Book Reviews

Encountering China

A Book Review


Kaiser, Andrew T. Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870-1891). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2019. Kindle, $9.99; paperback, 281 pages, $34, at Amazon.

Thesis of the Book

Encountering China

In Encountering China, Andrew Kaiser provides an alternative interpretation to the development of the missionary thought of Timothy Richard in China. Timothy Richard was well acquainted with James Hudson Taylor, and he is sometimes known in missions’ history as the modernist counterpart to the evangelical Hudson Taylor. Richard’s missionary strategy has also been compared to Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits, with their priority placed on evangelism to the political and cultural elite.

In this study, focusing on the first half of Richard’s career, from 1870-1891, Kaiser finds that Richard was thoroughly evangelical in his upbringing and his early years in China. Richard gradually broadened his missionary methods because of both his encounter with China and because of his fervent evangelical desire for more conversions. Further, Richard’s missionary innovation was not an effort to reach the elite in society, like the Jesuits; rather, he was drawn to reach the people he believed most open to the gospel message. In his context in China, he believed these were the religious seekers in sectarian religions.

Sources

Andrew Kaiser has a PhD in world Christianity from the University of Edinburgh, and he draws on several archives, including from Edinburgh, Oxford, Yale, and Wheaton. His extensive bibliography runs for twenty pages, with both English and Chinese sources, and he includes informative footnotes on almost every page. The introduction includes a valuable “Historiography of Richard,” providing several perceptive insights about the relevant literature. Kaiser does incorporate Chinese perspectives, but he notes that the Chinese literature has somewhat limited value as some of these scholars do not use many English language primary source materials and they lack theological sophistication, thus leading to some misreadings of Timothy Richard (pp. 10-11).

Development of the Thesis

The book is well organized, divided into three parts and nine chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction, and chapter 9 is the conclusion. Chapter 2, the first chapter of part 1, starts by locating Timothy Richard’s birth in 1845 among nonconformists in Wales. He was born into a pious Baptist family, and he applied to join the CIM in 1868. Hudson Taylor, however, encouraged him to join the Baptist Mission Society (BMS).

Arriving in China in 1870, Richard quickly became disheartened by the mission work, and he began his quest to develop more effective missionary methods. Kaiser provides a delightful description of one of Richard’s early formative experiences. Richard made an itinerant preaching trip with an indigenous Chinese colleague to a temple fair. Skillfully weaving in information from pertinent modern literature on temple celebrations and festivals in China, Kaiser describes how Richard spent time living in the local village and then, when the weeklong festival approached, he requested permission to address the crowd. To his surprise his request was granted, and the resident Buddhist priests supplied the ladder for him to climb onto the bell tower where he preached to the crowds. The experience convinced Richard that the Christian missionary task in China must be carried out on Chinese terms, and that the relationship between missionaries and the local Chinese leaders and priests did not need to be adversarial (pp. 43-45).

This story points to an additional virtue of this book. Kaiser draws on scholarship from numerous disciplines, and he applies the insights to his study of Timothy Richard. At the same time, he contributes fresh ideas into those disciplines. For instance, in this case, scholars receive a rare eyewitness account of a temple festival in rural China in the 1870s.

Based on his early impressions in China, chapter 3 explores Richard’s missiological development. He appealed to Matthew 10 as a source for his emphasis on “seeking the worthy” in evangelism. The “worthy” for Richard were not the political or even the religious elites in society, but rather they were the people most likely to be open to the gospel. Richard believed, in his context, these were the pious followers of the sectarian religions.

In chapter 4, Kaiser begins to examine Richard’s interaction with China’s religions, focusing on their sectarian forms. Having identified the “worthy,” Richard now realized he needed to be able to answer their questions. This propelled him further along “his empathetic trajectory of acculturation, resulting in both the intentional borrowing of techniques from Chinese religious sectarians and an increasing emphasis on indigenous participation in mission” (p. 68).

Part 2 moves the focus to the North China Famine. Chapter 5 describes his tireless famine relief work, including his passion for evangelism. Chapter 6 shows how his growing identification with the local people after the famine broadened his conception of Christian mission. After the famine, Richard began his political advocacy for reform attempting to assure that no similar disaster would strike North China again. Richard was exploring new theological formulations, trying to identify the social implications of the kingdom of God.

Kaiser clarifies Timothy Richard’s attitude towards Chinese officials: “If changing the minds of Chinese officials and scholars could result in the material advance for the people living in China, then as a Christian he was obliged to do so” (p. 148). Nonetheless, he was not like the Jesuits. Whereas the Jesuits advocated a top-down approach to the conversion of China, Richard’s motive to address the elite was to assist China. He was still committed to reaching the “worthy,” the religiously inclined devout seekers from the sectarian religions.

In part 3, Kaiser shows that after fifteen years in China Richard faced blistering criticism. Chapter 7 discusses the criticism Timothy Richard received from James Hudson Taylor and the CIM. Taylor believed Richard was “not orthodox” and had “Romish” tendencies. Chapter 8 turns to the intense attack Richard faced from his colleagues within the Baptist Mission Society in the second half of the 1880s. The four categories of attack are, “Another Gospel,” “Ineffective Methods,” “Leaning Romewards,” and “Personal Feelings.” Kaiser outlines the charges under each category, and he then delineates Richard’s careful defense. For instance, he was accused of not preaching the gospel, but he responded by asking the critics to come and observe how much time he spent in gospel teaching, “probably more time than any of my accusers” (pp. 218-219).

In Chapter 9, the conclusion, Kaiser suggests that Richard’s decision to leave North China and accept an invitation to work with the publishing ministry of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge Among the Chinese (SDCK) in Shanghai was a strategic move designed to assure more direct forms of evangelistic work in order to bring about the conditions in China necessary for “conversion by the million” (p. 21).

Evaluation

1. Andrew Kaiser has produced an innovative and meaningful study, touching on several significant themes. However, since the project started as a PhD dissertation, the approach and flow of the book is more academic and less artistic. The selected topics that are covered receive exhaustive attention, with numerous footnotes, but there are many other areas of interest that are overlooked. For instance, there is very little on Timothy Richard’s wife, Mary Martin (pp. 121-122), and there is no consideration of her impact on his thinking.

2. Timothy Richard contributed several powerful insights into missions. One I found most thought provoking was his insight on reaching the “worthy.” That idea comes from Jesus, who, in Matthew 10, sends his disciples into the towns and villages to preach, and he instructs them to search “for some worthy person.” Richard believed these “worthy” were the leaders and pious faithful of the “Secret Sects” (p. 72). Kaiser notes this reflected Richard’s respect for the intelligence and good intentions of devout Chinese religious leaders (p. 226).

Historians such as Dan Bays and Ryan Dunch, as well as some Roman Catholics, have also identified the conversion potential in Chinese sectarian groups (p. 76). A noteworthy question for missions in China, even now, is the potential role of sectarian religions and sectarian adherents today, especially with the dramatic change of the religious landscape in China since 1949.

3. Kaiser defends Timothy Richard from Hudson Taylor’s criticism in the early 1880s. Although Richard’s missionary methods were expanding, Kaiser believes Taylor was incorrect for breaking fellowship with Richard and accusing him of being “not orthodox.” In a letter, Taylor wrote “Richard is driving a good theory to death. He refuses to preach to the masses, is for circulating moral and theistic tracts not containing the name or work of Christ, to prepare the way as he thinks for the gospel, and in some respects is dangerously near Rome” (p. 166).

Kaiser also defends Timothy Richard from the BMS criticisms of the late 1880s.To his detractors in the BMS, “Richard’s failure was complete: his work was wasting limited resources, had not improved official attitudes towards foreigners, had produced few converts (and those of questionable quality), and his reliance on local evangelists was less effective than having the missionaries themselves preach in the streets” (p. 195). One detractor wrote about a Christian service led by Richard, saying, Richard “had the end of the chapel covered with crimson cloth, and in the center of it a large white satin cross, and at either side two yellow streamers exactly like those used in Buddhist Temples; that with all the people kneeling toward the cross he led them in a chanted litany” (p. 201).

Kaiser acknowledges that there is conflicting evidence concerning Richard’s evangelical orthodoxy, yet he is convinced that Richard remained evangelical at least until 1891 (the year Kaiser chose to cut off his study). I find Kaiser’s arguments persuasive, but not necessarily helpful. If in fact Richard later became a proponent of modernist theology and missions, it would seem to be fair to say that in the 1880s Taylor and the BMS rightly suspected that Richard was moving gradually in the wrong direction.

4. As a historian, I appreciate the meticulous work of Andrew Kaiser in this study. With impeccable scholarship he shows both the progression of Richard’s missionary practices as well as Richard’s ongoing commitment to evangelical theology and conversion. However, I find the cutoff date of this study in 1891 is problematic. I understand that covering the second half of Richard’s career would have made the book significantly longer, and I appreciate the value of the book as it is.

In the book, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932, Lian Xi charts the transition of several missionaries into liberalism. Kaiser contrasts those missionaries to Timothy Richard: “Unlike Lian Xi’s missionaries whose growing empathy and respect for all things Chinese led them to abandon their commitment to Christian conversion, Richard during the first half of his life and ministry in China continued to pursue conversion, remaining firmly within the boundaries of Victorian evangelicalism” (p. 225).

I find it curious that Kaiser makes such a bold defense of Richard based on a somewhat artificial cutoff point. Kaiser does not address the question of whether Richard abandoned his evangelical faith after 1891. In hindsight, it seems plausible to suspect that Timothy Richard was in the process of abandoning his evangelical faith in the 1880s and 1890s. Kaiser’s thesis could be strengthened if he made more explicit the reason he believes it is significant that Timothy Richard was still evangelical and committed to conversion in 1891.

From my reading of Encountering China, I am inspired by Timothy Richard. He correctly pressed missions to contextualize the message and to proactively develop indigenous leaders. However, pursuing those positive objectives did not require compromising evangelical orthodoxy. For truly effective and eternal missions, the gospel must be defended and conversion must be pursued. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for supplying a copy of Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870-1891) by Andrew T. Kaiser for this review.