Robert Morrison: Translator in China (Faith Biography Series, Book 3), Edited by Rebecca Hammond for Ambassador International, Emerald House Group, Incorporated (September 1, 2004) 129 pages. ISBN-10:1932307265; ISBN-13: 978-1932307269; Paperback, $5.99 at Amazon.
Reviewed by BJ Arthur
Robert Morrison: Translator in China is a compiled work rather than an authored one. What shines through in this book is not great style or scholarly research, but a jewel in the person of Robert Morrison. Translator in China is inspiring because it is the biography of a man tasked by God with bringing his word to China, a nation largely closed to foreign missions after the Rites Controversy. Due to the difficult language, the exotic culture, and China’s fierce self-sufficiency, foreign missionaries had a difficult time planting a lasting shoot within its soul. It was Morrison who attempted to make that work possible through his extensively footnoted Chinese dictionary and translation of the Bible that rendered the language accessible. He succeeded in a quiet, humble way that benefitted so many but brought him less fame than other missionary patriarchs.
Why was he successful? God equipped him with just the right mind, personality, and upbringing; as a result, Morrison had not only the ability but a love for the Lord that provided the will to obey and overcome. This combination gave him an insight into his task that served him well.
What can the reader take away from this succinct biography?
Be amazed by the man. Youngest of eight in the family of a Scottish agricultural worker cum boot-tree maker, Robert Morrison preferred studying to working with his hands. Following his conversion at the age of 15 in Newcastle, UK, Robert kept a 14-hour workday, using evenings and Sundays to study the Bible and visit the sick. In addition, Morrison decided to educate himself. Though considered “not brilliant,” he found memorizing easy and was extremely diligent and persevering. As he worked for his father, “he would have a book propped up on his work bench so that he could work and read at the same time, and he finally . . . made a bed for himself on the floor, so that he could study late at night and early in the morning undisturbed” (p. 5).
In 1801, at the age of 19, Robert Morrison decided that God was calling him into ministry and then missions in Africa. He began the study of Latin under a minister in Newcastle and soon demonstrated a true gift for languages as he expanded his studies to Greek and Hebrew.
No emotional or financial support in these decisions came from his family. His mother, who was in poor health, was so distressed upon learning of these plans that he had to promise not to embark on them while she still lived. After her death, he was accepted as a candidate for the ministry at Hoxton Academy in London. His time there was most difficult, not because of studies, but rather due to the constant pleadings of family members to return to Newcastle to help with the business and family needs. Even his tutor believed he should work in Newcastle. However, his persevering stubbornness carried him through those difficult days. As his time at Hoxton drew to a close, he wrote in his diary: “I have given myself up to Thy service. The question with me is where. . . . My desire, is, O Lord, to engage where laborers are most wanted. Perhaps one part of the field is more difficult than another. I an equally unfit for any, but through Thy strengthening me, I can do all things...enable me to count the cost” (p. 10). He was accepted by the London Missionary Society and sent to the Academy at Gosport, still assuming it was for work in Africa; God had other plans.
Be encouraged by God’s power, wisdom, and faithfulness. God endowed Robert Morrison with all of the following: a memorizing mind—uniquely required for learning Chinese characters; a gift for languages that enabled him to hear and mimic the strange sounds and tones; a devotion to study and hard work; an obedient heart to go to China, not Africa, when asked. In the same years that God was shaping Morrison, he gave Dr. W. Moseley a passion and vision for translating the Bible into Chinese. The project seemed too expensive, China too closed to Protestant missions, and the language too difficult to learn for most. In his quest for a way, Moseley approached Morrison’s principal at Gosport, and Principal Bogue knew just the student fit for the challenge. One had “prayed to be given a hard and difficult task and his prayer had certainly been granted (p. 13).
Be challenged by Robert Morrison’s accomplishments and God’s succor in the midst of great difficulties. When wearied by the long flight to China on a 747 or the discomforts of living in a China with most everything but clean water, refer to this biography of Robert Morrison that chronicles a life of overcoming. When the East India Company continued to refuse passage to missionaries, Morrison endured more than a hundred days replete with fierce gales, a shipboard fire, and near shipwreck just to get to the U.S. in order to board a ship going to China; another 119 days of stormy seas and searing heat were required to get to Guangzhou (then called Canton).
Once there, Morrison found seemingly insurmountable difficulties in establishing a foothold. Rent, food, and supplies were very expensive for foreigners who were deemed fantastically rich. Finding a language tutor, who risked death if caught teaching a foreigner Chinese, was even more problematic. Just as he was about to move his work to Malaysia to escape the continual harassment of the Chinese government and local populace, God opened a position with the East India Company as Chinese Translator; Morrison perceived that it was God’s perfect provision. He gave the following justifications to his mission board to obtain permission to accept a secular job, thus becoming the first Protestant tent-maker in China missions:
first and most important this official status would make his position at Canton safe, because as a member of the Company he had a right to be there; secondly, the duties would help him considerably with the language, because he would meet and talk to Chinese merchants and government officials; thirdly, the salary would mean he would be less of an expense to the Missionary Society, and lastly, he was sure that his readiness to serve the Company ought to help them to be more tolerant of missionaries generally (p. 40).
Though Morrison now had a legal right to be in China and expenses were covered, his life was yet filled with distress. His dear wife (née Mary Morton), who had to remain in Macao while he worked on the mainland, suffered a breakdown from which she never fully recovered and their first-born son died on the day he was born. Also, Morrison quickly discovered that a 24-hour day was not sufficient to accomplish all that he wanted to do: “[My job] occupies a great part of my short life in that which does not immediately refer to my first object . . . while I am translating official papers I could be compiling my dictionary. . . . To be faithful and yet not impede myself in my missionary work is a difficult thing” (p. 42).
In spite of his heavy workload, within four years of settling in Guangzhou, Morrison had completed translations of Acts and Luke, written a Chinese catechism, a Chinese grammar, and several tracts, while continuing work on his Chinese-English dictionary. A year later in 1813, translation of the New Testament was complete and 1000 copies printed. Within the following year, Morrison baptized his first convert and prepared 2,000 copies of the New Testament, 10,000 tracts and 5,000 copies of a catechism to be distributed in the Chinese settlements of the Malay Archipelago (p. 58). By the age of 40, Robert Morrison had baptized his former teacher, Liang A-Fa, the second Chinese Protestant convert in mainland China and first Chinese Protestant minister/evangelist, and buried both his wife, and close friend and co-worker, William Milne.
After his Chinese dictionary was printed in 1823, he took a long overdue furlough in England. While there, Morrison established a School of Oriental Languages and traveled the country training Missionary Societies how to overcome ignorance and apathy toward China in their churches.
Robert Morrison finally returned to China in 1826 with his second wife (née Elizabeth Armstrong) and two children. Upon arriving in Macao, he found his home mostly destroyed and, even worse, his vast library mostly eaten by white ants! After settling his family, he moved on to his lonely life in Guangzhou. Since the dictionary was finished, Morrison felt that in addition to his East India Company work, he could begin to minister as he chose. “If I go on learning the polite language of China . . . I may go on learning to my dying hour . . . therefore I think I had better . . . teach Christianity in the simple Chinese phrase” (p. 92.) He began new projects including a coffee shop for the sailors of the East India fleet, a language school for anyone in the Company who wanted to learn Chinese, notes on the Chinese scriptures, and a dictionary of the Guangzhou dialect.
As the health of both Morrison and his wife began to fail, he sent Elizabeth back to England with the younger children, but refused to leave his work. He continued to negotiate, translate, and lead worship until the day before he died . . . of fever and exhaustion in July of 1834.
A lasting shoot of the gospel had indeed been planted within the soul of China; the church, even in the face of renewed persecution, is alive and flourishing. Robert Morrison played a vital part in equipping those who planted and harvested. If God could do this through an English shoemaker, what might he accomplish in this mess of a world through those who are available today?