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Mission to China
The early 19th-century was a time of great change in English society. The growth of Humanism brought debates about slavery, workers’ rights and suffrage, while Britain’s determination to build an empire offered ambitious young men the chance to make their mark. Against this backdrop, 19-year-old Walter Medhurst was finding his way in the world, becoming an apprentice printer when family financial problems forced an abrupt end to his studies at the prestigious St Paul’s school. A chance encounter with an inspiring preacher in his hometown of Gloucester, at a time when Evangelical Christianity was starting to fire the public’s imagination, brought about Walter’s conversion, and the picture was complete. Walter Medhurst – printer, missionary, adventurer – was primed to embark on the mission of a lifetime: to take the Lord’s word to the people of the exotic Far East, and change the world forever. China was a closed society by order of its Emperor and, even then, its trade potential highly prized. Walter and wife Betty – a beautiful young Anglo-Indian widow and officer’s daughter with whom Walter fell in love and married during a three-month stop in Madras – would spend more than 20 years working with Chinese communities throughout Asia before Walter reached China’s shores in 1835. When the Medhursts finally settled in Shanghai in 1843, they were delighted to find – contrary to popular belief – an outgoing and resourceful people more than willing to interact with them. Dealing with Chinese authorities, however, required great diplomacy and tact and the formidable Medhursts employed every skill in their considerable arsenal to achieve their goal, establishing the LMS Mission Centre in Shanghai. \tWhen he died in 1857, Walter Medhurst left behind a great legacy that included the Parapattan Orphanage, All Saints’ Jakarta, Renji Hospital, the Shanghai Mission Press and a Chinese Bible that was used for more than 70 years. But Walter’s greatest achievement was surely the opening up of China to the West, a lasting legacy that affects our world even today.
This historic biography surveys the life of the missionary, publisher, and adventurer Walter Medhurst, an ancestor of Holliday’s, and celebrates his work to introduce western religion, medicine, and education to China in the 19th century. Medhurst began his life in a large coach inn between South Wales and London. That start offered little indication of the distances he would travel as a printer, writer, and minister for the London Missionary Society (LMS), part of the Evangelical movement that swept England in the 1800s. As China opened up to outsiders following the First Opium War, Medhurst, eager to spread the word of God, moved to Shanghai. There he established churches, schools, and a hospital that still exists as a major medical facility; he also translated the Bible into Chinese and distributed thousands of copies.

Medhurst’s life covers a fascinating period in the tumultuous East-West relationship as Western nations sought to build empires as China crumbled internally while firebrand Christians were intent on bringing their brand of religion to all parts of Asia. Holliday’s account surveys the major upheavals and changes in China, including war with the British, the Taiping Rebellion, and the scourge of opium. Medhurst crusaded against the illegal but widely accepted opium trade by exposing in official reports both the terrors of addiction and the stakeholders who profited from it, such as the East India Company.

While Medhurst and his mission of spreading his faith -- especially through print -- throughout China during the waning days of the Quing dynasty are fascinating in and of themselves, some occasionally stilted prose make for difficult reading at times. The author’s enthusiasm, an abundance of compelling period detail, and the sheer determination Medhurst and his family showed in the face of tragedy gives history- and mission-minded readers good reason to follow this journey to its end.

Takeaway: This uneven biography of evangelist Walter Medhurst’s work in 19th century China will appeal to students of missionary Christianity.

Great for fans of: Stephen R. Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, Jonathon D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of the Xiuquan.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: C
Marketing copy: B+