Inspiring Tale

In August 1816, at the age of just 20, Walter Medhurst set sail from London aboard the General Graham bound for Malacca (Malaysia) to establish a printing facility for the London Missionary Society. So began his career as missionary, adventurer, printer, writer, translator, teacher and 19th Century pioneer to China. 

After five months, he reached Madras (India), where he was delayed for three months waiting for another ship, during which time he met, fell in love with and married his wife Elizabeth. Her life of struggle and survival growing up in India as the daughter of a colonel in the Madras Native Infantry adds colour and passion to Walter’s story.

Missionary Beginnings

Medhurst was ordained as a missionary in 1819 at Malacca and together with Elizabeth, they established a mission centre in Batavia (Jakarta), where he was forced to confront a renegade missionary involved in slave and opium trading. In Batavia, he built a printing and publishing operation as well as a church and an orphanage, both of which still exist and operate today. 

From Batavia, Medhurst went out to explore Java, Malaysia and Borneo, narrowly escaping an attack by pirates along the Malaysian coast, and he ventured deep into the interior of Borneo’s jungle, praying that he would not meet the head-hunting Dayaks. These were the indigenous people who were much feared by Westerners. 

Medhurst’s purpose was to establish a mission centre in China at a time when China was a society closed off to foreigners. He defied Chinese restrictions, by undertaking an exploratory trip up the coast of China as far north as Shandong in order to spread his Christian message. In doing so, he confronted the embargo of the Emperor.

Established Missionary

In 1836, Medhurst returned to England with his family where he published a book, ‘China: Its State and Prospects’, and went on a speaking tour of the country, recounting his experiences, promoting his book and raising support for his missionary activities.

Following the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking (29th August 1842), five ports were opened up in China with the aim of foreign trade. Medhurst took up the opportunity in 1843 to set up the LMS mission centre in Shanghai. From this base he built churches, schools, a printing works, a hospital (now a major Shanghai hospital) and did further exploratory visits to the interior of China, dressed as a Chinese.

Translating Bible into Chinese

During the Taiping Rebellion (December 1850), Medhurst kept contact with the rebel leaders. He became a leading source of information for Britain and America about the situation in China. During the years 1847-1850, he led the team which translated the Bible into Chinese, creating the Delegates Version which would be used by Chinese Protestants for the next 70 years.  

In recognition of his contributions, he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by New York University and he became one of the first Directors of the Shanghai Municipal Council. The Shanghai Mission Press was the first printing works in China to use typography to print Chinese characters and hugely influenced the revolutions in modern printing methods.

Family Tradition

At the age of 18, Medhurst’s son, also named Walter, joined the British consular services at a critical time, just after the outbreak of the First Opium War. After a thirty-seven year career, the younger Medhurst reached the peak of the Chinese consular service when he was appointed British Consul in Shanghai. He was also knighted for his services by Queen Victoria. He wasn’t the only family member to be made a British Consul, for their daughter Eliza married Charles Hillier, who became the first British Consul to Bangkok. Thus the family tradition continued on. 

End of an Era 

In 1856, as a result of poor health, the older Medhurst left China for the last time and returned with his family to England. He arrived back in London on 22 January 1857, and two days later he passed away. He was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in London alongside other famous Protestants such as William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Perhaps it was his sudden death upon his return to England that became one of the reasons he never became a household name which his lifetime’s achievements warranted. Perhaps Mission to China will help with this and finally give him the recognition he deserves.
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