they did not at first agree.
Extremely neat and particular about his personal appearance, he expected the same of others. Punctuality mattered greatly to him.
In today’s terms, he was a perfectionist.
The summer heat in Shanghai was almost intolerable for him, to the point that Mary wrote in 1879, “We have grave doubts whether, with a constitution impaired by long residence in China, he will be able to stand the Shanghai climate” (Muller 142). He also suffered from frequent diarrhea.
A Chinese associate described Mary Schereschewsky as “a most active, kindhearted, and lovely lady… Everyone who knows anything of her likes her.” Their biographer adds: “She did everything possible to lighten her husband’s duties, acting as his amanuensis, in spirit of trouble with her eyes, from the beginning to the end of his episcopate – indeed to the end of his life… She likewise interested herself in the girls’ day schools while she was in Shanghai, and later, in Wuchang, supervised the woman’s work there” (Muller 142).
Schereschewsky had his share of troubles, of course. The confusing relationship between the Anglican bishop in China and his own episcopacy required frank negotiations with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Foreign Board in New York constantly meddled in financial affairs, seeking to manage funds from afar. The failure of home churches to send more men caused him immense discouragement.
Conflict with one of his senior missionaries, Dr. Nelson, caused him acute pain, made worse when Nelson’s daughter resigned over the decision to merge the girls’ school of which she was principal with the other girls’ school to form St. Mary’s Hall. The departure of the entire Nelson family further decimated the already thin ranks of Episcopal missionaries in China, a constant source of frustration for Schereschewsky.
A visit to Wuchang, several hundred miles up the Yangzi River, brought the realization that rosy reports from his missionaries there masked what he called a “rotten” condition in the church. Having no one to care for the fledgling congregation, in November 1880 he took on the job himself, with his wife’s help, of course. Amidst regular pastoral ministry he had to design and oversee the construction of a new church building for which funds had been sent from home, all the while spending as much time as possible revising his translation of the Mandarin Old Testament.
His sojourn in Wuchang led to several important new rules for the mission in China: Candidates for missionary work must have strong physical constitutions and equally robust mental equipment. Schereschewsky believed that a good education would enable missionaries to acquire the language faster and better, make a better impression on the Chinese, and see more lasting fruits of their labors. Rather than waiting for men to apply to the mission board, he thought that representatives should visit seminaries and universities, find the most promising men, and appeal to them to offer themselves for overseas ministry, especially in China.
To raise the quality of the local church, “there should be a year’s probation for all [Chinese] candidates for baptism, six months before their public admission as catechumens and six months thereafter, during all of which time they should be under instruction and observation” (Muller 161-162).
The summer of 1881 brought prolonged and intense heat that further sapped his energy. The shack in which he spent hours translating was like an oven. These and other cares occasioned constant worry and anxiety, leading to a visible decrease in energy and health. Finally, overcome by heat exhaustion and a high fever, he suffered from a lesion in his brain that forced the physicians to order him to leave China, lest he not survive. His colleague Dr. Boone said that there was “no indication that he will recover full power of mind or body, or be capable of any sustained mental effort” (Muller 175). His career as a missionary seemed to have come to an abrupt end.
Partial Recovery and Resumption of Work
On the advice of their doctors, in March, 1882, the Schereschewskys went to Geneva, Switzerland, for treatment. After four years, he was still paralyzed in his legs and arms and could speak only with difficulty. For the rest of his life, he had to be carried up and down stairs and could travel only in a three-wheeled chair pedaled by someone else. His mental powers, which had never suffered damage, were as keen as ever, and he had regained his nervous energy. The disparity between his physical incapacity and his mental and nervous vitality caused him considerable suffering. Still, his wife Mary said that “he accepts everything with his usual lovely patience and tranquility, which is a perpetual support and comfort to me. This has been our Heavenly Father’s special gift to him, and had it been otherwise I hardly know how we could have met and sustained the many trials that have arisen from his illness” (Muller 185-186).
During these years, and until her husband’s death, Mary bore the heavy burden of caring for him, assisted at times by their son and at other times by a hired servant. Because their financial resources were always limited, she had to exercise great frugality and to be content living in one “shabby little” house after another. Schereschewsky’s main “recreation was to be read aloud to,” wrote his daughter. “My mother was an admirable reader and some of the happiest memories of my childhood are connected with long hours of listening to my mother’s reading of some masterpiece of history or volume of English literature” in the evenings and often into the middle of the night (Muller 186). She continued that Mary was “wife, companion, mother, and friend” to him “through all his years of disability” (Muller 217).
Being still the Bishop of China, Schereschewsky had to attend to a variety of matters connected with the Episcopal Mission there. Mary served as his secretary from 1883 until he died. He had to deal with the incompetence of missionaries on the field and, sometimes, their conflicts, as well as continued criticism of him to the Foreign Board by Dr. Nelson, who charged him with pushing his High Church views on the other missionaries. The Board finally exonerated Schereschewsky, but these and other trials led him to submit his resignation as bishop. Finally, on his recommendation, in 1884 William Boone was chosen as his successor, “and a heavy burden lifted from [his] shoulders” (Muller 200).
Increasingly liberal theological views at home led some to believe that Buddhism was just as a good a religion as Christianity. Schereschewsky countered this notion with a long article in the Episcopal journal The Churchman, drawing upon his intensive study of the Buddhist scriptures, interviews with hundreds of monks, and observance of rituals around China, to demonstrate that Buddhist doctrines were fundamentally atheistic and that popular Buddhism in China was a mass of superstitions.
Return to the Unites States; Resumption of Translation
Believing that further treatment would not significantly improve his physical condition, the Schereschewskys returned to the United States in August 1886. Almost at once, Mary found herself much in demand as a speaker to women’s groups in New York and surrounding states. Schereschewsky asked to be allowed to return to China so that he could engage the services of a Chinese assistant but was refused.
Beginning in 1887, having procured a typewriter, Schereschewsky “embarked on one of the most amazing literary undertakings of all time” (Muller 206). Using the middle finger of his right hand, he typed out a revision of his Mandarin Old Testament and a translation of the entire Bible in “Easy Wenli,” the literary language of all educated people in China. He had to use the Romanized alphabet for this initial phase; later, he would employ Chinese helpers to write out characters.
For this project he consulted many versions of the Bible, in English, German, Russian, French, Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Pali, and literary Chinese. His remarkable linguistic proficiency included the ability to speak thirteen languages and to read twenty. Despite his almost total paralysis and though confined to a chair all day long, he labored at his task for an average of nine hours a day for the rest of his life.
A fellow bishop remarked, after visiting Schereschewsky in his study, that he was “much superior to myself and all his surroundings… He struck me as a man not only of great scholarship but of exceptional refinement of temper and nobility of spirit” (Muller 215). Commenting on Schereschewsky’s monumental achievement, the eminent Presbyterian missionary W.A.P. Martin wrote, “Such an example of heroic perseverance, combined with such abilities and such antecedent preparation for his work, is rarely met” (Muller 220).
Their son and daughter were enrolled in the best private boarding schools, their son eventually being admitted to Harvard University on a full scholarship.
Return to China
Finally, he was given permission to return to China. Almost as soon as the Schereschewskys arrived in Shanghai in 1895, he resumed his translation work, assisted by three Chinese, including one woman who knew English (Muller 223-224).
The 1890 General Missionary conference decided to sponsor a Union version of the Chinese Bible. He didn’t think that a new Mandarin version was needed, and he knew that a Union version would take many years to complete, so he worked on the revision of his Mandarin version and on the Easy Wenli. The Episcopal Church funded him for this, but he was glad when the American Bible Society finally agreed to publish both his translations, for this would ensure a wider acceptance of his work. W.A.P. Martin highly recommended his Easy Wenli translation.
The revised Mandarin Old Testament was ready for publication in December, 1896. It would be printed in Japan, so the Bible Society recommended that Schereschewsky move there to oversee the printing. He and Mary left Shanghai for Japan in December 1897. Both of them benefitted greatly from the more temperate climate of Tokyo.
After his best assistant left to rejoin his family in China, however, Schereskewsy found it very difficult to get along with the man who replaced him. “What with scribal irritation and delays in printing and printer’s errors, which were legion, the Bishop found it ‘rather uphill work’” (Muller 234).
Work at it he did, nevertheless, for eight hours a day, six days a week.
The Bible Society published the new Mandarin version, including his revised Mandarin Old Testament, in 1899. The entire Easy Wenli Bible was published in 1902. The demand for it overwhelmed the publisher. One observer commented, “No one save the Bishop himself knows how much the successful completion of his work is due to the devoted self-sacrifice of Mrs. Schereschewsky” (Muller 236-237).
When a fellow missionary who was visiting him asked about the translation of a certain word in Ecclesiastes, he was stunned to hear the bishop cite chapter and verse for that word in several other passages in Ecclesiastes also. “The thing that struck me was the simply unparalleled memory of the man… And this from a man who sat there in his chair paralyzed, and who, when he tried to put on his spectacles, was entirely unable to do so, because both hands shook so that he could not get them into place. I had to put them on for him” (Muller 239). Schereschewsky also suffered from headaches and insomnia.
Somehow, he found time to read a vast amount of literature, including a thirty-volume history of Mongolian in Chinese.
In 1902, a very competent Chinese helper, Lian Yinghuang, joined in the work. He and a Japanese copyist were kept working full time by Schereschewsky, such was the pace and energy of his endeavors.
Thanks to the generosity of an old friend in America, in December 1904 they were able to move into a new house that had been built for them.
Already by 1900, “his increasing bad health was attended by increasing irritability” (Muller 246). On the other hand, his usual disposition was genial and happy. One visitor wrote, “He has never expressed any sorrow for himself; all that he has done has been to make the best of his sufferings” (Muller 248).
As for his wife Mary, “as she grew in age grew in charm” (Muller 249). A fellow bishop said of her in 1906, “She is one of God’s saints, as nearly perfect as a human being can be” (Muller 249).
After completing the revision of his Mandarin Bible and the Easy Wenli Bible, as well as reference Bibles for each translation, he died on October 15, 1906. Shortly before his death, he said to a friend, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted” (Muller 254).
Mary Schereschewsky died on August 20, 1909. She had been nearly blind since before her husband died. All agreed that it would have been impossible for Schereschewsky to have done his work without her constant and comprehensive support and help. She was buried in Tokyo beside her husband. One cross marks their graves.
Scherschewsky’s Mandarin and Easy Wenli Bible were in high demand for more than ten years, until they were superseded by the Union Version of the Chinese Bible in 1919. His Mandarin Old Testament was the basis of that version and a Wenli translation that was also published. Since he worked from the Hebrew Masoretic text, that text is the one from which the Union Version Old Testament was translated. Years later, several qualified scholars believed that his Old Testament was perhaps better than the Union Version.
As late as 1937, and perhaps after that, his were the only reference Bibles in Chinese.
St John’s College went on to become one of the premier English-language institutions of higher learning in China, the other being Peking University. Its graduates included many outstanding leaders of commerce, education, diplomacy, science. That should not surprise us, since St. John’s recruited students mostly from families of leading businessmen.
On the other hand, though it was founded to prepare men for the Christian ministry, very few were willing to accept the low pay and prestige entailed by that profession. As in other Christian colleges and universities in China, very few students actually became committed and consistent Christians. Those who did become Episcopal clergy were shaped by the increasingly liberal theology of Episcopal missionaries in China, something that Schereschewsky would have greatly lamented. Thus, what many consider to have been his greatest legacy failed to fulfill the vision of its founder.
Schereschewsky’s most lasting legacy were, therefore, his translations of the Bible and his example of sacrificial, even heroic, service of his Lord despite enormous obstacles.
He also served as a prime illustration of how the Christian faith transcends cultures and can use their various riches to establish an international church. Born a Lithuanian Jew; fluent in German, English, Chinese, and other languages; a naturalized American citizen, missionary in China, and long-term resident of Japan, he moved easily from one culture to another and deployed his knowledge of them to the great task of rendering God’s Word into the language of the most ancient and populous civilization on earth.
His monumental achievement lives on today in the lives of tens of millions of Chinese Christians who read the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, in a translation made by this remarkable servant of God.
Anderson, Gerald, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of Christian Missions in China. First published in 1929 by Macmillan. Reprint edition by Gorgias Press, 2009.
Moreau, A. Scott, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000, 856.
Muller, James Arthur, Apostle of China: Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky 1831-1906. First published 1937. Reprinted in India by Facsimile Publisher, 2015.
Peng, Cui’an, unpublished dissertation on the history of the translation of the Chinese Union Version.
Sunquist, Scott W., ed., Dictionary of Asian Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001, 735-736.
Xu, Edward Yihua, “Liberal Arts Education in English and Campus Culture at St. John’s University,” in Daniel H. Bays and Ellen Widmer, eds., China’s Christian Colleges: Cross-cultural Connections, 1900-1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, 107-124.