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A BMS missionary in China  

 


Why, 100 years after his death, the ministry of Timothy Richard still needs to be heard by the church today. By Andrew Kaiser




TimothyRichardWhen Welsh Baptist missionary to China Timothy Richard (1845–1919) died in his London home on April 17, 1919, he was mourned by people across the globe. Political leaders and believers in the pews in both China and Britain grieved the loss of the man whom Kenneth Scott Latourette, the 20th-century pioneer of the study of Christianity in China, referred to as “one of the greatest missionaries whom any branch of the Church, whether Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, or Protestant, has sent to China.”

And yet today, as we approach the centennial of his death, few even recognise his name.




'A remarkable breadth of endeavour'

Timothy Richard was born into a Baptist family in rural Wales in 1845, and was baptised as a youth during one of the mid-century revivals. His father served as secretary and deacon in two local Baptist Chapels, and Richard prepared for missionary service by studying at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest. Richard applied to join James Hudson Taylor’s brand new China Inland Mission (CIM), but they advised him to serve with his own denomination. Richard concurred and joined the English Baptist Missionary Society, arriving in China in 1870.

Over the course of the next 45 years, Richard’s missionary career broadened to include a remarkable breadth of endeavour. During the devastating North China Famine (1876–1878) Richard saved over 150,000 lives, spearheading missionary famine relief efforts in Shandong and Shanxi, and opening several orphanages with vocational training programs. His interest in presenting the gospel to Chinese elites led to the conversion of Xi Shengmo, the opium-addicted scholar known today as Pastor Hsi.

Through his publications as director of the Christian Literature Society for China, Richard introduced China’s young scholar officials to Christianity, science, and the modern world, directly influencing the course of China’s modernisation and political reform at the turn of the century.

Following the violence of the 1900 Boxer Uprising—when nearly 200 foreign missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed across North China by discontented Chinese youths in the grips of poverty, oppression, and superstition—Richard arranged for the various missionary societies to use their compensation monies to establish the Imperial University of Shanxi, one of the first modern universities in all of China.

Finally, Richard was an early and influential advocate for the establishment of a League of Nations to promote world peace. For all these accomplishments Richard received multiple honours and awards in China and the west.



A missionary who needs to be heard today

And yet Richard always identified himself as a missionary—this was his life’s calling. While Richard’s role in the grand events of history continues to interest historians, it is Richard the missionary who needs to be heard by the church today. Three distinctives of Richard’s approach to cross-cultural mission deserve to be particularly remembered.

Timothy-Richard-at-34First, Richard placed great emphasis on adjusting his life and his evangelistic efforts to better suit Chinese culture. Richard understood that God loved Chinese people as Chinese people, and that their conversion did not require them to cease being Chinese. Richard worked hard to understand the local culture and language, shifting his missionary methods away from the patterns and preconceptions of the Wales of his youth, and re-centering his practice of mission around the Chinese cultural experience. Richard chose to dive deep into the local culture in order that the gospel might be rooted in the hearts of Chinese people.

This indigenizing impulse, complete with its rebuke of the missionary’s innate sense of cultural superiority, is as vital to gospel success today as it was during Richard’s time.

Second, when the North China Famine began to take the lives of Richard’s friends and neighbours in Shandong, he did not ask whether or not humanitarian work was a legitimate part of missionary endeavour. On the contrary, he reached out to save his neighbours out of a conviction that as a fellow sinner he was no more deserving of life than any of them. This soon became a conviction that the Kingdom of God had relevance and authority in this life as well as in the next—a belief that was confirmed when Richard witnessed the evangelistic power of his humanitarian efforts. As the starving were fed, men, women, and children across North China not only heard the gospel but personally experienced the love of Jesus in action. Would that our churches were filled with Christians who like Richard not only speak the gospel but demonstrate its worth with their deeds.

Finally, all these experiences strengthened Richard’s sense of identification with his Chinese neighbours, producing in him a powerful determination to develop explicitly Chinese churches. When Richard left the coast of Shandong with its large population of foreign missionaries to live and work on his own in inland Shandong Province, he decided from the beginning to encourage new converts to gather for worship in their own homes rather than meeting in a central church under his pastoral leadership. Monthly visits to the Christians in the surrounding villages allowed Richard to identify those with natural leadership abilities, whom he then offered training in Christian discipleship. Richard explicitly adjusted his understanding of church, worship, evangelism and the discipleship process to make room for distinctly Chinese expressions of Christianity. In our era of global Christianity, western Christians would do well to follow Richard’s example, recognising that not every church must look like ours.


May Richard’s example be remembered by his compatriots in Wales and throughout the British isles; by the missionaries from around the world who have risen up in his shadow; and by the new generation of Chinese Christians who are retracing Richard’s footsteps in reverse, continuing God’s mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

 

Images | Wikimedia Commons



Andrew Kaiser completed a PhD on Timothy Richard at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. He lives and works in Shanxi, China. He is taking part in a centennial commemoration of Dr Timothy Richard, organised by the Baptist Union of Wales, on 17 April. For more information, click here.   



This is the latest in a continuing series from Baptist Historical Society highlighting stories and moments from our past.

Earlier articles have looked at:

 

  • Anne Steele - marking the tercentenary of the birth of Anne Steele (1717-1778), a prolific Baptist hymn writer

  • W. T. Whitley - 'the outstanding British Baptist historian'

  • Edith Gates -  the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist church

  • Renewed for Mission, 50 years on - The 50th anniversary of George Beasley-Murray's presidential address 

  • Disestablishment - 'How do the churches relate to the state?' 

  • JH Shakespeare and The Churches at the Cross-Roads (1918) - The end of the Great War would lead to reconciliation and unity between churches alongside the call to peace among nations - a move anticipated, surprisingly, by a British Baptist leader. Keith Clements explains more   

  • The Salters' Hall debates - It's the 300th anniversary of a series of seminal debates among the dissenting community about connecting the Word with the world. Lessons and questions remain, writes Stephen Copson 


 

 



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Baptist Times, 04/04/2019
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