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Hudson Taylor is a name familiar to many wrestling fans. As his Wikipedia entry notes, he holds several Hall of Fame records and “is ranked among the top five pinners in NCAA wrestling.” Surprisingly, he is a descendent of another Hudson Taylor who was also a wrestler of sorts, though not in a ring surrounded by ropes. James Hudson Taylor’s opponents were not flesh and blood, but the enemy acknowledged in Ephesians 6:12: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”


Taylor devoted 51 of his 73 years to taking the Word of God to China, a mission that continues to inspire evangelical Christians to this day. Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette called him “one of the four or five most influential foreigners who came to China in the nineteenth century for any purpose.” C. H. Spurgeon observed of Taylor that “there is not an atom of self-assertion about him, but a firm confidence in God and in the call which he has himself received to carry the gospel to China.”


To Taylor, it was important “to realize that the work of God does not mean so much man’s work for God, as God’s own work through man.”


James Hudson Taylor was born May 21, 1832 in Barnsley, England to James and Amelia Taylor, both devout Christians who raised their son in the Christian faith. In his memoir, In Retrospect, Taylor recalled his parents’ efforts and his resistance to the message.


“I had many opportunities in early years of learning the value of prayer and of the Word of God; for it was the delight of my dear parents to point out that if there were any such Being as God, to trust Him, to obey Him, and to be fully given up to His service, must of necessity be the best and wisest course both for myself and others. But in spite of these helpful examples and precepts my heart was unchanged. Often I had tried to make myself a Christian; and failing of course in such efforts, I began at last to think that for some reason or other I could not be saved, and that the best I could do was to take my fill of this world, as there was no hope for me beyond the grave.”


A sickly child, he was educated at home. At 15, he struck out on his own and worked as a junior clerk in a bank where he met people he described as “holding skeptical and infidel views” who encouraged his own doubts. Taylor was thankful to make their acquaintance since they offered “some hope of escape from the doom which, if my parents were right and the Bible true, awaited the impenitent.”


His mother and sister were so concerned for his soul that they prayed constantly on his behalf. Their prayers were answered when he was 15. One day, while his mother was away, he wandered into his father’s library in search of a book to read. Finding no title that interested him, he picked up a gospel tract from a basket, and began reading it with nothing in mind but entertainment. “There will be a story at the commencement,” he thought to himself, “and a sermon or moral at the close. I will take the former and leave the latter for those who like it.” Only later did he learn that at the same time he was reading the tract, his mother “rose from the dinner table that afternoon with an intense yearning for the conversion of her boy. . .went to her room and turned the key in the door, resolved not to leave that spot until her prayers were answered.”


It was the tract’s reference to “The finished work of Christ” that stirred his curiosity. “Why does the author use this expression?” he wondered. “What was finished?” The answer came to him immediately: “A full and perfect atonement and satisfaction for sin: Christ died for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” With that realization, Taylor concluded that the only course of action was to “fall down on one’s knees, and accepting this Savior and His salvation, to praise Him for evermore. Thus while my dear mother was praising God on her knees in her chamber, I was praising Him in the old warehouse to which I had gone alone to read at my leisure this little book.”


Still, it took a while for Taylor to fully commit his life to God. “The first joys of conversion passed away after a time, and were succeeded by a period of painful deadness of soul, with much conflict.” But this period of backsliding only deepened his dependence on the Lord, and he turned to prayer again, this time asking God to give him some work to do, “something with which He would be pleased, and that I might do for Him who had done so much for me.”


In answering the prayer, God was also answering a prayer made years earlier by his father. Taylor relates that his father had become concerned with the spiritual state of China through reading several books about the subject. His own circumstances prevented him from traveling to the Far East, “but he was led to pray that if God should give him a son, he might be called and privileged to labour in the vast needy empire which was then so apparently sealed against the truth.” Several months later, “the impression was wrought into my soul that it was in China that the Lord wanted me.”


To prepare himself for his calling, Taylor read Walter Henry Medhurst’s China: Its State and Prospects. He also began studying Mandarin, in addition to Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. “I felt that one’s spiritual muscles required strengthening for such an undertaking,” he wrote, so he set about economizing. “Butter, milk, and other luxuries, I soon ceased to use; and I found that by living mainly on oatmeal and rice, with occasional variations, a very small sum was sufficient for my needs. In this way I had more than two-thirds of my income available for other purposes, and my experience was that the less I spent on myself and the more I gave away, the fuller of happiness and blessing did my soul become.”


For a time, he volunteered as a medical assistant with Dr. Robert Hardy in a poor neighborhood of Kingston where he also preached the Gospel and passed out tracts. A year later, he began studying medicine at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.


On September 19, 1853, at age 21, Taylor and crew set sail for China on a three-masted clipper ship called the Dumfries.  His mission was to “evangelize all China, to preach Christ to all its peoples by any and all means that come to hand.”


Taylor’s mother had asked him to wear a swimming-belt, but he refused, convinced that to do so would demonstrate a lack of faith in God. Later, he realized his error. “The use of means ought not to lessen our faith in God, and our faith in God ought not to hinder our using whatever means He has given us for the accomplishment of His purposes.”


The voyage was rough, with twelve days of fierce winds that left the ship “beating backwards and forwards in the Irish Channel, unable to get out to sea.” As the ship drifted perilously close to some rocks, the captain came to Taylor to say, “We cannot live half an hour now.” Waiting on the island of New Guinea were cannibals who were already lighting fires with which to cook the dinner that the ship seemed about to deliver. “We have done everything that can be done,” the captain said, but Taylor corrected him. They could still pray and “ask the Lord to give us a breeze immediately.” Only minutes later, a wind materialized. “The wind has freed two points,” the captain observed. “We shall be able to beat out of the bay.”


The ship landed in Shanghai on March 1, 1854.


China was in the midst of a civil war. “A band of rebels, known as the ‘Red Turbans,’ had taken possession of the native city,” he wrote in A Retrospect. “Those were indeed troublous times, and times of danger.” One day shortly after his arrival, while walking with Alexander Wylie, a fellow missionary, he was very nearly killed by a cannonball. “Another day my friend Mr. Wylie left a book on the table after luncheon, and returning for it about five minutes later, found the arm of the chair on which he had been sitting shot clean away. But in the midst of these and many other dangers God protected us.”


After renting a house, he took to sleeping during the day so he would remain alert at night when the fighting was more intense. Eventually, he realized he would have to return to the Foreign Settlement, and not a minute too soon. Before all of his belongings had been removed, the house was burned to the ground. In was in this climate of terror that Taylor began to evangelize. 


In 1855, his mission took him to T’ung-chau, a visit that he recorded in his journal. “We felt persuaded that Satan would not allow us to assail his kingdom, as we were attempting to do, without raising serious opposition, but we were also fully assured that it was the will of God that we should preach Christ in this city, and distribute the Word of Truth among its people.”


Taylor and his companion ignored repeated warnings about the dangers of attempting to bring God’s Word to the people of the city, and after preaching the Gospel in Mandarin in a tiny village outside of T’ung-chau, they were captured by the militia. “Once or twice a quarrel arose as to how we should be dealt with; the more mild of our conductors saying that we ought to be taken to the magistrate’s office, but others wishing to kill us at once without appeal to any authority. Our minds were kept in perfect peace, and when thrown together on one of these occasions, we reminded each other that the Apostles rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer in the cause of Christ.”


The two missionaries were dragged through the “long weary streets. . . I thought they would never end, and seldom have I felt more thankful than when we stopped at a place where we were told a mandarin resided.” They eventually found themselves in the presence of a mandarin “who seemed to be the highest authority of T’ung-chau” who listened respectfully as they explained the purpose of their mission, then let them distribute Gospel tracts in the city.


There were other challenges. The Chinese Evangelization Society, which had sponsored Taylor’s voyage, rarely came through with its promise of cash to finance his mission, but Taylor, who later resigned from the organization to become an independent missionary, was unconcerned. “Depend upon it,” he said. “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack for supplies.”


Taylor was critical of the other missionaries, believing they spent too much time courting businessmen and diplomats for whom they worked as translators, and they were critical of him for his decision to adopt the ways of the Chinese by growing a queue (pigtail) and shaving his head as Chinese men of the time did. He also adopted their style of dress which meant giving up the dark overcoat that made some of the natives refer to him as a “black devil.”


Taylor made 18 preaching tours of China and, in 1865, founded the Chinese Inland Mission which survives today as Overseas Missionary Fellowship. It proved an innovative ministry with missionaries drawn from various Christian denominations  overseen, not by committees in the home country, but by leaders who were serving alongside them in the field. The missionaries would also adopt the dress of the Chinese to increase their identification with the people they served.


The CIM “made steady progress, the development of the work in China being accompanied by corresponding developments in the home departments of the Mission in England, America, and Australia.”


In 1858, Taylor married Maria Jane Dyer, who worked at a school run by a Chinese missionary. “Never, perhaps, was there a union that more fully realized the blessed truth, ‘Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord,’” he wrote in A Retrospect. “My dear wife was not only a precious gift to me, God blessed her to many others during the twelve eventful years through which she was spared to those that loved her and to China.”


In 1900 came the Boxer Rebellion, the violent uprising instigated by a secret society that opposed “foreign spheres of influence” in the country, including those seeking to bring God’s word to the people. Hundreds of missionaries and their children were cruelly murdered along with thousands of Chinese Christians. “The China Inland Mission lost 53 missionaries and 21 children,” Taylor wrote, and though he was distressed by these events, he noted that in its aftermath, “throughout China generally there has been a spirit of awakening and a time of enlarged opportunity, which is a large call for more men and women to volunteer to step into the gaps and fill the places of those who have fallen.”


For much of his life, Taylor struggled with ill health, and he was frequently visited by tragedy. In July 1870, he would lose a son only weeks after birth, then lose Maria three days later. A daughter died of water on the brain, and his second wife, Jane, whom he married in 1871, would succumb to cancer. In bringing the Gospel to China, his life was often on the line, but he never wavered in his faith or his belief that it was God who provided the muscle with which men wrestled against those unseen powers of darkness. 


“I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”



by Brian W. Fairbanks

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