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Handbooks of English Church Expansion


By Frank L. Norris

London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray, 1908.

Chapter II. Heathen China and Christian England

MR. EUGENE STOCK, in his fascinating history of the Church Missionary Society, felt it advisable to devote a considerable portion of that book to a review of contemporary Church life in England, and to the effects of religious movements at home on the Society's work abroad. In the present instance a different need presents itself with equal or even greater cogency. Broadly-speaking, the Missions of the Church of England in China have not been due to any particular religious movement at home, but rather, and that in a remarkable degree, to the political and commercial relations which grew up between England and China. For it was those relations which gradually forced open the closed doors of the Middle Kingdom, and it was those relations which made missionary work in China not only possible [15/16] but morally incumbent on the Church, in a degree which has not even yet been fully recognized in England. Some notice of them, therefore, as brief as may be, is essential to a right understanding of the Church's responsibility, and of her efforts to acquit herself of her duty towards China. Such notice, moreover, however brief it is, must include some reference to the opium trade, a subject which is more disliked than understood. It is some consolation to reflect that, before the abolition of the slave trade, William Wilberforce was accounted a dangerous fanatic, and yet by his persistency he righted a great wrong. If those who to-day dislike all reference to the opium trade would but study its history, they would probably forget to criticize the foolishness of its opponents in the excitement of their own indignation.

In the eighteenth century the East India Company found a remunerative outlet for trade in the export of Indian opium to China. There was some difficulty in disposing of the cargoes on the coast of China, but that was more than atoned for by the profits arising from the sale of the drug. In 1796, however, the Chinese Government issued an edict which made the law against the importation of opium much stricter, and which had the [16/17] further result of making it impossible for the East India Company to continue to carry on the trade themselves with any show of self-respect. In China, therefore, they withdrew from it, and confined their ostensible trade, through their agents at Canton, to more legitimate channels. But in India they continued the manufacture of opium in a form specially adapted to the Chinese market, they sold it publicly by auction in Calcutta, and they gave every facility and special privileges to the vessels employed by the opium merchants to carry their contraband cargo to China. Those merchants, who had spent large sums in the purchase of each ship-load, and expected to reap even larger profits by its successful disposal to the Chinese, naturally took pains to ensure its safe arrival. The Chinese junks which haunted the sea around the mouth of the Canton River and even further down the coast, were manned by bold pirates; and this fact afforded specious justification for arming the opium ships with sufficient force, not only to resist piratical attacks, but also, if need be, to drive off any Government war-junks which might attempt to interfere with the landing of the contraband cargo. The judicious use of bribery, directly or by the offer of a share in the profits, [17/18] amongst the local officials at Canton, still further facilitated the trade.

We shall have to revert to the further history of the opium traffic again, unfortunately, because of its close connection with missionary effort. But for a moment it may be well to pause, and mark one or two of its immediate results, and to notice in passing the attitude of those responsible for it towards anything in the shape of missionary effort.

It is hardly surprising that the Chinese authorities, with this contraband trade carried on in defiance of their repeated prohibitions, and forced upon them by the collusion of armed force and tempting bribery on the one hand, with the fatal viciousness and no less fatal corruptibility of their own people and their own officials on the other, allowed their natural dislike of the foreigner to ripen into active hostility. Again, it is hardly surprising that, familiar with the deceptions carried on at Canton by the East India Company, no less than by individual merchants, in connection with the opium trade, they learnt to suspect ulterior designs, and those of an evil tendency, in every effort made by any foreigner to obtain a footing anywhere in China. And it is hardly surprising [18/19] that the Chinese people, as distinct from the officials, learnt to judge all foreigners by those whom they knew, and connected them with a trade which, while it depended for its success on the vicious appetites of their own countrymen, was yet condemned by all those who enjoyed a reputation for morality.

But it is surprising, and hardly creditable to England, to the East India Company, or to the English merchants, that while this trade was being carried on for the sake of gain, an English missionary who desired to proceed to China should have been compelled to travel to America, to take his passage from New York in an American ship, and to find his only welcome in Canton, though the home of many Englishmen, from the American consul in that place. Yet such was the experience, just a century ago, of Morrison, the first Englishman who went out to China as a missionary.

The mention of Morrison, the pioneer of English missionaries in China, sent out by the London Missionary Society in 1807, brings before us the very pertinent question of what the Church of England was doing to allow herself thus to be robbed of the honour which was surely hers by right of her inherent responsibility. We are not [19/20] now concerned with other and much earlier attempts to evangelize China, with the work of the Nestorian Missions of the seventh century, or of the Roman Missions of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. English Missions to China date from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and began under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. But considering that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts had been founded a hundred years before, we may well ask why the Church allowed herself to be thus supplanted by a Society formed mainly by those outside her ranks, a Society only some twelve years old. The answer is twofold: it was due in part to the unspiritual condition of the Church at the time, to the selfishness and sloth which had been creeping on her like paralysis: but it was due also to a fact which was as true then as it is now, a fact which has in the minds of many a vital bearing on the whole question of the missionary work of the Church. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, though nominally representative of the whole Church in its missionary capacity, had not then, any more than now, the whole Church at its back: and, partly for this reason, it often failed to attract and enlist [20/21] enthusiasm, and so to seize the Church's rightful opportunities. It is no answer to object that the primary objects of the Society were our fellow-countrymen abroad, or the negro-slaves at work on plantations in British colonies. The Society, then at least, was entitled to claim to represent the Church in her missionary capacity; and there was something wrong when priests, fired with missionary zeal, were driven to seek sympathy outside instead of within the Church.

Nearly forty years elapsed before the Church, through its oldest Missionary Society, first made an attempt to touch the problem of heathen China, and thirty more before she made any resolute effort to send missionaries thither. Hereafter there will be occasion to refer to this point again. But we may thankfully record that English Churchmen were already considering the duty of the Church to do something for the people to whom English merchants were doing such grievous injury. In the very first report of the Church Missionary Society, issued in 1801, one-sixth of the whole space was devoted to the subject of China, which had been brought to the notice of the Society by a proposal from a dissenting minister, Mr. Moseley, that they should undertake the [21/22] translation of the Bible into Chinese. The proposal fell through at the time, and eventually the task was handed on by the Church Missionary Society to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and again by them to the British and Foreign Bible Society, which has ever since done splendid work in this direction on behalf of the Chinese people. But through the Church Missionary Society the Church maintained its interest, if it could not yet take an active part, in missionary efforts in China. Morrison, on his visits to England, was accorded a hearty welcome; and a German traveller and evangelist, Mr. Gutzlaff (afterwards Chinese Secretary to the Government of Hong Kong) was given more material help. In 1832 the Society, in its report, recorded its regret that it could not, for lack of means, undertake a duty which it nevertheless acknowledged.

However, a year or two later, in 1835, the Church of the United States, the noble daughter of the Church of England, set an example which was soon followed, albeit unconsciously, by the mother Church. We shall have occasion hereafter to put on record some of the work which the American Church has done in China, side by side with the mother Church of England. It [22/23] is interesting, therefore, to remember that both the great Missionary Societies of the English Church played a part in making such work possible. The American Church owes a great deal, and has ever been ready to acknowledge its debt, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for generous help in its early days: but its missionary work, which was actually begun in 1821, was due in great measure to the influence of the Rev. J. Pratt, for many years the leading spirit in the Church Missionary Society.

The first missionaries of the American Church sailed for the East in 1835, and settled in Singapore and Java to learn Chinese as a necessary preliminary to their proper work in China. Almost simultaneously the English Church sent out her first representative through the Church Missionary Society, Mr. Squire, who would, it was hoped, have followed in the footsteps of Mr. Gutzlaff, and been able to report on the possibilities of work on the Chinese coast. But he got no further than the Portuguese settlement at Macao; and a few years later the outbreak of the first China War led to his return to England, and a necessary suspension for the moment of further missionary effort.

[24] Into the causes or the morality of that war it is not necessary to enter. We may well take the wise words of Mr. Eugene Stock as an adequate description of its object and its effect. "Presently," he writes, "the question became one, not of opium merely, but of whether the English would be allowed to trade with China at all. Ultimately, in 1840, open war ensued--a war which on England's side it is hard to justify on any righteous principle of national conduct, and yet a war which undoubtedly resulted in great benefit to China." [History of the Church Missionary Society, i. 469.] The war opened a door through which the Gospel entered China, sometimes after, sometimes together with, sometimes even ahead of, English commerce. Hong Kong, a little island with a magnificent harbour, was ceded to Great Britain, and became, if one of the smallest, yet by no means the least important of her colonies. Canton, Amoy, Fuhchow, Ningpo, and Shanghai, all of them places in the southern half of China, and at a safe distance from the sacred capital and jealous Court, were opened as treaty-ports for foreign trade, under a treaty which was strangely silent on the subject of the original cause of dispute, the opium trade. The Chinese Government refused to legalize the [24/25] trade, the opium merchants had no intention of abandoning it if they could avoid doing so. But for a moment it seemed as if our national responsibility for it might be removed. In April, 1843, Lord Ashley--afterwards better known as Lord Shaftesbury--moved a resolution in the House of Commons strongly condemning the trade as being " utterly inconsistent with the honour and duties of a Christian kingdom." His motion was not pressed to a division, apparently on the ground that by so doing he would have hindered the Government's negotiations for the same purpose.[History of the Church Missionary Society, i. 470, 471; and compare the action of the Convocation of Canterbury in 1886.] Such negotiations, if ever seriously undertaken with that object, at any rate came to nothing. In the following October it is true that a supplementary treaty was signed in China which contained a reference to the opium trade; it acknowledged the illegality of it, and it recorded the determination of Great Britain to "discourage smuggling." But that determination existed mainly on paper. The trade developed with enormous rapidity, the new colony of Hong Kong providing an admirable depĂ´t such as had long been needed. The profits [25/26] not only of the merchants but of the manufacturer (the Indian Government) increased in proportion, and made it more difficult than ever to deal with the question without a selfish bias. The consciences of godly men in England, who found themselves powerless to restrain their country from thus bringing evil into China, urged them to do their utmost to introduce at the same time the greatest counteracting force they knew, the greatest good which they themselves had found, the glorious light of the Gospel of Christ.

We cannot fail to notice how God brings good out of man's evil. The opium trade was from the first an evil thing, and England's part in it has been a grievous national sin. Nevertheless it is true that, in the Providence of God, this evil trade, this national unrighteousness, was the immediate cause of English missionary effort to evangelize the people of China.

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