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Morrison, Robert


MORRISON, ROBERT (17821834), first Protestant missionary to China. Morrison was born in Morpeth, Northumberland, England, on January 15, 1782, of humble Scottish parentage. At an early age he became an apprentice to his father in making wooden boot trees. During these years he joined the Church of Scotland (1798) and soon began studying Latin, Hebrew, and theology. In 1802 he entered the Congregational Theological College at Hoxton (now Highbury College). His Christian upbringing and studies inclined him toward missionary service and in 1804 he offered himself to the London Missionary Society, which, though not yet ten years old, was beginning to prepare workers for China. Morrison spent the next two years at the Missionary College at Gosport. While there he began an intensive study of the Chinese language using a Chinese tutor and a Catholic translation of part of the New Testament into Chinese kept in the British Museum.

Shortly after his ordination on January 8, 1807, Morrison began making final arrangements for his departure for China on January 31. Because the British East India Company (BEIC) was hesitant to promote Protestant missions to China at that time, Morrison could only gain passage to New York. After receiving a personal written recommendation from James Madison, the American secretary of state, to the American consul in China, he set sail from New York and arrived in Canton on September 7, 1807.

Upon arrival, Morrison found the English-Chinese political situation tenuous. The propagation of Christianity was prohibited by the reigning Ch'ing dynasty. The Missionary Society knew this and had instructed Morrison not to preach openly but rather to concentrate on learning Chinese and to make the necessary preparations for publishing religious literature that would be used for long-range evangelism. Morrison stayed in various Western trade houses in Canton, where he assumed Chinese dress and dietary customs while studying the language with two Roman Catholic Chinese. Pressure from the government, however, eventually forced him to seek refuge in Portuguese Macao, where he stayed for one year with an English family, marrying their oldest daughter in 1809. During that same year he became employed by the BEIC as an interpreter. Having thus been able to acquire permanent residency, Morrison began to turn his efforts to ways in which to propagate the gospel. Realizing that under the current circumstances literature was virtually the only open avenue, he focused his attention on the printed word. The BEIC provided invaluable assistance at this point by allowing Morrison to use their press. His works were prolific and diverse: in 1810, his translation of Acts became the first portion of scripture translated into Chinese by a Protestant missionary; Luke (1812); the New Testament (1814); a Chinese grammar (1815); A View of China for Philological Purposes (1817); the entire Bible (written in 1818, published by 1823, 21 vols.); his magnum opus, a Chinese-English dictionary (3 vols., 1815, 1822, 1823); and catechisms (1812) as well as portions of The Book of Common Prayer (1833).

Morrison's wife died in China in 1822. He returned to England in 1824 and became a well-received lecturer able to generate interest for Chinese missions. Shortly before returning to China in 1826, Morrison married Eliza Armstrong.

Morrison witnessed his first Chinese baptism on July 16, 1814. After twenty-five years, his Society co-workers and he had baptized only ten individuals. Yet, in spite of difficulties that he encountered in his work, Morrison succeeded in laying down a foundation for others who were to follow. William Milne (17741822) came with his wife to assist Morrison in 1813 and was instrumental in helping translate and publish the Chinese Bible. Later, building upon Milne's school for Chinese established in Malacca (1816), Morrison founded the Anglo-Chinese College (1818). The purpose of this institution, besides providing a context for evangelism, was to establish reciprocal cultivation and respect of Chinese and European culture, language, and literature.

For his efforts, Robert Morrison was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow (1817); he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1824. After his death in Canton on August 1, 1834, his eldest son, John Robert Morrison (18141843), succeeded his father as Chinese secretary and interpreter for the British authorities in Canton.


The principal archival sources are those of the London Missionary Society and the Morrison Library (and related collections) at the University of Hong Kong.

A primary source for any study of Robert Morrison is the two-volume Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison (London, 1839), compiled by his widow, Eliza, and published five years after his death. It is the main published authority for Morrison's life and contains much firsthand material. Also included are critical notices of his Chinese works as well as an appendix of original documents. Before the turn of the century William Townsend published a biography, Robert Morrison, the Pioneer of Chinese Missions (London, 1888). Later, more comprehensive works appeared such as Marshall Broomhall's Robert Morrison: A Master-Builder (New York, 1924), which has a list of his publications, and more recently a study with a more limited focus, Lindsay Ride's Robert Morrison: The Scholar and the Man (Hong Kong, 1957).

K. S. Latourette, in A History of Christian Missions in China (New York, 1929), reviews Morrison's work in the context of overall Protestant missions, as does Suzanne W. Barnett's article "Silent Evangelism: Presbyterians and the Mission Press in China, 18071860," Journal of Presbyterian History 49 (Winter 1971): 287302.

Paul V. Martinson (1987)

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