‘Prayed for 24 Willing, Skillful Laborers’

150 years ago this week, Hudson Taylor launched one of the greatest missionary endeavors in church history amid despair and euphoric faith. /

Dear God, If you should give us a son, grant that he may work for you in China.”

Such was the 1832 prayer of James Taylor, a British man fascinated with the Chinese empire, kneeling in the back of his chemist shop alongside his wife. Several months later, James Hudson Taylor was born. Immersed in a Methodist family fascinated with China, the young Hudson sometimes blurted out, “When I am a man, I mean to be a missionary and go to China”—though he didn’t learn of their prayer for some years.

When he was 17 and experiencing “teenage restlessness and rebellion,” his mother locked herself in a room, moved to not only pray that Taylor would become a Christian, but also to stay in the room until she was sure her prayers had been answered. That same afternoon, Taylor later recalled, he picked up a gospel tract about the finished work of Christ and accepted “this Savior and this salvation.”

So began a single-minded life in Christ, devoted to bringing the gospel to the interior of China.

A Storm and a Pigtail

Within a few months of this “new birth,” as he called it, Taylor’s call to China was confirmed during a night of intense prayer when Taylor lay stretched “before Him with unspeakable awe and unspeakable joy.” He spent the next few years in frantic preparation: studying medicine and language, immersing himself in the Bible and prayer. Finally, at 21, he said an emotional farewell to his mother and boarded a ship in Liverpool harbor headed for China.

Off the Welsh coast, the ship ran into a severe storm. The captain described the sea as the “wildest he had ever seen.” Taylor alternated between dread and trust in God’s care. When the captain, a devout Methodist himself, grew convinced that they weren’t going to survive a half-hour longer, he turned to Taylor and asked, “What of your call to labor for the Lord in China?”

Taylor said that he wouldn’t wish to be in any other position and that he still expected to reach China. But if not, “The Master would say it was well that I was found seeking to obey his command.”

In fact they did survive the storm, and in March 1854, the ship arrived in Shanghai. Taylor quickly settled in and began his work as an agent of the Chinese Evangelization Society, a fledgling independent missionary organization.

Taylor learned the local Mandarin dialect, and made the radical decision to dress in Chinese clothes and grow a pigtail. His decision was rooted in his deep respect for Chinese culture and his view of the missionary’s role. When incredulous fellow Protestant missionaries, who all wore Western dress, criticized him for this unbecoming behavior, he pointed out that those who knew the Chinese best came to appreciate their customs. Many Chinese objected to Christianity, he argued, because it seemed to be a foreign religion that tended to mold converts in the ways of Western nations. Taylor, like the Roman Catholic missionaries who for decades had adopted Chinese dress, was ahead of his time.

The early years presented surprises to the young Taylor. Many Europeans lived in luxury in Shanghai, and Taylor thought some missionaries were “worldly.” The general atmosphere of hearty sociability came as something of a shock to the child of strict Methodists. Furthermore, money quickly became a sore point. Whereas Church Missionary Society single men received the equivalent of $700 a year, not including rent, he was given a salary of only $80 a year, which was also supposed to cover housing.

Still, Taylor pressed on to get the gospel to the Chinese in the interior who had never heard it. Only 7 of China’s 18 provinces had missionaries, and they tended to work in only a few coastal cities. Taylor carped about missionaries who confined themselves to the relative comfort of urban life. He worried about the countless unreached souls of inland China and immediately set about trying to reach them.

Within nine months of his arrival, Taylor and Joseph Edkins hoisted sail, and with bags of Chinese Bibles and tracts over their shoulders, they visited hamlets along the banks of the Huangpu River. At Songjiang, the extraordinary appearance of two foreigners drew crowds; at one point, they made sport of the two men, mocking them and threateningly backing them down a street that ended at the river. Taylor and Edkins barely escaped (by hopping onto a passing boat), and continued their 200-mile round-trip journey. Taylor soon made other trips to the interior, eventually using the city of Ningpo (Ningbo), home to a number of mission organizations, as his base.

The Chinese Evangelization Society proved to be well-intentioned but increasingly incompetent; after much prayer and wrestling, Taylor resigned from its service in 1857. He didn’t know exactly how his work would be financed, though he decided he would not ask for donations—nor even let friends and relatives know of his needs. He would simply trust God to supply him.

Taylor also had for some time been seeking a wife. He had been rejected by two women in England, one before and one after he left for China, leaving him deeply lonely. But in 1857, he met and immediately fell in love with 20-year-old Maria Dyer, the much-sought-after daughter of prestigious missionary parents. Despite snobbish opposition from some in the Ningpo missionary establishment to Taylor’s simplicity, the young couple married in January 1858. It was an uncommonly happy marriage partly because they shared a deep passion to evangelize China even at great personal sacrifice.

Taylor continued to pour himself into his work, both treating the sick and preaching, but by the summer of 1861, he had contracted some disease (probably hepatitis) that completely sapped his strength. After seven years of ministry in China, he was forced to return to England for an extended period of recovery.

Wrestling with a Calling

Though he was supposed to rest in England, he continued his furious work pace, translating the Bible, recruiting missionaries, and obtaining a qualification in midwifery. Taylor was troubled in England by the lack of interest in China. In 1865, as he paced the floor, he dictated to Maria China: Its Spiritual Need and Claims. In it he wrote,

Can all the Christians of England sit still with folded arms while these multitudes [in China] are perishing—perishing for lack of knowledge—for lack of that knowledge which England possesses so richly, which has made England what England is and made us what we are? What does the Master teach us? Is it not that if one sheep out of a hundred be lost, we are to leave the ninety and nine and seek that one? But here the proportions are almost reversed, and we stay at home with the one sheep, and take no heed to the ninety and nine perishing ones!

Taylor became convinced that a special organization was needed for the evangelization of inland China—to go beyond the five treaty ports to which nearly all missionary work had been confined. He was determined not to cut the financial ground from under the feet of the older missionary societies, but what form should such an organization take?

He began making plans for recruiting 24 missionaries: 2 for each of 11 inland provinces of China that were without a missionary, and 2 for Mongolia. It was a visionary plan that would have left experienced missionaries breathless: at the time, a host of seasoned missionary organizations had, all told, only some 90 Protestant missionaries in China. Taylor single-handedly wanted to increase that by over 25 percent.

This would be an enormous financial commitment, so Taylor opened a bank account under the name of the China Inland Mission (CIM). Soon he had money and five missionary volunteers to send to China—even before he had formally committed himself to head a new missions society.

He hesitated to take that step because he found himself wracked with doubt. For months in 1865, a myriad of concerns raced through his mind; he rarely slept for two hours at a time. On the one hand, he agonized over the millions of Chinese who were dying without the hope of the gospel; on the other hand, he wrestled with what he called his “unbelief”: he feared taking responsibility for sending young men and women into the China interior, where they would be subject to rejection, illness, and persecution—which he knew firsthand.

Founding the China Inland Mission

Taylor thought he might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown; he wrote in his diary later, “For two or three months, intense conflict. . . . Thought I should lose my mind.” A friend, seeing that Taylor desperately needed a break, invited him to Brighton for the weekend.

On Sunday morning, he slipped out after worship: “Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge,” he later recalled, “I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony.”

Sometime during that walk, he found relief. “There the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. I told him that all responsibility as to the issues and consequences must rest with him; that as his servant it was mine to obey and to follow him—his to direct, to care for, and to guide me and those who might labor with me.”

With that, he felt his halting steps had been confirmed. Immediately he wrote in the margin of his Bible, “Prayed for 24 willing, skillful laborers, Brighton, June 25/65.”

Taylor was determined that the CIM would be distinct: no denomination, but a doctrinal agreement; no guaranteed salaries or appeals, but trust in the Lord to supply; no home committees, but leadership on the ground; Chinese clothes and Chinese-styled buildings for worship; and most importantly, the organization would press on to the unreached interior of China.

Within a year, Hudson and Maria Taylor sailed for China. Aboard were their 4 children and 16 young missionaries, joining the 5 already working in China under Taylor’s direction.

In the inland towns of Hangchow (Hangzhou) and Hsiaoshan (Xiao-shan), the CIM began its work, a combination of medical care and evangelistic preaching amidst the hustle and bustle of Chinese life. CIM missionary John McCarthy described the scene that greeted him when he arrived in 1867: It was the Chinese New Year holiday, and a crowd hovered outside the CIM clinic. In the midst of the seeming confusion, Taylor stood on a table preaching to the people. As McCarthy and his family were shown into the CIM house, Taylor waved his hand and acknowledged them with a brief word of welcome and then carried on preaching.

Taylor was seeing more than 200 patients daily. His operations to remove cataracts seemed like miracles to the Chinese. One convert, Mr. Tsiu, who had been converted under Taylor’s preaching in Ningpo, also preached to those who waited for medical treatment.

Challenges and Growth

Taylor made enormous demands on himself, and as one would expect, equally high demands on CIM missionaries. Some balked at the society’s strong convictions and requirements, and a fair amount of missionaries left their posts. Yet the number of CIM missionaries grew. By 1876, 18 new missionaries set sail for China, bringing the total to 52, making CIM a fifth of the total missionary force in China. CIM missionaries moved increasingly into the interior provinces.

Taylor’s boldness seemed to know no bounds. In 1881 he had the temerity to ask for another 70 missionaries by the close of 1884—and he got 76. Late in 1886, Taylor was praying for 100 more missionaries by 1887. A veteran missionary told Taylor, “I am delighted to hear that you are praying for large reinforcements. You will not get a hundred, of course, within the year, but you will get many more than if you did not ask for them.”

“Thank you for your interest,” Taylor replied. “We have the joy of knowing our prayers answered now. And I feel sure that, if spared, you will share the joy of welcoming the last of the hundred to China!” By early November 1887, Taylor announced that 102 candidates had been accepted for service and that enough money had been given to pay for their passages to China!

Despite the taxing nature of the work, which took a toll on many CIM’s missionaries, it eventually became the largest missionary organization in China, and even more important to Taylor, had a Christian presence in all 18 provinces.

Sacrifice and Legacy

Whether in China or back in England, Taylor faced a relentless round of speaking engagements, personal visits, correspondence, and administrative tasks. Still, he greeted each sunrise with prayer, and he often worked late into the night, catching sleep day or night when his body demanded it.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his work was that he managed to continue it in spite of constant poor health and regular bouts of depression. On a speaking tour of the United States in 1900, Taylor nearly had a complete physical and mental breakdown. As his wife, Maria, had noted decades earlier, “I am more intimately acquainted than anyone else can be with his trials, his temptations, his conflicts, his failures and failings, and his conquests.

The personal cost was often high indeed: Maria died at age 33, and four of Maria’s eight children died before they reached the age of 10. (Taylor eventually married Jennie Faulding, another CIM missionary.)

As a man who had literally given all to Christ in China, Taylor found it difficult to expect any less commitment from others: “China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women. . . . The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, souls, first and foremost in everything and at every time—even life itself must be secondary.”

By the late 1880s, Taylor’s vision had begun to ignite imaginations all across the world. At the end of his life, the very mission organizations that had scoffed at his methods had begun adopting many of them. Just after Taylor died, a young Chinese evangelist looked upon his body and summed up Taylor’s most important legacy: “Dear and venerable pastor, we too are your little children. You opened for us the road to heaven. We do not want to bring you back, but we will follow you.”

Roger Steer is a freelance writer living in Devon, England. He is author of J. Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ (OMF, 1990). This article is condensed from a longer essay that appeared in Christian History magazine.

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