William Edward Soothill, born 23 January 1861, came from Halifax, England, where his father, also William (1836-1893), was a textile worker. The family belonged to the United Methodist Free Churches (UMFC), a denomination created in the 1850s as an amalgamation of Methodist groups that had separated earlier from the Wesleyan Methodist Church over such issues as democratic government and ministerial authority.
Soothill became a solicitor's clerk but a possible legal career and other studies were interrupted by his call to mission in China. A pioneer missionary had died in the seaport town of Wenzhou so he went straight to China in 1882 instead of attending the UMFC Theological Institute in Manchester. The UMFC’s work in China began at Ningbo in 1864 and reached Wenzhou, 150 miles further south in 1877. When Soothill arrived there in 1882 he found a church with thirty members.
After two years Soothill’s work was interrupted when China was at war with France. European missionaries were regarded as ‘barbarians’ and on 4 October, 1884, a riot started during the church’s Saturday prayer meeting. The mission was attacked, set on fire and destroyed. Soothill withdrew to the British Consulate on an island in the river and services were held at a member’s house.
His fiancÃ©e, Lucy Farrar (1857-1931), from Southowram near Halifax, heard about the Wenzhou troubles but, undeterred, left England in October, 1884, to marry Soothill at Shanghai in December. At Wenzhou they remained at the British Consulate with daily expeditions to the mainland until June, 1885, when compensation from the Chinese Government and donations from England enabled church rebuilding and the construction of a new house. The Soothills had two children, Dorothea and Victor.
Known affectionately as Sing-Su by the Chinese, Soothill was energetic and gifted and quickly learned the language. His first attempts included mistakes but he soon attempted preaching in Chinese and in time became an acknowledged expert. He created a Roman script for the Wenzhou dialect, translated the New Testament into it (1902) and compiled a highly regarded Chinese dictionary.
Along with language work Soothill was busy in church extension. Chinese Christians joined in, and as an example of spontaneous expansion he described how four men from a mountain village came to his opium refuge in Wenzhou. They also joined the church and after returning home started a church and persuaded Soothill to visit. He did, and later sent Wenzhou’s only preacher, Mr Chang, to develop the work. From meeting in a house the growing congregation was so well respected locally that it was allowed to rent a large ancestral hall which turned out to be very suitable in spite of its images. A larger hall was soon required and finally the congregation built a church. As the work grew in the area evangelists and preachers were trained to an increasingly higher standard.
The British Methodist system of church, circuit, and district was followed and Wenzhou became a separate district with seven circuits and 150 congregations by 1906. Soothill, however, modified some aspects of British Methodist practice. Theoretically, as Methodists, they baptised infants, but the Wenzhou church dedicated infants and baptised adults after suitable instruction. This policy was supported by the evidence that there were very few backsliders and with the ecumenical dimension in mind Soothill believed that this policy would ease the creation of a united church in Wenzhou.
On the thorny issue of polygamy Soothill adopted a relatively liberal position by concluding that existing polygamists, suitably instructed, could become members, but an actual member would never be allowed to enter into further marriages.
Soothill loved Chinese music and around 1890 started studying it seriously. His researches resulted in a paper read to the Ningbo Missionary Association in which he explored the possibility of producing Chinese Christian music. English tunes were unnatural to the Chinese, who used a pentatonic scale, so Soothill showed how hymns could be composed employing local pentatonic tunes.
Soothill believed that Chinese religions were to be fulfilled, not destroyed, and so concluded his book A Mission in China (1907) with a survey of religion in China. He began with a tour around Wenzhou, describing what happened in the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist temples; phenomenology before its time. His subsequent exposition of these religions resembles that in most works on the subject and included a brief, friendly treatment of Islam which had some followers in Wenzhou. He also described the history and contribution of Christianity, which he believed was more influential in China than many people realised. Following Timothy Richard, he suggested that Christianity had influenced the Mahayana school of Buddhism as well as Daoism and Islam.
Soothill believed strongly in education and thought that the western educational style of mission schools did much to revitalise Chinese life. Indeed, the new Chinese National Colleges were modelled on Christian colleges. The Methodist school at Wenzhou began with a few boys and simple equipment using the then novel method of class teaching. In 1897, anticipating changes nationally, Soothill started a High School with 20 boys. Eventually, a College was built with financial help from Britain and opened by Timothy Richard with 200 students enrolled in 1906.
Mrs. Soothill opened a school for girls, and by 1906 more than 40 girls were learning reading, writing, arithmetic, singing and sewing. She introduced the very controversial rule that girls should have their feet unbound, but it was eventually accepted that the ancient foot binding custom needed to be abolished.
Soothill did some simple medical work, but realising that his efforts were inadequate, he ensured that this important ministry developed by obtaining the services of a medical missionary and finally by dint of effort, administrative acumen, and generosity from Britain had hospitals built, to the lasting benefit of the city.
Many missionaries were massacred in the northern province of Shanxi during the Boxer Rebellion and when things settled down Timothy Richard was asked to help with putting things right. His recommendation that a fine on the Province should be used to create a Western-style university there was accepted and, organised by Richard, the university began in 1902 at Taiyuan, the provincial capital. When the first Principal died in 1906 Richard offered Soothill the position and since education was dear to Soothill’s heart he accepted gladly, with the added bonus that his health would benefit in the cooler north.
Soothill kept up his Chinese studies and in 1910 completed and published his translation of the Analects of Confucius. In his university history lectures he tried to give a fair presentation of all religions, but was more explicit about Christianity in discussions with students, officials, and intellectuals. He invited such people to special lectures when leading missionaries came their way and on Sunday afternoons presided at YMCA meetings, where the religious aspects of general subjects were considered.
Soothill’s assignment ended when the university was transferred to Chinese authority in June 1911 and he was awarded the Red Button, a great honour in Imperial China. When the Revolution broke out in October, however, the university was closed.
Return to Britain
Soothill returned to England and was soon involved in a proposed Central China University. This joint British and North American project had been in preparation for three years but the committee was spurred on by the October revolution to appeal for funds for a project that would cost Â£250,000 to set up and Â£7000 per year to run. Soothill was appointed Organizing President and although it occupied him for some time the scheme seems to have been overtaken by World War One.
The World Missionary Conference held at Edinburgh in 1910 set up a Board for the Training of Missionaries and, in that connection, in 1912, Soothill gave twelve lectures at Queen’s College, Oxford, for students preparing to go to China. They were published as The Three Religions of China (1913). After a chapter each on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, he discussed their relationship to such themes as the idea of God, cosmology, the ancestors and morals. His general approach was to expound and evaluate with a view to finding aspects that Christians could build on; fulfilment theology, it is called now.
During the Great War Soothill was involved in the YMCA as Director of Religious Work from 1914-18. He often led Chinese interpreters around London and went to France with the Chinese Labour Corps, for which he was awarded the Order of the Striped Tiger by the Chinese.
Oxford University and further writing
Soothill was recognised as one of the foremost authorities on Chinese linguistics, and in July 1920 was appointed Professor of Chinese at Oxford. His Oxford years produced several books.
Soothill admired Timothy Richard and wrote Timothy Richard of China (1924), the life story of his friend and missionary hero. Lectures given that year, published as China and the West (1925), traced the history of this topic. Although he concentrated on the complex events of the nineteenth century, Soothill showed that for much of its history China had interacted well with the rest of the world. In fewer than 100 pages his 1927 A History of China was a masterpiece of compression.
In conjunction with Dr Lewis Hodous of Hartford Theological Seminary, Connecticut, USA, Soothill produced A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (1937). Although that work is now dated, Charles Muller has made a digital version and commends the writers’ linguistic skills.
Lucy Soothill died in 1931 and her husband’s serious illness in 1934 turned out to be terminal. He died on May 14, 1935, and a funeral service was held at Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford on 17 May 1935.
The Hall of Light: A study of Early Chinese Kingship, edited by Soothill’s daughter, Lady Dorothea Hosie, and G. F. Hudson, was published in 1951. Lady Hosie (1885-1959) helped with several of her father’s publications and wrote and lectured as an authority on China in her own right.
Soothill witnessed for Christ in China, contributed significant language studies, and created infrastructures for ecclesiastical, educational, and medical institutions. He clearly encouraged Chinese initiatives, a prominent feature of twenty-first century Wenzhou Christianity. As well as introducing certain western ideas to China he and his daughter after him built understanding of China in the West. Memory of him has been revived in a website ‘My Wenzhou’ which has a page on Soothill recognising him as a pioneer Christian missionary to the city. Perhaps his greatest contribution was an attitude. Professor Hodous remarked that Soothill’s linguistic skills were immense, “But even more valuable was his profound insight into and deep sympathy with the religious life and thought of another people.”
- Professor Hodous's Preface in A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous, dated 1937, http://mahajana.net/texts/kopia_lokalna/soothill-hodous.html