1819  — 1854

Theodore Hamburg

Swedish missionary and translator among the Hakka.

Theodore Hamburg, a Swedish Lutheran, served with the Basel Mission in China. He wrote an influential work on the Taipings and contributed to the formation of a written language for the Hakka dialect. The Hakka Protestant Church today lists Hamburg among its chief founders.

Hamburg was born on March 25, 1819. He was a young man living comfortably in the home of a British consul, working as a bookkeeper and socializing in the musical circles of Stockholm, when he converted to Evangelical Christianity. He was then trained at the Basel Mission institute and was sent out as their missionary not long after, arriving in Hong Kong in 1847 with his companion, Rudolf Lechler. As they began to study Chinese under the direction of Karl Gutzlaff and his Chinese assistants, they were quickly thrust into the work of the Chinese Christian Union.

Shortly after he began work for Gutzlaff, Hamburg took charge of operations in Hong Kong when Gutzlaff traveled to Germany. Gutzlaff wrote advice to Hamburg, which later had a powerful effect on Hudson Taylor and other missionaries. Hamburg’s daily journal inspired more Christian workers to be sent to the East.

However, Hamburg’s pleasant youth made his first few years of living in China difficult. His idealism was quickly frustrated by disappointments and misunderstandings, and on a few occasions, he accused the Chinese of being hard-hearted, liars, and interested only in money. At times, Hamburg could be unyielding and pessimistic as well. On one occasion, he tore down the household gods and ancestors from the wall of a Chinese preacher’s home. The preacher’s father was outraged, for the pictures were owned by the rest of the family.

Hamburg extended his stay in Hong Kong in order to study Chinese more thoroughly and to avoid dangers on the mainland, not to mention his own feelings of discomfort among the Chinese. In 1848, only a year after arriving in China, Hamburg conceded to pressures from the Basel Mission Board and moved to the mainland just north of Hong Kong.

Hamburg favored a more careful approach to conversion than did Gutzlaff, and as he became more acquainted with the Chinese Christian Union, Hamburg began to have suspicions that many of the Chinese workers were frauds. Gutzlaff’s determined optimism kept him from believing this, but it turned out to be true. Hamburg discovered that many of the preachers were not distributing literature, but were opium addicts and criminals, selling literature back to printers, and then reselling to Gutzlaff. Many of those who did evangelize did not understand the message of salvation, and interpreted the Scriptures in terms of Chinese folk religion and Confucianism.

Within a year, Hamburg had discharged all but a handfull of native workers from the Chinese Union. He worked with these few men daily, but to his great despair, he returned unannounced one day in 1849 to find two of his assistants smoking opium, and in their intoxication, they mocked his reprimands. He became so disheartened that he shut himself in for days. A month later, he deserted his station in the middle of the night to escape invading pirates and his assistants then looted his house.

Many of the Chinese studying under Hamburg in Hong Kong complained to Gutzlaff about him, saying that they had been coerced into confessions, were not taught in a timely manner, and that Hamburg was unwilling to brave bad weather in order to preach. They accused him of not sending out or supporting preachers and not respecting the separation of men and women.

Hamburg and Lechler had sent a report to the Basel Mission in the fall of 1847 explaining their concerns about Gutzlaff and the Union, and declaring their independence from Gutzlaff. The letter created a great stir among mission agencies and supporters back in Europe, and in time a six-day-long meeting of eleven Hong Kong missionaries, including Hamburg, was convened in February 1850. The Protokoll produced by the meeting, which concluded that Hamburg’s charges were accurate, was circulated widely, resulting in many Western organizations severing ties with the Chinese Christian Union. Gutzlaff defended himself and blamed Hamburg, saying that it was he who gave money to unworthy Union members until the funds were spent. Gutzlaff also charged Hamburg with being insensitive and distrustful of the Chinese instead of patiently correcting them. Hamburg, however, continued to serve alongside Gutzlaff with the Chinese Union after the scandal. Some organizations continued to support the efforts of the Union, and Gutzlaff returned to Hong Kong in 1851, working to reform the organization until his death only seven months later.

Hamburg had been secretly engaged since his departure from Sweden to Anna Louise Motander. He was, however, required by the Basel Mission to remain single for his first five years of service. They declined his persistant requests that Anna be sent to him, though he made the case that female missionaries were necessary for the formation of Christian families. Though he disagreed with the Mission on this and other issues, he continued to serve under their leadership, and married Louise in 1851 in Hong Kong. They had two sons, one in 1852, another in 1854.

In Hong Kong, Lechler and Hamburg came into contact with some Hakkas, a people group in South China. When they saw how receptive the Hakka were to the Christian message, they decided to concentrate on this group and planned to use their new connections to reach this people on the mainland. They were perhaps the first Protestant missionaries to reside outside treaty ports, serving the poor migrant Hakkas in Guangdong (Kwangtung). When Lechler joined Hamburg in Pukak, Hamburg had already converted a line of shops into a chapel, school, and home. The contract, drawn up in 1851 by local believers, permitted “living there and teaching the doctrine of God” (Broomhall). Eventually, he and Lechler came to oversee a head station and three outstations, with 213 baptized.

At the time, there was no written language for the Hakka dialect. Fluent in Hakka, Hamburg and other missionaries, along with their Chinese counterparts, contributed to the production of the first Hakka character syllabary and lexicon, including both characters and transliteration. This opened the way for the printing of the Bible in Hakka, as well as enabling the oral traditions of the Hakka to be written down, and new works written. This led to the wider appreciation of Hakka literature, to the great pride of the Hakka people. The efforts of Hamburg and other missionaries strengthened the Hakka community in other ways, with many Hakka committed to Christian family life and Christians holding many of the top positions in politics and education. The Hakka church continues to thrive to this day, and many Hakka now consider Christianity to be part of their cultural heritage.

With his ability in the language and his faithful service, Hamburg became well-known to the Hakka as someone who would provide refuge and teach about Christianity. In 1851, Hong Rengan (Hung Jen-kan)—a Taiping prince and the cousin of Hong Xiuquan, founder and leader of the Taipings—fled to Hong Kong and was connected with Hamburg. Hamburg instructed him and he brought other friends and family members to Hamburg to be taught as well. He was baptised in 1853. During this time, Hamburg began to write one of the best accounts of the history and beliefs of the Taipings, The Visions of Hung-Siu-Tshuen, and Origin of the Kwang-Si Insurrection, based on what he learned from Hong Rengen. Rengen put Hamburg in touch with another important member of the rebellion, Li Zhenggao.

Through the teaching of Hamburg and Lechler, Zhenggao was also baptized, along with a relative, believing that Hong Xiuquan’s baptism was not valid. Zhenggao and Rengen went on to become missionaries to the Taipings and others. While Zhenggao renounced Taiping Christianity, Rengen was more accepting of it and acted as an intermediary between the Taipings and Westerners. Hamburg financially supported their first trip back to the Taipings in Nanjing, and sent Bibles, Christian books, and many other gifts such as a telescope and maps. Rengen eventually rejoined the Taipings to become second-in-command. He endeavored to make Protestant and Western reforms throughout the Taiping kingdom.

Another convert, Jiang Jiaoren, evangelized many of his people in Huizhou, founding the Lilang church. He reported consistently to Hamburg, who baptized 41 people in his church near the time of Jiang’s death in 1853. Jiang’s wife went on to minister to the women and children of the area, working in the girls’ school and promoting the nurture of abandoned girls by Christian families. A seminary was later founded there and their son became an ordained minister of the Basil Mission.

Hamburg also instructed and worked with Zhang Fuxing, who founded the Hakka church in Meizhou, which is now the “heartland of the Hakka church” (Lutz).

Hamburg died of dysentery in Lechler’s bungalow in Hong Kong in 1854, “loved and respected by everyone” (Broomhall). He was survived by his young wife and two small boys, who returned to Europe. Lechler and Winnes continued the work at Pukak.


  • A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates, 318, 322, 340-43, 346, 397.
  • A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Over the Treaty Wall, 78, 163-4, 176-7, 260, 386-7.
  • A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: If I Had A Thousand Lives, 210.
  • Jessie Gregory Lutz, Opening China: Karl F.A. Gutzlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827-1852, 161, 218-19, 227, 239-45, 249-51, 253-56, 264, 265, 270-72, 274, 283, 285, 296, 299, 301-4, 320, 325.
  • Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, 254-55.
  • For more details and bibliographic information, see the article on Theodor Hamberg in theRicci Roundtable.

About the Author

Laura Mason

Research Assistant, Global China Center.