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American Mission in Shanghai

By Edward W. Syle

From The Colonial Church Chronicle, and Missionary Journal, Vol. IV (July, 1850), pages 20-25.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007


Shanghai, China, February 14, 1850.

MY DEAR SIR,--Since I last wrote, our Mission has suffered a severe bereavement in the loss of a valued brother Minister and fellow Missionary, the Rev. P. D. Spalding. He was first laid aside from active exertion, then ordered by his physicians to return home, and then called suddenly to his final rest--for the ship in which he sailed from this place has been lost at sea; no tidings of her have ever reached us, and the most probable conjecture is, that she went down in a great storm that happened just about the time she was expected to reach Hong Kong.

Yet more recently, we have sustained another loss. One of the two unmarried ladies, whose services in conducting our School have been invaluable, has been also recommended by the physicians to try the effect of a voyage home, and is now on her way to the United States; thus leaving those of us who remain, charged with the conduct of operations which, when all were here, were as much as could be carried on with efficiency. But it is "not by few, nor by many," that the good work in which we are permitted to engage is carried on for its highest purposes; and we have accordingly experienced--[20/21] what may be found recorded more than once in Missionary annals--that just at our hour of greatest weakness, did it please Him with whom is the residue of the Spirit, to lead many of those to whom we preach, to come forward and say, "We do truly believe in Jesus; and take Him to be our Lord and Master; and desire to be baptized in His name." Ten have already been admitted in that "Church which is the blessed company of all faithful people," and as many more are anxious--almost to impatience--for the same inestimable privilege. Great care is needed (and we have endeavoured to exercise it,) in regard to the admission to the Church of these, our first converts for the hearts of the Chinese seem to be deceitful, even beyond the common deceitfulness of all human hearts; and the temptations, in the way of those immediately surrounding us, to make an insincere profession, are strong enough to make us feel that great caution is an especial duty in our circumstances. Hitherto, however, we have been much favoured in this respect. Our Mission's "first baptized" is now a promising candidate for Holy Orders; another is an intelligent woman, who has endured reproach and beatings for the faith's sake, and has, within the last few days, of her own accord, brought to her mistress (Miss Jones) a little family idol, which has been a household god for three generations. This woman's youngest daughter is among the baptized, and I feel happy in calling her my god-child. I have yet another cause for Christian joy and thankfulness in the fact that, just at the time when I was beginning to come into close contact with the mind of many who came inquiring what they must do to be saved, it pleased God to convert a man of middle age and steady character, whose services as a Catechist, &c. have become greatly helpful to me. The Bishop's heart also has been greatly cheered and supported under the added amount of labour in connexion with the School which has come upon him, by seeing many of the most promising youths becoming candidates for baptism, and exhibiting such earnestness of spirit as gives us good reason to hope that after they may become most efficient instruments in the propagation of the Gospel among their countrymen.

Thus are we burdened, and thus are our burdens lightened. But the heaviest burden of all, and the one which seems, at least at present, to have fewest alleviations connected with it, has been the necessity and duty of carrying on the tangled controversy about the rendering of Elohim, qeoV, &c. into Chinese, in the revised version of the New Testament, now nearly ready for publication. It is surely a sorrowful thing that the mistakes, (for there must be mistakes somewhere,) the mistakes of Missionaries, on this one point, should have given other Missionaries more trouble, cost them more labour, driven them to spend more time in writing and publishing controversial pamphlets, &c. &c. than would have sufficed to carry on extensively their more proper work of making known the way of salvation to perishing thousands around them. Yet it has pleased the All-wise Disposer of events to make this a matter of necessity, and to allot a large portion of this arduous and uncongenial task to our Bishop, Dr. Boone, than whom few men in the world have more cordial aversion to [21/22] strivings among brethren. It is a question, however, of such vital importance to the end that the Gospel shall, in this empire, have "free course and be glorified," that he has felt bound to take his part in the maintenance of what he judges to be the correct principles on which such a matter should be settled; for it is not a mere discussion as to this single term which has been, and yet must be, carried on the right settlement of the question involves most momentous consequences in regard to the whole matter of' faithful translation, and faithful declaration to the heathen of the whole counsel of God; it touches very closely the edges of those vital errors, the worship of ancestors, the toleration of pantheism or of Di-theism, and the rendering of different degrees and sorts of religious worship to various objects of adoration. It would seem not a little startling to say that views have been broached, in the course of this discussion, which would lead the way, and that by no means indirectly, into these several errors; and yet I seriously assure you that, to my own mind at least, those views do appear in the writings of some who have taken a prominent part in this discussion. Not, I sincerely believe, that the writers themselves are aware of this tendency in their views--nay, I believe that they are lamentably unaware of many things which it behoves the first preachers of the Gospel, in any region, to be especially well informed about,--but that the methods of translation they would adopt, would leave the door open, and invitingly open, to the future errorists among Chinese Christians, whose rising up we must expect, and against whose heresies we must do all that in us lies to be prepared, both for the blessed truth's sake, and for the safety of the little flocks which are, we trust, soon to be gathered together, every here and there, throughout this moral wilderness. Are we not guides as well as heralds? And to what purpose is it that the errors and wanderings from the truth of past generations have been written and read, unless we become, by them, "forewarned and forearmed?"

It is with feelings of this sort, that I have watched the course of this tedious controversy; and when I saw, in one of our American papers, an article, extracted from your "Chronicle," on the pamphlet published by Sir G. Staunton, on this subject, I resolved to delay no longer in writing to you, though, in order to do so, I might be constrained to lay aside, for a day, my more proper Missionary occupations. I have not hesitated to do this, neither do I hesitate to say, at once, that the views I take of the subject are not those advocated by Sir G. Stanton, and favourably regarded by the writer of the article I refer to. You will not, I trust, think the worse of my views because I tell you, thus plainly, at the outset, what is the position in which I stand.

I agree with the reviewer in admiring the reverential tone, and I would also add, the amiable spirit with which Sir G. Staunton has treated the subject; but I cannot refrain from declaring my entire disagreement with the view Sir George expresses in the words, "communicating to the Chinese the full idea of Him whom, in some sort, they ignorantly worship." I do not think that the Chinese--[22/23] nor even any one class of them--can be said, in any sort, to worship Him; i. e. the true God, whose name is Jehovah; that they cannot worship Him, because they do not know Him. That they have a knowledge and belief in Deity in the abstract--this is a certain fact; and that they do worship this-- some after a pantheistic, and others after a polytheistic sort, is also an undoubted fact; but from this to infer that they know and worship Him who is One, Holy and Jealous, appears to me unwarranted.

The people of China have a belief that there is a being who rules over the element of fire; they build him temples, make prayers and offerings before his image, and call him the "Ho Shin," (Fire Shin): but can it be thought that therefore they know or worship Him whose "word the fire fulfilleth," and "who maketh the flaming fire his minister?" The Chinese have also a belief that there is a being who bestows, or deprives of, riches: for him also they build temples, and many and frequent are the offerings made before the shrines of this "Isay Shin" (Wealth Shin); but is this to honour "the Lord of hosts, who with, 'the silver is mine and the gold is mine?'" And the same question might be put with regard to the "Water Shin," the "Shin of the Mountains," and of the Rivers, of the Sun, and of the Stars--until all the regions of nature had been ransacked for objects of comparison; and what other impression would be left on the mind of one who should pursue this inquiry, than that this people could not be supposed or said, in any sort, to worship Him, i.e. Jehovah; though they might be said to have a belief of, and to engage in a worship of a number of objects, among whom they parcelled out the attributes of God, and to whom they gave a common name--that is, Shin. This is the name which we would take from them, and claim as rightly belonging to Jehovah alone, just as we claim that the powers wrongfully attributed to them, are in fact, the attributes of Jehovah only: and we would commit this violent assault upon the existing usage of the Chinese language upon the same grounds, and to the same end, as justifies--nay, necessitates--our saying in English, "who only is God," and in Greek, "ton monon alhqinon qeon."

But it may perhaps be thought, that when we come to the case of that one of the Shin, who is supposed by the Chinese to be a ruler over the rest, and to whom many magnificent titles are given, (though by no means so many nor so magnificent as the Greeks gave to ZeuV,) it might be well to avail ourselves of the august ideas which, in the mind of a classically-read Chinese, are associated with the title Shang Te; and hence the suggestion that this is the best term their language furnishes to serve as a medium for communicating to the Chinese a knowledge of Jehovah. In this suggestion my mind cannot concur. I see in this imaginary Deity named Shang Te, nothing more to recommend his title than the first preachers of the Gospel to the Greeks might have seen in Jupiter; less of human passion there may be in the character ascribed to him, but nothing that makes it approach nearer to the unapproachable perfections of Jehovah. I had supposed that the reasons given by Bishop Boone on the sixth page of his Essay, and the remarkable quotations there made from Lactantius and Origen, [23/24] would have settled the mind of any dispassionate reader on this point; and as I am sure I could add nothing to their force, I can do no more than refer to them, and suggest a deliberate reperusal of the statements there made.

One word more before passing to other topics. Suppose I were to be cast away on some barbarous shore, and there meeting with a tribe of savages become domesticated among them, and succeed in learning their rude speech; and then, undertaking to translate the history of creation for their instruction, gather them around me, and open my Bible--how should I set about my task? In translating the first verse of Genesis, I select, we will suppose, the word "heaven" first. Now, as a translator, what have I to do?--Is it to take my idea of what the heavens are--a stupendous aggregate of solar systems, circling for ever through boundless space; their planets, satellites, comets, and nebula all moving on together in one bewildering harmony--too vast to be conceived of in a life-time, and too wonderful almost to be believed in--is this, my idea of what the heavens are, the thing which I am to take, and by force of a single word, convey to the mind of my savage hearers? Is it not rather my part to take the actual name by which they call this "the starry firmament," and by it to translate the "heaven" of my text? And so with the word "earth." It is not for me to set about the fruitless search after some word which shall express my idea of what this terrestrial globe is, as the researches of travellers and geologists have taught me to understand its dimensions and its structure; the plain name by which my barbarous pupils call the earth on which they tread--that is what I must use, and not permit myself to falter, because, according to their idea of it, the earth may be square in form, and only about forty miles across. And so also must I not cast away and refuse the name by which they call the female of the human species because it does not convey, by its own force, all my idea of the loveliness of the woman Eve; nor discard their common name for man, because it does not bring up to the mind of my poor savage pupils all that a Hebrew conceived in connexion with the word Adam, or a Greek when he uttered an emphatic anqrwpoV.

These few illustrations will, I think, sufficiently show how deceptive is that method of expression which is common with many persons who write on this subject of translation; they are too apt to confound the very distinct departments of the author and the translator. It is an author's part to convey his ideas upon a given subject to those whom he would instruct, and to employ for this purpose any language he judges suitable for his purpose; but a translator, if he be a faithful one, will simply transpose the meaning of his author, as expressed in his text, from one form of utterance into another. As teachers, authors, and preachers of the Gospel, we are bound to impart to the heathen the highest conceptions our minds have attained unto of the infinite perfections of Him whom we have learnt to call God; though we never affect to accomplish this by the magic force of any one word; but as translators we are bound to render into plain Chinese, word for word, as near as may be, such passages as these: "God says, Thou shalt have [24/25] no other god but Me"--"gods many and lords many; but to us there is but one God,"--"the god of this world," &c. On what principle of faithful translation can we render the same word in the Greek by a different word in the Chinese? I know of none; and in the whole course of this controversy I have seen none adduced. Scores of false issues, and side issues, have been made, receded from, advanced again, and again abandoned; until it has become difficult to know where the opponents to the use of Shin are, and what position they wish to be considered as occupying. And if I cared to meddle with the tracts and preaching of the "Nonconformists," as you call them, I might give such a history of changes in the names used for God as would painfully illustrate Sir G. Staunton's remark that "the appearance of vacillation or uncertainty in the choice of the phrase to denote Deity tends to derogate from its sacred authority." Alas, that our experience should have made us feel how true this is!

Very truly yours in the Lord,


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