Edwin Stevens was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1802. Graduating from Yale College in 1828, he taught for a year in New York, then studied at Yale Divinity School and was ordained in 1832.
Upon being ordained, Stevens immediately left for China, joining Elijah Bridgman in Canton in October 1832, where he served as David Abeel’s successor as chaplain to foriegn sailors in Canton and Whampoa (Huangpu District, Guangzhou) for the American Seamen’s Friend Society. He eventually gained the esteem of the rough, inattentive seafarers and remained there until 1836. He was one of the twelve Protestant missionaries that made up the Christian Union in China, with whom Bridgman and Morrison consulted before writing their call for more Christian workers in January, 1835.
Disregarding Qing Dynasty prohibitions, that same year Stevens accompanied Walter Medhurst aboard the Huron (owned by Olyphant) on an eventful London Missionary Society trip to survey the coast and distribute Scripture and Chinese tracts. They had a mixed reception, with some people defensive and threatening, others warmly inviting, and they distributed a total of 18,000 volumes. Stevens was also aboard the Himmaleh along with George Tradescant Lay on its voyage through the China seas looking for trade and mission possibilities, but that voyage was overall unsuccessful.
Stevens became a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1836. It is believed that he gave Hong Xiuquan a tract by Liang Ah-fa called “Ch’uan-shih lian-yen” (“Good words to admonish the age”), which led to Hong’s identification with his idiosyncratic version of biblical faith and then to his efforts to establish a Heavenly Kingdom as leader of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Stevens gained an intermediate understanding of the Chinese language and wrote several essays on his travels and on other China missionaries, which were published in the Chinese Repository.
On his way to Borneo seeking missionary prospects, Stevens came down with a fever in Singapore and died suddenly in 1837.
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates, 230-33, 235-6, 407.
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, 218.
- Jonathan Spence, “Stevens, Edwin,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson, (1998).