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Hudson Taylor: Pioneer and Builder

by Marshall Broomhall

Hudson TaylorAlthough we have not followed the latter portion of Hudson Taylor's life in chronological sequence, the reader will have recognized that he was essentially a pioneer, and a pioneer in more senses than one. He was always seeking to break new ground, always keen to enter unoccupied territory, always anxious to proclaim the Joyful News where Christ had not been named. But he was equally a pioneer in his methods, in his return to apostolic precedents; in trusting God, and God alone, for men and for supplies; in taking God, with a daring faith, at His word. He was also a pioneer in missionary organization, and in preferring the direction of the work on the field itself, rather than from home. Ordinarily, the headquarters of a Mission are at home, and the work in many lands. With him the work was in one field, and the home departments in many countries.

But he was more than a pioneer; he was a builder. This fact stands out in bold relief if we contrast his work with that of Gutzlaff. It is an interesting coincidence that Hudson Taylor was born when Gutzlaff was engaged in his daring voyages up and down the China coast. Gutzlaff was a pioneer of a remarkable order, a man of great enterprise, of burning zeal, and amazing industry. His passionate ardour powerfully influenced Hudson Taylor's early enthusiasm, and brought into being the Chinese Evangelization Society which sent him to China. But Gutzlaff, though Hudson Taylor called him the grandfather of the China Inland Mission, was no builder. He could, and did, profoundly stimulate others, but his own attempts at organization signally failed. But in Hudson Taylor, God combined in a remarkable degree the daring of the innovator with the constructive gifts of the statesman. He was bold without being rash, eager but vigilant, confident but prudent, venturesome but yet far-sighted.

The man who dares to violate custom, to break through precedents, to brave the censure of the world, must also possess strong creative faculties, or he may seem a mere fanatic. It demands rare courage to do what no one else has done before, but it needs courage mixed with prudence, or enthusiasm may run riot. Hudson Taylor possessed both qualities. He did not fear to be peculiar. Writing on the implicit obedience demanded of the Nazarite, he said:

"God claims the right to determine the personal appearance of His servants... To many minds there is the greatest shrinking from appearing peculiar; but God would often have His people unmistakably peculiar... While we are not to seek to be peculiar for its own sake, we are not to hesitate to be so when duty to God renders it necessary, or when the privilege of self-denial for the benefit of others calls for it."

And so we find him as a pioneer adopting Chinese dress, conforming to Chinese customs and modes of life, travelling native fare, encouraging single women to live in the interior of China, refusing to appeal for funds, establishing schools for missionaries' children in the field instead of at home, developing business departments within the Mission to facilitate the supply of temporal needs, building interdenominationally and internationally, and in other ways departing from precedents.

Without entering into any detailed exposition of these more or less original features of his work, which might interest the administrator but not the general reader, it will be sufficiently evident that in Hudson Taylor there were fused bold initiative and daring originality with equally striking constructive ability. He was a pioneer who knew how to build. Ideals were realized, visions materialized, promises were obtained, prayers were answered, and confidences were justified.

Looking back over his long life, Hudson Taylor could say, at the close of his ministry:

"I have sometimes met people who have said: 'Trusting God is a beautiful theory, but it won't work'. But praise God, it has worked, and it does work. I remember a dear friend, an aged minister in London, who said to me in the year 1866 [when the Lammermuir party sailed]: 'Well, you are making a great mistake in going to China with no organization behind you. We live in a busy world, and you will be all forgotten, and the Mission won't live seven years.' That was the prophecy of this good man—a wise man too. But he was mistaken; and I could only say to him in a very simple way: 'I have got four children. I have never yet needed a committee to remind me of their needs or of my duty to them; and I do not think I have more care for my children than my Heavenly Father has for His children, whom He is thrusting out into China.'

"Well He has cared for them through all these years, and He has graciously helped us; and, as the work grew, He has given the organization which we had no need for, and no place for, at the commencement. But the organization has grown up with the work."

Here we see the simple-hearted, trustful pioneer not despising organization, nor impatient with method, but ready for both, as time and circumstances demanded. In him the heroic element was well balanced with sagacity and foresight. He had a keen sense of the perils of emotionalism, and on one occasion said in public:

"We do so much want your prayers, beloved friends, that the Lord will keep us from unwisdom, and from doing anything that might be a cause for subsequent regret and difficulty. If the Spirit of the Lord does indeed guide us, surely He will make us prudent. David was prudent, because the Spirit of the Lord guided him in his movements. So we do ask your prayers that in all that is done in connection with the Mission a spirit of prudence may prevail."

The casual observer is naturally more impressed by the sensational elements in the Mission's history—such, for instance; as the going forth of one hundred new workers in one year—but those who know the inner history know something of the prayer, the deliberations, the careful preparations which preceded and accompanied such developments. The following extract from an address given at the New York Ecumenical Missionary Conference in 1900—one of his last public utterances—will give one a glimpse into the less public side of his life:

"It is not lost time to wait upon God", he said. "May I refer to a small gathering of about a dozen men in which I was permitted to take part, some years ago, in November 1886? We, in the China Inland Mission, were feeling greatly the need of Divine guidance in the matter of organization in the field, and in the matter of reinforcements, and we came together before our conference to spend eight days in united waiting upon God—four alternate days being days of fasting as well as prayer."

There is no need to prolong the quotation. It must suffice to say that this Conference saw both the birth and formation of the China Council of the Mission for better organization on the field, and, at the same time, the sending forth of the call for one hundred new workers during the following year, 1887. Those eight days of prayer, with alternate days of fasting, were what Hudson Taylor called "beginning right with God". And so sure was he of God's guiding hand, that he could add:

"We had a thanksgiving, for the men and the money that were coming, in November 1886, and they were all received and sent forth before the end of December 1887."

But we must now take up the story of the closing years of this strenuous career. In the 'nineties, after more than thirty years of leadership of a rapidly growing and expanding work, it began to be evident that his powers of mind and body were unequal to the heavy and constant strain of such responsibilities. The signs of an apostle had been wrought in his life. He had been in labours abundant, in fastings, and in watchings. He had once confessed that "the sun had never risen upon China without finding me at prayer." In his serving the Lord he had been both fervent in spirit and diligent in business. Half-hearted he could not be. The spirit in which he laboured is revealed in the following words of his:

"Self-denial surely means something far greater than some slight and insignificant lessening of our self-indulgences!"

What self-denial meant to him in just one department of his life, i.e. separation from wife and children, is brought home by the following statement, made at the New York conference, on the marriage of missionaries:

"I do not know any more difficult question in the whole missionary problem. I have had the pleasure of living as a married missionary for forty years, and I know all the advantages, and the comfort, and the blessings to the work of having a faithful and competent partner by one's side; but for nearly twenty years of my married life, my wife has had to be in one part of the world while I have been in another."

How changeful his lot was may be gauged from the fact that of the nearly fifty-two years from his first sailing to China in 1853 to his death in 1905, almost exactly twenty-seven years were lived in China, while the remaining twenty-five years were spent in other lands, or on the sea. As he travelled to China, from England alone, no less than eleven times, his early journeys being by sailing ship, he had a fairly full opportunity of knowing something of God's mighty wonders in the deep. Of his thirty-five years of active leadership of the China Inland Mission, from its inception in 1865 up to his breakdown in 1900, a little over twenty of these years were spent in China itself, and the remaining fifteen years in one or other of the home countries, organizing and developing the work, or travelling to and fro. These facts show what a roving life he led, and how little he can have known of the joys and comforts of a home.

A reference to the movements of Hudson Taylor during the last year or more of his time in China, as shown in the chronological summary, affords a rough indication of the way in which he had to husband his strength in order to continue his ministry. Increasingly he had to withdraw to one or other of the Mission's health resorts, to Chefoo, or Kuling, or Mokanshan, that he might battle through.

His last long journey in China, during the days of his active service, was taken in company with the Rev. and Mrs. Charles Inwood, that he might be present at the important missionary conference at Chungking, when far-reaching decisions as to mission comity were made. That gathering was in January 1899, an in September of the same year, after having spent the summer in the hills, he and Mrs. Taylor left China for a visit to Australia, New Zealand, and America. Mrs. Taylor was never to see China again, and Hudson Taylor only for a short seven weeks, five and a half years later. It was the beginning of the end in their lifelong journey. The years so full of strenuous activity were to be exchanged for years of quiet watching and waiting, and for the supreme trial of standing aside—and that from a work they had begotten, and for which they had travailed in labours and prayers.

It was while he was in America in the spring of 1900, after his last visit to Australasia, that the first serious signs of a breakdown manifested themselves. Dr. A. T. Pierson, with whom he was holding meetings in Boston, has recorded how, "in an otherwise effective address, he repeated one or two sentences a score of times or more". These sentences were:

"You may trust the Lord too little, but you can never trust Him too much.
"'If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful; He cannot deny himself.'"

"There was," continued Dr. Pierson, "something pathetic and poetic in the very fact that this repetition was the first visible sign of his breakdown, for was it not this very sentiment and this very quotation, that he had kept repeating to himself, and to all his fellow-workers during all the years of his missionary work? a blessed sentence to break down upon, which had been the buttress of his whole life of consecrated endeavour."

And we cannot perhaps do better than close this chapter with a few quotations from his addresses given during these last days of his active ministry, addresses given at the New York conference, and on other public occasions. They are the deliberate testimony of a man of God, given at the close of a life brim full of crucial experiences, and as such are his matured convictions.

When he had sailed for China in 1853 there were only three hundred Chinese Christians in the whole of the Chinese Empire; when he spoke the words that follow there were 100,000 communicants in connection with the Protestant Churches, and no fewer than 25,000 Chinese had been baptized by the Mission God had used him to found. When he had first reached China a missionary might never be absent from a treaty port for more than twenty-four hours, under pain of deportation; but now the land was open from end to end for travel and residence. In his sayings there is a body of wisdom on practical matters pertaining to the spiritual life not easily equalled. Reference here can only be made to one or two. And first, in regard to the power of self-emptying and unresisting suffering, he said:

"We have tried to do, many of us, as much good as we felt we could easily do, or conveniently do, but there is a wonderful power when the love of God in the heart raises us to this point that we are ready to suffer, and with Paul we desire to know Him in the power of His resurrection (which implies the death of self), and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death. It is ever true that what costs little is worth little...

"It is a serious and difficult problem very frequently, to know how far we should look to and accept the protection of our Governments, or their vindication, in case of riot and difficulty. I have seen both plans tried. I have never seen the plan in the long run successful, of demanding help and vindication from man. Wherever I have traced the result, in the long run there has been more harm done than good, and I have never seen the willingness to suffer and leave God to vindicate His own cause, His own people and their right, where the result has not been beneficial, if there has been rest and faith in Him; and praise God, I have known a number of such instances in the mission field."

On more than one occasion Hudson Taylor, during this time in America, made some striking remarks on the subject of sudden conversions which are well worth recording. Speaking at the New York conference, he stated that he had personally known at least one hundred Chinese who had accepted Christ as Saviour the first time they had ever heard of Him. On another occasion he gave the following arresting testimony on this important topic:

"When I first went to China I expected people to be saved very soon, and before I could speak any Chinese at all God was pleased to give me the joy of seeing two accept Christ. By the time that year was over I had been so much under the influence of older and wiser men, who thought that a very gradual process of education was necessary before the heathen could be expected to become Christians, that I had ceased to expect instantaneous conversions; and for two or three years I was not disappointed, for I did not see any."

He then records a conversation held with a missionary recently come from England, which friend answered his arguments in favour of a slow preparation by saying: "I should not like to hold views like that, it seems perilously like sinning against the Holy Ghost."

"Then I remembered", continued Hudson Taylor, "that my own conversion had been like a flash of fire; and I felt that I was wrong, and confessed the sin; and we went out together... Well, I think it was in July my friend spoke to me in this way. On Christmas Day we had seven converted Christians meet together to spend a happy day. The Lord had blessed us to the conversion of seven!"

These closing discourses bring the reader into a wealthy country. They are full of quiet, simple, but mature convictions on many topics, on faith, on prayer, on the inspiration of God's Word, and on the faithfulness of God Himself. It was out of the abundance of his heart, and out of the riches of his own experience, that he spoke. And this was the secret of his fruitfulness. "It is a specially sweet part of God's dealings with His messengers," he once said, "that He always gives us the message for ourselves first... He does not send us out with sealed despatches."


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Hudson Taylor: the Man Who Believed God by Marshall Broomhall. London: The China Inland Mission, 1929.

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