The Endurance of Robert Morrison: First Protestant Missionary to China


Piety is a great quickener of the intellect. I have no doubt that is so. Christianity is as philosophical as it is practical. It elevates as well as purifies the mind.

– John Foster, British Minister and Essayist [1770-1843]


-September 8th, 1807, eight o’clock p.m., the Trident anchors in the Pearl River estuary in Canton, China, northwest of Hong Kong.  

           Twenty-five year old Robert Morrison heard thousands of Chinese voices from his cabin below the decks of the Trident. Excitement overwhelmed him. He had reached his destiny, had been cradled in safety—as a newborn in protective arms—through his long-winded journey. Afar, from the Downs near the English Channel, where then, aboard the Remittance on February 17th of the same year, the sister ships in the Downs had endured a violent gale that had capsized many vessels, and sent others crashing up onto the shore. But the Remittance was spared. Robert recalled the 107th Psalm: “…He calls to the storm winds; the waves rise high. Their ships are tossed to the heavens and sink again to the depths; the sailors cringe in terror. They reel and stagger like drunkards and are at their wit’s end. Then they cry to the lord in their trouble, and he saves them. He calms the storm and stills the waves”1 Robert knew it was the finger of God that enabled the craft to pursue his journey to New York, America, where, after much flack, he finally claimed passage aboard the Trident, reassuming his solo mission procured by the London Missionary Society, to be the very first Protestant missionary to China.

            The course aboard the Trident was not without peril. On March 19th, another gale of wind from the west came about very early in the morning. The sky was blue-black and the rumbling ocean darker. Until this day, the voyage had been untested. Below, Robert had been thrown by a heavy roll of the ship. His left temple was struck against a cord-bound wooden pin, amplifying his sea-sickness with the large swelling of his temple. After seventy days, the gale still persisted, and Robert had been working topside to aide in the affairs of the weather-beaten sailors. The wind and rain blew tremendously, and the ship carpenter had brought out axes to sever the masts if the Captain ordered such defeat. An African sailor passed by Robert, who was towing some lines and pulleys, and muttered “it sinks.” Robert was stricken. The blood drained down from his round face; the rain cascaded down his long, sharp nose and his brown hair—wavy when dry—was drenched and hung straight down in front of his dark eyes from the weight of the rain.

            “What did you say,” Robert asked the sailor, in hopes of a misunderstanding.

            “I said she sinks.”

            The sailor then ran aft.

            Robert’s imagination ran terribly wild, and he dropped to his knees in prayer.

            The Captain was touring the ship and its condition, and saw Robert: a respected passenger aboard the ship and one that the Captain was very grateful for. Robert instilled morale in the crew with his sermons on the Lord’s days. The Captain knelt beside him.

            “It’s just a little rain, Mr. Morrison, it sucks… we’ll be fine.”

            “It sucks?”

            “Yes, the bilge pump, it sucks.”

            It was then Robert realized what the African sailor had been saying earlier, as best he could in his dialect, that “it sucks.” The pump sucked. The ship would not sink. Robert rejoiced with all his heart, and carried on with his duties, as best he could accomplice the deckhands.



           Before Robert dashed topside to take in the view of Canton, his destination, he jotted a hastened entry in his journal, later transposed in a letter:

…I would not disregard the operation of the hand of our God in the most minute occurrence; far less when I am preserved amid the raging, foaming, dashing billows, and the fierce howling tempest. To float twenty-two thousand miles in safety, on a few planks nailed together and called a ship, is a circumstance that should excite the warmest gratitude: but ah! What is that, compared to passing safely through this present life, a sea of trouble, and reaching the haven of eternal rest! 2

            Even though it was evening, the Pearl River’s estuary, the Bocca Tigris, was bustling with life. Robert was both enthralled and intimidated by the crowded waterways, the congested adjoining canals, and the sound of a thousand rowing oars from junks and sampans and the clamor of thousands of Mandarin voices. His ferry through the estuary and into the river traffic, and the reeking smell, engulfed his presence, overpowered him, and he fervently reminded himself of his mission. He must overcome his fears, his culture-shocked spirit, and he repeated in his mind, silently, the words of Moses “Be Strong! Be courageous! Do not be afraid of them! For the Lord your God will be with you. He will neither fail you nor forsake you.” 3 He was escorted by some of the ship’s men, to an American factory in Canton, where he was to temporarily reside under the cloak of the Americans that were currently tolerated by the Empirical Qing Dynasty. He would not only have to assume the American identity, but had also to be wary of the Roman Catholics, who had already established a strong presence in Canton and beyond and would not embrace his mission but condemn it.

            In the morning, Robert ventured out into the narrow streets and walkways. The intense heat soon caused his sweat to saturate his clothing. The bantering noise of the street markets flooded his ears and the open sewers infiltrated his nose. Rickshaws scurried up and down the streets like squirrels gathering for winter, and bone and skin beggars pulled at Roberts clothing, their sunken mouths agape and pleading. He found his way to the river, even busier than the evening—a floating congregation of a hundred thousand souls aboard slipper boats, cargo boats, flower boats, house boats, leper boats, police boats, guard boats, customs boats, fishing boats, gunboats, and floating restaurants and brothels. In the distance, some eleven miles away, Robert saw the majestic outline of White Cloud Mountain.4 It reminded him of the Heaven that he wished to enable all of these souls before him to enter. He knew then, that he had no more time for sight-seeing. He had must work harder than ever, bury himself in the language, and for as many hours as his body would allow, to begin the tedious process—the arduous labors—of translating the New Testament—the message of the Savior—so that the Chinese could discover the power and saving grace of Christ the Lord and discard their idol ways.

            Robert had no time to waste. He knew that in order to translate the New Testament, he would first need to create a Chinese-English dictionary. This was to be his first mission, as the London Missionary Society had forewarned. To Robert’s elation, his Chinese tutor from London, Yong-Sam-Tak,*arrived several weeks later, and, so united, Robert and Sam-Tak tackled—in the sunlight of day and the candlelight of night—the translation of the Chinese dictionary to English.

            But Sam-Tak soon became an obstacle to Robert in and of himself. He was flighty, had an obnoxious temper, and also, refused to cook. Robert had to then oblige the two with sustenance, which consisted of modest meals, chiefly boiled rice, molasses and tea.

            In 1810, to plug the holes of Sam-Tak’s here-nor-there assistance, Robert employed a willing participant, Ko-Seen-Sang, a local Mandarin. Through much persistence and dedicated work ethic, Robert and Seen-Sang completed the dictionary, and without a lull in work, commenced the translation of the Acts of the Apostles and printed over one-thousand copies that were dispersed throughout the region. Also, during this time, Robert gathered Chinese effects, specifically the literature of Confucius, the History of Fuh, and thirty-three Chinese paintings, and promptly mailed them to London for examination, and to provide better understanding of the Chinese culture 5

            At a sluggish pace, broadly in part of the threat of insubordination to the Chinese empire, and resistance from the Roman Catholic presence in Canton, Robert had but few attendees to his sermons on the Lord’s days. For many years, the biggest group of believers that tread carefully into his residence (then at the East India Company in Canton) was no more than nine. But there were inklings of hope for the expansion of the Word. Robert was greatly inspired by a particular occurrence, inscribed in his journal on October 8th, 1812: “I have had the happiness to hear that a person in the city, belonging to the police, has been reformed in his life by means of the tract which I published.”

            In June of 1813, there came about a most severe famine in Shang-tung, a district abreast Peking. There were reports of cannibalism. And in Kwang-se, which borders Canton on the west, a great eruption of water had flooded many local neighborhoods and set afloat many residences Countless people drowned. The Chinese claimed it was caused by a great dragon—the dragon of rain—that had been moving its tail underground. Robert survived the natural disaster, his abode

unscathed, and during this time completed the translation of the New Testament. Soon, the scriptures were circulating: a symbol of hope landing in the hands of the afflicted and the destitute, and many were finding solace and fulfilment in the teachings of Christ and His Disciples.

            Robert’s guidance of the mission remained intact, expanding to Macau and the island of Malacca, where, before his death, the college at Malacca was built to further the Protestant evangelical path. All of Robert’s missions posthumously endured. By 1817, Robert and another missionary, William Milne, had translated the books of Genesis, the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Ruth, and by 1820 the entire Old Testament had been translated. Adjoined with the earlier production of the New Testament, the first Bible in the Chinese language was created.

            In retrospect, Robert’s life and adventures in evangelism seem almost as miraculous as the scriptures. His life-works stand as an impenetrable call to action, a stoic persistence, and a dedication unmeasurable. Today, his efforts remain visible, not only in the continued Protestant Christian followers in Asia, but also in the furtherance of Christian-affiliated education to expatriate children at The Morrison Academy in modern day Taichung, Taiwan.

             Morrison was laid to rest in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau. The inscription on his epitaph reads:

Sacred to the memory of Robert Morrison, D.D.,

The first protestant missionary to China, where after a service of twenty-seven years, cheerfully spent in extending the kingdom of the blessed Redeemer during which period he compiled and published a dictionary of the Chinese language, founded the Anglo Chinese College at Malacca and for several years laboured alone on a Chinese version of The Holy Scriptures, which he was spared to see complete and widely circulated among those for whom it was destined, he sweetly slept in Jesus. He was born at Morpeth in Northumberland 5 January 1782 Was sent to China by the London Missionary Society in 1807 Was for twenty five years Chinese translator in the employ of The East India Company and died in Canton 1 August 1834. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth Yea saith the Spirit that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.



1. Verses 25-29 the Living Bible

2. Morrison, Robert and Eliza, Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, D.D., volume 1, 1839, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1839. Reproduction. pp. 137-138.

3. Deuteronomy 31:6

4. Presbyterian Archives Research Centre, “A Tour of Old Canton”, Photo Gallery No. 9.

5. Daily, Christopher. Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China, Royal Asiatic Society Books, London, Hong Kong University Press, 2013. Print. p. 116

* so called by the English, but according to the Mandarin tongue, should have been written Yung-san-tih



About Hudson Saffell (36 Articles)
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