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A Response to Richard Cook

Editor’s Note: The 2020 summer issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly contains a review of Andrew Kaiser’s book, Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870-1891) by Richard Cook. The following is Kaiser’s response to that review.

Few things are more meaningful to a scholar than to have their work read carefully by respected authorities in their field. I am deeply honored that Richard Cook chose to devote his time and attention to such a close reading of my research on the Protestant missionary to China Timothy Richard.

Encountering China, as Cook notes, is a direct publication of my University of Edinburgh doctoral thesis. Theses and dissertations generally do not make good books; they are expected to focus on one specific point or argument of scholarly interest, providing narrow and exhaustively deep coverage of that topic. Many things of interest had to be pruned from my research to conform to the demands of the thesis. I was particularly sad to lose extensive sections on Mary Martin Richard and John Nevius.1 Degree programs also have word count limits and end dates for completion. Given these constraints and the large amount of archival material produced by Richard’s 45 years (!) of life and ministry in China, I did not see how I could adequately cover his whole life in this one thesis. I chose to break my study in 1891 because I wanted to start from the beginning, and because that year—conveniently close to the halfway point of Richard’s time in China—marked a significant focusing in his missionary service as he agreed to succeed Alexander Williamson as director of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge among the Chinese.

Like Cook, I was particularly intrigued by the implications of Richard’s emerging concept of the Matthew 10 “worthy” and the ways he connected it to Chinese sectarian religionists. Historians have been exploring the relationship between Christianity and indigenous Chinese religion for some time, and I think Richard still has a lot to contribute to those discussions. In this regard Cook raises a fascinating question outside the scope of my thesis, but worthy of further reflection: what might these connections mean for Christianity in China today?

The archived letters and reports surrounding Richard’s 1880s conflicts were complicated but also fascinating to read. My distillation of the available evidence is that up to 1891 Richard was still committed to David Bebbington’s famous “evangelical quadrilateral” of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. It is entirely possible that, as Cook says, “in the 1880s Taylor and the BMS rightly suspected that Richard was moving gradually in the wrong direction.” In my study, however, I endeavored to present Richard’s defense of his ministry in its contemporary context, within which—significantly—he was acquitted by his sending agency the BMS, and continued to enjoy the spiritual trust of the CIM Shanxi field. My research does not provide nor is intended to provide a defense of the orthodoxy of Richard’s entire life and ministry. As I say in my conclusion, “the analysis begun in this thesis has yet to be extended to the second half of Richard’s life and ministry in China, and so it would be premature to propose any revisions to scholarly understandings of Richard’s later years.”2

I understand Cook’s desire to view my research in light of Richard’s later theological development: evangelical historians and missiologists have long been accustomed to categorizing Richard as “liberal,” largely with respect to his later years. The Richard that I found in the archival materials for the years I examined, however, was a little different from what some of us expected, revealing the presence of the kinds of distortions Lauren Pfister and Andrew Walls suggested exist within our scholarly views of Richard.3 Cook is right to say that I have not answered the important question of “whether Richard abandoned his evangelical faith after 1891.” I believe that book has yet to be written, and so our picture of Richard is still incomplete and may even have further distortions. I hope someone will undertake just such a rigorous study of Richard’s later years, but “at the very least . . . any future study of the later Richard must henceforth take this thesis as its starting point.”4 More importantly, Cook recognizes that there is value in studying Richard beyond the question of whether or not he was or at some point became liberal, and I hope my book will encourage many others to share his perspective. Despite the 150 years that separate us, Richard’s hard work to contextualize the gospel message and develop indigenous leaders still serves as a powerful example for today’s cross-cultural workers. Like Cook, I too was inspired by Timothy Richard, and I am excited to see new generations of scholars and missionaries learning from his life of service to the kingdom.


  1. Some of the material on Richard’s wife is available at “Mary Martin Richard,” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity,
  2. Kaiser, Encountering China, 226.
  3. Lauren Pfister, “Rethinking Mission in China: James Hudson Taylor and Timothy Richard” in The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880–1914, edited by Porter, A. N., 183–212 (Eerdmans, 2003); Andrew Walls, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard: A Paradigm of Missionary Experience” in The Cross-cultural Process in Christian History, 236–58 (Orbis Books, 2002)
  4. Kaiser, Encountering China, 226.

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) (Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series Book 1)has been living …View Full Bio

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