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Robert Morrison: Translator of the Chinese Bible

by Sharon Tan

Robert Morrison by John Richard Wildman, Public domain

Official: And so, Mr. Morrison, you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatry of the great Chinese empire? Morrison: No, sir. I expect God will.

Most, if not all, missionaries will acknowledge that it is most effective to reach the unreached with scriptures in their own languages. Sometimes, it is the only way. But language learning and Bible translation is a long, hard process, often with no immediate visible fruit. How much would you be willing to sacrifice for a foundational ministry which would enable others after you to reap the fruit of your labours? Some giants of Christian missions made great sacrifices when they answered God’s call to difficult but essential ministries.

Robert Morrison (1782–1834) joined the London Missionary Society in 1804. It was decided that he should study the Chinese language as spoken by the ordinary person, not the language of the educated elite, with a view to creating a dictionary and translating the Bible for the benefit of future missionaries. Before leaving for China, Morrison started learning the language from a Chinese student in London using an old manuscript of most of the New Testament in Chinese (probably translated by Jesuit missionaries) in the British Museum. This introduced him to some valuable biblical terms and phrases (what we now call “key terms”).

At that time, the Chinese people were forbidden to teach the Chinese language to a foreigner, or to have any dealings with foreigners other than for trade. The British East India Company, knowing that Morrison was a missionary, refused to carry him on their ships, forcing him to travel to China via the United States!

He finally arrived in Macau in 1807 after a seven-month journey, and eventually found lodgings in Canton. After studying Mandarin and Cantonese in secret, he was appointed as translator for the East India Company in 1809, which gave him both an income as well as an official position. In 1812, he published a Chinese grammar and, over the years 1815–23, a three-volume dictionary. Unable to evangelise openly, Morrison baptised his first Chinese convert only in 1814, seven years after his arrival in China.

Bible translation is slow, painstaking work, and even harder when working alone and with the risk of being found out. In 1813, Morrison completed a translation of the New Testament in the genuine colloquial speech of the Chinese. That same year, William Milne, also of the London Missionary Society, joined him in the work. Together, they completed the translation of the whole Bible in 1819. Realising that translating the Bible alone was not enough, Morrison also translated hymns and a prayer book into Chinese, as well as a little book called A Tour Round the World, to introduce Chinese readers to European customs and ideas, and the benefits that had flowed from Christianity.

All this work came at considerable personal cost to Morrison. He had married in 1809, but had to leave his wife in Macau while he worked in Canton. Their first child died at birth, and his wife died in 1821, leaving him with two young children. The Chinese often took advantage of him, and the western traders had little sympathy for his mission. The Milnes were unable to get permission to stay in China, and had to eventually move to Malaya. Although separated, Morrison and Milne continued to work together. After the Bible translation had been completed, Morrison wrote in a letter to the London Missionary Society:

"Granting that many had the talent to do better than we have done, yet few appear to have had the will; and I will be bold to say, there are many who could not have done so well at a first attempt; however, for what is actually well done, to God be all the praise."

Morrison also believed firmly in the value of providing education for the local people. Unable to do so in China because of the restrictions there, he founded the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca in 1818, to introduce West to East and vice versa, and to enable Christian thought to be disseminated in Malaya, and eventually, through the Chinese diaspora, back to China. He was also a founding member of the Singapore Institution (later renamed Raffles Institution) which was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823.

Morrison only won about 10 converts during his nearly three decades of missionary service, but his years of dedication to the foundational work of language learning, Bible translation, writing and education laid the groundwork for the missionaries who came after him. He knew that he was the forerunner of many more who would work among the Chinese after him; at the baptism of his first convert, he prayed prophetically: “May he be the first fruits of a great harvest — one of the millions who shall believe and be saved from the wrath to come!”

Christians and churches in our part of the world owe a great debt to missionaries like Morrison who willingly suffered and toiled so that others who followed could reap the harvest. How willing are we to do the same?

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