Childhood and Youth
As a youth, his “face was open, frank, lively; his manners were brisk, quick, winning; his speech ready, off-hand, sometimes blunt and often racy with humour. What he did, he did from the heart, promptly and without delay, and what he enjoyed to the very core… . His youthful vivacity would never leave him” (Holliday, Mission to China, 38).
After a brief time at St. Paul’s School in London, in 1810 Medhurst returned to live with his parents in Gloucestershire, where he began work as an apprentice to Joseph Wood, the publisher of the Gloucester Herald. He was a “fast learner and his classical education gave him the ability to contribute articles and editorials in addition to learning how to design and print the newspaper” (Holliday 38).
At this time, Walter had no interest in God or fear of him. Instead, he loved parties, the theater, and dancing. All this changed when his older brother William, who had just been converted to Christ, made him promise to visit the Independent Chapel, where the Rev. William Bishop was preaching. The first sermon he heard immediately captured his attention, and he resolved to become involved in the church. He invited his drinking friends to attend with him, distributed religious tracts, and volunteered to help in the Sunday school.
The Evangelical movement was at this time very prominent in England. Its members called not only for a radical commitment to Christ but also to a life of service to those in need. Evangelicals led the move to abolish slavery, carry out prison reform, head up the founding of orphanages, and prioritize sending missionaries overseas. Medhurst would have read about these activities. At one local meeting of the non-denominational London Missionary Society, “he became fired with zeal to become a missionary and determined then that he would go to China whenever an opportunity occurred” (Holliday 41).
He responded to an advertisement for a printer to join the London Missionary Society (LMS) and was accepted for a position in Malacca (now Malaysia). After a quick three-month course at Hackney Theological Seminary, he sailed for Asia in August 1816. The ship eventually arrived in Madras, India, the administrative capital of the East India Company. He stayed with Mr. and Mrs. William Loveless. Loveless was the superintendent of the Military Orphan Male Asylum and minister of the mission chapel there.
There he met Betty Braune, who at the age of twenty-one was both an orphan and a widow with a young son, George, who was six. In order to support herself, she served as nanny to the Loveless children in exchange for room and board for herself and her son. “The Loveless family was the epitome of a Christian missionary family; the couple was known for their hospitality to friends and strangers alike” (Holliday 36). Betty had no religious background, but did not mind attending services at the chapel.
Medhurst wrote to the LMS headquarters on the day that he arrived that he hoped to obtain a Chinese teacher to begin to study the language during the three months that he expected to be in Madras, during the monsoon season when ships could not sail to China. He failed to find a suitable teacher, but he quickly formed a close bond with the Lovelesses, deeply moved by their “kindness, friendship and affection, … for as a beloved child so has been their conduct been towards me” (Holliday 46).
In his enthusiasm for learning languages, however, he did obtain a Chinese grammar book and begin to study assiduously; he also commenced teaching himself Hebrew and could soon read the book of Genesis. He also got to know Betty, whom he would admire for her fluency in Tamil and Telegu and her knowledge of the local customs, as well as for her beauty as an Anglo-Indian. Before he left for China he had fallen in love with her and proposed to her. They were married just before their ship departed. Betty’s seven-year-old son George, whom Medhurst had adopted, accompanied them.
On July 12, 1817, the Medhursts arrived in Malacca, where the LMS had set up the headquarters of what they called the Ultra-Ganges Mission, that is, all their missionary ventures outside of – and therefore north of – India. William Milne had already set up his home there in 1814 with his wife Rachel and three very young children. Milne was commissioned by the LMS to establish a school and a printing press, both of which he had begun. By 1817, working with Milne’s apprentice and convert Liang Fa, he had English, Chinese, and Malay printing presses in operation. He also engaged in language study and writing articles for his two periodicals, a monthly called The Chinese Magazine, and a quarterly, The Indo-Chinese Gleaner, which he started publishing in 1817.
Rachel Milne had been sent to Macao to recover her health, and William wanted to join her, so he left Walter, now only twenty-two, in charge of the entire mission, “including preaching, schools, printing, and tract distribution,” along with learning Chinese. At the end of the year, reinforcements arrived from England: The Rev. Claudius Thomsen, who returned from sick leave, the Rev. John Slater, and Mrs. Slater. Thomsen resumed responsibility for the Malay department, including the English and Malay schools, where Betty began to teach. Slater came to help with the Chinese mission and commenced studying Chinese.
When Jemima Slater arrived, she was already pregnant, so Betty prepared to help her with child care in addition to her study of Malay and her teaching.
The Milnes returned in better health in February 1818. William again took charge of the mission, while Medhurst focused on learning Chinese characters as well as the rudiments of Cantonese, Hokkien, and Mandarin. Their first child was born in March 1818 but died eight weeks later. Walter wrote, “This heavy stroke was felt by the fond parents, but they were enabled, by divine grace, to bear it with submission to the will of him who cannot err and who makes all things [good], even those most even those most adverse in their own nature” (Holliday 65).
“Medhurst was an evangelist at heart” (Broomhall 1.145), so he soon expanded his activities outside the mission center by distributing tracts among the Chinese living on river junks and in surrounding villages.
The Anglo-Chinese College was Morrison’s idea, with Milne as a willing coworker. In September 1818, three new LMS missionaries arrived: Thomas Beighton, John Ince, and Samuel Milton, and the three commenced studying the different languages used by the mission. Medhurst took charge of the three Chinese schools run by the mission and continued to superintend the English, Chinese, and Malay printing operations. After a while, he was sent to Penang to prepare for the expansion of the mission’s work to that city. He received a warm welcome from the governor, who promised financial support for the salaries of teachers and rent for a proposed schoolhouse.
Rachel Milne died shortly after giving birth to a son in February 1819; Betty Medhurst then took over the care of their four children. Shortly thereafter, Milne decided to assign two of the new missionaries to Penang. Medhurst and Thomsen felt that they had been unjustly treated, and from then on, the relationship between Medhurst and Milne was strained.
On April 27, 1819, Medhurst was ordained in a ceremony presided over by Milne. Of this event, he wrote, “I hope that no part of my conduct in future life will tend to belie the professions made on that evening and that no lapse of time will obliterate from my memory the solemn engagements then entered into. The Lord is my helper” (Holliday 77). In November of that year, Betty gave birth to a daughter, Sarah Sophia. In the same month, the Medhursts sadly sent their son, George, back to England for his education.
Meanwhile, Medhurst had kept in touch with the teachers he had hired for the Fujian and Hokkien schools in Penang, as well as with Europeans there. Increasingly frustrated with the situation in Malacca, he and Thomson decided that they would start another LMS work in Penang. In the end, Thomsen did not go to Penang, but to Singapore, to initiate a separate Malay mission there.
Milne thought that Medhurst’s sudden departure for Penang was an “ill-advised, imprudent step and one very badly executed,” but he responded mildly, partly because he thought that Thomsen had persuaded Medhurst, partly because he admired and appreciated the publication of Medhurst’s Chinese language geographical catechism. This was the “first of many publications that Walter produced during his life… . The atlas comprised maps of the world’s major regions, including information about population, religion and production of the principal countries of the world. It was one of many secular works that Walter created with belief that spreading the knowledge of Western culture was as important as spreading the Christian message” (Holliday 81).
Walter and Betty arrived in Penang with Sarah on November 6, 1820. He immediately “set up a Chinese school for twenty orphans who resided in their house, and he recruited a Chinese teacher to assist them. They held regular clinics for the sick, dispensing medicines they had brought with them from Malacca” (Holliday 82).
He often went to a Daoist temple to discuss religion with the monks. “He had a way of communicating his ideas without raising the ire of his listeners. He often entered into philosophical conversations, which resulted in him learning as much, or more, about Taoist and Confucian beliefs as the Chinese learned about Christianity. Although he did not claim any conversions from these activities, he distributed books and pamphlets, which the recipients retained and read… . He compared elements of their beliefs to Buddhist, Confucian, and Catholic beliefs and recorded his conversations in the journal, which he sent to London, revealing much of this information for the first time” (Holliday 83).
He also travelled all over the island, “visiting the bazaar, the Chinese Poor Asylum and the junks in the port, and he went from house to house in the Chinese quarter. While he was away, Betty welcomed visitors, greeting them in Malay or Chinese. She oversaw the school activities and gave out books when the people heard they were available gratis. On Sundays, Medhurst would catechize the schoolchildren, whom he found to be much more receptive to Christianity than the adults.
Betty gave birth to another son on September 21, 1821, but he died soon thereafter.
Though Medhurst was making good progress in Penang, Milne directed him to move to Batavia (modern Jakarta), to work with the Rev. John Slater, about whom disturbing reports had been received. The Medhursts – Walter, Betty, four orphans, Sarah, and servants – arrived in Batavia January 7, 1822. They were welcomed by Slater and his wife Henrietta, with whom they stayed for a while. The orphans were put into homes on the grounds of the mission center.
In time, Medhurst learned that not only had Slater failed to learn Malay or Chinese and ceased to minister to non-English speakers, but had been guilty of buying, selling, and abusing slaves. He beat his wife. He used mission property for his own profit. Finally, after much patience, at the beginning of 1823 Medhurst so confronted Slater that he resigned from the mission. Medhurst wrote a report of the whole sorry affair to the directors in London, who had known of Slater’s poor character before they sent him out.
Meanwhile, “there were many examples of progress and achievement taking place in the lives of the Medhurst family. Within six months of their arrival in Batavia, the Medhursts moved into their new house on the mission property and were settled in time for the arrival of a new baby. A son was born to them in November and named Walter Henry after his father, this time with both mother and child safe and well… . Betty’s sister Sophia was on her way from Madras and would soon join them in Batavia … Meanwhile Betty’s son George was doing well” in school and visiting cousins of Medhurst often.
During the year, Walter preached weekly in Chinese at four stations around Batavia, both in Fujian and Mandarin. He also held services in English and Malay at the English chapel on the mission property every Sunday. Two Chinese schools were being run in town and one in the Chinese campong close to [the mission property]. The printing establishment of the mission centre was producing a Chinese magazine (1,000 copies a month) as well as books and pamphlets. He also ran a small dispensary from his home (Holliday 98-99).
The leaders of the English chapel came up with a plan to pay him a salary for his services to the church, thus showing that they appreciated his ministry among them. The civil authorities showed their favor toward him by granting burgher status. Medhurst expanded his ministry by preaching weekly in the village of Depok, not far away.
John Slater eventually died in September, 1825, after being disgraced and fined heavily. His wife, who was in an advanced pregnancy at the time, was taken into the Medhursts’ home. In January, 1826, she died of the same fever that had killed her husband. In accordance with her dying wish, her two children were taken into the Medhursts’ home.
Medhurst went to see Robert Morrison when he visited a port not far from Batavia in 1826. “Morrison reported that Medhurst was in good health but somewhat depressed from the idea that he had laboured in vain without achieving converts” (Holliday 110). In this, Medhurst was not alone among Protestant missionaries among the Chinese in the first half of the nineteenth century. “The big difference between Medhurst and his fellow missionaries in the region was his ability to communicate with the people. He was one of only a handful of early Protestant missionaries who acquired fluency in both spoken Chinese dialects and he was able to draw bystanders into discussion, explaining a section of the Bible in their own terms. He was in fact learning far more about Chinese culture and Confucianism from his flock than they learned Christianity from him. He often referred favourably to Confucian moral precepts in order to make a point about the correctness of Christian beliefs” (Holliday 111).
In January, 1827, a new and very flamboyant missionary came to visit the Medhursts – Karl (Charles) Gutzlaff. Gutzlaff was a German with amazing linguistic ability. He stayed with the Medhursts for four months, learning the language quickly and accompanying Medhurst on his missionary duties in Batavia and when he went out preaching and distributing literature. He was only one among many new missionaries who stayed with, and learned from, the Medhursts over the years.
Medhurst gained a new assistant in 1828 when William Young came to help him. In time, Young became his trusted deputy, taking over Medhurst’s duties when he travelled. Medhurst took his first long trip in August of that year, after Betty had safely given birth to Eliza on July 24. He had planned to team up with Gutzlaff and Tomlin, but ended up going by himself on a journey to Pehang, on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. He then visited other coastal towns in the region, including Borneo, seeking to ascertain the possibilities of preaching the gospel to Chinese immigrants and Malays.
Throughout his twenty-one years in Batavia (Jakarta), like other missionaries, Medhurst was criticized in print by Chinese for a variety of offenses against Confucian values, including a rejection of the Confucian classics in favor of the Bible.
Back in Batavia, Medhurst raised funds for the reconstruction and expansion of the chapel that served Europeans and Chinese, The document he drew up became a model for ecumenical, non-denominational cooperation in Asia. He also completed an English-Hokkien dictionary and the translation of the New Testament into Malay, and opened a new English school, in which Betty and Andrew Young taught.
Medhurst had a great burden for the evangelization of Japan. He studied Japanese books to see if the Chinese Bible could be edited for translation into Japanese. He employed a dozen Chinese to copy Chinese-Japanese dictionaries and Confucian classics with Japanese interlinear translations. He somehow found time to produce a 344-page English and Japanese and Japanese and English Vocabulary.
In 1831, Betty gave birth to a daughter, Martha, joining Sarah (eleven), Walter (eight), and Eliza (two).
The Reverend David Abeel arrived in January 1831 as missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to the Chinese. He stayed with the Medhursts for four months, learning all he could from the veteran worker.
So many foreigners were dying from the oppressive heat and tropical diseases of Batavia that Medhurst and William Young initiated a project among Europeans to found an orphanage. The Parapattan Orphanages outlasted the LMS mission in Batavia and continues to operate today.
The Medhursts sent their son Walter back to England to further his education in 1834.
In 1835, Medhurst embarked on a missionary journey to coastal cities in China, fulfilling his dream to preach the gospel there despite government objections. Refusing to sail on a vessel carrying opium, he was happy to accept an offer from Mr. D.W.C. Olyphant, an American who strongly supported the missionary cause in China. Olyphant offered hm the use of one of his ships for a very reasonable fee and Medhurst, accompanied by the Reverend Edwin Stevens, an American missionary, set sail from Canton in August of 1835. Stevens had recently travelled with Gutzlaff, whose published record of his own evangelistic voyages had greatly inspired Medhurst. In his 1838 volume on China, Medhurst lavishly praised the German missionary for his pioneering work.
Their trip lasted a little over four months, and took them as far north as Shandong, as well as to Shanghai and several islands along the coast. They found the people mostly friendly and quite willing to listen to the missionaries preach and to accept the thousands of volumes about Christianity in Chinese that they distributed. In every place, the local officials tried to hinder them, and sometimes succeeded, but Medhurst’s knowledge of Chinese etiquette, insistence that they were not engaging in trade or otherwise doing harm, and firm persistence generally enabled the foreigners to continue their tour.
Nevertheless, after they had returned to Canton, the imperial government issued a strong proclamation against any sort of evangelistic activity and became more restrictive of the missionary presence in Canton. Walter returned to Batavia, where he gave his daughter in marriage to an American missionary, Henry Lockwood, and prepared the final draft of the revised New Testament translation. In this he was aided by the Confucian scholar, Choo Ti Lang. Working with fellow missionaries Elijah Bridgman and Charles Gutzlaff, he completed a revision of Morrison’s New Testament in 1835. He translated the Old Testament up to Joshua, but Gutzlaff translated the rest alone, while also revising Medhurst’s New Testament. The first edition of the Old Testament was published in Singapore in 1840.
The Medhurst/Gutzlaff Bible started as a revision of Morrison’s version, but ended up becoming a new translation. “The version’s influence on later translations was immense, especially relating to their terminology … It created the highest number of today’s Protestant biblical transliterations” (Peng 40).
The Medhursts sailed to England for furlough, accompanied by Choo, along with their daughters, Eliza and Martha, and son Ebenezer.
Furlough in England
They arrived in July 1836. Though they were all drained from their nonstop ministry for many years, Walter hardly spent any time at all with his family. He was too busy preaching, lecturing, writing, visiting churches and supporters, and generally drumming up support for the LMS China mission.
In his addresses, Medhurst often “referred to the desirability of including secular as well as religious matters in communicating with the Chinese, applying this tactic to all his audiences in England, incorporating general information about China that had little to do with missionary activities, thereby increasing the interest of his listeners and raising his image as an expert on China” (Holliday 181). He also spoke often of the work of the LMS missionaries among the Chinese in Southeast Asia, and appealed for more workers to replenish their ranks.
One of his last addresses had a powerful impact on the young David Livingstone, who later earned fame as a missionary and explorer in Africa.
While they were home, they received the heartbreaking news that their daughter Sophia had died of a tropical fever. A few months later, their son Ebenezer succumbed to scarlet fever, the fifth of Betty’s nine children to die young.
The abolition of slavery in all its forms and aspects was a lifelong passion of Medhurst. In November, he sat on the platform of a meeting calling for the termination of the transitory apprenticeship system in the West Indies.
To educate and mobilize people to participate in God’s work among the Chinese, he worked long and hard on a major book, China: Its State and Prospects, with special reference to the spread of the gospel, which was first published in May 1838. In subsequent editions, this 852-page tome had a powerful impact upon many, including J. Hudson Taylor, who “immersed himself in it” and came away convinced that medical missions were the best way to reach the Chinese (Broomhall 1.28; 2.24). Taylor was still studying the volume in 1863.
He also arranged to have a new kind of type sent to him in Asia, one superior even to the revolutionary metallic type first introduced by Samuel Dyer.
While in England, Choo Ti Lang not only learned more English, but became a follower of Christ. He was baptized before they left for Batavia.
Back to Batavia
The Medhursts left England July 31, 1838, accompanied by Choo, their daughters Eliza and Martha, and their son Walter, now fourteen years old, whom Medhurst hoped to teach Chinese on the voyage, along with William Lockhart, a new medical missionary. He also composed an English-to-Chinese dictionary of fifteen thousand words.
Back in Batavia, he resumed supervision of the mission there, gaining support from many local Christian and secular organizations. The chapel was enlarged and the press issued more than 26,000 thousand books in Japanese, Chinese, Malay, and English during 1839. Young Walter entered government service in the trade office.
Betty gave birth to her tenth child, Augusta Liberta, in August 1840.
The First Opium War would soon change everything for the Medhursts and all missionaries to the Chinese. For one thing, young Walter was thrust into the midst of things as an interpreter. More importantly, five ports were opened to the British and others for trade and for residence by missionaries. At the conclusion of the conflict, Walter, Jr. was appointed to the staff of Captain George Balfour, the British consul at Shanghai, to act as his interpreter.
As he closed the mission in Batavia, Medhurst could see mixed results of twenty-one years of labor. There had been almost no Chinese converts to Christianity. On the other hand, the press had produced 250,000 copies of various publications in several languages, many composed by Medhurst himself. They had trained many new missionaries who had passed through on their way to other stations, and they had educated thousands of children.
Moving to Shanghai
Before settling with his family in Shanghai, Medhurst attended the crucially important 1843 missionary conference in Hong Kong. The LMS missionaries first met separately, then joined with members of other mission societies. It was the first ecumenical conference in China and laid the foundation for much future collaboration. The most important decision was to begin a new translation of the Bible to replace that of Robert Morrison, whose monumental achievement they honored, but whose translation was filled with defects because his opportunities for learning idiomatic Chinese had been so limited.
Medhurst was put on the committee, and he did so much work on it that the resulting version, called the Delegates’ Bible, was widely recognized to be largely the result of his efforts.
The other major decision for the LMS was that the Medhursts and Lockharts would make Shanghai the LMS headquarters in China, with the press and a hospital at the core of the mission. In 1845, the LMS decided to convert the Anglo-Chinese school into a theological seminary, since it had failed to produced Christians through its mixed religious and secular curriculum.
Not long after he arrived in Shanghai, Medhurst learned that the City University of New York had conferred upon him the Doctor of Divinity degree, in recognition of “the huge body of work Walter had written and translated over the years, which had achieved wide circulation particularly via the American missionaries, and it placed Walter in the rank of his mentors, Dr. Morrison and Dr Milne” (Holliday 211). (He may also have been awarded the D.D. by Glasgow University; see Broomhall 1.279).
Medhurst and Lockhart worked harmoniously together in Shanghai for twelve years. Medhurst held daily worship services for his servants and friends. He was happy to see more Chinese coming and being receptive than in Batavia. Almost every week, he and Lockhart would tour the surrounding countryside on foot, preaching in villages and handing out Christian literature.
In 1848, during one of these tours, Medhurst, Muirhead, and Lockhart were assaulted and nearly killed by a gang of “Grain Junk Men,” who beat them senseless. The crime was referred to the British consul, who insisted that the thugs be brought to justice, which they eventually were, with Medhurst serving as a witness against them. When the official ordered that the rogues be put to death, the missionaries intervened and succeeded in getting the punishment greatly lightened. (Interestingly, Hudson Taylor later refused to seek redress when he and his missionaries were similarly attacked.)
The press continued to issue new volumes, many of them by Medhurst, including a 300-page book of Chinese Dialogues, Questions and Familiar Sentences, which proved of immense help to foreigners learning the Chinese language. He was becoming the senior Protestant Sinologue, familiar with sources in both Chinese and other languages, such as Premare’s Notitia Linguae Sinicae, which he considered “beyond praise. It embraces, within a small compass, all that can be said on Chinese grammar” (Broomhall 1.116).
Though he admired Roman Catholic scholarship and their mastery of Chinese etiquette, and admitted that many of their teachings were biblical and helpful in evangelism, he disagreed with the Jesuit strategy of seeking to win over the officials first. “Instead of beginning from the top of society, we propose commencing from the bottom; and aim to influence first the extremities, and then the heart of the empire. With the love of Christ our motive and the salvation of souls our end … our work will be sure” (China: Its State and Prospects, 250, quoted in Broomhall 1.172).
In a move anticipating the career of J. Hudson Taylor, in 1845 he set out on a two-month tour of the Chinese tea country inland from Shanghai, “in defiance of existing political regulations … yet in dependence on the Divine guidance” (Broomhall 1.297). He changed into Chinese clothes, dyed his hair black, and attached a false queue to avoid suspicion by anti-foreign officials. He traversed the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu with a Chinese guide, Wang Soo Yeh. Despite several close calls, his disguise was successful, and he learned a great deal about the silk and tea culture of China, enough to produce a major book, A Glance at the Interior of China, obtained during a journey through the Silk and Green Tea Countries. In order to avoid undue and premature publicity, the book was published four years after the trip, and anonymously. Aside from his primary calling as a Christian missionary, he was fascinated by all aspects of Chinese life and culture and sought to make these known to Westerners also, so that they might understand the Chinese and relate to them more effectively.
Medhurst had the great joy of baptizing his guide in 1847.
In the years 1845-1847, Walter expanded the mission in Shanghai, building residences for himself and visiting missionaries, as well as a chapel and hospital. “Inside the walled city they had two preaching halls. After eleven years of work there were twenty-two church members” (Broomhall 2.121).
Many new missionaries stayed with them during the following decades, including William Milne, the orphan son of Rachel Milne, who had lived with them for a while in Batavia. J. Hudson Taylor, Griffith John, and others likewise enjoyed their hospitality and learned much from the Medhursts. When Taylor, nearly penniless and without any friends, landed, he was “cast upon the hospitality of that person who after Rutherford Alcock, the consul, was the most prestigious in ‘the Settlement’ as it was called for the next hundred years. [Medhurst was a] friend to Robert Morrison, Samuel Dyer and Sir Stamford Raffles, and had already been in Java for ten years before even Charles Gutzlaff arrived as a newcomer to East Asia” (Broomhall 2.116).
Medhurst was not at home that day, but Taylor was kindly received by LMS missionaries, Joseph Edkins and William Lockhart. The next day he visited “the hospital and listened to Dr Medhurst preaching to the waiting patients and their attendant relatives. Medhurst was as cordial as the others, no doubt remembering what it was like, thirty-eight years before, when he himself as a lad of twenty reached Malacca and was welcomed by William Milne and introduced to learning Chinese.” At this time, Medhurst “had himself become ‘proficient’ (whatever that meant) in eleven or twelve languages and dialects, including Dutch, Javanese and Japanese, which he could also write. And he had to his credit thirty-nine publications in Chinese, six in Malay and twenty-seven in English … He was more experienced and knowledgeable about China than any other Protestant missionary” (Broomhall 2.137). He advised Taylor to start by learning Mandarin, the language of officials that was spoken throughout much of China.
Medhurst gave him his textbook for learning Chinese and Gutzlaff’s grammar, and sold him his Chinese dictionary for half the usual price. He also invited Taylor to dine with him at the consulate many times, and regularly had him for tea before each weekly community prayer meeting. In 1855, he advised Taylor to adopt Chinese dress, as he had done temporarily in 1845, leaving detailed instructions on the process in his Glance at the Interior of China.
Meanwhile, work on the Delegates’ translation of the Bible into simple wen-li, the lower literary form of Chinese, had proceeded apace. In 1846, five translators convened in Hong Kong, including Medhurst, Elijah Bridgman, Bishop Boone, and Walter Lowrie. Sadly, they could not agree on the proper term to use in translating the Hebrew and Greek words of God. For decades, this debate raged. Medhurst produced a 170-page book called An Inquiry into the proper mode of rendering the word God in translating the Sacred Scriptures into the Chinese Language. The controversy was, sadly, split along national lines, the British favoring the term Shang Ti (Di) and the Americans Shen. Years later, with no resolution of the “Term Question” possible, it was decided to print two versions of the translations, each one featuring one of the two terms. (For the views of this writer, see (Names for God in Chinese | Wright Doyle - Academia.edu).
The two groups also differed about certain principles of translation. The committee broke up, and Medhurst, Stronach, and Milne produced a version of the Old Testament that was finally published with the already-translated New Testament. The Americans’ translation was published separately. Though considered inferior to the Delegates’ Version in style, it was considered to be more faithful to the original languages.
Generally, the LMS missionaries worked well together. Medhurst, Milne, and Stronach labored full time on the translation of the Bible. Lockhart ran the hospital; Muirhead and Edkins served the chapels; and Alexander Wylie supervised the printing press. Wylie shattered this harmony in 1849 with a letter of complaint to the LMS directors in London. Wylie asked to be assigned to another place, and the others supported his move, until Wylie’s infant daughter died in October. The missionary wives stepped in to care for his wife. Everyone put aside their disagreements, and Wylie withdrew his resignation letter. He went on to serve with distinction for another ten years. Love had prevailed.
Working in Medhurst’s home, with its large library of books in many languages, the Delegates finished the translation of the New Testament in 1850, and had it printed in 1852 on the new type of print that Medhurst had introduced. Assisted by several competent Chinese, they finished the whole Bible in 1855.
One secret of its success lay in Dr Medhurst’s employment of a Chinese scholar as his pundit. When the right phrase was wanted, Medhurst would go to great pains to convey its sense in a variety of ways to the scholar, who would search the library for … classic expressions from prose and poetry with different nuances. From these Medhurst would pick the most appropriate. William Lockhart wrote, “The excellence of the present version … is mainly attributable to the wonderful knowledge of the language possessed by … Rev. Dr. Medhurst, and to the scholarlike ability and critical exactitude of the Rev. J. Stronach” (Broomhall 2.397-398).
Interestingly, J. Hudson Taylor was not completely satisfied with the Delegates’ Version. In his opinion, Broomhall says, “it was a scholar’s version. There were too few Chinese who could read and understand its literary style. Some missionaries said one half but some only one tenth of literate people could read it intelligibly. He wrote, ‘I hope they will undertake the colloquial Mandarin version. The preset (Delegates’ Version) is not the Bible for the people… . no one, be they ever so learned, could understand it when read to them (by ear alone)” (Broomhall 2.399). Taylor would spend many years revising a vernacular version for Ningbo.
The Medhursts greatly enjoyed seeing their daughters and their families visit Shanghai or even live there. When Charles Gutzlaff, who had been serving as the British consul in Shanghai, died in 1851, Walter Medhurst, Jr. was appointed to take his place and relocated his family to Shanghai.
Ceaseless Work During the Taiping Rebellion
In January 1851, Hong Xiuquan declared the founding of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. For the next fifteen years, much of China was ravaged by the bloodiest civil war in human history. The walled city of Shanghai was occupied, not by the Taipings, but by an army of Triads allied with them. With the Qing army and navy surrounding the city, intense fighting raged around the Chinese and foreigners. The danger was great for everyone, as the LMS premises were just outside the city and the missionaries made frequent trips into the city to minister there. Once a cannonball fell right in front of Medhurst’s daughter as she was walking home but did not explode.
At first, Medhurst, like many missionaries and other foreigners, favored the rebels, since they promulgated a religion that resembled Christianity and included strong attacks on idolatry, and since they considered the Qing dynasty to be hopelessly corrupt and resistant to meaningful relations with foreign powers. Medhurst even tried to visit the Taiping leaders in Nanjing, their capital. Though that attempt failed, he did obtain a document that enabled him to get a clearer idea of Taiping religion, which he still preferred to the idolatry of the Qing rulers. Later, he perceived that the rebels were divided into two camps, one led by a man who had been trained by missionaries and the other by two thoroughly wicked despots.
The foreign consuls decided that Shanghai needed a foreign Municipal Council to govern the city. As the doyen of all resident foreigners in China, Medhurst was elected chairman of the council, receiving the highest number of votes. He continued to serve in that capacity, along with his missionary duties, as long as he lived in Shanghai. There was a huge social bridge between the missionaries and the professional elites of soldiers, merchants, bankers, officials, clerks, and Eurasians. This gulf was “seldom bridged, except by the Christian and liberal members of the elite on the one hand and the incontestably superior like Lockhart and Medhurst on the other” (Broomhall 2.124).
Meanwhile, he and other missionaries made daily visits to the besieged city, bringing food and relief to the distressed and destitute residents and preaching the gospel of hope. He also travelled more than 100 miles into the interior, distributing tracts and preaching publicly to very receptive audiences. He was optimistic about the future of Christianity in a China wracked by turmoil. During these difficult and dangerous days, Medhurst demonstrated calm and courage. Once, when the Chinese language teacher whom he had introduced to Hudson Taylor was captured in the foreign settlement by the rebels and dragged to the city, Medhurst chased him down, hauled him before the rebel leader, and by force of character obtained his release.
Despite the dangers and disruptions of war, the full Chinese Bible was published in 1855, the fruit of decades of hard work and the culmination of Medhurst’s missionary service to the Chinese. To assist in the distribution of this and other publications, Medhurst served as secretary to the British and Foreign Bible Society branch in Shanghai.
From the early years of his missionary career, he tried hard to have the opium trade abolished, producing a detailed report in 1855 of the extent of its usage, the stakeholders in the trade, and the terrible effects of the drug upon its users.
By 1856, his health had deteriorated badly, so they planned to return to England for a rest. Before they left, he was praised in an article in the North China Herald (Holliday 287). Walter and Betty sailed on September 12, 1856, with Augusta, Martha, and Martha’s four children. Charles, their daughter Eliza’s husband, died in 1856.
His health deteriorated on the journey home and he died January 24, 1857, only a few days after they had arrived in England. His death came fifty years after Robert Morrison had embarked for China, thus ending the cycle of the first fifty years of Protestant missionary work in China. Betty lived until she was seventy-nine. He was also survived by his son Walter, a widower, who was consul at Fuzhou, and three daughters, two of them widows, and sixteen-year-old Augusta, the youngest of the family.
William Muirhead preached at his funeral in London, “a memorial sermon extolling ‘the last of China’s first missionaries.” Broomhall comments, “An epoch had ended. Shanghai would never be the same again” (Broomhall 3.56-57).
As we have seen, Walter Medhurst, along with his wife Betty, mentored many missionaries, including Mary Ann Aldersey in her early years, in addition to such famous ones as Charles Gutzlaff, and J. Hudson Taylor. His kind treatment of Taylor, his advice to learn Mandarin, and his recommendation that Taylor dress like the Chinese had an immeasurable impact on the progress of Christianity in China. Taylor had also learned from his example the value of itinerant preaching.
The Chinese hospital that he and William Lockhart started went on to become the modern Renji Hospital. The printing works that the Shanghai Mission set up introduced typography to Chinese. The use of the Chinese font contributed immeasurably to the transformation of Chinese society. The Delegates’ translation of the Bible was widely used by most Protestants from 1853 until the publication of the Chinese Union Version in 1919.
His many publications in English had a huge impact upon both Westerners and Chinese. China: Its State and Prospect, became a standard text and greatly influenced J. Hudson Taylor and other missionaries. Aside from shorter works, other major books in English were: An English and Japanese and Japanese and English Vocabulary, 344 pages; Dictionary of the Hokkien Dialect of the Chinese Language, with about 12,000 characters, 860 pages; translation of a Dictionary of the Favorlang Dialect of the Formosan Language by Gilbertus Happart, 383 pages; Chinese and English Dictionary, two volumes, 1500 pages; Chinese Dialogues, Questions, and Familiar Sentences, 287 pages; A Dissertation on the Theology of the Chinese, with a view to the elucidation of the most appropriate term for expressing the Deity in the Chinese Language, 280 pages; English and Chinese Dictionary, two volumes, 1436 pages.
Chinese publications by Medhurst: Alexander Wylie listed fifty-nine of these, including: A Discourse on Theology, 100 pages; A Harmony of the Gospels, 200 pages; The New Testament, 325 pages, done by Medhurst, Gutzlaff, Bridgman, and J. R. Morrison, but “understood to be chiefly the work of Mr. Medhurst” (Wylie 31). Wylie also records that “A new translation of the Old Testament was also the result of the joint labors of Messrs. Gutzlaff and Medhurst”; Course (collection) of Sermons, 351 pages, comprising a system of theology; Life of Christ, 191 pages; John’s Gospel in the Shanghainese dialect, 91 pages; the Delegates’ Version of the New Testament, which Wylie says “ may well be considered his production”; the Delegates’ Version of the Old Testament which Wylie again writes “was mainly due to the energy and zeal of Dr. Medhurst” (35).
Medhurst also produced sixteen works in Malay, including a Catechism of Nature, 11 pages and a Scheme of Christian Doctrine, 76 pages. He wrote a Korean vocabulary that Hudson Taylor used to preach to Korean sailors in Ningbo.
Though he had always opposed the opium trade, like other missionaries he did not shrink from taking advantage of the openings to Christian proclamation created by the Opium wars. They saw these conflicts as somehow part of God’s mysterious providence, working out his plan of salvation through sinful men.
Missionaries have also often been charged with being agents for Western governments, with some justification. Robert Morrison worked for the East India Company, and his son John spent his life in the service of the British government as an interpreter; Charles Gutzlaff helped the British during the First Opium War and later as a magistrate in Ningbo. Two of Medhurst’s sons served as British consuls.
Despite the claim of A.J. Broomhall (2.402), who seems to have confused him with his son Walter, Jr., Medhurst did not accept pay from the British government, though he was one of the first members of the Shanghai Municipal Council, a mixed body of foreigners governing the parts of the city under Western control. Furthermore, he was a kind of “right-hand man to the consul” whom his son served as interpreter and “had freedom of the [consular] premises” (Broomhall 2.135). He and his wife had moved to the consulate to escape the shelling of the city, so they were not at home when Taylor first showed up at their door.
Medhurst was prodigiously productive. On the other hand, he may have shortened his life by attempting too much and working too hard; he seldom took a rest. Looking back, we might wonder whether it was wise for him to become involved in so many different projects, especially involvement in Shanghai administrative affairs. Though he did not have an official position with the British government, his close association with the consul did make him vulnerable to the charge of being an agent of foreign imperialists.
As for his character and influence on others, however, the veteran Griffith John, looking back after nearly fifty years in China, wrote thus about Medhurst:
“The venerable and venerated Dr. Medhurst was (and is) still busy at work on the Delegates’ Version of the Scriptures … a very prince among the missionaries … very genial, very accessible and very helpful … His wish was law to us, for the simple reason that we trusted his judgment and felt the warmth of his heart … but he never tried to rule” (Broomhall 2.292).
Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Six Vols. London: Overseas Missionary Fellowship and Hodder & Stoughton, 1981-1989. Later published in two volumes as The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylors’ Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005.
—. Book One. Barbarians at the Gates, 1981.
—. Book Two. Over the Treaty Wall, 1982.
—. Book Three. If I Had A Thousand Lives, 1982.
Holliday, John. Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient. Gloucestershire, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2016.
Peng, Ann Cui’an. The Translation of the Bible into Chinese: The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version. In Studies in Chinese Christianity, edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021.