Stories: by Person: W

Wu Hongyu

(吳虹玉)
1834 ~ 1919

Wu Hongyu was the first Chinese to be baptized into the American Episcopal Church of China and among the first three - along with Huang Guangcai and Yan Yongjing, to be ordained. Together, these three made a major contribution to the establishment of the Episcopal Church in China and to the contextualization efforts of the Chinese church. Because of his participation in printing work for nine years in the United States, and his service with Union forces during the American Civil war, his life possesses unusual interest, but for many years few people have know much about him.

Wu Hongyu was born on August 7, 1834 to a farmer in Antou village in Changzhou, Jiangsu. At the age of nine he entered the village private school. At thirteen, he was admitted to an Episcopal school, Wang Wharf School, in Shanghai, which was founded by the first bishop of the American Episcopal Church in China, W. J. Boone, in February of 1846. As a condition for entering, Wu had to sign an agreement with the school to study for ten years, because the church was concerned lest students would leave to enter business once they had acquired some facility in English. Having been established as a training institution for evangelists, the school possessed from the beginning a very strong religious emphasis. After beginning his studies, Wu began to develop a strong interest in Christianity; in his second year he decided to believe in Christ, and was baptized by Bishop Boone.

At the direction the American President, Commodore Perry concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa with Japan on March 31st, 1854, whereupon, aboard his flagship the Susquehanna, he led his squadron to call at Shanghai. The officers of the ship often attended worship at the Episcopal church while in port. Wu had been at the school for seven years when he heard that the squadron would be soon returning to America. He asked for, and was granted, permission to work on the board of the ship instead of finishing out his term at the school, so that he could have an opportunity to travel to the United States. In the summer of 1854, he said goodbye to his school and sailed with the American vessel from Wusong harbor. On the ship he was assigned as an intern to the ship’s physician J.S. Messersmith. After an eight-month voyage across the Pacific, they docked at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. Then the doctor took him to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As an Episcopalian, Wu regularly attended worship at St. James Episcopal Church. He did not want to enroll in a school, but went to a newspaper office to learn printing instead. After 6 years’ residence in America, he was registered as an American, becoming one of the first Chinese to become a citizen before the Civil War.

Two years after he became a citizen, the Civil War broke out. In 1963, when Southern troops entered Pennsylvania, Wu was called up to military service, and became the only Chinese to serve in the American Civil War. Wu’s experience in the army left a profound impression upon him.

In February, 1864, Wu boarded the ship “Jiujiang”to return to China, landing in Shanghai on May 17th. Nine years of living in the United States had left an indelible mark on Wu. He not only wore a Western suit and leather shoes, but had lost fluency in his mother tongue. It was so hard for him to relate to his countrymen that Bishop C. M. Williams sternly warned, “There is one thing above all that I must bring up: you must exert effort in Chinese, especially writing, to assist you in preaching; I hope even more that you will change back to Chinese attire, so that you might be more approachable.”

Wu began his ministry at Laozha Episcopal Church on Tang lane. Aside from preaching in the chapel and supervising both the boys’ and the girls’ schools, Wu was appointed assistant to the Rev. E.H. Thomson, whom he accompanied when Thomson went out to preach. He was ordained minister in 1873, and rector of the church in 1880. Not long after his pastoral career became inseparably connected with the church’s medical work. In 1886 Mr. Thomson and Wu applied one hundred U.S. dollars from Mrs Hill in Philadelphia to establish a two-room clinic, and invited the American Baptist medical missionary Daniel J. MacGowan to be a volunteer doctor, with Wu helping to prepare the medications. After less than six months, the clinic courtyard resembled a market, with hundreds of people coming for diagnosis and treatment each week. As a result, the church raised money to expand the clinic to eleven rooms, with beds for twenty-four patients. The expanded clinic was given the name Tongren, with MacGowan as director and Wu as assistant. The expansion into a hospital took place in 1890 , and as a result of Wu’s efforts at raising money, Li Qiuping, a Guangdong businessman in Shanghai donated more than 10,000 silver dollars, and this made it possible to complete Tongren’s new building.. Dr. H.W. Boone, Bishop Boone’s eldest son was invited to be in charge of hospital affairs.

Wu’s involvement with the Tongren Hospital lasted more than thirty years, during eight of which he spent all his time on this aspect of the work. Afterwards, he switched to part time because of his ministry at the church. His eight years in hospital administration had a great influence on the latter years of his life, however. Not only did he gain a grasp of basic medical skills, but he further developed his own ideas about medical missions. He believed that China was the most difficult field for propagating the Christian message, because of deep roots of traditional Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. The Chinese are extremely pragmatic; in general, they don’t believe in any religion, but when some disaster strikes, they can believe almost anything.

The church’s medical work, therefore, was a great means to accommodate to the pragmatic mind of the Chinese people. In his view, most Chinese Christians “become believers on their sickbed.” Thus, at every new mission station, treating illness is the most “effective means of reaching people’s hearts.”

After being ordained minister in 1873, Wu was sent by Bishop Williams to reside in Jiangwan, where he served the Jiangwan church for twelve years. Wu opened a pharmacy to meet the need of the local people, especially to meet their thir need for vaccination to prevent smallpox. In doing so the reputation of the church in that location grew. About five miles outside of Jiangwan, the villagers of Santinggou heard about Christianity and Wu’s medical ministry and asked him to come to open a chapel and treat sick folk, which Wu did in 1874. A year later thirty-three believers were baptized and more than a hundred patients received medical attention. In 1879 St. Stpehen’s Church was established, becoming one of the pioneers of self-supporting Chinese Episcopal church. In his report to the bishops of 1881, Wu said that the vaccination was “one of the best ways to attract men and women of all ranks to our preaching stations.” He also suggested that missionaries to acquire some medical knowledge, especially about smallpox, so that they could approach the people more easily.

Employing village schools for evangelism was another “discovery” of Wu’s. While at Santinggou Wu learned if the village school teachers were given subsidies (by the church or mission), they would like the Christian textbooks and allow Christians to enter the school to preach. Thereafter, he used this method to “turn the country schools into village preaching stations.” In 1879, the church in Santinggou subsidized twelve village schools, at a cost of twenty-eight dollars a month, which was much cheaper than if the church itself operated the schools.

Not all of Wu’s ministry went so smoothly. In 1882 he was sent to Taicang, Jiangsu, to establish a church. He had been introduced by the proprietor of a rice shop, and bought a house which he planned to turn into a mission station. Unfortunately, when the local literati heard of this, they stirred up the people in opposition, and accused Wu before the yamen (court). On the next day, in the middle of the night, Wu was hailed into the court. The literati who stood around watching struck him and kicked him, forcing him to kneel down, and threatened to kill him if he did not leave quickly. At this time, “the image of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate flashed into [his] heart.” On the following day, Wu had no recourse but to retrace his steps to Shanghai. This was the only time in Wu’s career as a preacher that he experienced a conflict with the local officials and literati.

In 1885, Bishop William Boone, Jr., called Wu back to Shanghai to assist Huang Guangcai in administering the Cathedral of Our Savior in Hongkou., and to serve as chaplain at Tongren Hospital. As a result of cumulative fatigue, Wu became ill in 1889, and the church twice arranged for him to go to Japan for treatment and recuperation. After returning from Japan, Wu assumed responsibility for St. Paul’s Church at Jiangwan. St. Paul’s already had six daughter churches at this time, with eleven schools, all separated by considerable distances from each other. Disregarding his age and frailty, Wu shuttled back and forth between them, sometimes taking the train to St. Stpehen’s at Santinggou to celebrate communion. Among his congregants, some had received his ministrations for five generations.

Wu Hongyu died in Shanghai on December 18, 1919 at the age of eighty-five. The funeral service was held in the Cathedral of Our Savior, with more than a thousand in attendance. St. Paul’s Church and St. Stephen’s Church, which he had founded, erected a memorial tablet for him.

About the Authors

By Cui’an Peng

Assistant Manager, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.


Translated by G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.

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