1853  — 1912

Rosewell Graves

Rosewell Hobart Graves

Medical doctor, church planter, itinerant evangelist, seminary professor, translator, writer and publisher, and supporter of numerous mercy ministries. Said to have been the longest-serving Southern Baptist missionary in China.

Early Life

“Graves was born into a wealthy and notable family in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a medical doctor, and his mother—an ardent supporter of Christian missions around the world—was an accomplished writer” (Brady).

Graves came to faith in Christ when he was a teenager through the ministry of Richard Fuller, considered one of the best preachers of his time. He graduated from St. Mary’s College in Baltimore in 1851. He planned to become a physician like his father. When the Baptist General Convention met in Baltimore in 1853, however, the claims of the lost in other lands presented by missionaries J. Lewis Shuck and T. J. Bowen struck him as God’s leading for him to become a foreign missionary.

Though he had a flourishing ministry in Baltimore, he thought that the people there could easily hear the gospel, but that millions on other lands could not, unless someone went to tell them. He began corresponding with the Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Church in the spring of 1853, telling them that his doctor assured him that he had a strong constitution and could stand the rigors of life in another country. Though he was willing to serve anywhere, his heart was set on China. Having acquired facility in several languages without much difficulty already, he believed that he could also learn Chinese. When the Board warned him of the difficulties and dangers of missionary service in China, he replied that he was aware of the risks but trusted God to give him strength to serve.

The Board formally appointed Graves as a missionary to China in March 1855.

Graves believed that he could use medicine as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the Chinese people, so he continued his medical studies with his father, a physician, while attending lectures at the University of Maryland, from which he received an honorary M.D. in 1856 He was ordained as a Southern Baptist missionary at Seventh Baptist Church, Baltimore, April, 1856, after which he he sailed for Canton (Guangzhou). During the journey, a young Chinese whom he met began to teach him Chinese.

Getting Started

Graves arrived in Canton on August 14. In November, British Admiral Seymour attacked and briefly occupied the city in response to what he considered an offense to his national honor. The naval bombardment continued after his troops returned to their ships, causing fires and great damage. The Baptist Mission buildings seemed to be in danger, so Graves and others had their belongings moved to a boat. He removed to Macao, where he spent his time studying Chinese. Lacking a teacher at this time, he learned to understand more than to speak.

In February 1857, he found a home that he could use for a very small chapel. As hostilities continued, the people suffered greatly. In October, he came down with dysentery. A typhoon struck Macao, causing death and damage. Graves wrote home to report that he was having financial difficulties, for home churches were not sending enough money and not all that was sent was received.

At the beginning of 1858, Graves began trying to get to know individual Chinese, so as to understand their needs better, but he was hindered by his poor knowledge of Chinese. His subsequent career proves that he eventually learned the language quite well.

He continued to expand the work, however, opening a chapel on May 30, at Chong Un Kin. Parts of the Gospels were translated into Chinese and given to the people. He and his co-workers also talked with people in the streets, the local temple, and other public venues. He found the Chinese to be orderly and very attentive. Several read the books they had been given then returned with requests for more literature.

First Trip into the Interior

“During the first week of February, 1859, Graves made two excursions into the country. He went to a large town about ten miles northeast of Canton. The inhabitants were members of’ the Hakkas race and their dialect was quite different from Cantonese. He preached to an eager audience and distributed some books among them. Everywhere, he was well treated everywhere and asked to drink tea…
On the first of’ March, he took a trip to San Yong by boat. He made friends on the way down and gave away several books. All of the passengers seemed interested in Christianity. At San Yong a foreigner was such an unusual sight that they had to sleep aboard the boat to escape from the curiosity of the people. The second day, though, they left the boat early and spoke to the people, prayed with them and with those in nearby villages, besides distributing books…

Most of the towns on trip had never before been visited by a missionary. With this in view Dr. Graves appealed to the Board for more men. He realized that it was not sufficient to merely visit these people once. Also, he saw that China was opening up and was ready for the Word. Women, too, were beginning to show more interest. Several of the villages were sending for missionaries” (Powers 6-7).

Slowly but steadily, their labors were bearing fruit. A few men presented themselves for baptism. His letters home begging for more missionaries resulted in the coming of new workers. Graves and his co-workers, “Gaillard and Roberts,” continued to make evangelistic forays into the interior, where large crowds followed them at almost every place, and people eagerly received the literature they had to distribute.

By June, 1860, “‘several of the Chinese brethren showed desire and some ability’ to preach. That was a big help. Since Graves was busy working out translations and interpretations of the Scriptures, he had little time for this work himself” (Powers 9).

During the Frist Opium War, the contents of his chapel had been destroyed. In August 1860, he received two hundred dollars from the Chinese government as reparations.

From time, to time, his Chinese converts suffered persecution for their allegiance to Christ.

“In September another instance of Christian persecution occurred. Luk, who had just been baptised, took some books back with him and began distributing them. While talking quietly to a group on the street, he was seized and carried before a mandarin. He was charged with preaching the doctrine or Jesus and thus deceiving the minds of the people. Another accusation was that he had led a foreigner—Graves—into the interior. They told him that the Chinese had plenty of good books of their own and wished no foreign ones. He was found guilty and flogged with a rattan whip besides suffering imprisonment. The fact that he had friends among the Manchus was the only thing that saved the convert from being slain. For the Chinese had an idea that if they merely drowned him the foreign warships would not bother them…

“After great opposition, the Reverend Graves finally succeeded in renting a house in Shin Hing. He started work there in March of 1861. By April he had gained a foothold and had several applicants for baptism. Luk, Au, and others of the native brethren were helpful in the work there” (Powers 10).

Graves’s work during that year was divided into two parts: the medical, consisting of vaccinations, administration of medicine, etc.; and more direct proclamation through preaching and teaching. He and his coworkers also distributed portions of Scripture and tracts with prayers and other Christian content. Over the next few decades, Graves was involved in the distribution of thousands of tracts and New Testaments. The missionaries often made evangelistic trips into the surrounding villages, and many people came from a distance for medical treatment and to hear the gospel.

Graves believed strongly in the value of missionary medical work. “In His thoughts of mercy toward our race God pities the body as well as the soul of man. Both were created by God, both have felt the curse of Sin, and both are to share the benefits of God’s redemption” (Graves 220). In his earthly ministry, Christ healed the sick; in his commission to the apostles, he told them to heal people. Though this healing ministry was secondary both in Christ’s labors and in his instructions to the apostles, “the healing of the sick should occupy the first place among the helps to the preaching of the word, as being the only one of these subsidiary agencies mentioned in Scripture” (Graves 225).

Graves continued: “We find medical work of special service in preparing the way for preaching of the Word and the founding of churches among the heathen. In China we find it especially useful in opening new stations, by overcoming the prejudices of the people and showing the benevolent aspect of Christianity in a way that the simplest may understand” (225). His own contribution to the physical health of the Chinese included not only clinical treatment of the sick but also vaccinations.

Both hospitals and clinics have their value, he believed. Clinics could treat many more people at a much lower cost, but hospitals allowed for prolonged contact with Christian doctors, nurses, and teachers, thus providing a deeper understanding of Christianity, closer observation of Christians, and opportunities for in-depth conversations.

Always, however, both in rural clinics and in the hospitals, missionaries and their Chinese assistants supplemented their treatment of the body with teaching and preaching for the soul. Graves gives impressive statistics for the numbers of Chinese patients who heard the gospel, received Christian literature, and put their faith in Christ.

The Civil War sometimes disrupted communications with his home base. Being a Southerner, Graves considered the North to be aggressors. Support from America for missionaries dwindled, but friends in England and China helped contribute gifts when they could.

The church at Shin Hing gradually grew, as individuals came forward for baptism, but some had to be disciplined for indifference and immorality, and both Luk and Au fell back into opium use. “However, when on July 27, Brother Gaillard died and Graves had to divide his time between Canton and Shin Hing, Au, who had repented and reformed, was elected assistant pastor of the church at Shin Hing. By the end of the year it had grown to thirteen members” (Powers 11). Pastoral care for them was not easy, for Graves found that “the Chinese were so conceited, sordid and deceitful that much of it remained even after they professed Christ” (13). He was encouraged, however, that women as well as men were presenting themselves for baptism.

Meanwhile, he was spending more and more of his time in medical ministry.

“Graves preached far and wide in South China and held medical clinics everywhere he went. He regarded the healing of the sick as the most valuable entry point to telling people about Jesus” (Brady).

First Marriage

Graves had gone to China as a single missionary.

His closest friends and missionary colleagues were Charles and Eva Gaillard. Seven years after Graves’s arrival, Charles was killed in a typhoon. Heartbroken, Eva wrote the Board about this unexpected turn of events saying, “Strange are the paths of the future and in wisdom hidden from our view.” (Letters of Eva M. Gaillard, IMB Archives).
During that time of mourning, Rosewell [Graves] and Eva drew close to each other. Their friendship blossomed into love, and in 1863, they were married. Rosewell adopted Eva and Charles’s son as his own. Unfortunately, after only one year of marriage, Eva fell ill and died in December 1864 (Brady).

In 1867, Graves was distressed to have to send his adopted son Charles back to Baltimore, since he could not care for the boy after his mother had died.

Two-Fold Impact of Women on the Evangelization of China

[Graves] wrote a letter to his mother in 1867, describing his ministry experiment in which Christian women would take the Bible from house to house, sharing the gospel with unbelieving females. This novel approach overcame the barrier that missionaries had faced for decades in trying to reach Chinese women who were largely secluded in their homes.
Rosewell’s mother, Ann Graves, was deeply moved by her son’s letter and immediately invited her friends to a meeting to learn more about this new missionary strategy of women reaching women with the gospel. These meetings continued and slowly began to spread, eventually resulting in one of the most important explosions of missionary support in the history of Southern Baptists. Rosewell’s letter was the spark that set aflame the great fire of missionary support and zeal that would become the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU). Ann Baker Graves became known as the mother of that vital movement.

Literature Work

In addition to an abundance of moral literature in China, there were many anti-Christian tracts, which were “often exceedingly scurrilous, obscene and blasphemous.” Their object was to oppose all “foreign religions… Christian missionaries have endeavored to supplant this bad or worthless literature by the good” (Graves 258). The Christian “tracts” ranged in size from a page to any hundreds of pages. “They will reach many a nook and corner unreached by the voice of the living preacher… they will excite ripples of thought in the still and stagnant pools of village mental life” and they “prepare the way for the living preachers of the Word” (259-60).

Graves published two tracts in 1868. The first was “What Stand Should Chinese Churches Take With Regard to Church Members’ Binding Their Daughters’ Feet?” He gave three reasons why he “was opposed to the practice: (1) For health’s sake, (2) It was a foolish, if not sinful, conformity to custom, (3) It interfered with a woman’s usefulness.” The other tract was called “The Place of Bible Distribution in the Scheme of Evangelization.” There he pointed out that “the chief difference between the Catholic and Protestant method of mission work was the way in which they handled this question. The latter gave the Bible to the Chinese, the former withheld it” (Powers 13-14).

He believed strongly in the central role of the Bible in evangelism and teaching Christians. “The translation and distribution of the Sacred Scriptures has always been one of the most important parts of the work of Protestant missions” (Graves 260). He noted with satisfaction that most of the Scriptures or portions had been purchased by Chinese eager to know about Christianity. Graves was most generous and broad-minded in his assessment of various forms of ministry. For example, he approved of Romanized versions of the Bible for the unlearned.

Forty Years in China argues for a wide variety of Christian literature to be used. “The religious periodical press has proved an important aid in spreading a knowledge of the truth” (Graves 268). School and textbook series introduced Western science without secular ideas currently prevalent in Wester textbooks. Missionaries were publishing other types of books also including commentaries, devotional works, Christian biographies, “treatises on theology and experimental religion,” and “catechism and hymn-books [that] have presented the best thought of western minds on the most important topics that can claim human attention…

“Thus a great body of literature has been found, and the writings of the Protestant missionaries of China already amount to thousands of volumes” (Graves 274). Graves could have pointed to himself as a contributor to this strategic form of Christian missionary endeavor.

During 1869, Graves spent time on the construction of a new chapel. He was very thankful that the Chinese Christians themselves raised the funds through subscriptions. “When the building was completed it was one of the largest and most beautiful chapels in the whole city” (Powers 14).

First Furlough

Ill health led Graves to leave Canton for the United States in early 1869. He turned over his ministries to the Reverend George Piercy of the English Wesleyan Mission, and sailed for America in February, arriving in San Francisco the next month.

At his own expense, he took along with hm Fang Sin Shang, a licentiate of the Canton church, whom he wanted to minister among the Chinese in California.

For the next two years, he traveled to various cities, always urging upon Christians the spiritual needs of the Chinese and pleading for men to come to China as missionaries.

Somehow, he found time to court Miss Jane W. Norris, of Baltimore, to whom he was engaged in January 1871. They were married in Baltimore a year later. Jane was a gifted teacher, and served effectively with her husband until her death in April, 1888.

Return to China

Graves sailed with his new wife from San Francisco in May 1872. When they arrived in Canton to resume his ministry there and in Shin Hing, they rented a house from the English Wesleyan Brethren. He began to see fruit in Canton almost immediately, perhaps because he had been spiritually and physically invigorated while at home in the Untied States, and because Wang Mui, the pastor whom he had left in charge of the Canton church, had succeeded in keeping the congregation together.

The church in Shin Hing had been weakened by the death of its Chinese pastor, but Graves soon saw it flourish again. In October, he and a fellow missionary named Simmons made a tour of towns in the surrounding country, where they received a warm reception everywhere they went. Along they way, they preached, taught, and distributed tracts.

The growing maturity of the church found expression in the increased number of Chinese assistants whom Graves mentored and then put into places of pastoral leadership at the new station of Sai Nam and the church in Canton. Evangelism also proved more fruitful as he and his colleagues employed Chinese to take more responsibility for preaching to their own people when they went on a circuit tour of the towns in the surrounding region. Beginning in 1875, he also took his wife with him when he visited Shin Hing, where she was welcomed by the women.

By this time, the Chinese believers had come to the conclusion that the chief hindrance to the progress of the gospel was its perceived connection with foreign powers. Taking the initiative, they formed their own mission society, chose workers, and sent them to open a new chapel in Ju Ku, a market town about twenty miles from Shin Hing. Later, the believers in Canton formed a society to distribute tracts.

Graves’s “policy was always to encourage the Chinese in self-support and to lead them in building up their institutions. To his influence is due largely to the remarkable development of the South China Baptists in carrying on their own work.” (Obituary)

Training Chinese to Reach China

In addition to preaching at the church in Canton, Graves held a regular Bible class to provide more systematic instruction for believers. He realized that missionaries would never be able to evangelize the huge population of China. “Graves, therefore, spent much of his time training men for the ministry. Theological education was the ministry in which his profound intelligence and learning paid great dividends as he discipled scores of men to be evangelists and pastors” (Brady).

Graves said:

“Our commission is not only to disciple and baptize all nations but also to teach them to observe all things that Christ has commanded. Building up the native brethren in the most holy faith is one of the most laborious as well as delightful branches of our missionary work” (Letters of Rosewell H. Graves, IMB Archives).

The training program he founded became the first school for theological education ever established overseas by Southern Baptists. Eventually, it was named Graves Theological Seminary in his honor (Brady).

Graves, like other missionaries, also started lower-level schools, both in Canton and in the outlying towns, as a means of evangelism and strengthening believers. “There were then only two schools dependent on the mission for support, the boys’ school at Canton and one near Shin Ring. The others, among which were several girls’ schools, were supported by special donations” (Powers 21). Later, funds from Mississippi enabled him to open a school in Lao Hai.

He had studied theology under his pastor Dr. Fuller for two years. He had also studied Greek in school and did very well. As a young man, he established the habit of reading a chapter of the Greek New Testament each day. From his notes on the Gospel of John reproduced in the minutes of the Foreign Mission Board, it is very clear that he was a solid and competent scholar of Greek and of Hebrew. Thus, he was qualified to take part in the translation of the Bible. His notes on the Bible also showed that he was familiar with the writings of the early church fathers, textual history, and the commentaries.

His literary work during this period included the preparation of a hymnal for the Chinese church. In fact, he produced a significant amount of literature in Chinese. “Over the years, he wrote many of his own tracts, theological books, and hymns in Chinese. He also translated numerous books of the Bible into Hakka, another language in South China. Furthermore, he was one of the founders of the China Baptist Publication Society” (Brady).

He also had a great deal to do with the establishment of the China Baptist Publication Society.

He usually suspended most of his activities when the annual examinations for the civil service were held in Canton, in order to spend his time contacting the students, who came from all over the province.

Normal Pastoral Activities

Graves was responsible for the churches in Canton, Shin Hing, and Sai Nam. As time passed, these responsibilities grew too great for him, so much so that the local believers petitioned the Baptist mission board to send more missionaries. In Canton, Graves was then holding services in the chapel for about three hours every day except Saturday. These meetings included teaching, preaching, singing, and, afterwards, informal conversation with the Chinese.

In 1879, after some of the Christians in Canton had donated land and money, and offered their services for the project, he was finally able to begin construction on a dwelling for missionaries that he thought would be more healthful for them and their guests. He had to supervise the workers closely, because they often engaged in theft.

Work was also begun on a new chapel at Tung Ta, but an angry mob attacked and destroyed the half-built structure in January 1180. Graves appealed to the American consul for help, but the local China authorities were slow to make restitution.

Worn out from constant work, Graves and his wife returned to the United States on furlough in March 1880, by way of Palestine and Europe, arriving home in the middle of the summer.

“The remainder of the year was spent in visiting various associations, conventions, educational institutions, etc. Everywhere Graves told of the work being done and solicited funds for the cause, as well as begging for more workers. He continued this work until August, 1881, when he decided that he must get some rest or his visit to the United States would prove to have been taken in vain. From then until October 8th he took things easy. At that time he and Mrs. Graves left Baltimore for San Francisco, whence they sailed for China” (Powers 23-24).

In 1882, he was happy to ordain a Chinese man to take over pastoral responsibilities at Shin Hing, thus relieving him of that burden.

Jane Norris Graves died in 1888. “Then, in 1890, Rosewell married a third time to widow Janie Lowery Sanford, who was also a Southern Baptist missionary in South China. Jane and Janie were both missionary teachers who opened schools for girls, including the first school for the blind in China” (Brady).

On one of his furloughs, he also took time to compose a long book, Forty Years in China, or China in Transition. This major treatise of sinology and missiology may have been why he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity (D.D), which in the nineteenth century was conferred on pastors and missionaries who had attained unusually high intellectual competence or who had published theological works of outstanding value.

Later Years

Records of Graves’ missionary career after this time are spotty. Some events include:

He took a routine trip in 1898 to Hong Kong, where he contracted malaria. This debilitating illness recurred several times afterward. His eyesight also began to fail him.

The Boxer Rebellion caused great havoc in 1900. At one point, leaders of the anti-Christian movement put a price on his head; other missionaries were also in danger. Chinese Christians lost their lives and church and mission properties suffered damage.

In 1904 he was again in the United States on furlough, returning to China in the fall.

“The last report available from Dr. Graves was in 1910. He was then 78 years old and suffering the infirmities of his age. His eyesight was rapidly failing, and his handwriting, which was beautiful when he was young, had become hardly legible. However, he still attended to his regular duties” (Powers 25).

Rosewell Hobart Graves died on June 3, 1912, after fifty-six years of faithful and fruitful service in China.

Knowledge of Chinese Culture and Society

From his Forty Years in China, we see that Graves possessed a knowledge of Chinese culture and society that was broad and deep. He spent most of his time in South China, but was well educated about Chinese culture and society in general. In his introduction, he notes that China resembles Europe, in that it “is an assemblage of people differing in their language habits, and customs” (17). Still, the Chinese possesses a cultural unity based on their imperial government and respect for the Confucian Classics.

Forty Years in China opens with detailed descriptions of Chinese people of all classes, their streets, shops, home school-rooms, river traffic, manufactures, land-holding system, clans, marriage customs, and the like. Clearly, Graves had observed and studied China and its people closely. Later, he explained the reasons why Chinese need Western medical treatment, by painting a vivid picture of their general health, diseases, their very inadequate and sometimes harmful medical system. As the following paragraphs will show, he possessed a deep knowledge of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese people, culture, and society.

Attitude toward Chinese People, Culture, and Society


Graves had great admiration for some aspects of Chinese culture and character. “I am fully persuaded that the Chinese have many admirable qualities; qualities that have made, and are destined still to make them a great nation” (7). He continued, “I am persuaded that the Chinese have within them the elements of a stalwart, reliable character.” He thought they resembled the Jews in some ways. They also “have the industry, the enterprise, the perseverance, the practical common sense which mark the Anglo-Saxons. They are born merchants and have all the elements of success in business. They have the instinct for organization, and scarcely ever, in in their smallest communities, exist in an amorphous mass, but easily crystallize into guilds and societies” (116-117).

Commenting on the vast influence of Confucius and Mencius among the Chinese, he wrote: “They really contain much that is excellent, and in many respects may be compared to the book of Proverbs, with God left out. The ethical and political maxims of Confucius contain much valuable morality and wisdom” (43).

The core Confucian value is filial piety: “Respect for the aged is a very commendable trait in the Chinese character, and one that should be imitated in more favored lands” (45).

Of the thousands of Chinese who came to the United States as laborers, he praised their “industry, their patient endurance of toil, their reliability, their quiet, unassuming lives” (143). Chinese house-servants were “quiet, orderly, quick to learn, obedient and industrious” (144). Laundrymen possess “carefulness, regularity, industry, honesty and patience.” Railroad workers were “industrious, content with their wages, did not get drunk and get to fighting, and could always be counted on for punctuality and steady work” (144).

After decades of experience and observation, he offered this evaluation of Chinese Christians: They are brave and generous. “They do not compare unfavorably with professed Christians at home… Some of the native preachers are able expounders of the Word of God and active, earnest leaders in the churches. By their prayerfulness, their devotion to their work and their spirit of consecration, some of our Chinese preachers stand well” (289).


On the other hand, he admits that he “would be false friend to that people to whose elevation I have consecrated my life, and of whom I have so much hope in the future, were I not to speak plainly of the influences that are hurrying them on to ruin unless speedily checked by their acceptance of progress from the West, and that Divine religion, which, though originating in the East, is now propagated from the West” (7).

As he begins his long discussion of the forces that are holding China back, he writes: “To the Western mind, the most striking characteristic of the Chinese is their intense, colossal conservatism.” They think that “all excellencies belong to their own race” and “despise other peoples” (36). They believe that they “are the depositories of the heavenly truths transmitted through the ancient sages, and so are the superiors of all other men” (37). This “intense self-conceit is based on profound ignorance” (39).

Though filial piety is a virtue, the Chinese “seem to have transferred the respect rightfully due to the individual to the past history of their country” (45). Thus, they resist all change.

In contrast to Timothy Richard, W.A.P. Martin, and a few other more “liberal” missionaries, Graves could not endorse Confucian rites of reverence for the dead. In his opinion, ancestral worship, “as practiced by the great mass of the Chinese today goes beyond mere memorial services in honor of one’s progenitors, and become an actual seeking of blessing from the manes [spirits] of the departed… Thus it comes into conflict with Christianity” (49).

As for the educational system, he observed that the main purpose of passing exams was to procure a government position, with all the attendant rights and privileges. Since the content of the curriculum consisted of selections from ancient texts and commentaries, the result is that the Chinese “have surrounded themselves with a great wall of prejudice, suspicion, and conservatism” (64).

Like other Westerners, especially missionaries, he saw much to lament in Chinese society as a whole, including widespread bondage to opium, addiction to gambling, cruelty of all sorts, foot-binding, and the infanticide of girls. He partly understood pervasive cruelty to prisoners: “The Chinese are a stubborn and untruthful race,” so it was hard to get a true confession (90). He decried the brutal treatment they practiced towards prisoners of war and even their own wounded.

Again, like almost all Westerners, he listed “untruthfulness” as an endemic vice among Chinese. Graves saw it in cheating on exams and lying elsewhere; bribery; too much false politeness; different pricing for different customers. He concluded that this was a great curse on the whole nation. In his final chapters on “destructive forces,” he started with injustice in the courts – a major reason why foreign powers insisted upon having their citizens tried by foreign officials – and polygamy.

Regarding the relationship between the sexes, he wrote, “As a general thing the Chinse women are industrious, modest and chaste. Nothing can exceed the modesty of their dress and their behavior on the street” (107). Nevertheless, women are looked upon as inferior. “It is only as a mother, and especially as the mother of a son, that a Chinese woman seems to have any enjoyment in life. The mother-love is the one sunbeam that brightens their lives” (109).

Before we accuse Graves (and other missionaries) of racism or a sense of cultural superiority, we should consider the motive for his critical observations: He loved the Chinese and wanted them to have a better and happier life. To that end, he devoted his entire energy, seeking every means to bring comprehensive healing to individuals and the society as a whole.

Always even-handed, in explaining the various hindrances to the spread of the gospel among Chinese, he pulled no punches in pointing to the character and conduct of Westerners.

He strongly denounced the moral quality of Western merchants, the ruinous opium trade, and the cruel traffic in coolies. He excoriated Westerners’ “overbearing manners and rudeness” and the “assumption of superiority and authority on the part of foreigners” (305). He joined with other historians in singling out the Roman Catholics, whose church leaders insisted upon being treated like Chinese government officials.

Graves vehemently opposed the “appeal to gunboats” made by too many Western missionaries in times of danger. Though the conduct of Chinese officials in not providing protection to foreigners was to blame, still, missionaries should only ask for military protection if their lives were in danger.

With an understanding of Chinese moral sensitivities, he listed the “freedom of intercourse” between the sexes as a major hindrance to their acceptance of Christianity. “The Chinese…look upon everything from their own low and muddy standpoint.” They can’t comprehend how women could be treated as equals. “They cannot understand the morality of an evening spent in conversation and music” (308).

Furthermore, the “dress of [Chinese] women is exceedingly modest and becoming” (308). They don’t understand why Westerners allowed their women to dress so immodestly. They “feel if this is the outcome of Western civilization they hope the day will be far distant when it will prevail in China” (309). The conduct of foreigners in the Chinese ports also makes them think that all those from “Christian” nations are immoral.


His impact and legacy

When he arrived in China, there were only two Southern Baptist missionaries and one Chinese preacher, two chapels, and three day schools in the South China mission. When he died, there were 43 Baptist missionaries, 149 Chinese preachers, three churches, 72 outstations, 5154 members, and 42 schools with 1345 students.

Influence on the modernization of China

Modernization includes many different things. First, education: Graves and his fellow missionaries started elementary schools and middle schools, at least. He founded a theological school to train Chinese preachers.

Modernization includes also the elevation of the status of women. Graves exemplified this aspect of modernization in the treatment of women: He was married to only one woman at a time, though he ended up having three wives because of the death of his first two wives. He empowered his wives to exercise their teaching gifts. He encouraged the use of so-called Bible women, that is, women who taught the Bible and Christianity to Chinese women.

In fact, his second wife was a missionary and was basically a Bible woman when he married her, and she continued in this work. He supported the opening of schools for girls, who were neglected in the Chinese educational system. His third wife founded a school for blind girls which was later incorporated into a Chinese institution.

Western science, especially western medicine plays a role in modernization. Graves was trained as a medical doctor and practiced Western medicine as a means of demonstrating the love of God to the Chinese. He thus not only relieved their suffering but also did his part to introduce Western medicine to southern China.

Modernization also includes the formation of cell self- governing Chinese churches, because these were independent voluntary organizations outside the purview of the state. He always encouraged the creation of the self-supporting, self- governing, and self-propagating, native Chinese church.

Modernization includes, of course, interaction with Western culture and civilization. As a Westerner, Graves himself brought the Chinese people into contact with a person representative of the West. He also promoted Western learning in his book 40 Years in China. He believed that Western learning, especially when coupled with a Christian perspective, would help to deliver the Chinese people from their excessive cultural conservatism and from popular religious superstition. He founded a theological seminary, and thus helped to equip Chinese Christians to transmit the results of western Christian scholarship and theology to the Chinese.

Modernization also introduced a free and independent press. Graves wrote many articles in the Chinese Recorder and in Baptist publications, and therefore was part of the movement to introduce China to an independent press.

Overall, modernization also involved “progress.” In 40 Years in China, Graves spoke clearly about the role of Christianity in bringing progress to China. This so-called progress included the introduction of the benefits of western civilization to the Chinese. He did, however, warn against importing secular Western views of science and other matters to the Chinese. He opposed the atheistic worldview that had begun to permeate much of Western science and other branches of learning. The progress he wanted to see in China was the kind of general improvement in the society that would flow from the application of Christian principles to all domains of society.

Like other missionaries, Graves sought the best interests of the Chinese people. On the one hand, they wanted to see the Chinese delivered from many afflictions of the body and of society, like the poor treatment of women, poverty, lack of sanitation, and poor health.

Deeper impact

On the other hand, as a Christian he believed that our greatest and most fundamental need is to come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ his son. For, only as we are delivered from the shackles of sin, can we escape from the evils so prevalent in all societies without Christian influence. His primary goal, therefore, was to proclaim the saving message of Jesus Christ to the Chinese by all possible means. That is why, when considering his lasting impact and influence, we should appreciate his fundamental priority, which was to glorify God and help people by bringing them the truth of salvation from sin and death and hell through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The individual converts were gathered into churches, and these formed a Baptist Chinese association that was independent of the missionaries, and these churches together worked to bring profound peace and happiness and changed lives to thousands of Chinese people.


Perhaps his most lasting legacy, however, was his own example. Early in his life, he prayed to God that, whatever he did, he would “have Thy glory in view” (Archives, 36). Concerning his sense of leading to be a missionary he wrote on May 26, 1853, “I feel that it is my duty to go abroad to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ to those who are perishing for lack of knowledge” (Archives of the Foreign Mission Board, 32).

Speaking of the motive power for every true believer, and clearly for himself as a missionary also, he wrote in a sermon on Hebrews chapter 11, “the approval of Jesus therefore is the Christian’s all-absorbing motive; – the presence of Jesus is all-the satisfying goal” (Archives of the Foreign Mission Board, 96).

When he had completed fifty years of service on the mission field, he was invited to write his reflections for the Missionary Recorder, the organ of foreign missionaries in China. His colleagues obviously esteemed him highly and valued his counsel. His reflections on the keys to long and effective missionary service show him to be an eminently sane, wise, and practical man, as well as one totally committed to God and to the advancement of God’s kingdom among the Chinese.


“During his life, Graves experienced many setbacks, but he also saw the beginnings of a great spiritual awakening in South China. He wrote, ‘God is causing springs to burst forth in the desert, the water of life is welling up in this howling wilderness’” (Letters of Rosewell H. Graves, IMB Archives, cited in Brady).

Brady sums up his enduring legacy well:

“Rosewell Graves died in 1912, the same year as Lottie Moon. He witnessed China move through many transitions, yet China’s overwhelming need for the gospel remained. During his fifty-six years of ministry in China, Graves preached countless sermons, planted numerous churches, trained hundreds of seminary students, and published many books. He treated thousands of patients in his missionary medical practice and saw hundreds of them embrace God’s way of salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ.
At the heart of his many accomplishments is the under-sung virtue of perseverance. Graves has the distinction of being the longest-serving Southern Baptist missionary—56 years. There were many times he could have quit and gone home, but he served until the very end of his life. He came to South China in 1856 when he was twenty-three and died there in 1912 at the age of seventy-nine” (Brady).

After 1864 he was “the senior member of the [South China Baptist] Mission, the wise counselor, and the leading spirit. Much of the notable success of the work is due to his patient perseverance, his wisdom, and his consecration” (Obituary).

We must conclude, with the writer of Graves’s official obituary, that he was “a great missionary.”


Archives of the Foreign Mission Board. Microfilm Row 33, Microdex 1243.

Brady, David J. “Missionaries You Should Know: Rosewell Graves.” https://www.imb.org/2019/01/29/rosewell-graves/.

Bronson, Ray T. Southern Baptist Foreign Missions: 1868-1934. https://archive.org/details/southernbaptistf00rayt

Graves, Rosewell H., Forty Years in China, or China in Transition. Baltimore: R.H. Woodward Company, 1895. Reprinted by Google Books.

Powers, Jack. The Missionary Activities of R.H. Graves. Student Honors Thesis, University of Richmond, 1931. https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1687&context=honors-theses

“The Home-going of a Great Missionary,” Obituary of R. H. Graves. The Foreign Mission Journal, volume LXIII, July, 1912, p. 3.

Tupper, H. A. (Henry Allen), A decade of foreign missions, 1880-1890: 1828-1902: 171-188, 291, 388, 662, 667, 840, 863-867. https://archive.org/details/decadeofforeignm00tupp

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

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