It is easy when considering “Christian heroes” to have unrealistic people in our minds and forget that these were individuals who went through real pain and anguish. There is something very moving about the early years that Hudson Taylor faced in China. They were very trying and he found them immensely difficult. The trials that he faced had a variety of sources- there was the threat of violence through riots in China, he faced considerable loneliness and the support that he had expected from his mission agency, the Chinese Evangelization Society, was not always forthcoming. His method of outreach was to go to a Chinese market place and provide medical services using the skills he had learnt in England. This then opened the door to spiritual conversation. However, one of his early difficulties was an experience where he had his medical equipment stolen. All of these situations led him to the point where he wrote home saying, “Pray for me, for I am almost pressed beyond measure.”
What were the lessons that he learnt during this period? I think it is worth reflecting on three of them:
1. The value of souls.
This is one of the repeated lessons that one has to draw from Hudson Taylor’s life. It was after two years in China and considerable hardship that he saw his first convert. This is what he wrote back to his mother at that point: “If one soul is worth worlds, am I not abundantly repaid and are not you too?” The motivation that took him to China was what kept him going in China despite the pain of it. It was also what led him to make what was a controversial decision. Virtually all the western missionaries at the time continued to wear their own clothes and largely stayed together in the metropolitan coastal areas. Hudson Taylor saw this as imposing a barrier between the majority of Chinese people and the Gospel. So he made the decision to abandon western dress and began to wear Chinese clothes (initially very uncomfortable), adopt a Chinese hairstyle and spend more time in inland areas. Many deemed this not very respectable but he insisted that no barrier must be put in the way of communicating the Gospel to people. There is a key question for us as individuals and as a church here- what do we hold on to for the sake of our own comfort that actually makes the communication of the Gospel more difficult? An understanding of how precious souls are will mean that we simply cannot hold on to things simply because we like them.
2. The need to reflect on God’s sovereignty
When he was robbed of his medical equipment, Hudson Taylor was most perplexed. However, it is interesting to note his reaction a number of years later when he reflected on the incident:
“I had not then learned to think of God as the great Circumstance in whom we live and move and have our being, and all lesser circumstances as necessarily the kindest, wisest and best because either ordered or permitted by Him. Hence my disappointment and trial were very great.”
Of course we don’t always understand how God’s purposes work but it would be helpful for our perseverance if we had a robust doctrine of God’s sovereignty that meant we could trust that He is doing good to us even in the more trying of circumstances.
3. The Blessing of Companions
Reading between the lines of the biographies you get the impression that Hudson Taylor was something of an individualist in his early years. As mentioned above support was slow to arrive in his early months in China. That meant that he was forced to rely on the hospitality of his fellow missionaries- something which he found deeply humbling. You can see the Lord’s wisdom in this- pride sometimes shows itself in only wanting to help others rather than be helped by them. It is good for us to learn the limits of self-reliance and be willing to receive help.
More important companions were to come his way. For a couple of years he built a strong friendship with the Scot William Burns where they were able to talk openly about spiritual matters and pray together for the work. “Such a friendship is one of the crowning blessings of life,” Taylor wrote. I remember very much being struck by this when reading a biography of Hudson Taylor when I was younger- spiritual friendship where you talk and pray openly is something in which it is well worth investing time.
Five years after arriving in China Hudson Taylor got married to Maria Dyer. The way they came together is an interesting story- almost worthy of Jane Austen. Maria was in China with her aunt and Hudson Taylor became attracted to her very quickly. However, because of his Chinese dress, Maria’s aunt regarded Taylor as not sufficiently respectable for her niece and forbade him from making contact with her. This was agony for both of them but they accepted the aunt’s instructions until finally Hudson Taylor decided to write to Maria’s father. Despite the advice of his sister, Maria’s father consented to the union. Amidst great joy the couple were married in 1858. “I cannot tell you how much I love my precious wife,” Taylor wrote.
The Lord is good to us in giving us companions for which we should be thankful. However, it would be wrong to portray Hudson Taylor’s life as easy after that. He and Maria lost their first child to ill health and then in 1860, seven years after arriving in China, he was forced to return home owing to his own poor health. However, in the sovereignty of God and as is so often the case with suffering, this opened up an even more fruitful ministry- of which more in the next post.