1858  — 1925

William Wharton Cassels

(Part 2 of 3)

A member of the famed “Cambridge Seven” who joined the China Inland Mission in 1885; pioneer evangelist; Anglican missionary bishop of Western China (Sichuan). One of the foremost missionaries of his time, who possessed great gifts of organization, he understood the Chinese and was held in great veneration by them.

Anglican Orders of Ministry

To understand the subsequent career of Cassels, we need to note that the Anglican denominations (including Episcopalians in the United States), follow the practice of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bodies in recognizing three orders of ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons. The bishop leads a group of congregations in a diocese. Next come priests, also called presbyters (a term synonymous with “elder” in the New Testament). Generally, a single priest leads a congregation. Only bishops and priests are allowed to administer Holy Communion (or, Eucharist). Then, finally, are the deacons, who assist bishops and priests. Like priests, deacons may administer baptism, which is ordinarily given to infants, though in new churches, like those that Cassels founded, adults also are baptized. To qualify for any of these offices, a man must have received special training. By the time of Cassels, that normally meant a university education with a major in Theology. In the United States, prospective clergy first attend university, and then seminary, before being ordained as deacons.

Only the bishop can administer the rite of confirmation, which follows baptism after a person has been further instructed in the faith and can make an informed decision to follow Christ.

It is readily apparent that this hierarchical structure, and especially the sole right of the bishop to administer the rites of confirmation and ordination of deacons and priests, and the high educational standards required, effectively limits the organizational growth of an Anglican (or Episcopal) church to the number of ordained clergy. The work of the bishop also becomes more and more onerous as the number of congregations and clergy increases.

Thus, Cassels’ ceaseless cry for more clergy to be sent from Britain reflects his passion to see more churches planted and led by ordained ministers and his ever-increasing burden of episcopal duties, which eventually overwhelmed him.

CIM and Anglican Work

Cassels belonged to the CIM, and was thus under the authority of John Stevenson, CIM Superintendent, who lived in Shanghai. In time, he became the designated leader, and finally Assistant Superintendent of all CIM workers in Sichuan, most of whom were Anglicans. He desired to “build up a work within the China Inland Mission loyal and consistent to Church of England principles” (M. Broomhall 139).

In the early 1890s, other Anglican missionaries came to China under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Cassels at first only assisted them as a friend, but later became their superintenden also, after he was consecrated as bishop. Both he and they came under the authority of the Anglican bishop in Shanghai, C.E. Moule. Originally, Moule had been hesitant about the possibility of having the CIM and CMS serving together under the authority of Cassels, but the arrangement worked quite well for many years.

Growing Work

Cassels had a vision for the wide spread of the gospel in Sichuan, so he very early began making visits to outlying towns, including Pachow, now called Bazhong, a “small but busy city” four days’ journey from Langzhong, and a smaller town called Wanhsien (now Wanxian). Here, he found a warm welcome: “Men and women have flocked into our guest-rooms and crowds have listened to our preaching. All day long, one may also say, without an hour’s intermission, the preaching has been going on. The streets are placarded with tracts, and Gospel books are in the hands of a very large number of people” (M. Broomhall 122-123).

Mobilizing Chinese

“From the very beginning Cassels sought to organize the Church with a view to its future independence.” He agreed with Hudson Taylor that missionaries should act, as it were, as a sort of “scaffolding,” that could be removed once the local church was solidly led by Chinese.

He began by teaching the Chinese believers to provide for the needs of the church from their own offerings. He was encouraged when they supported a Bible woman to go into the villages to teach women, had a number of tracts printed for distribution by themselves, and began a plan to help the poor among them.

Above all, of course, he prayed that “the converts from heathenism may be kept, and built up and filled with the Holy Ghost” (M. Broomhall 124). In later years, he would train and then ordain Chinese men to be deacons and then priests, with a training school to prepare them for service. At the end of his long ministry in China, he looked with gratitude upon the solid corps of ordained Chinese Anglican clergy in his diocese and on the growth of the churches under their care.


No such pioneering work can come without great trials. Mr. Phelps, one of his colleagues, was beaten. Landlords received harsh punishment and many blows for allowing foreigners to reside in their properties. Fellow workers became sick and had to be nursed back to health by Cassels. His own wife was “almost a constant invalid and [needed] a good deal of looking after, though he was most grateful for the kindness of women missionaries such as Miss Hanbury, who assisted her. Opium patients needed almost constant looking after (M. Broomhall 124-126). Strong anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiments took a heavy toll. Preaching at daily evening services to packed crowds required much physical, mental, and spiritual energy, and left him weary at the end of the day.

His biography writes of “the plod, the patience, the pertinacity demanded day in and day out. Grace abounding was needed not to be discouraged by constant difficulties, nor dismayed by incessant trials, to be forever hopeful, ever cheerful, ever confident, come what may” (M. Broomhall 127). That Cassels persevered, usually with good spirits, indicates that he did experience such divine grace.

“An Ardent Pioneer”

Unlike some missionary pioneers, Cassels was not only intensely spiritual, but also extremely practical – like Hudson Taylor. “His devotion was wedded to a robust common-sense” (M. Broomhall 128).

From the first he sought to gain a detailed knowledge of the district for which he and his fellow-workers were responsible. As he itinerated, he took notes of local conditions, making observations on the various cities and on the character of their peoples. He was also a keen though generous observer of men, giving careful consideration to their capacity, qualifications, and limitations in order that work and workers might be rightly related.

For example, when he learned that a party of ladies was coming out with the CIM, he decided that a certain town was suitable for women’s work. It was on the river, allowing for easy access and, if necessary, escape. It was not too big or busy. And many “vegetarian” women lived there – “a class often easily won and zealous in spreading the truth” (M. Broomhall 129). He was referring to members of one of the many Buddhists sects whom Timothy Richard also found to be unusually open to the gospel.

Similarly, he thought that a nearby bigger town was an ideal field for the new group of single men who were on their way to Sichuan.

In July 1889, their first child was born, a daughter, whom they named Jessie Ida, and who would later join Cassels in his ministry. This little girl immediately became the object of curious attention from their neighbors, who had never before seen a foreign baby – what they would call a “yang (foreign) wa-wa.” (Just as a footnote, this writer and his wife experienced the same lovely response almost a hundred years later when our daughter was born in Taiwan).

He knew that Jesus had sent out laborers two-by-two, but that was impossible in Sichuan:

[W]ith so much ground to cover, … so individual brethren have to go out alone, plunging alone into untouched districts, venturing alone into great heathen cities with all their dangers and temptations and masses of prejudiced and hardened and preoccupied idolaters, and hastily alone paying the briefest visits to thronging markets… crowded with seething masses of buyers and sellers – nay, is that all? Alas, no! – with seething masses of unwarned and unwashed souls, living sad and hopeless lives and passing away to sad and more hopeless deaths! … For ourselves, have we any other course but to the utmost of strength and time to go out obeying our marching orders, and whether with companions or without, preach the Gospel to all we can (M. Broomhall 137).

“In Labors More Abundant”

In 1890, Cassels took his wife and little Jessie to Shanghai, where he attended the great General Missionary Conference, at which Hudson Taylor vigorously pressed for more evangelism and led a successful movement for the conference to call for one thousand more missionaries to come to China.

While in Shanghai, he welcomed the Rev. C.H. Parsons, the first Australian to join the CIM. Parsons would be his faithful coworker and companion in Langzhong for thirty-five years. He also met with Hudson Taylor, who at that time appointed him CIM Superintendent for East Sichuan, which meant also that he would become a member of the CIM China Council, which met for three weeks after the conclusion of the missionary conference.

The Yangzi River was flooded, making a return to Langzhong impossible, so they went to Anking, where Cassels spent several months in concentrated study of Chinese at the CIM men’s training school. While there, his ministry of the Word greatly encouraged the new missionaries in training. After attending the ordination in Shanghai of Arthur Polhill and Albert Phelps, they headed home with a large party of new workers.

Cassels returned to Shanghai in 1891 to attend the CIM Council meetings, leaving his wife alone for almost three months, during a period of organized anti-foreign riots. While he was gone, she continued going out onto the street daily, seeking to disprove the horrible slanders that were placarded around the town and disarm the hostility against them. She often took little Jessie, now three, toward whom the people were always friendly. By giving them simple remedies, she further won the hearts of the Chinese. Of that time, she wrote, “the Lord gave us very special blessing, first ourselves, and then it flowed out to the Chinese, and we had quite a revival,” with many baptisms taking place (M. Broomhall 153).

In 1891 and 1892, two boys in their school became Christians and received baptism. One of them, Ku Ho-lin, a Muslim, eventually became archdeacon of the Diocese. Another, named Wang, wanted so much to help the missionaries that he was taken on, at minimum wages. When persecution came, he suffered it bravely and willingly.

As trials increased and continued, he maintained a steady confidence in God:

My dear wife and I are both very conscious of our weakness and feebleness. But our God has been pleased to use such instruments, and if the definite destruction of idols may be taken to be any sign, the Lord has been most graciously blessing His work during the last four or five months… . The Lord is blessing and touching us something more as to how to obey the command, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” [Spirit]. The channels are being cleared out and the faith valves got into order, and we are learning to obey and receive the promised Holy Spirit by faith (M Broomhall 161-162).

In the spring of 1893, Cassels began to realize that he and his wife must return home on furlough. His wife’s poor health had been a concern for more than a year, he felt that “I have lost a good deal of the vigour which I had,” and his work was showing signs of his fatigue (M. Broomhall 165). Little Jessie had also been frequently ill with intermittent fever, as had her mother.

Still, he was loath to leave his diocese. Bishop Moule had just appointed Cassels as his “Commissary,” that is, deputy, and had given licenses to several Chinese men to serve as Lay Readers. They could thus read the Scriptures in the liturgy, help lead the liturgy, and read sermons already prepared for them. Their office was similar to what others called Catechists. The work was growing, but no less than eleven missionaries (including wives) had had to leave for various reasons, and he was short-handed. But he realized that he must go home and leave the ministry in God’s hands.

Their first son, Francis, was born in 1893.

In December, he rejoiced to see the completion of the first chapel in Langzhong. It was quickly filled with worshipers, while baptisms increased also. By the time he left for furlough in late February 1894, Cassels had baptized one hundred people since his arrival.

Soon after they reached Shanghai, little Frances became seriously ill and died. His parents were devastated, of course, but comfort came to them from the love of fellow missionaries, including Hudson Taylor and his wife. Taylor visited them, “mingling his tears with ours as he kissed the cold but ever sweet face, and both then, and again and again afterwards, his prayers for us were the most wonderful and his allusions to our loss in our Bible readings [Scripture teaching sessions] most touching. Kind words of sympathy … came in from many friends, and kind acts melted our hearts again and again” (M. Broomhall 168). Indeed, the CIM was a kind of family for them.

Furlough and Back

Cassels and his family spent some quiet times in England together, and he took little Jessie with him to Portugal to visit his boyhood home and brother. While they were away, their second son, William Cecil, was born.

Otherwise, like all missionaries, he had to devote himself to raising awareness of the need for missionaries in China and stir up prayer and giving for his own mission. As an outstanding evangelical missionary, he was invited to speak at the Mildmay and Keswick renewal conferences. He also took part in the London Council meeting of the CIM at their new headquarters on Newington Green.

First Bishop of Western China

After negotiations between the CIM, the Church Missionary Society, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cassels became a member of both the CIM and the CMS, and was consecrated bishop of Western China at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey on October 18, 1895. He was thirty-seven. Two weeks later, he set sail with his family for Shanghai.

Arriving in China, he wrote to the clergy of his new diocese: “Never in my life have I been brought down so low before the Lord, or so completely realised my own absolute unworthiness, and this is the only position I can ever take. I am, in myself, and ever shall be the weakest and simplest child; but, if He calls a little child and sets him in the midst [referring to Luke 18:15-17], He will carry out His own purposes even through a little child” (M. Broomhall 184).

A Bishop at Work

After a journey by boat and by land, they arrived in Langzhong in February 1896. They were warmly welcomed by their Chinese and missionary friends, including his co-adjutor, Mr. Williams. Six weeks later, Mrs. Cassels gave birth to twin daughters, Frances Grace and Dorothy Hope. As a CIM missionary, he lived in a simple Chinese-style home and wore Chinese dress and a queue, to which the Chinese added the hat of a Master of Arts, since he had received the M.A. from Cambridge University. (He was awarded an honorary D.D. from Cambridge in 1913.) His church, now officially a cathedral, was built in Chinese style.

His life was one of incessant labors. One eyewitness wrote:

The China Inland Mission has some very humble Chinese houses built round two compounds, in which two married couples, three bachelors, and, in the Bishop’s house, two ladies were living, and at some distance off there is a ladies’ house occupies by five ladies. There are several guest-halls for Chinese visitors, class and school-rooms, porters’ and servants’ rooms. The furniture is all Chinese and the whitewashed walls are decorated with Chinese scrolls chiefly.
I never saw houses so destitute of privacy, or with such ceaseless coming and going. Life there simply means work, and works spells happiness apparently, for the workers were all cheerful, and even jolly. Studying Chinese, preaching, teaching, advising, helping, guiding, arranging, receiving, sending forth, doctoring, nursing, and befriending make the Mission compounds absolute hives of industry (M. Broomhall 188).

With medical needs so great, a large house was eventually purchased for use as a clinic and hospital and, on the other side of a courtyard, a house for the bishop was built to allow him to work without so many interruptions.

But his work also “entailed almost ceaseless travelling” and “prayer without ceasing.” In one six-month period, Cassels traveled two thousand miles, during which time he also wrote, by hand, four hundred letters. He traveled to fulfill his roles as bishop of the diocese, “Superintendent of the [East Sichuan] CIM work,” “examiner in the Chinese language” (in which he gained a remarkable proficiency), arranging for furloughs, caring for the churches and stations, struggling with business details, engaged in purchase of property, and “in the examination of Chinese deeds,” among other duties (M. Broomhall 190). Cassels found the burden of correspondence especially draining, since he had no secretary, and sometimes experienced depression under the unremitting load of letters.

Perhaps as a reflection of his own character, he said that the “two most useful qualifications in a missionary are to be ‘sturdy and sensible’” (M. Broomhall 192). At the same time, he realized that it was ‘necessary to spend much time at the Master’s feet seeking for needed (and for promised – ah! there is the blessed thing!) spiritual power, wisdom, and a right judgment in all things” (M. Broomhall 193).

For a variety of reasons, he kept Paoning as the center of not only the CIM but also the diocesan and CIM work. There were enough qualified staff to keep things going while he spent most of his time visiting the CMS and CIM stations, adequate housing, and a large enough church for gatherings of Christians and missionaries for all over the area.

In the spring of 1896, he and his wife made a four-thousand-mile round trip journey to attend the United Conference of Anglican bishops. As well as the April China Council meetings of the CIM. They were also taking Jessie to the Chefoo School.

At the bishops’ conference, they discussed such important matters as “the subdivision of existing dioceses of the Anglican Church in China, Manchuria, and Korea; the relation of the American and English branches of the [Anglican] Church; the best Chinese term to use for Christianity; a common Chinese formula for Holy Baptism, and common terms for the three [Anglican] orders of the Holy Ministry; Church discipline and the sanctity of the Lord’s Day” (M. Broomhall 195). These topics illustrate the distinctive characteristics of Anglican Christianity.

“Crucible of Criticism”

Returning to Langzhong, Cassels encountered one trial after another, including the difficult journey up the river; famine; the deaths of two young workers; persecution of believers, one of whom was killed; rioting; and sickness. Worst of all were “painful criticisms” from workers in China and from home. These latter charges dealt with the relation between the Church of England and the CIM. An Anglican minister asserted that “as a general rule membership of the C.I.M. and loyalty to the Church of England are incompatible,” this being, of course, a direct criticism of Bishop Moule and of Cassels.

His calm and reasoned responses to letters in both church and secular papers reveals his security in Christ, his irenic manner in general, and his clear understanding of his duties as a member of the CIM and a bishop of the Anglican denomination. In these, he was supported by influential friends at home, including the chairman of the CMS, Eugene Stock. The controversy died down after a while.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the coup’ d’etat by the Empress Dowager, occupation of parts of China by the Russians and the Germans, and a famine combined to ignite popular hatred against foreigners in general and Christians in particular. In 1898, a great rebellion broke out under the leadership of the Muslim general Yu Man-tze, whose forces devastated much of Sichuan. Despite these troubles, Cassels attended the West China Conference of the CIM, and even planned for further expansion of the work. His third son Harold was born at this time.

In 1899, with his family, he again travelled to Shanghai for the second Anglican bishops’ conference, at which the vexing matter of whether to seek official status for clergy, as the Roman Catholics had done, was carefully considered. The Roman Catholics, with the backing of the French government, had wrested from the Chinese an agreement that granted a graded system of titles and rights for their priests, bishops, and other clergy corresponding to the equivalent ranks and privileges of Chinese government officials. In the end, they decided not to “complicate [their] spiritual functions by the assertion of any such claim” (M. Broomhall 212-213). This wise policy saved them from the kind of accusations that were often hurled against the Roman Catholics for usurping legitimate governmental authority.

1900 – The Fateful Year

Early in the year, Cassels learned of the death of his mother, who had for decades supported him and his ministry with prayers and sympathy, expressed in countless letter “so full of love and interest in all that concerned me,” he wrote sadly.

The Boxer Rebellion began in the summer. Though its full force fell mostly on northern provinces, largely because the Viceroys of Sichuan and other areas south of the Yangzi River had agreed to disregard orders from Beijing to kill all foreigners. Nevertheless, the British Consul in Chongqing (Chungking) ordered all in Cassels’ diocese to flee to safety as soon as possible. “For himself the Bishop was fearless,” yet he realized that he was responsible for the wellbeing of his missionaries and the Chinese Christians, and it was his duty as well to submit to the authority of both British and Chinese government officials, who all directed the missionaries to leave. After writing a marvelous letter to his workers urging them to remain calm and in place, he finally succumbed to great pressure and ordered them to leave their stations. When all others had departed, he finally took himself and his family to Shanghai to wait out the storm.

On their return journey at the end of the year, their vessel struck a rock while going full steam ahead and quickly began to sink. Cassels remained on board until others had jumped into the river before he too plunged into the water. On shore, as all shivered in the cold, he gathered some sticks and built a fire to warm them, as had Paul long before (see Acts 28:3).

Not long after their return to Langzhong, on May 18,1901, their youngest daughter Ethelinda was born.

To be continued…This is Part 2 of 3.


Broomhall, Marshall. W. W. Cassels: First Bishop in Western China. London and Shanghai: China Inland Mission, 1926.

Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Five: Refiner’s Fire. London: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1985.

____________________________________________. Book Six: Assault on the Nine, 1988.

____________________________________________. Book Seven: It Is Not Death to Die!, 1989.

Published as two volumes with the title, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, and Carlisle, UK: Piquant Publications, 1905.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

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