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Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret


Love that bent low beneath his brother’s burden, How shall he soar and find all sorrows flown! Love that ne’er asked for answer or for guerdon, How shall he meet eyes sweeter than his own! —F. W. H. Meyers

Nothing in the records of his first two years in China is more surprising than the way in which Hudson Taylor devoted himself to pioneer evangelism. One might have thought that with the study of the language, amid war conditions and well-nigh overwhelmed as he was with other trials, he would scarcely have attempted frequent itinerations in what was then the interior. But to those years belong no fewer than ten evangelistic journeys, all of which were more or less remarkable for their courage and endurance.

North, south, and west of Shanghai stretched a populous region made accessible by endless waterways. Junks were plentiful and afforded shelter of a sort at night, as well as transportation by day, so that travelers were not dependent on Chinese inns.

Simple cooking arrangements supplied food for the boatman’s family and “guests,” which might be supplemented by stores of one’s own. The beds were just wooden boards and the tiny windows were often on a level with the floor, but one could lie down or sit on one’s bedding when it was not possible to stand upright. Inconveniences were many, but people were made accessible in city after city, town after town, and villages never out of sight as one passed slowly along.

It was this that drew Hudson Taylor, as it had his Master long ago. The same “must” was in his heart: “I must work the works of him that sent me”; “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also”; “Other sheep I have, … them also I must bring.” It was not enough to go to the highways and byways of Shanghai. Others were already doing that to some extent. His heart was burdened with a sense of responsibility for those BEYOND — those who never had heard the way of salvation, who never could hear unless the truth were brought to them by Christ-filled messengers. So nothing held him back, neither winter cold nor summer heat, nor even the peril of war conditions, which might endanger the lives of Europeans at any time or cut him off from return to Shanghai.

No sooner was one journey completed than he would start preparations for another. After a period devoted chiefly to study, he was familiar enough with the language to make himself understood in Mandarin as well as the local dialect, and the itinerations that followed were so intensive that these ten journeys were accomplished within fifteen months. Before Dr. Parker arrived, many excursions had been made to places within ten or fifteen miles of Shanghai, and during the first three months they were together, they distributed eighteen hundred New Testaments and Scripture portions and over two thousand explanatory books and tracts. These were given with the utmost care, only to those who could read, and as the majority were illiterate it meant covering a great deal of ground and explaining the message of the books to constantly changing crowds.

Then, beginning in winter, four journeys were taken from January to March, in spite of zero weather, followed by others in April, May, June, August and September. Out among the crowds all day and in boats that had to be closed at night because of river thieves, there was little relief from the distressing heat. But nothing deterred the young evangelist.

The danger of these journeys was considerable, and when he was without companion the loneliness was keenly felt. Far from other foreigners, moving among not too friendly crowds, he quietly prosecuted his mission, finding his medical equipment of the greatest value in opening the way to people’s hearts. His own heart, meanwhile, was entering more deeply into what it means to live and die “without Christ,” and his outlook was enlarging. From temple- crowned hilltops and the height of ancient pagodas he would look down upon cities, towns and villages where the homes of millions of people were in sight — men, women and children who had never heard the one, the only Name “whereby we must be saved.” Great thoughts, deep thoughts were moving in his heart, “thoughts lasting to the end.” * * [Long years after, on another journey, the last he ever took up the great Yangtze River, pacing the deck of the steamer in company with the writers he paused again and again, looking with misty eyes toward the hills on the southern shore. It was somewhere near Green Grass Island that he said at length:

“I wish I could tell you about it. It was over there, but I cannot remember just the spot.”

Seeing him moved by some recollection we waited to hear more.

But fifty years had passed since that day, the remembrance of which brought so deep a joy and awe. He could not put it into words. He tried but could not tell us what had been between his soul and God.

But there, over there on those more distant heights it had come to him — some revelation of his future work, some call to utmost surrender for the life to which the Lord was leading — and its influence remained.]

In the midst of it all, the civil war reached its desperate climax, and Shanghai fell before the Government forces. Hudson Taylor was traveling at the time with older missionaries toward the Soochow Lake. They had not been absent many days when they saw from the top of a hill the smoke of an immense conflagration. So great a fire in that direction could mean but one thing — Shanghai was in flames!

And what of their families in the Settlement? Setting out at once to return, their fears were confirmed by fleeing rebels who sought protection. This of course the missionaries could not afford, and the men were caught and beheaded before their eyes. Hastening on with increasing apprehension, they came upon terrible evidences of the catastrophe that had taken place. But the Settlement was as they had left it. Satiated with slaughter, the Imperialists were too exultant over their conquest to pay much attention to foreigners.

Shanghai is now in peace [Hudson Taylor wrote], but it is like the peace of death. Two thousand people at the very least have perished, and the tortures some of the victims have undergone cannot have been exceeded by the worst barbarities of the Inquisition. The city is little more than a mass of ruins, and many of the wretched objects who survive and are piteous to behold.

Still, the worst was over, and Hudson Taylor and his colleagues gave themselves to caring for the people, body and soul, while awaiting the reply of their Committee to suggestions for more settled work. Usefulness was what they longed for, and their plans had been well thought out and much prayed over. But the answer upon which their future seemed to depend was long in coming.

The heat of summer, meanwhile, was overpowering in their crowded quarters, and a brief visit to Ningpo opened a tempting prospect. For the missionaries in that city, feeling the need of a hospital to supplement their otherwise efficient organization, extended a cordial invitation to Dr. Parker to undertake this work, to which they pledged their united support. At this juncture, while still waiting the reply of their Committee, they received notice that the house they were sharing with another family would be needed shortly for members of the mission to which it belonged. Their fellow occupant was moving to premises of his own, but they had not been in a position to build, nor could they find rooms for rent anywhere in the Settlement or Chinese city. Only one course seemed open to Hudson Taylor, especially when the long-expected answer came and was unfavorable. The Committee was not prepared to spend money on building in the Ports. They wanted their workers to go to the interior, though where they were to live until that was feasible did not appear. Under these circumstances, Dr. and Mrs. Parker decided upon Ningpo, and their colleague was left in uncertainty. His friends gone, his home gone and no accommodation to be found even in the native city, how could he remain in Shanghai to carry on his work?

For a time he was much perplexed, but gradually out of these very difficulties emerged a new line of thought. He had been searching without success for any kind of place he could rent as a home base. The rapid influx of a new population made the housing problem in Shanghai more acute than ever. If he could not get a home on shore, why not take to boats as many Chinese do and live on the water? This would fit in well with the project he already had in mind of adopting Chinese dress, the better to prosecute his work. Yes, it all began to open up. He would take his few belongings to Ningpo, when he went to escort the Parkers, and would return to identify himself wholly with the people to whom his life was given.

But the step was not as simple as it seemed. Wearing Chinese dress in those days involved shaving the front part of the head and letting the hair grow long for the regulation queue. No missionary or other foreigner conformed to such a custom. For an occasional journey, a Chinese gown might be used over one’s ordinary clothing, but to give up European dress and adopt the native costume altogether was quite another matter. Hudson Taylor had not been in China for a year and a half without realizing the social ostracism such action would involve. So for a time there was a struggle, though he was increasingly convinced of the wisdom of the step from a higher point of view.

It was access to the people he desired. A recent journey of twenty-five days alone, when he had penetrated two hundred miles up the Yangtze, had assured him that it was possible to do more than was generally supposed in itinerant evangelism. Of the fifty-eight towns and cities visited, fifty-one had never before been touched by messengers of the Gospel. But the weariness and strain of the journey had been largely due to the fact that he was wearing European clothing, the most outlandish costume to those who had never seen it before! Attention was continually distracted from his message by his appearance, which to his hearers was as undignified as it was comical. And after all, surely it mattered more to be suitably attired from the Chinese point of view — when it was the Chinese he wanted to win — rather than sacrifice their approval for that of the small foreign community in the Ports. So the decision was come to at last, after much prayer and searching the Word of God for guidance ; and when the Parkers were ready to leave for Ningpo, Hudson Taylor’s Chinese outfit was ready too, only waiting the crucial moment when he would commit himself to the barber’s transforming hands.

It was an August evening when he went down to the river to engage the junk that was to take the Parkers on the first stage of their journey. On the way a Chinese stranger accosted him, asking to his surprise whether he was not seeking a house for rent. Would a small one do, and in the Chinese city? Because near the South Gate there was such a house, only it was not quite finished building. The owner had run short of money and did not know how to complete the work. If the house suited, no deposit would be asked, and it could probably be had for an advance of six months’ rent.

As if in a dream, Hudson Taylor followed his guide to the southern part of the city, and there found a small, compact house, perfectly new and clean, with two rooms upstairs, two on the ground floor, and a fifth across the courtyard for the servants, just the thing he needed and in the locality he would have chosen. What it meant to pay the money over that night and secure the premises may be better imagined than described. Then he had not been mistaken after all! His work in Shanghai was not finished. Prayer was being answered and the guidance given for which he had longed and waited.

That night he took the step which was to have so great an influence on the evangelization of inland China! When the barber had done his best, the young missionary darkened his remaining hair to match the long braid which, at first, must do duty for his own. Then in the morning he put on as best he might the loose, unaccustomed garments, and appeared for the first time in the gown and satin shoes of the “Teacher,” or man of the scholarly class.

Everything opened up after that in a new way. On the return journey to Shanghai he was not even recognized as a foreigner, until he began to preach or distribute books and see patients. Then women and children came around much more freely, and the crowds were less noisy and excited. While missing some of the prestige attaching to Europeans, he found it more than made up for by the freedom his changed appearance gave him in moving among the people. Their homes were open to him as never before, and it was possible to get opportunities for quiet intercourse with those who seemed interested.

Filled with thankfulness for these and other advantages, he wrote home about the dress he had adopted, “It is evidently to be one’s chief help for the interior.”

And it was “the interior” more and more on which his heart was set. A few weeks in his new home at the South Gate brought wonderful soul-refreshing.

Dr. Parker is in Ningpo [he wrote early in October] but I am not alone. I have such a sensible presence of God with me as I never before experienced, and such drawings to prayer and watchfulness as are very blessed and necessary.

Then, though a little place of his own was welcome and the opportunities around him were many, Hudson Taylor set out again for the “regions beyond.” His Christian teacher was left to look after the interested neighbors in Shanghai and other missionaries were doing fine, intensive work in that great center. It might not seem so fruitful a method — to go as far afield as possible, scattering the Word of God — but it was following the Lord’s teaching and example, and unless this course were adopted, HOW SHOULD THOSE FARTHER ON EVER HEAR AT ALL?

Joy and sorrow strangely mingled in the days that followed, for he was prospered on this journey, yet the outcome brought him into trouble. The great island of Tsungming was his destination, with its population of more than a million without a single Protestant missionary. In company with Mr. Burdon, Hudson Taylor had visited Tsungming the year before, but now a very different reception awaited him. At his first landing place the people simply would not hear of his leaving. Dressed like themselves he did not seem to be a foreigner. His medicine chest attracted them no less than his preaching, and when they learned that he would need an upstairs room, because of the dampness of the locality, they said:

“Let him live in the temple, if no other upper story can be found.”

But a householder was forthcoming whose premises included some sort of attic, and within three days of his arrival Hudson Taylor found himself in possession of his first home in “inland China.”

This was wonderful, and so was the response to his message.

Neighbors dropped in every day to the meetings and the stream of visitors and patients seemed unceasing. Six weeks of this happy work, while it wakened some opposition on the part of the medical fraternity, resulted in a group of earnest inquirers. One of these was a blacksmith named Chang, and another a businessman in good standing, “whose heart the Lord opened.” His own first convert, Kwei-hwa, and another Christian helper were with him, so that when Hudson Taylor had to return to Shanghai for supplies the little group was still well cared for.

And then the disappointment came which was as painful as it was unexpected. Unknown to him, there had been some wire-pulling at Tsungming. A high official had been induced by certain doctors and druggists to relieve them of the presence of one whom they considered their rival, though the young missionary accepted no payment for his medical work. A summons to the British Consulate awaited him, and his plea to be allowed to remain on the island, where all seemed peaceful and friendly, was in vain. The Consul reminded him that the British treaty only provided for residence in the Ports, and that if he attempted to settle elsewhere he rendered himself liable to a fine of five hundred dollars. He must give up his house, remove his belongings to Shanghai and be careful not to transgress in future, and that in spite of the fact that French priests were living on Tsungming, protected by a supplementary treaty which stipulated, as Hudson Taylor well knew, that immunities granted to other nations should also apply to the British. He might have appealed to a higher authority, but meanwhile could only accept the Consul’s decision.

It was a heartbroken letter that he wrote home that evening.

Those young inquirers — Chang, Sung and the others — what was to become of them? Were they not his own children in the faith? How could he leave them with no help and so little knowledge in the things of God? Yet the Lord had permitted it. The work was His. He would not fail them nor forsake them.

“My heart will be truly sorrowful when I can no longer join you in the meetings,” said the blacksmith the last evening they were together.

“But you will worship in your own home,” replied his friend.

“Still shut your shop on Sunday, for God is here whether I am or not.

Get someone to read for you, and gather your neighbors in to hear the Gospel.”

“I know but very little,” put in Sung, “and when I read I by no means understand all the characters. My heart is grieved because you have to leave us; but I do thank God that He ever sent you to this place. My sins, once so heavy, are all laid on Jesus, and He daily gives me joy and peace.”

Perplexed and disappointed, the young missionary could only wait upon God as to his future course.

Pray for me, pray for me [he wrote to his parents at this time]. I need more grace, and live far below my privileges. Oh, to feel more as…the Lord Jesus did when He said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” I do not want to be as a hireling who flees when the wolf is near, nor would I lightly run into danger when much may be accomplished in safety. I want to know the Lord’s will and to have grace to do it, even if it results in expatriation. “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?… Father, glorify thy name.”

Pray for me, that I may be a follower of Christ not in word only, but in deed and in truth.

All unknown to the troubled heart there was another, stronger, deeper than his own and more experienced in the things of God, that was facing the same problem. This man also was burdened for the perishing millions of inland China. He too had been testing the possibilities of itinerant evangelism and had found encouraging openings for such work. He had failed, however, in his effort to reach Nanking and was shut up to living on boats, slowly making has way back to the coast. William Burns, preacher and evangelist whom God had so signally used throughout Scotland and Canada in the mighty revival of 1839, was even then nearing Shanghai, and there it was that he was brought into touch with Hudson Taylor in his hour of need. It was not long before each recognized a kindred spirit, in spite of their disparity in years. Like Paul and Timothy they drew together, and those wintry days saw the commencement of a friendship destined to mold not only Hudson Taylor’s missionary life but the character of the far-reaching enterprise that was to develop under his guidance.

Not one boat but two now traveled in company over the network of waterways leading inland from Shanghai. Each missionary had a Chinese missionary with him as well as other helpers, and daily worship on the boats grew into quite a little service. Mr. Burns had developed a line of his own in such work which his companion was glad to follow. Choosing an important center, they might remain two or three weeks in one place. Every morning they set out early with a definite plan, sometimes going together and sometimes separating to visit different sections. Mr. Burns believed in beginning quietly on the outskirts of any city in which foreigners had rarely been seen, and working his way by degrees to the more crowded quarters. So they would give some days to preaching in the suburbs, gradually approaching the thronging streets and markets, until they could pass anywhere without endangering the shopkeepers’ tempers or their wares.

Then they would visit temples, schools and tea shops, returning regularly to the best places for preaching. Announcing at each meeting when they would be there again, they had the satisfaction of seeing the same faces frequently, and interested hearers could be invited to the boats for further conversation.

As time went on, Mr. Burns did not fail to notice that Hudson Taylor, though so much younger and less experienced, had the more attentive hearers and was even asked into private houses while he himself was requested to wait outside. The riffraff of the crowd always seemed to gather round the preacher in foreign dress, while those who wished to hear undisturbed followed his less noticeable friend. The result was a conclusion of which Mr. Burns tells in the following letter:

January 26, 1856

It is now forty-one days since I left Shanghai on this last occasion. An excellent young English missionary, Mr. Taylor of the Chinese Evangelization Society, has been my companion… and we have experienced much mercy, and on some occasions considerable help in our work.

I must once more tell the story I have had to tell more than once already, how four weeks ago, on the 29th of December, I put on Chinese dress which I am now wearing. Mr. Taylor had made this change a few months before, and I found that he was in consequence so much less incommoded in preaching, etc., by the crowd, that I concluded that it was my duty to follow his example. …

We have a large, very large field of labor in this region, though it might be difficult in the meantime for one to establish himself in any particular place. The people listen with attention, but we need the power from on high to convince and convert. Is there any spirit of prayer on our behalf among God’s people in Kilsyth? Or is there any effort to seek this spirit? How great the need is, and how great the arguments and motives for prayer in this case! The harvest here is indeed great, and the laborers are few and imperfectly fitted, without much grace, for such a work. And yet, grace can make a few feeble instruments the means of accomplishing great things — things greater even than we can conceive.

Prayer was the atmosphere of William Burns’s life and the Word of God was his daily food.

He was mighty in the Scriptures [his biographer records] and his greatest power in preaching was the way in which he used “the sword of the Spirit” upon men’s consciences and hearts. … Sometimes one might have thought, in listening to his solemn appeals, that one was hearing a new chapter in the Bible when first spoken by a living prophet. … His whole life was literally a life of prayer, and his whole ministry a series of battles fought at the mercy-seat. … In digging in the field of the Word, he threw up now and then great nuggets which formed part of one’s spiritual wealth ever after.

Cultured, genial and overflowing with mother-wit, he was an ideal companion. Sacred music was his delight. A wonderful fund of varied anecdotes gave charm to his society, and he was generous in recalling his experiences for the benefit of others. And this man, the friendship of this man, with all he was and had been, was the gift and blessing of God at this particular juncture to Hudson Taylor. Under its influence he grew and expanded and came to an understanding of spiritual values that left its impress on his whole life after. William Burns was better to him than a college course with all its advantages, because he lived out before him, right there in China, the reality of all he most needed to be and know.

For seven long happy months they worked together, first in the Shanghai region, then in and around the great city of Swatow. The call to this southern port had come most unexpectedly, and they had the privilege of being the first missionaries in that difficult but now fruitful field. But for their Chinese dress it would have been impossible to live right in the native city as they did, and to make friends of so many of their turbulent neighbors. At the end of four months they were able, through the blessing of God upon the medical work, to rent the entire premises in which they had been allowed but a single room, and their initial difficulties seemed at an end.

Then it was that at Mr. Burns’s request his young companion consented to return to Shanghai, to obtain his medical outfit left there for safety. As though the shadow of a longer parting lay upon his heart, Hudson Taylor was reluctant to take the step. To leave Mr. Burns alone to face the worst heat of summer was no less distressing than to break up the companionship which had meant so much in his life.

Those happy months were an unspeakable joy and comfort to me [he recalled long after]. Never had I such a spiritual father as Mr. Burns; never had I known such holy, happy intercourse. His love for the Word was delightful, and his holy reverential life and constant communings with God made fellowship with him to satisfy the deep cravings of my heart.

But the instruments and medicines were needed, for Mr. Burns was keen about developing hospital work. So Hudson Taylor sailed for Shanghai, only to find that his medical supplies had all been accidentally destroyed by fire. And before he could replace them, the distressing news reached him that his beloved and honored friend had been arrested by the Chinese authorities and sent, under escort, a journey of thirty-one days to Canton. The shock was all the more painful as they were forbidden to return to Swatow, and the path that had seemed so clear before them was lost in strange uncertainty.

Yet but for this great and unexpected trial Hudson Taylor might never have been led into the life-work that was awaiting him; might never have known the love beyond all other human love which was to be his crowning joy and blessing.

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