1827  — 1916

William Alexander Parsons Martin


American Presbyterian missionary in China.

William Alexander Parsons was born on April 10, 1827, in Indiana, the son of an evangelical Presbyterian pastor. He attended Indiana University at Bloomington in 1843, where he was profoundly influenced by Professor Andrew Wylie, who believed in Manifest Destiny, namely that “America’s mission was to bring ‘science, liberal principles in government, and the true religion to the peoples of Asia.’” (Covell, 15)

In 1845, having learned of missionary work in China through reports from missionaries, Martin decided to go to China as a missionary. He entered New Albany Theological Seminary in preparation for ordination as a Presbyterian minister. He taught school for a while to earn money for seminary, thus gaining experience as an educator. The theme of his graduation oration points clearly to his later career as a missionary: “The Uses of the Physical Sciences as an Equipment of the Missionary.” Already at this early age, he thought that the missions enterprise necessarily included a variety of activities and goals, including general education. He applied to the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board in January, 1849, and was ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian church in October 1849. One month later, he married Jan VanSant, thus fulfilling what was then considered to be a requirement for male missionaries. He and his bride immediately set sail, along with his brother and wife and others, to join other Presbyterian missionaries in Ningbo (Ningpo).

When Martin and his party arrived, the Presbyterian Missionaries in Ningbo were already established. As new arrivals, William Martin and his brother were assigned to senior missionaries to learn from them. They immediately began the arduous process of learning Chinese. An avid and gifted student, Martin employed two teachers so that he could study both day and night, and he soon enjoyed language study.

Since the Ningbo dialect could not be accurately represented by Mandarin-based Chinese characters, Martin devised a phonetic system, using Roman letters to write it out, and soon had formed a society to produce it as an aid for missionaries in acquiring the language. They also taught some Chinese to use the phonetic system. One missionary produced a hymn book in the phonetic alphabet, to which Martin and his brother contributed a few hymns. Using the phonetic script, the “Chinese saw with astonishment their children taught to read in a few days, instead of spending years in painful toil, as they must with the native characters. Old women of three-score and ten, and illiterate servants and laborers, on their conversion, found by this means their eyes opened to read in their own tongue wherein they were born the wonderful works of God.” (Covell, 56)

Martin and his wife lived in the Chinese city, as Martin said: “I wanted to be near the people… There I spent six years, the most fruitful of my life; and there I came to know the people as I could not had I been content to view them at a distance.” (Martin, 65) He later criticized missionaries who stayed in their fortress-like compounds. Martin was soon engaged in preaching, teaching in the church schools, and writing or translating a variety of books and pamphlets. He spoke to a congregation of about two hundred in the city chapel, and to a larger, more educated audience in the downtown church, which he had helped construct. He also engaged in itineration in the nearby area, sometimes preaching to thousands of people at a time.

While serving in Ningbo, Martin participated in the translation of the New Testament into the colloquial Ningbo language, using the Romanized script. In the church, he lectured on Christian apologetics. These lectures were later published in 1854 as T’ien-tao su-yuan (Evidences of Christianity). In a move to gain a hearing among China’s elite, Martin suggested that “the ta-tao (great doctrine) was not the property of either East or West—its origin was in Heaven with a personal God who, he argued, might be referred to as shen, t’ien-chu, or shang-ti.” (Covell, 69) Over the course of several decades, this book reached thousands of intellectuals, and decades afterwards, was judged by his fellow missionaries as “the most popular Christian book ever published in China.” (Covell, 59)

He was also involved in many disputes with his fellow Presbyterian missionaries, some of whom accused him of being contentious. Martin was perceived to be lenient on admission of candidates for baptism. He received criticism, also, for his perceived approval of Confucianism. His general position was: “There is no necessary conflict between Christ and Confucius.” (Martin, 455) He made clear that Confucianism, “although correct and beautiful in his view, was not complete, for it had completely neglected the Divine dimension in doctrines of the wu-lun, the five human relationships,” (Covell, 117) but Chinese did not need to turn their backs on Confucius entirely. “Confucianism and Christianity may be distinguished in terms of breadth and narrowness, but not in terms of truth and error.” (Covell, 118) On the other hand, he said that Jesus was the only savior.

Very early, Martin realized that ancestor worship held a place of supreme importance for the Chinese. “It is the leading element in the religion of the people… It constitutes the very heart of the religion of China.” (Martin, 266-67) The question, therefore, was what the attitude and teaching of missionaries should be regarding this issue. At some times, the element of worship was clear, as when worshipers prayed for blessing upon themselves. Could anything good be found in this system? Most missionaries said no. On the Chinese side, “Nothing has ever aroused such active [Chinese] opposition to Christianity as the discovery that it stands in irreconcilable antagonism to the worship of ancestors.” (Martin, 276) Martin thought that Christians should “prune off [idolatrous elements] and retain all that is good and beautiful in the institution.” The tablet with ancestors’ names on it could be kept, and offerings of flowers could be substituted for incense and food. Going further, he maintained that even prostration before the tomb of the departed could be allowed, because other missionaries agreed that there was nothing wrong with bowing before living elders. Remove geomancy and “invocation of departed spirits” in prayer, and Chinese believers could keep the rest of the rites with a clear conscience. (Martin, 277)

In 1860, Martin went home in on a two-year furlough, with his family, all in poor health, suffering from malaria. Four sons had been born to the Martins in Ningbo. While in the United States, Easton College awarded Martin an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree (D.D.) for his literary labors. He put two of his sons into Philips Academy; promoted missions; and asked his board to be given permission to open a high-grade school to train ministers as well as other professionals in literature, theology, science, and medicine.

Returning to China with his two younger sons in the summer of 1862, he landed in Shanghai, where he was asked to stay and help. There, Martin reopened the two Presbyterian chapels, took over the management of the press, made plans to reinvigorate the school program, and sought to revive the local Presbyterian church, which had added no converted members in ten years. He also began training the missionaries in classical Chinese, using new materials.

After a while, however, his wife became ill and they had to move north. They moved into a house in Beijing, where they lived for two years. Evangelism continued to be his main priority. Taking the advice of a friendly official, he used low-key methods. He spoke in homes, held private conversations, and reached out to tradesmen who lived in the area of his home, but he also spoke regularly in a Presbyterian chapel. Mrs. Martin opened a class for women and girls in their home. Separate women’s meetings were also held, with a Chinese preacher instructing them in the gospel. The church grew slowly, the members coming mostly from poorer classes, but with some high-class inquirers.

Martin opened a school for boys in 1864. Students were mostly poorer folk, whose conversion was Martin’s principal aim, but few professed faith. The school taught geography, mathematics, science, and Chinese classics and offered Sunday lectures on Christianity. In a foretaste of future frustrations for Martin, the mission board at home was not very supportive.

During this period he joined the team of missionaries translating the Bible into Mandarin. Martin worked mostly on John’s Gospel. He also translated Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law. The book increased his stature and opened doors for future service in the government. His Board questioned the missionary value of this work, but he pointed to the chance to share Christian books with helpers and conversations with them in his home and elsewhere.

Lack of funds from home led him to find paying jobs, including teaching English at a government school for interpreters and writing letters about current affairs to the New York Times. Later, he was offered a job as “chair of International Law and Political Economy” at the T’ung Wen Kuan (“School of combined Learning”), with a salary, but the Board disapproved. Tired, he returned to the United States with his family in 1868. He had already begun to move in a different direction.

When he returned from his second furlough in 1869, he was invited to be president of the T’ung Wen Kuan, now given more prestige and support from the government. He resigned from the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions on December 1 of the same year. The Board had stopped supporting him, was sending no more people to Beijing, and was apparently opposed to all non-religious work. His new salary was ten times what he could receive as a missionary, and his family was in critical financial straits. He also thought he could pursue literary work better as a scholar, a position he thought was essential to reach the Chinese literati. “The role of the teacher gave him a natural context for Christian witness.” (Covell, 175)

After only a few months, Martin tried to resign, thinking that teaching only ten boys wasn’t worth his time, but the Chinese mandarins urged him to stay on in view of the potential of these boys and of the school. He stayed, and eventually, graduates of his school did serve in the government. One of Martin’s former students became the emperor’s English tutor. During his time at the school, Martin was involved in translating and producing nine books on science, international law, and political economy. As a reward for his faithful service, he was given the Mandarin rank of the third degree.

While serving as college president, he continued to write political articles for the New York Times, organized the Peking Oriental Society, composed books and articles to acquaint the West with China (Cycle of Cathay and The Lore of Cathay), and served as an informal political adviser to the Chinese government. The government sent him to Europe, America, and Japan to study educational methods and policies from 1880-82. Despite all this effort, however, he did not succeed in reforming Chinese education.

The Martins sailed to the United States for a rest again in 1895, returning in 1897. During the famous “Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898, he was made dean of a new Imperial University. Because several faculty and assistants were from Christian schools, they were given permission not to observe the Confucian rites at the opening ceremony, but Martin and some others took off their hats and made bows to the tablet of Confucius, causing consternation among many missionaries. All educational work stopped during and following the Boxer Rebellion, so Martin went home in 1900 for a year.

When the school reopened, he was dismissed, along with all foreign faculty. Martin, disappointed and feeling that his time in China had been wasted, went back to America again briefly in March, 1902. But that very year, he returned to China, accepting an invitation to be president of Wuch’ang University, a position in which he served for three years, after which he re-settled in Beijing.

Martin attended the 1907 Centenary Missionary Conference in Shanghai, where he served on two committees. Somewhat ahead of his time (but in agreement with Hudson Taylor’s consistent policy) he supported new moves for independence of Chinese churches from foreign control.

As Martin’s strength declined, he lectured less to large groups and spent more time with older students or smaller groups of students, but still taught small classes for an hour or two each day. Political events interested him less and less, and he did not comment on them in public. In his later years he served on the International Reform Bureau, which worked for the abolition of opium, liquor, cigarettes, and gambling.

Martin died of pneumonia in Beijing in December 1916. He was the oldest foreigner in China, with the greatest number of years (sixty-six) of continuous service. Many honors were paid to him as a great missionary and friend of progress in China. At his funeral, Li Yuan-hung, president of the Republic, sent a statement to be read by his secretary, saying that Martin “enjoyed an exceptional popularity as well as the respect of the scholars and officials both in the government and elsewhere in the country.” (Covell, 266)

All that Martin did during his six decades in China was aimed at winning the nation to the Christian faith. He perceived no conflict between direct proclamation of the gospel and secular education and reform efforts, since “he saw salvation as a coin with two sides—the material and the spiritual—but the spiritual was always the more important.” (Covell, 245) Despite perceptions of him to the contrary, he did not think that education must come first in reaching China; he also thought the Christian message itself was the most effective means of bringing intellectual enlightenment.

His stance on Confucianism brought much criticism, along with agreement from a few missionaries, such as Timothy Richard and Gilbert Reid. As for the ancestor cult, he came to believe that it should not be abolished, but that functional substitutions should be made in some of the rites. He focused on the historical and social role of the practices, while opposing obviously idolatrous elements in them. In time, he came to believe that his earlier insistence of abandoning ancestral tablets was altogether wrong. His new ideas were read for him by Gilbert Reid at the General Missionary Conference at Shanghai in 1890. After Martin’s paper asking for toleration of ancestor worship was read (with some modifications), strong objections were raised by a number of learned speakers. Martin’s position was defended by Timothy Richard and Gilbert Reid, but this approach was finally rejected in an almost unanimous vote. The debate continues into the twenty-first century.

Martin hoped to win the nation of China through mass conversions. Contrary to both Roman Catholic and Protestant practice, he thought that baptism should be administered as soon as people committed themselves to some form of Christian teaching, however imperfectly they might comprehend it. In his mind, teaching could follow baptism. Additionally, he believed that evangelists should focus on the head of the family or the clan. In time, large numbers of converts would make a powerful impact on their communities. To remove the charge of being unfilial or even traitorous, evangelists should teach loyalty first to the emperor and the family, and then to God. Martin’s main insight is that Christian teachers should relate their message to the principal tenets of Chinese culture as much as possible. On the other hand, “he did not seek ‘common ground’ with Confucianism or Buddhism but a ‘point of contact’ that utilized terms and concepts as a framework that made communication possible.” (Covell, 275)

In light of his future focus on education and reform, we might take his autobiographical evaluation of his early years in Ningbo as “the most fruitful” period of his life as a mild indication that perhaps Martin came to believe that preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible were, in the long run, ultimately more profitable than secular education and political reform.

The concluding assessment of Ralph Covell is that Martin was a “loner” “with all the ambivalent characteristics of the pioneer… A man with boundless energy, a creative spirit, and iron will, and brilliant abilities as a teacher and writer.” When his ideas were resisted, “he took positions designed to accentuate differences with his colleagues, and sometimes deliberately provoked them. Impatient of those with minds less brilliant than his, he frequently showed an impetuous spirit given to hasty decisions and the articulation of only partly-developed ideas.” Nevertheless, in his writings, Martin frequently mentions Chinese scholars and officials with whom he formed lasting friendships. This may have been an essential part of his success in being accepted by Chinese leaders. Despite their differences, Martin and Hudson Taylor, whom Martin praised highly, remained friends.

Martin left an example of perseverance; hard work; broad-mindedness; and knowledge of, and appreciation for, the finer elements of Chinese culture. His continuing friendship with J. Hudson Taylor and Griffith John demonstrates that even those who disagreed with him could recognize him as an orthodox brother in Christ and an esteemed co-laborer in the great task of bringing the gospel to China. No one can doubt his lasting contribution to education China; in that arena, his legacy endures.

-Abridgment of chapter by G. Wright Doyle on “William A.P. Martin” in Builders of the Chinese Church, edited by G. Wright Doyle (forthcoming)


  • Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. 7 vols: Barbarians at the Gates(1981); Over the Treaty Wall (1982); If I Had a Thousand Lives (1982); Survivors’ Pact (1984);Refiner’s Fire (1985); Assault on the Nine (1988); and It Is Not Death to Die (1989). London: Hodder and Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.
  • Covell, Ralph. W. A. P. Martin: Pioneer of Progress in China. Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1978.
  • Martin, W. A. P. Cycle of Cathay, or China, South and North, with Personal Reminiscences, 2nd ed. Edinburgh and London: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1897.
  • Martin, W. A. P. The Lore of Cathay, or The Intellect of China. New York: F. H. Revell, 1912.
  • Photo from a missionary postcard depicting Hudson Taylor, Griffith John and W A P Martin; 1905

About the Author

Martha Stockment

Martha Stockment received her B.A. from The University of Virginia in 2009, with double majors in English and psychology. She joined the Global China Center in April of 2013, where she does writing and editing work, along with assisting in marketing and communications. Martha lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, Andrew.