Essay / On This Day

Today is Robert Morrison’s Birthday (1782)

Robert Morrison Robert Morrison (1782-1834) was the first Protestant missionary to China, and it was through his work that China was opened up to the Christian message in the nineteenth century.

Morrison was an evangelical Presbyterian who devoted himself to a monumental task of study and translation. A handful of people in China converted to Christianity and were baptized under his ministry, but Morrison’s legacy was his literary work: a translation of the Bible and parts of the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese (1814), plus a three-volume Chinese-English dictionary (1815-23), a grammar book, and surveys of Chinese culture and history to help explain idiomatic expressions.

Morrison didn’t just produce a translation, he give Western Christians the tools they needed to begin understanding China and its need for the gospel.

The most extensive biography of Robert Morrison is by his widow Eliza, who points out that his conversion to Christ at age 16 did something to activate his mental powers. When Jesus came into his heart, the lights came on in his head:

From the time when his mind was seriously occupied with the great truths of the Bible, he began to intermeddle with all knowledge; and those elements of character quickly appeared, which became the basis of his future greatness and success.

Morrison’s conversion story is solid and typical evangelical stuff. After being oppressed by a sense of his sinfulness and God’s righteous displeasure, he accepted forgiveness through Christ:

It pleased God to reveal his Son in me, and at that time I experienced much of ‘the kindness of youth, and the love of espousals;’ and though the first flash of affection wore off, I trust my love to, and knowledge of, the Saviour have increased. Since that time… the Lord has been gradually pleased to humble and prove me; and though I have often experienced much joy and peace in believing, I have likewise experienced much opposition from the working of in-dwelling sin…

Morrison crisply narrates his journey through the ups and downs of spiritual experience: early excitement, then the buzz wore off, but he knew and loved Christ more, and is moving on with his life as a child of God. “Moving on” meant years of patient work, operating at the peak of his mental abilities.

Speaking of the final years of the eighteenth century, and the wave of political optimism that crested around 1798, William Wordsworth said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” It was right around 1798 that a sixteen-year-old Robert Morrison was giving his life to Jesus. Morrison didn’t participate in very much of the sort of bliss and heaven that the young Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge had in mind (much of which they had cause to regret as the French Revolution ran its course). He was watching the Eastern horizon for a different dawn, and by faith he saw it coming.

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