1858  — 1925

William Wharton Cassels

(Part 3 of 3)

A member of the famed “Cambridge Seven” who joined the China Inland Mission in 1885; pioneer evangelist; Anglican missionary bishop of Western China (Sichuan). One of the foremost missionaries of his time, who possessed great gifts of organization, he understood the Chinese and was held in great veneration by them.

Open Doors, Harder Work

After the madness of the Boxer Rebellion, there was “a remarkable willingness on the part of the people to be taught and to hear the Gospel” (M. Broomhall 220). Cassels and other missionaries now entered upon several years of unprecedented opportunities, as Chinese thronged their meetings, offered or built places for Christian meetings, and begged for Christians to come and teach them about God.

His letters are filled with reports of these open doors, along with urgent pleas for more workers to be sent out to join in the harvest of souls for which they had labored and prayed for so long. The church at home failed to respond with enough new candidates, however, leaving Cassels and his colleagues to struggle with overwhelming calls upon them, and spurring on his long-held desires and plans to train up more Chinese believers to serve among their own people. “He was literally eaten up with zeal for the Lord’s House. He saw the opportunities, but he also saw the perils, and yet felt helpless for lack of workers” (M. Broomhall 221-223).

All that we have seen in his life and ministry hitherto was intensified in these periods of ceaseless toil. Space allows only a few highlights.

In the midst of the pressure of work, his children fell seriously ill and his wife “was nearly distraught with prolonged and serious anxiety” (M. Broomhall 222). And yet he could not neglect his missionary duties. One outcome of the pressure was the founding of the Diocesan Training Institute to equip Chinese leaders.

Seriously drained in body and soul, he and his wife departed for furlough in January 1904. They were immensely gladdened by the affectionate and lavish farewell given them by the Chinese in Langzhong, only to experience another shipwreck on the voyage down the river to Shanghai.

While in England, he kept busy as usual, hardly seeing his children. The death of Hudson Taylor, “the beloved and venerable leader,” affected him greatly. So did the news of losses of personnel from his field. Much more painful was the separation forced upon them by the necessity of leaving two of their children at home for further study and, when they returned to China, the departure of two more children to the CIM Chefoo School.

Meanwhile, as a reaction to increasing foreign encroachment upon China, anti-foreign feeling was on the rise. While this caused them emotional pain, Cassels saw the hand of God in it, for “for good or ill, in the Church or out of it, the Chinese are showing a spirit of independence, and taking things into their own hands in a quite unprecedented way,” with the increased urgency of putting the Training College for Catechists upon a firm foundation (M. Broomhall 230-231). The Chinese church must become independent of the missionary:

I am increasingly convinced of the need of taking our Chinese brethren into consultation, and of trying to look at every question in the light in which it presents itself to them… Our work is to sow the seeds of Truth, and allow the tree, which indigenous in every soil and … bears fruit in all the world, to adapt itself, as it grows, to its local surrounding whether they are favourable or unfavorable (M. Broomhall 231).

Others recognized the outstanding capabilities and usefulness of Cassels’ ministry. In 1907, the Archbishop of Canterbury requested, with much warmth, that he become bishop of Mid-China in succession to Bishop Moule. After consultation with others and much wrestling in prayer, Cassels decided that he must turn down this invitation and remain in Sichuan to care for the diocese which he had founded and which continued to need his constant attention.

Throughout 1907-1909, Cassels’ growing influence and leadership required him to attend a variety of conferences: The West China Advisory Board; Anglican Conference in Shanghai; CIM Mission conference in Shanghai; Great Centenary Missions Conference in Shanghai; meetings to prepare for the formation of the West China Diocese Synod; West China Missionary Conference at Chengdu; the first Pan-Anglican Conference in London, for bishops and clergy; fifth Lambeth Conference (of all Anglican bishops); and the Anglican conference at Shanghai to form a Provincial Synod, during which he served as Vice-President. For the first time, Chinese delegates were invited to attend.

These meetings enabled him to feel more personally the spiritual communion existing among his fellow bishops around the world and greatly encouraged him. His biographer notes “how large-hearted and catholic in his spirit Bishop Cassels was… [he] was able to have heart fellowship with many from whom he differed materially in matters of ritual and ceremony. [He] could resolve to love and yet agree to differ” (M. Broomhall 243). At the same time, he would not give in to “Anglo-Catholic” attempts to make the Anglican ritual sound more Roman Catholic than the English Reformers intended when the Book of Common Prayer was composed in the 16th century. Though tolerant of “High Church” views in others, he was a “Low Church” man in his own convictions. Most importantly, however, he “ever warned his fellow-workers to be on their guard against the spirit of rivalry, or partisanship, or self-assertion” (M. Broomhall 246).

Organization and Revival

After all these conferences, Cassels was happy to concentrate on diocesan work, including “the organisation of the diocese on a self-governing basis, the completion of the Diocesan Theological College for the training of Chinese catechists and clergy, the starting of a hostel in Chengdu for work among the thousands of students attending the Government schools and colleges, and a special effort for the revival of the spiritual life of the Christians throughout the diocese” (M. Broomhall 247).

Of these, “spiritual refreshment” took the first place. Outward progress had slowed, with fewer new stations, fewer baptisms, and a serious decline in personal holiness and spiritual vitality among believers. Spurred on by the news of the Shandong Revival and the powerful renewal ministry of Jonathan Goforth and others, Cassels and his coworker spent long hours in prayer for God’s Spirit to work among them in a new way.

The Lord answered their prayers. The most striking feature of the revival that followed was a powerful movement of conviction of sin. It was “deep and widespread. It fell on all classes alike, literate and illiterate, young and old, chiefly on the men, but the women (of whom there were much fewer present) did not escape” (M. Broomhall 251). People loudly confessed their sins and shameful acts in public meetings, and then rejoiced in wonder at God’s forgiving mercy. Apologies were offered and accepted, restitutions were made, and generous gifts were presented to the church.

Cassels took care, of course, not to be too sanguine about a one-time event, but knew that these works of the Spirit must be followed up with careful teaching, prayer, and discipline. Still, he rejoiced at the fresh vitality and energy that God had bestowed on so many of his people.

“As a Father…”

Though separated by many miles from all his children, Cassels did not forget them, but kept them on his mind and in his heart, and wrote to them regularly with descriptions of life and work. Jessie (Mrs. Bruce) recalled that letters from her father

give insight into Father’s daily life, and also, in spite of his concentration on his work, into his thought and care for us. My parents’ letters to me … were a very strong chain in keeping me near the Lord. Their trust in us, their love and prayer for us, and sympathy, bound us to them very closely. And when God’s love seemed unreal their love was sure, and though distant one knew that they would be very sad if we did anything displeasing to the Lord.
Again, their patient, self-sacrificing lives out here were always an incentive and an inspiration to me. My father was always my ideal of a man – physically strong and courageous and sportsmanlike – mentally not only using his whole mind for the good of his work, but interested in many things, ready to read to us in the evenings, and anxious that we should help him to keep his mind open to general literature. Spiritually, his prayers were never in ruts, but always fresh and helpful. He taught us to bring everyday things to God, and also to have broad sympathies. He truly worshiped God with deep humility and awe – as well as regarding Him as a Friend and Adviser…
Perhaps even more than his prayer, his real devotion to the Lord Jesus made a deep impression on me. This was the key-note of his life. All his work, his zeal and self-sacrifice were out of a burning love for the Lord. He has said to me more than once, “The test of any man’s reality is, has he love for the Lord.”
The few years I spent at home after I was nineteen were very happy ones. I was able to be a companion to him, to travel with him and thus relieve the loneliness of his long and trying journeys. I helped him with a few letters, statistics and accounts, and some odd jobs in those days. This was a great joy to me, and he on his part dragged himself away from his work to take some exercise for my sake. He also took a little relaxation in the way of lighter literature to be able to criticize it with me.
My father’s care still followed me after my marriage, and his prayers for our home, and his grandchildren, every time he came over for a meal, were very wonderful for, and we always felt he brought them right into the Lord’s presence (M. Broomhall 256-257).

In his letters to his children, Cassels told them of his daily routine, which resembled that of earlier years, except for added responsibilities as the bishop of an extensive diocese, overseeing the younger children’s studies, and dictating to English and Chinese assistants. On one day, for example, he notes that he had composed twenty-two letters. He did take time to ride his pony for half an hour after supper for exercise.

He would conclude with paternal exhortations, such as, “Work hard and do your best. Set your face against all that is wrong, untrue or unholy. Obey your teachers, and above all, fear the Lord and love him Who has loved you so” (M. Broomhall 260). His children always felt that he was accessible to them, even when he was occupied with his work. One of them later that he was “ever glad to lay down his pen and give his full attention to our affairs. He would always listen sympathetically to the end without interrupting before expressing his opinion” (M. Broomhall 270).

Of course, the children remember most their mother’s tender care of them during their childhood. She supervised their school lessons at home, read to them books like Pilgrim’s Progress, taught them hymns, repeated a Psalm to them daily, and read evening prayers to them. Like all missionary mothers, she nursed them through childhood illnesses, guided by prayers and a family medical book. She did all this amidst a constant round of household duties and ministry to Chinese from early morning to late at night. The children often saw her listening to “some poor Chinese woman pouring out her troubles into her sympathetic ear, or preparing for a class” (M. Broomhall 268-269).

She was often in poor health. Cassels would try to persuade her to rest and attended to her constantly. His daughter wrote, that “it was beauty to see his great considerateness and chivalrous gentleness towards Mother. No one could exceed him in thoughtfulness to her” (M. Broomhall 270).

The 1911 Revolution and After

“In October 1911 the long-planned and carefully organized revolution suddenly overthrew the Manchu rule and ushered in the new era. But the hoped-for millennium did not suddenly appear. From that time onward to the date at which we write [1926] China’s path was to be amid the whirlwind and the storm and the end is not yet” (M. Broomhall 275). Cassels had served for sixteen years under the old regime, and would serve for another fourteen of disorder. “It was a time of increasing peril and perplexity,” lasting until the end of his life. “This was a time of overwhelming labours and heart-breaking anxiety for the Bishop, who was concerned, not for his own personal welfare, but lest panic should overtake some of the workers” (M. Broomhall 276). In one dangerous crisis after another, he did his best to steady their hearts with strong words of faith and consolation, though he also had to follow the orders of the consuls several times and direct his people to move to areas of greater safety.

All the while, he expressed confidence that “it is most probable that God is going to use this agitation for the extension of His Kingdom and the advancement of the Church,” just as he had during the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and many other violent upheavals. He reminded them that “we cannot forget that the matter of first importance is our witness for the Lord in the land, and we must consider how best we can help the converts, and build up the Church at this time. The walls of Jerusalem were built in troublous times. This is prophetic of the work of the Church in all days and is not to be regarded as strange” (M. Broomhall 278).

In 1912, “his own health demanded change, for after the long months of responsibility and strain there had followed a painful state of depression and even temporary periods of melancholy” (M. Broomhall 281). He was ordered back to England. He and his wife and eldest daughter returned in the fall of 1913. In the next few years, he strengthened the work, ordaining Chinese as deacons and priests (presbyters), hosting special meetings by Chinese revivalists, and seeing the completion of a new and larger church building in Langzhong that would serve as a “pro-cathedral.” Langzhong had become the center of a diocese with over one hundred stations and outstations, and needed a structure for large gatherings not only on Sundays but on occasions when Christians and clergy from all parts of the diocese would convene for special services.

During this time, their oldest daughter Jessie was married to Mr. P.A. Bruce, who had been part of the missionary staff for several years. She eventually took charge of the Paoning (Langzhong ) Boys’ and Middle School. Another daughter, Dorothy, soon joined them as a companion to her mother, who was, as we have noted, often ill.

From the opening of the “pro-cathedral” in 1914 to the beginning of Cassels’ next furlough in 1919, the horrors of the First World War in Europe found their counterpart in the chaotic conditions in China. “Brigandage and civil strife became an everyday occurrence, so that the missionary pursued his calling amid the looting and burning of cities and the untold sufferings of his fellow-men” (M. Broomhall 296).

At the same time, missionaries found new openings to demonstrate the love of Christ and to share their saving truth, as both common people and government officials increasingly turned to them for help. Cassels received requests to mediate between competing factions, and officials more than once found refuge in the Mission premises. He was on the road almost constantly, in some years spending more than half his time away from home.

Such labors took their toll upon him. Though he never flagged in his efforts to serve his people, “he was at times over-wrought and suffered from physical depression” (M. Broomhall 302). Always, he sought to strengthen the hands and hearts of his Chinese leaders, and to place more and more responsibility upon them, for he planned to bring the entire work under their charge someday.

In May 1919, worn out and increasingly depressed, and with his wife’s health in danger, Cassels returned to England with her. He also wanted to attend the 1920 Lambeth Conference. This meeting greatly encouraged him, for he found a “depth of devotion” among his fellow bishops, marked by fervent prayer and testimonies of divine healing through prayer, that marked a fresh spiritual vitality in the Anglican Communion.

Cassels also spoke on many occasions at other gatherings. His brother Francis wrote later that in all his addresses “there was the same feature first and foremost in evidence – what might be called a nimbus or aura of earnestness and conviction, something bigger than his personality, the same that surrounded him in boyhood, but developed and brighter than ever. [There was an] almost Pauline ardent earnestness” about him, that was obvious to observers but of which he was not aware (M. Broomhall 308).

They returned to China in 1921. After attending the General Synod of the Chinese Anglican Church, they hurried on to Langzhong, where they found more civil war, increased brigandage, an epidemic of cholera, and the loss of many of their valued co-workers. The hospitals, Theological College, and several schools were shut, and several stations lacked a missionary.

On the other hand, he was encouraged by the arrival of the Rev. Frank Houghton, who later married his daughter Dorothy, who had also joined the CIM. He also found several Chinese men serving as clergy, of whom he had baptized several years ago.

In the last four years of his life, “instead of his path being easier it became more arduous and exacting … But the Bishop was undaunted,” believing that “to God’s [people] difficulties are to be stepping-stones on which they can climb to greater things” (M. Broomhall 320-321). Lawlessness increased, along with brigandage and then the campaigns between various warlords, who alternatively sacked different cities. Missionaries suffered along with others. During a siege of Langzhong, artillery shells landed in the Mission grounds and hit the cathedral. Cassels risked his life visiting lady missionaries in other places, to comfort and encourage them. The strain was intense, especially when children were in danger.

But the arrival in 1922 of a long-awaited assistant bishop, Howard W.K. Mowll, cheered Cassels immensely, since he had years ago found the burden of caring for such a large diocese unsupportable. His mood suffered again, however, when two of his clergy were murdered by bandits, and even more when some of his Chinese clergy had to be disciplined for failing to maintain the standards of holiness that he required of all ordained men, including himself.

Tensions came from other directions, too. The conflicts among Anglicans over the revised translation of the Book of Common Prayer exercised him deeply. On the one hand, he sought to maintain peace with other Anglican clergy and bishops. On the other, he had to register his strong opposition to proposed changes that tended too far in the Anglo-Catholic direction. He avoided open conflict by staying away from several conferences of bishops and clergy in China.

When the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy roiled the ranks of missionaries, though he did not join the new Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society of the Bible Union, he openly stated his vehement disagreement with “liberal” theological views and welcomed workers from the new society into his diocese.

Perhaps his greatest pain issued from the growing anti-foreign sentiments that were voiced not only in China generally but also by his Chinese clergy. Even more, he was grieved beyond measure when his Chinese archdeacon expressed liberal theological and nationalist sentiments from the pulpit of the cathedral itself.

His Last Journey

He countered both these disturbing movements and his own inner grief by throwing himself even more vigorously into the labors of preaching, teaching, and visiting his workers to strengthen them. His last journey was also the most demanding, for it took him long distances through almost impassable territory on “roads” that were no more than rocky paths and across rushing rivers. On this tour, he visited mission settlements that he had not entered before, over routes that no missionary one had previously traveled before. He received ample rewards for this trouble, however, as lonely missionaries and Chinese believers welcomed him with joy and gratitude, and he was able to share comforting messages from God’s Word with them.

Alas, this final effort proved too much for even his sturdy constitution, for he was no longer young, and his entire body, mind, and emotions creaked under the accumulated pressure of all the inner and outer stresses to which he had been subjected for too long. “He never really recovered from the fatigue and exhaustion of this journey, which possibly laid him open to the fatal disease to which he finally succumbed” (M. Broomhall 339).

When the Shanghai Incident of May 1925 aroused a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement, he once again sent messages with “wise and loving counsel and advice” to his workers (M. Broomhall 345). He reminded them of the need to be patient, refrain from a critical attitude toward their Chinese colleagues, imitate Jesus in his kindness toward those who mistreated him, hand over authority to the Chinese, and to pray.

On the thirtieth anniversary of his consecration as bishop, loving and lavish celebrations and messages of affection poured in from all sides. Typically, he referred all praise and glory to God.

Both Cassels and his wife came down with typhus in November 1925. He died on November 7th, and she followed him on the 15th. They had been happily married for forty years.

Legacy and Evaluation

At the end of his forty years of pioneering and church-building ministry in Sichuan, William Cassels could record that there were twenty-five mission stations and one hundred and twenty outstations, and forty or fifty churches that had been built. Over 10,000 converts had been baptized, of whom 6,700 or more had been confirmed; there were then also almost 2,500 baptized Chinese who had not yet been confirmed, as well as over 2,000 catechumens. There were twelve ordained Chinese co-workers, one of whom was made archdeacon. In addition, there were ninety-eight licensed preachers, as well as colporteurs, Bible women and other Chinese helpers. Furthermore, he could point to schools for boys and girls, hospitals, the student hostel at Chengdu, a training college for preachers and clergy, and the cathedral.

He attributed all this to “the devoted band of [his] fellow-laborers, both missionary and Chinese” (M. Broomhall 257).

His biographer draws the following sketch of him as a man:

He possessed the gifts of an organizer in no small measure; … he was a builder, a lover of order, a believer in Government and rightful authority. He was a humble and loving autocrat … [though] not asking of others an obedience he was not prepared to render himself to those above him in the Lord.
He was a man with a message, who knew experimentally [experientially] Jesus Christ as the only secure foundation for life and faith… He was filled with evangelistic zeal from the beginning to the end of his life…
He was a profound believer in prayer … It was this feature in his life which perhaps more deeply impressed his followers than any other.
He possessed the eminent qualifications of steadfastness and tenacity, and was essentially a man of set purpose… Having set his hand to the plough he would not look back…
But he … ever kept an open mind. He was no bigot, no partisan, every ready to give due to new ideas or fresh methods. He was one of the first to see the high importance of giving the Chinese their rightful place, of seeking that they should increase and the foreigner decrease …
And perhaps one secret of his open-mindedness was his pre-eminent humility. [He openly confessed when he had been guilty of impatience toward the Chinese.]
As a man he knew little or no fear… He was steady in the day of battle, calm and strong when others were alarmed.
Yet he was shy and strangely reserved… He showed little interest in small talk or the lighter side of life … Yet no deed of kindness was too small… With him courtesy was never mere politeness, but the outward grace of a lovely and loving heart…
Really to know him was to love him, for he had a love which inspired love in others, a love which lasted (M. Broomhall 358-360).

His publications include:

Cassels, W. W. Wang: A Chinese Christian (new ed.). London: Morgan & Scott, 1898.

Cassels, W. W. The Claims of China on the Church of Christ. In Day of Opportunity and the C.M.S. series (No. 2). London: Church Missionary Society, 1908.

G. Wright Doyle

This concludes Part 3 of 3.


Broomhall, Marshall. W. W. Cassels: First Bishop in Western China. London and Shanghai: China Inland Mission, 1926.

Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Five: Refiner’s Fire. London: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1985.

____________________________________________. Book Six: Assault on the Nine, 1988.

____________________________________________. Book Seven: It Is Not Death to Die!, 1989.

Published as two volumes with the title, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, and Carlisle, UK: Piquant Publications, 1905.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

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