As last year, I’m afraid that anybody looking for Christmas thoughts on the blog will be disappointed. That’s not just because of my “Bah-humbug” spirit but more because I have precious few thoughts at the best of times and I’m afraid any interesting thoughts on Christmas will need to be saved for the four sermons I’m preaching over the next couple of weeks!

Instead I want to turn my attention to the pioneer missionary of the 19th century Hudson Taylor. I’m in hobby horse territory here. About 15 years ago I was asked during my interview to be a UCCF staff worker what book had most influenced me. My reply was the biography of Hudson Taylor written by his son and daughter-in-law Mr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor. Since then I’ve had the chance to speak on Hudson Taylor in Kenya, at my homegroup and most recently to the Oxford Training Partnership. (It happened to be on my birthday so I was most grateful for the muffin with massive candle inserted in it…). I thought I would write up the material in a series of five blog posts- the first three covering his life and the last two looking at lessons that I think we could usefully draw. It seems to me that the study of historical figures is vital for our spiritual health- they tend to flag up blind spots that we may have in our present generation. All of the material is drawn from the Howard Taylor books and the more recent biography published by Roger Steer.

Hudson Taylor was born in 1832 in Yorkshire (wrong side of the Pennines I know…) to godly parents. At the time of his birth, the spiritual needs of Chine were becoming known and it is believed that his parents actually prayed that God would use him in China. They took the command of Exodus 13 literally- to consecrate their firstborn son to the Lord. You get the impression that Hudson Taylor was a fairly serious teenager- more like the older brother of Luke 15 than the younger one. He felt miserable much of the time. However, he was finally converted when reading a tract based around the words of the Lord Jesus on the cross- “It is finished.” This released Taylor from the burden of needing to save himself- “The light was flashed into my soul by the Holy Spirit that there was nothing in the world to be done but to fall down on one’s knees and, accepting this Saviour and His salvation, to praise Him forevermore.”

From the outset of his Christian life he had a conviction that he should go to China. This meant serious preparation- he rose each morning at 5am to study Chinese. He decided that he needed a skill in order to build bridges with the Chinese so went to Hull and then to London to learn basic medicine. He also realised that he would need to learn to practise faith. There was an incident during his time in London when his absent minded boss forgot to pay him. This became difficult as the time for the payment of his rent was approaching. Hudson Taylor decided that it would be wrong to prompt his boss believing this indicated a lack of trust in God’s provision. Sure enough on the night before the rent was due his boss finally turned to Taylor- “Shouldn’t I be paying you around now?” he asked. “Some time ago as it happens,” replied Taylor. You can debate whether Taylor was right to act as he did but it is clear that his faith was strengthened in the process- something that would be of significance during his later time in China. At another point during his medical training he cut himself whilst performing a post mortem on a man who had died of a contagious plague. He spoke to his boss to find out what he should do. His boss was clear- he should go home and put his affairs in order because he was a dead man. Taylor’s response indicates the confidence he had in God- “Unless I’m greatly mistaken, I have work to do in China and shall not die. But if I don’t recover, then I look forward to going to be with my Master.”

Perhaps the most moving part of his preparation to go to China was his engagement to a girl called Marianne. Hudson Taylor was clearly devoted to her and looked forward to marrying her. However, there was a problem- she didn’t want to go to China. Amidst great heartbreak, the young Hudson Taylor decided to break off the engagement. “I cannot deny that these things make me very sad. But my Father knows what is best.” It seems to me that there is a serious lesson here for young people- only marry those who are heading in the same spiritual direction and have the same spiritual ambitions as you. Hudson Taylor was subsequently accepted by the Chinese Evangelization Society. He set sail for China at the age of 21 in 1853.

It is hard to imagine his emotions and those of his parents as he left. There was no guarantee that he would safely return. Much later in his life Hudson Taylor would utter these words- “Is anything of value in Christ’s service that costs little?” We have some way to go in our story- but the hours of preparation, the broken engagement and the family farewells as he prepared to go to China speak of this young man’s commitment to sacrifice in the service of the Gospel. I’m not sure I hear or use that language often these days- might it be one of our blind spots?