— 1863

William Parker

Pioneer medical missionary. Co-worker, friend, medical mentor of J. Hudson Taylor.

“William Parker, MD, Glasgow, was a no-nonsense Scotsman, mature, experienced, sent out by the Chinese Evangelization Society but supported entirely by its Glasgow auxiliary. When they urged him to go, at the height of the Taiping hopes, he said no, he was not ready. He needed to be a self-sufficient surgeon if he was going to work many miles from any other. When he arrived at Shanghai, he quietly formed his opinions, made his plans and looked for the means to carry them out … Hudson Taylor and he knew little of each other and had never met. There a oneness in the missionary cause as members of the same society brought them together and helped them to live harmoniously in spite of strong differences. Parker was a Presbyterian; though he favored believer’s baptism, he belonged neither to the Baptists nor to the Brethren” (Broomhall 2.207. All references will be to Broomhall’s work).

He sailed for China with his wife and children in March or April 1854. The voyage to China on a ship called the Swiftsure took six months. “In the first week smallpox had appeared among the crew. On the giant rollers of the Indian Ocean Mrs. Parker had given birth to a son and a week later they were becalmed for six weeks in the oven-like heat of the equator. Then they had run into a typhoon and received such a battery that they had little hope of survival” (2.209). They arrived in Shanghai in November 1854.

At that time, Hudson Taylor was struggling to make ends meet because the Chinese Evangelization Society continually failed to honor their promises to send adequate and timely funds. Shanghai was in the midst of a war between the Triad secret societies and the Manchu government, and the armies of the Taiping reels were ravaging much of southern China.

Since Hudson Taylor had not been able to find a place for them to stay, he was kindly invited by Dr. Lockhart and his wife into their home. Because of the ineptness of the Chinese Evangelization Society, there was no money waiting for the Parkers when they arrived in Shanghai. “Finally, they moved into a house that was unfurnished, along with Hudson Taylor and another family. There were only three habitable rooms in their half and domestic life with small children made the Parkers’ two rooms impossible for doing language study, so Hudson Taylor’s bedroom had to be the classroom by day” (2.10).

On the third day after they arrived, while they were still with the Medhursts, “a cannon or musketball fell close to the feet of their daughter while she was walking in front of the house. ‘I am not a little surprised,’ Parker’s journal reads for that day, ‘that people here are so little annoyed at the sound of war close by’” (2.209). In their journal the Parkers wrote, “it is not very pleasant to be in a house almost empty, with scarcely the means of buying coals to warm our little ones” (2.209).

On the next day, November 30, however, he went into the city with Hudson Taylor and saw how ill-fed the people were. This time he was impressed that God was “opening the hearts and country,” when he saw how they gathered round and listened attentively while Hudson Taylor spoke to them (2.209). The awful carnage disturbed him greatly. Language study in such an atmosphere was almost impossible. In his journal he wrote, “Today I did a little Chinese and visited some of the other missionaries … When these cruelties will come to an end, I know not” (2.244).

Day by day, however, he and Hudson Taylor “went out with their books, even to the [army] camps, preaching and distributing to any who would listen” (2.244). Hudson Taylor wrote: “We may not have another opportunity of supplying them. The people from at least five provinces were uniformly civil and polite and received our books willingly” (2.245).

Meanwhile, he and Hudson Taylor were greatly frustrated by the inability of their mission society to provide for them. Parker had not received a single letter from his family or friends in three months, until one came reporting the death of his mother and of his wife’s mother. Nor had they received any letters of credit for their expenses. Just at this time, a generous supporter of the mission in England contributed 10 pounds for their use. “Rather than allow it to be swallowed up in general expenses they decided to devote it to the support and education of a single Chinese boy in need, and began to look for the right one. And hopefully they began touring the city and neighborhood, looking for a site or vacant house for them to occupy,” assuming that the authorization from the society would come soon (2.247).

Finally, he was able to go inland with Hudson Taylor on a journey to preach, distribute literature, and treat the ill and wounded. They were warmly received by the Chinese people. Taylor would work on the bank of the river, and people with more serious cases were sent to Parker to treat on the boat. Sadly, his case of surgical instruments vanished, probably stolen. But he and Taylor continued to distribute literature and to share the gospel with thousands of people who pressed forward to receive the leaflets they handed to them.

After that, Parker offered to help another missionary, John Burdon. While Burdon preached and taught in his chapel, Parker treated the Chinese who came to them. As a result, John Burdon’s hearers “increased to 100 daily, only half of them patients” (2.250). Clearly, the medical missionary had much to offer. He could only work as a doctor three days a week, for he still had language study to do. While he and Taylor were taking advantage of the open attitude toward the gospel in the city now, other missionaries seemed much more passive. Parker wrote, “I have no desire to be added to the already great numbers of almost idle missionaries at this port” (2.251).

In September 1855, with permission from the Chinese Evangelization Society and an invitation from the merchants in Ningbo to support him as the physician to the foreign community, Parker and his family moved to Ningbo. Hudson Taylor joined them in June 1857, along with Mary Jones who, along with Taylor, had resigned from the Chinese Evangelization Society and launched out on their own, relying on God to provide for their needs. They established an independent mission in Ningbo.

In October 1858, Parker came down with malaria and was “wracked by malarial paroxysms” (3.160). In February 1859, Maria Taylor became desperately ill. Dr. Parker did everything he could but could not heal her. Hudson Taylor prayed for her and the next day she began to make a remarkable recovery. But she was still very weak. It seems that she was suffering from toxemia of pregnancy. So, the Parkers welcomed the Taylors into their home once again; this time it was their new home beside the hospital. The two families were close friends, not only working together but also enjoying recreation together. At the end of April, the Parkers and the Taylors took a six-day vacation together and visited two wonderful waterfalls. As it turned out, this would be their last such vacation together.

When their missionary society proposed that they open a school for Chinese Christians, Parker agreed that it might be useful, but “only when a missionary was available to run it without distraction by other responsibilities” (3.178).

On one occasion, when the people of Ningbo were up in arms against all foreigners, including the missionaries, and the place where the Taylors lived was too dangerous for them to stay there, Dr. and Mrs. Parker took them in to their safer hospital compound between the river and the city wall. Dr. Parker’s hospital was walled and made secure outside the Salt Gate opening bar. He planned to build a chapel and a home for his family on the same reclaimed site. “But he also made time to supervise a little school in the city and to go out distributing tracks and Scriptures with Hudson Taylor as they used to do in Shanghai” (3.24).

Most of the literati and the mandarins “appreciated the good work of the hospital and mission schools, and the common people apart from the underworld were even cordial” (3.27).

In August 1859, Mrs. Parker came down with a terrible fever. After a while, it became evident that she had cholera, and suffered greatly for most of the day. Her husband did everything he could to relieve her suffering and save her life, while Hudson Taylor took charge at the hospital and the outpatient patient clinic. But she died around midnight that night. “Parker was shattered and unable to resume work. With his five motherless children, the youngest not yet one year old, he nursed his grief, and with one semi-trained assistant Hudson Taylor kept the medical work going … To Parker it was the end of everything. He would have to take the children home to the grandparents in Scotland and that would mean the end of the private medical practice by which he earned the funds for running the hospital” (3.188). Hudson Taylor disagreed, and with Parker’s permission took over the hospital in mid-September.

In October, Parker prepared to leave Ningbo, though his baby was not expected to survive the journey to Shanghai. He resigned from the CES after he arrived in Britain. When the Taylors returned to England because of Hudson Taylor’s ill health, Parker remained on good terms with them, visiting them and advising Taylor about his health.

In February or March 1861, Parker was preparing to marry again and return to Ningbo, which he did at the end of 1861. The city had fallen to the Taiping rebels in December, with great carnage and suffering. They first landed in Shanghai before going to Ningbo, arriving in that city on June 15 and being “plunged into the tensions and horror stories of the rebel occupation and expulsion” (3.297).

His new wife gave birth to her first child, a son, in September 1862.

The Taiping rebels returned to attack Ningbo in late September. There a reign of terror in the surrounding countryside “dragged on with massacre and mutilation, seemingly never enough to sate the rebels. Dr. Parker had no respite. ‘My hospital has been constantly full since my return. It is now full of wounded people from the surrounded country … Without distinction of age or sex, wounded in a most horrid manner.’ His Christian male nurses gave up their own beds to accommodate more victims, and slept on the floor” (3.303).

When the Taiping rebels were driven back, the people, who had been very impressed with the impotence of their own gods to protect them and with the bravery of the foreigners in the crisis, were very open to the gospel. “Dr. Parker told how the distress of the people called forth such sympathy from the foreign community, especially the missionaries; the response of gratitude redounded on them” (3.308).

At this time, he was expecting his brother to join him in Ningbo in private medical practice, but his main concern was for the “wounded hearts of China’s millions. Where were the men and women to do it?” (3.308).

Sadly, on December 17, Dr. Parker’s infant son died of encephalitis. As he wrote home with joy, his wife was “being comforted from the Scriptures by Chinese Christians” (3.309).

On the afternoon of January 31, 1863, Dr. Parker was riding over a bridge when one of the slabs, probably shattered by a cannonball but apparently sound, “gave way beneath his weight. Parker was thrown violently and fell into the icy water and imprisoned in great pain between the steep curb walls. Before the passersby bestirred themselves to pull him out, he was cold through and through and in great pain” (3.311). When he got home, he told his wife that he thought he had received a fatal injury, and was suffering great difficulty breathing. It seems that his broken ribs had penetrated his pleural cavity. The long exposure and inhalation of the cold foul water aggravated his wound. In great agony and gasping for breath, he died on Sunday night, with his wife holding his hand.

His sudden death shocked everyone, for they had considered him the most indispensable person among them, “so healthy, so cheerful as he was an hour before the accident” (3.312). His widow, whose baby had died only six weeks before, amazed her friends by her “marvelous self-forgetfulness in the midst of her deep, deep grief as she thought of their needs” (3.311). The captain of the British warship sent two boats to take the missionaries and the coffin across the river from the hospital to the foreign settlement. The funeral was attended by the officers, consuls, and wealthy Chinese from the city.

In 1861, a book by Dr. William Lockhart, a fellow missionary, said of Parker: “He went out to China with the matured judgment of a man who had practiced his profession for some time … which was one cause of his success as a medical missionary” (3.312).

Ostensibly to relieve her grief, but really to help others, Mrs. Parker invited James and Martha Meadows, members of the China Inland Mission, to come and live with her at the hospital. Martha was pregnant at the time. She wrote of Mrs. Parker: “I have not heard a murmur (of complaint) from her. She says ‘the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, Blessed be the name of the Lord’ … You should hear her letters read that she has sent home to the Doctor’s children … ” (3.312).

Though he served in China only for a short time, Dr. William Parker was an indispensable help to Hudson Taylor. His medical service, tireless evangelism when he had the chance, medical skill, calm personality, and Christian family life made a deep impression upon all who knew him. Many Chinese came to faith in Christ because of his medical and evangelistic ministries, and the Chinese leaders of Ningbo were more favorably impressed with Christianity as a result of his faithful life and service.


Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Two: Over the Treaty Wall. Sevenoaks, U.K.: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1982.

____. Book Three: If I had A Thousand Lives. Sevenoaks, U.K.: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1982.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.