George Stott, the first missionary to Wenzhou, was a Scottish Protestant who worked with his wife, Grace. He arrived in China in 1866 and remained for over twenty-two years (1866-1888). (Grace Stott arrived two years after her husband and was involved with the Wenzhou church for almost thirty-eight years 1870-1908, fulltime until 1895). George Stott was one of the first two missionaries to be sent by China Inland Mission (CIM). While in Wenzhou, he and Grace began primary schools, preacher training courses, and several small congregations.
The Wenzhou church, one of the fastest growing in China today, was founded by a one-legged Scotsman named George Stott and his wife Grace. George and Grace Stott were involved with the church from 1867 through 1908, working full-time in Wenzhou for the first twenty-eight of those forty years. In 1865 the CIM was born, and that year the mission sent two missionaries to China. George Stott was one of these two, and he bravely embarked for China, facing this foreign culture and its foreign religions with little preparation and no language training. Unfortunately, little is known of the Stotts’ earliest theological formation and initial denominational backgrounds.
The Stotts, inclined more towards active evangelism than written reflection, did not systematically commit their missionary principles to writing, but they did leave many letters and records to help us reconstruct their missiological thinking. George Stott, an Aberdeenish farmer, became a schoolteacher after he lost his leg to what was reported to be tuberculosis. He had injured his left knee when he was nineteen. This injury led to a “white swelling,” and two years later the leg had to be amputated. “For nine months he lay a helpless invalid, and it was during this time that the Lord graciously saved his soul.” Grace writes that up to that point in his life he had been “careless and indifferent to the love of God in Christ Jesus, but now, in his helpless condition, and what seemed like his ruined future, how precious that love became!” He was first introduced to the topic of missions in China by his friend and soon-to-be fellow missionary, George Crombie, who was acquainted with Hudson Taylor. Stott quickly took to the idea of becoming a missionary, famously claiming the promise from Isaiah 33:23 that would thereafter be associated with him: “The lame will take the prey.”
Taylor sent Stott a few months ahead of the renowned Lammermuir party. After four months of travel he arrived in Shanghai, disembarking on February 6, 1866. As was typical of Protestant missionaries of this time, Stott immediately commenced language studies, while he served as temporary help at mission stations in Ningbo and Fenghua for eighteen months.
Stott began looking for a large city that was far from other missionary activity. Since the 1830s and even earlier, missionaries had been performing exploratory tours of Zhejiang’s cities, evaluating their comparative facilities for missionary work and trying to judge if the local people were friendly or receptive. Stott traveled into southern Zhejiang with Ningbo evangelist Zhu Xingjun and basket-maker Feng Nenggui, arriving in Wenzhou, the southernmost prefecture of Zhejiang Province, in November 1867. (In the Stotts’ first years, the British Blue-Book placed the population of Wenzhou City at almost 100,000; 300,000 including the suburbs; and three and a half million in the entire district. The area that the Stotts worked within was roughly seventy miles north to south and forty miles from east to west.)
Zhu and Feng stayed long enough to help Stott settle in the city. After Stott, the only foreigner in Wenzhou, had rented a house, he did not leave the city until February 1870. Stott’s work in these first years further demonstrates his steady perseverance, and eventually helped alleviate suspicions held by several Wenzhou people, allowing them opportunities to know him better and reassess his motives as some of their anti-foreign sentiments lessened. Decades later, when the church was growing, church leaders attributed much of the church’s numerical success to Stott’s patient determination and the seeds planted in these early years.
The Mission’s Growth
George traveled from village to village, attracted a crowd and then preached to them, often in the open air. He describes the noisy Chinese crowds: “nobody listens, but everybody shouts at the top of his voice, and such shrill, piercing sounds, no Saxon throat could produce anything like them.” By 1874 they had visited nearly all the villages within a day’s journey of the city, and Grace felt that although much seed had been sown little fruit was ready to be gathered. The progress continued to be slow and at the end of ten years of work their church had only eighteen members. By this time they had rented space for a chapel and bookshop, which was operated by a native preacher. After the chapel and bookshop had been operating for nine years, George commented that although many attended chapel it was hard to “stir up a spirit of inquiry in the city. Hardly anyone cared to listen . Thousands every year have heard more or less of the gospel, and yet we have seen very little fruit, but it may not be lost if it drive us closer to God, from whom all power comes.”
Eventually, the most fruitful branch of George’s labor was the boys’ school, and as the years passed his students played an increasingly significant role in church work. George repeatedly notes how the school encouraged him, and he almost always adds that it is not a matter of numbers converted, but the character of the converts that mattered. When George wanted to begin work in the nearby city of Bing-yie, he sent a thirteen year-old schoolboy, Z-nue, to accompany the preacher. This boy played an integral role in the creation of what would become a vibrant Christian community, and he later became the primary preacher there. Even as a boy, his conversation led many to seek the God of heaven. One day he asked, “Venerable grandfather, why do you worship these idols? [They cannot] help you. Indeed they cannot help themselves, for see, some of their fingers are broken off, and others have had the hair of their moustachios stolen by rats.” After further conversations the man saw this doctrine as “really precious” and asked the boy to speak to his wife. The family soon converted, and the journals record that they led godly lives until they died.
The Stotts’ hopeful and cautious fostering of spiritual maturity paid off, and by the mid-1880s their work began to spread. Chinese Christians were helping convert their families, and several had become unpaid preachers. In 1882 the CIM mission in the Wenzhou area had grown to contain five gatherings of Christians, two of which were organized churches. Four of the gatherings were Wenzhou out-stations and one was in the city. This growth contributed to the greater Chinese church. Broomhall describes the Zhejiang church as a nursery for the growing church in China, supplying “evangelists, colporteurs, Scripture readers, and schoolteachers from its thriving congregations.” In 1882, the total increase for that year was nineteen (when accounting for the number of people who had to be removed from church membership), making a total of eighty-two communicants in the Wenzhou church, with fifty-six men and twenty-six women. In this year the mission also had two boarding schools with thirteen girls and four boys, and a Chinese staff which included “four preachers, two chapel-keepers, one school-teacher, and one Bible-woman.”
In 1887, George Stott left Wenzhou for the last time. This would be the Stotts’ second furlough in the twenty years they had been in Wenzhou. George’s poor health necessitated their absence. The work in Wenzhou had been steadily growing the last five years, and so in 1887 the Stotts left a thriving school, three churches and almost three hundred members.