1782  — 1834

Robert Morrison

Pioneer Protestant missionary to China.

Robert Morrison grew up in an austere Scottish Presbyterian home, where he became a Christian as a teenager. After his conversion, he sought to honor God by pursuing a career as a missionary. He studied at Hoxton Academy, North London (1803), and at the Gosport Training Academy (1804), where David Bogue, one of the founders of the London Missionary Society (LMS), was principal. At the Gosport Training Academy, Morrison learning a three-pronged approach to missions: learn the language, translate the Scriptures, and establish a seminary, in that order. The LMS appointed Morrison as a missionary in 1805, and he then studied medicine, astronomy, and Chinese in London. Following his ordination in 1807, Morrison continued studying the language on board the ship that carried him to Canton (Guangzhou), where he also engaged in religious conversations with the sailors, attempting to convert them. Although he mostly failed in these efforts, he found that lending out his books and tracts afforded him the best response from his fellow passengers.

Morrison arrived in Macao on September 4, 1807. He found it difficult to find anyone willing to tutor him in Chinese, however, since the Chinese government had forbidden their people from teaching the language to any foreigners. He asked George Staunton, an official of the East India Company, for assistance, and Staunton helped Morrison connect with a Chinese convert to Roman Catholicism, who became Morrison’s language instructor. With the aid of this tutor, along with another Chinese Christian teacher, Morrison gradually acquired fluency in Chinese.

On February 20, 1809, Morrison married a woman named Mary Morton. The same day, he also accepted the position of “The Office of Chinese Translator to the English Factory at Canton” with the East India Company. He struggled with his decision to work for the politically aggressive East India Company, but he needed the salary, and the job secured his legal residence in Canton. Morrison decided that the positives of accepting the position outweighed the negatives, as his duties would improve his language skills and the salary would benefit his mission. Throughout the rest of his time in China, however, Morrison wrestled with the reality that his work robbed him of time he could otherwise spend translating Scriptures. Although he thought his decision was for the best, it was not without much reluctance that he accepted this position. It also required that he spend about half of the year in Canton, while his new wife remained in Macao. This situation was extremely hard both on Mary and on Morrison.

Lacking the time he desired to work on translation, Morrison employed the help of his two language tutors to begin the work of translating the Scriptures into Chinese. He started his translations with the Bible, followed by a Chinese dictionary and grammar, and then commentaries and explanations of Scriptures. As the pioneer in Chinese translation work, Morrison earned a Doctor of Divinity degree from Aberdeen University in 1817, a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1825, and international acclaim. Morrison also served as advisor to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and respected unofficial ambassador of all things Chinese in Britain.

The translation process was complex, however, and Morrison made slow progress. In time, he became concerned that he would not be able to complete the third step of Bogue’s mission strategy (founding a seminary) because the translations were taking so long. He asked the LMS for aid in his assignment. In response, the LMS deployed another missionary to Morrison’s aid: William Milne. Milne was charged with assisting Morrison in his translations and establishing a seminary. With Milne’s help, Morrison was able to finish his translation of the Bible, his composition of the Chinese-English dictionary, and his Chinese grammar. Milne also translated Bogue’s lecture notes for use in the seminary.

After assisting Morrison with this work, Milne began to search for a suitable location for establishing the school. He selected Malacca as their base and began the work of constructing an academy there. The LMS sent another missionary, Walter Medhurst, to Malacca to assist Milne in his printing work. Milne did not see eye-to-eye with this new missionary, however. Consequently, Morrison and Milne established a committee and drew up a series of resolutions to assert their administrative power over the operations in Malacca. This action became a source of controversy between Morrison and the LMS, who believed Morrison’s approach to religious education at the Anglo-Chinese College was too liberal. Eventually, this disagreement caused the LMS virtually to abandon Morrison.

In 1818, the first stone was laid for the foundation of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. The college opened its doors in 1820, and Milne taught his students using translations of Bogue’s lecture notes. Seventeen people completed the program before Milne died in 1822. Morrison was deeply grieved by the death of Milne and took over the responsibility for the college in 1823, spending time in Malacca giving lectures to the students and expanding the school’s library with more translations. Thankfully, the College continued strongly, despite the death of Milne.

Adding to Morrison’s despair, his wife, Mary, had recently died. Mary had struggled with her health throughout her time in China. Early in 1810, she had given birth to a son, John, but he died at birth. A healthy daughter was born 1812, and then a healthy son in 1814. Her pregnancies only exacerbated her own health struggles, however. Her continuing illnesses finally drove her back to Britain in 1815, while her husband remained in China. Mary’s health had improved enough by 1820 that she returned to China, and she was soon pregnant with another child. In June of 1821, however, Mary became critically ill; on June 10th, she and her unborn baby passed away. Morrison was distraught and kept his children with him for a time, sharing his grief with them. At the beginning of 1822, however, Morrison’s children returned to England.

In 1823, Morrison finally took a long-awaited furlough home to Britain. While he was there, he wanted to arouse interest and zeal for China. His purpose was twofold: to gather support for the Anglo-Chinese College, and to inspire more missionaries to serve in China. Morrison also visited family, was granted an audience with King George IV, and attended Missionary Society meetings. He remained in Britain until 1826, and during that time, he met and married Eliza Armstrong.

When Morrison returned to China, his family remained in Macao while he continued on to Canton. During his long separation from Eliza, he wrote to her almost daily. Although he found his solitude quite difficult, Morrison declared, “He (the missionary) should endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. To complain of difficulties inseparably connected with the work, is unworthy of him.” (Hancock, 197)

We cannot fully understand Morrison’s career without considering his character. As Christopher Hancock states, “His capacity to endure and consistency of vision are remarkable.” And: “For all his bullish single-mindedness and (to some) priggish self-righteousness, Morrison had a remarkable capacity to love and be loved.” As might be expected, in the end, “Morrison’s will often outran his body… He was always better at exhausting himself than resting well.” Morrison was a man who was deeply devoted to his family, his mission, and his Lord.

Morrison’s later years were spent training several locals in operating the printing press and composing evangelical texts. By preparing local converts to carry on Bogue’s mission strategy after he was gone, Morrison successfully completed all that Bogue had assigned him to do. The mission would not end with the departure or death of Morrison. The converts would carry on, founding new mission centers, distributing texts, continuing translations, and educating other local converts, “thus extending the circle wider and wider from year to year.” (Daily, 190)

Despite losing the support of the LMS and the isolation that followed, Morrison was successful in his mission. By the time he died in 1834, China possessed a Chinese Bible; a grammar of the Chinese language; translations of the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts; several monographs and many shorter works on Chinese history, culture, literature, etc., along with translations of Chinese literary works; a history of Christian missions among the Chinese; a vocabulary of the Cantonese dialect; several dozen other works in English and Chinese; and a handful of converts dedicated to spreading Christianity. Over his twenty-seven years in China, Morrison laid the groundwork for others to follow.

Morrison indeed established the foundation for future missionaries in China. When he arrived, China was hostile to missionaries, and Morrison had an uphill battle to fight. Over time, as he toiled away, he prepared the soil of China for future missionaries to come and share the gospel. Through his translations of Scriptures and other religious tracts, he spread the Good News farther than he would physically have been able to reach. And by founding a seminary in Malacca, he was able to train up native Christians who could continue his work.


As the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison laid a foundation for what would become the imposing edifice of today’s Chinese church. Morrison was quite conscious of his role, and worked deliberately to prepare for others, Chinese and Western, to follow.

The basic facts are well known from a variety of original sources, including the two-volume Memoirs of the Life and Labours of the late Robert Morrison, composed by his second wife Eliza. From Eliza we learn of Morrison’s inner conflicts about work for the East India Company while trying also to fulfill his missionary calling, as well as intimate details of his family life. Morrison comes across as a real man, flawed, to be sure, and a bit stiff and formal at times, but devoted to his family, his mission and his Lord.

Robert Morrison compiled an English-Chinese (not Chinese-English) dictionary in several volumes; published a translation of the entire Bible in Chinese (with essential assistance from an existing translation of part of the New Testament, Chinese helpers, and William Milne); a grammar of the Chinese language; translations of the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts; several monographs and many shorter works on Chinese history, culture, literature, etc., along with translations of Chinese literary works; a history of Christian missions among the Chinese; a vocabulary of the Cantonese dialect; and several dozen other works in English and Chinese.

The monumental literary achievements, not to mention other aspects of his ministry, which were all wrought in an atmosphere of constant pressure from Chinese government and the EIC, flowed from a man whose character is described as marked by “untiring perseverance,” “the most ardent zeal - [and] indefatigable diligence.” Beset by headaches, fatigue, and multiple physical ailments; always conscious that his Chinese helpers, his precious books and printing-blocks, and his own person could be at any time threatened by Chinese officials; restrained both by law and by the labor required by his job with the EIC; far from home and friends; working alone most of the time; longing for his family - Morrison started from almost nothing and built an edifice of scholarship surpassed by few.

We cannot understand his career without attention to the man’s character. As Christopher Hancock states, “His capacity to endure and consistency of vision are remarkable.” “For all his bullish single-mindedness and (to some) priggish self-righteousness, Morrison had a remarkable capacity to love and be loved.” Not surprisingly, “Morrison’s will often outran his body in later years. He was always better at exhausting himself than resting well.”

Strong Calvinistic convictions animated Morrison and enabled him to endure repeated setbacks that would have sent a lesser man home. This same confidence in God’s benign, sovereign purposes fortified him against the awful losses of his beloved wife Mary and his close friend and colleague, William Milne. Not that he did not suffer from a “profound” grief when Mary died, such that Eliza could write that his “health and spirits suffered considerably for some time,” but that, in Hancock’s words, “as before, Morrison turned adversity into energy: ‘I purpose, by God’s grace, to be more and more devoted to the good cause’ although he recognized that ‘God alone can give success to the labours of Christian missionaries’.”

We should keep in mind the multi-faceted nature of Morrison’s activities, including, of course, his diligent service of the EIC, but also his care for both the physical and spiritual state and needs of seamen and other foreigners in Canton; his wide-ranging study of all that could be known about China - geography, history, literature, culture, flora and fauna, medicine, politics, etc.; his far-sighted foundation of t he Anglo-College in Malacca, the forerunner of what would become the vast educational enterprise of later missionaries; his assiduous promotion of China’s need for Christian missionaries; and his insistence that these be properly trained and educated.

Morrison both admired China’s ancient and rich culture, and sharply criticized the ways in which this culture ignored or violated what he considered to be God’s revealed truth. He was, after all, a Christian missionary, convinced that all peoples and cultures need the Gospel.

He was a man whose broad-minded grasp of the complexities both of China itself and of any effective methods of reaching its people with the Gospel opened a path and set a pattern for thousands of others, down to the present.

Some questions

Critics, then and now, have questioned the wisdom of Morrison’s connection with the East India Company. While acknowledging Morrison’s ongoing agony over both the crushing work load entailed by employment with the EIC and the frustrations he felt at being associated with an enterprise which did not have the interests either of the Gospel or of the Chinese at heart, others accept at face value Morrison’s belief that he had no choice but to use his service to the Company as his principal means of support and only legal means of living in China.

Both aspects of this have been challenged, however. Could Morrison not, like other missionaries, have relied on the London Missionary Society to provide for his material needs? More importantly, was residence in China itself necessary? His colleague William Milne, after a short time with Morrison in Canton, continued translation, preaching, and educational work in Malacca, far from the prying eyes of Qing secret police. Others followed the same course, laboring among the numerous Chinese population in South East Asia for decades, until the treaties imposed by the Western powers after two wars blasted open China’s doors to residence by merchants and missionaries alike.

Binding himself to the EIC meant that Morrison had to live separately from his wife for half the year; it strained his health by forcing him to do his translation at night; and it tainted him - and the Western missionary movement - with the brush of both opium and gunboats from then until now.

Morrison attached himself to the EIC in order to obtain legal residence in China. He remained in Canton when his second wife Eliza, never to see her again, for the same purpose - to die in China. But was this obsession with a physical presence in China necessary? Others worked well from the periphery of the closed Middle Kingdom.

In the name of a “higher calling,” Morrison and some who followed him often neglected their wives and children, whom they dearly loved. Some have wondered whether Robert Morrison might have lived longer and accomplished even more of what he considered to be his primary mission had he relied fully on financial provision to come through the LMS.

None of these criticisms detract from the consensus that Robert Morrison was a great Christian missionary whose accomplishments have earned him a lasting place in Chinese Christian history.


  • Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China, Christopher A. Daily. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.
  • Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism, Christopher Hancock. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.
  • A.J. Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy, Volume One. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2005 (first published by OMF Publications as Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, Volume: Barbarians at the Gates, 1981).
  • Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.
  • Christopher Hancock, Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism. London: T & T Clark, 2008.
  • Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II: 1500-1900. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005.
  • James H. Taylor, III, “The Trailblazer,” MIS Bulletin: A call to Christian professionals. Issue 46, winter, 2006.

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.

G. Wright Doyle

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