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Training Laborers for His Harvest

A Book Review


Training Laborers for His Harvest

Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa by Baiyu Andrew Song. Published by Wipf & Stock, 2015, 146 pages. ISBN-10: 149820709X; ISBN-13: 978-1498207096. Hardback, paperback and Kindle versions available on Amazon.

When I came across the book Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa, I immediately recognized the name of Liang Fa (梁發), the second known Chinese convert and the first ordained Chinese pastor.1 Liang Fa is most often referred to in Chinese history as the person who wrote the tract Good Word Exhorting the Age (勸世良言) that influenced Hong Xiuquan. Hong later led the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) which almost toppled the Qing dynasty.

The author Baiyu Andrew Song was born in China and came to faith in Christ as a high school student studying in Canada. As he learned about his own faith heritage and how the gospel came to China he developed an interest in the work of the early missionaries to China.

This book is a good read for anyone interested in the history of Christianity in China. The missionary called out in the title, William Milne, was the second missionary sent to China by the London Missionary Society and he joined the work started by Robert Morrison (who is known for producing the first Chinese translation of the Bible in 1822). Milne is often known for his quote about learning Chinese: “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of spring-steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah!”2 For anyone who has tried to learn Chinese as a second language they can fully appreciate this perspective especially at a time when Morrison and Milne had to create their own dictionary and grammar.

Early in the book Professor Song gives a short overview of the history of Christianity in China. While too short to satisfy a reader especially interested in this history, the author does point out that from the early Han dynasty “all religions in China became a means of state control and were used by emperors to rule over their citizens.” (p. 3) He also highlights the continuity of this perspective into today’s socialist China.

Any student of missions will also be interested in the role of David Bogue and the Gosport Academy which had a hand in the formation of the London Missionary Society and in the preparation of both Morrison and Milne. Bogue was quoted as saying, “three converts in China, . . . are worth twenty in Otaheite (Tahiti), and 500 in England with respect to the advancement of the kingdom of Christ among men.” (p. 11) Bogue’s Gosport Academy had a three year curriculum for preparing people for missionary service.

Liang Fa was originally associated with Morrison. He was first employed by Morrison to carve the wood blocks needed to print Morrison’s translation of the Book of Acts. Several years later Liang Fa was also assisting William Milne. While working on one of Milne’s tracts (a booklet about the life of Christ), Liang Fa began to get interested in Christianity. About a year later he made a decision to follow Christ and was baptized by Milne in late 1816. Milne and Liang Fa worked together on and off for the next few years until Milne died in 1822. Altogether Milne worked in Asia for only nine years he produced over twenty publications including the translation of the Old Testament from Deuteronomy to Job. This was in addition to producing a Chinese magazine, an English magazine, and serving as the principal of the Anglo Chinese College at Malacca.

Because of restrictions on living in China or the Portuguese enclave of Macau, Milne spent most of his time living and working in Malacca (in peninsular Malaysia). Milne would preach in three languages on Sunday—English, Chinese, and Malay.

The main focus of this book is an exploration of Milne’s mentorship of Liang Fa. In the larger context of the start of Protestant missions to China, the author explores Milne’s spiritual heritage, his theological understanding, and his mission practices. The author also recounts Liang Fa’s spiritual journey.

The author explored Milne’s historical setting and theological framework as it pertained to his missiological methods. He concludes that the type of mentorship relationship Milne had with Liang was the most effective missiological approach. Prof. Song summarizes Milne’s work as “Milne mentored men like Liang to read, understand, and preach the Scriptures with a sound Christ-centered theological framework.” (p. 78) Records of the interaction between Milne and Liang Fa include having a prayer meeting on Tuesday evenings and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday reading the Scriptures together. The author explores Milne’s evangelistic approaches as Liang was learning about Christianity. The author also explores Milne’s later mentorship of Liang from eight different perspectives and traces Liang’s development from a new believer to the first ordained Chinese preacher and producer of numerous tracts and publications.

Near the end the author states his reason for writing the book was to “help the church and missionary organizations to rediscover the biblical missiological methods practiced by Paul the apostle, especially in the mentorship of disciples and future leaders.” (p. 82)

For those interested in the writings of Liang Fa and Milne, the author helpfully includes appendices listing their publication titles in both Chinese and English.

For anyone interested in this early period in the development of the church in China, this short book provides a good deal of useful information.

Endnotes

  1. See “Liang Fa” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liang_Fa.
  2. See “William Milne (missionary),” Academic, https://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/4346419.