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The legacy of W. A. P. Martin.

What is the most appropriate role for a missionary to take as he or she enters another culture in Christian witness? One that best fits the person's gifts? The one understood best by the receptor culture? A role that affords the best relationships with the country's leaders? A religious vocation? A secular position? These important questions and answers were debated long before the twentieth century. William Alexander Parsons Martin's life and ministry in China gave them special significance.

W. A. P. Martin, born in 1827 into the family of a pioneer Presbyterian preacher on the American frontier, graduated from the University of Indiana in 1846 and from New Albany Theological Seminary (later moved to Chicago and renamed McCormick Theological Seminary) in 1849. Caring for the "last preparatory measure," a quasi-requirement of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, he married Jan VanSant a mere ten days before sailing for China on November 23, 1849. Four sons were born to them in China: Pascal, Winfred, Newell, and Claude.

"Foremost American in China"

His first field of service was in Ningbo, one of the five treaty ports opened to foreign residence by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. During ten years of general missionary service in this South China port city, Martin involved himself in two major events of Chinese history. First, he went on public record to advocate to his government in four newspaper articles that it should support the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a large-scale revolt against the reigning Manchu government. Second, he participated actively in the American delegation that produced the Treaty of Tientsin, the second of the unequal treaties between China and the Western powers, which opened up the entire country to traders, diplomats, and missionaries.

After a short transition period of one year in Shanghai, Martin moved to Beijing in 1863 and, with an interruption of only three or four years, remained there until his death in 1916 at the age of eighty-nine. His work was complex and filled with many activities, both inside and outside of the institutional missionary enterprise, that related to religion, education, law, science, government, and reform.

During this period of sixty-six years in his adopted country, Martin earned the plaudits of both Chinese and American officials. The Chinese government granted him the rank of mandarin of the third class in 1885 and of the second class in 1898. He was a personal friend to the highest-ranking Chinese government officials. Three American universities awarded him honorary doctorates for his contribution to China-American relations. John W. Foster, secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison, stated that either Martin or the Englishman Robert Hart deserved to be ranked "the most distinguished and useful foreigner in China" in the generation preceding the Boxer Rebellion.|1~ Charles Denby, U.S. minister to China in the early 1900s, called him the "foremost American in China."|2~ In a day of great missionaries in China, Martin stood out.

With such recognition among his contemporaries, why is Martin a "no-name missionary" in both Protestant and Catholic missionary circles today? He had hoped for exactly the opposite. In his will was a specific provision that Arthur Smith, a close friend, write his biography. Martin had amassed a large number of personal papers, published and unpublished writings, diaries, and other memorabilia to assist Smith in this task. At Martin's death, his third son, Newell, came to Beijing to settle his father's considerable business affairs. He picked up all of the materials that his father had prepared for Smith, and that is the last that anyone has heard about them! Apparently Smith, and later potential biographers, waited to no avail for these materials to be found. Only with these documents, they evidently reasoned, could an adequate biography be written of this significant missionary figure.|3~

Impact of "Origin of The Heavenly Doctrine"

Why was Martin so highly respected both by missionary and nonmissionary colleagues? They recognized his ability to communicate the Christian faith in a cogent manner in the Chinese context. At the 1907 centennial of the Protestant missionary enterprise, Martin's Chinese book, Tiandao Suyuan (Origin of the heavenly doctrine), was recognized as the single best Christian book of the century. Written by Martin in 1854 and printed in nearly forty editions over the next sixty years, this book was organized into three sections on natural law, evidences of Christianity, and revealed theology. It was used in the language study program for new missionaries who came to China and in theological schools for the instruction of Christian preachers. No other book had as much impact for Christianity on Chinese officials, with whom Martin had such extensive contact.

The section on natural law, although indebted to the current philosophical system of "common sense" as revealed in a book like William Paley's Natural Theology, fit well with the Chinese concept of natural law. Martin appealed constantly to the Chinese ideas of tian (heaven) and a moral universe, in which heaven's purposes (ming) and way (dao) could be seen in the created world and in the human mind and body. Only as people lived in conformity to heaven, which he interpreted as God, would their lives be fulfilled. From this apologetic beginning, very similar to the great book The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven written by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci 250 years earlier, Martin presented the whole realm of Christian truth to lead his readers to faith in Jesus Christ.

Not all of Martin's efforts took place within such a specific religious context. With a renaissance-type mind, he wished to claim international law, popular scientific truth, and liberal arts education as a means of clearing away the underbrush of Chinese superstition in preparation for planting the Gospel seed. All of these "might wing the arrow, but religion should be its point."|4~

During a three-year period (1872-75), he served as editor of Peking Magazine, an illustrated monthly that included news, popular scientific truth, and general observations about the progress in modernization made by China's neighbors and other more distant countries. From this platform, as a kind of "secular missionary," he stated that the goal of the magazine was:

By the introduction of modern science and liberal thought to endeavor to overthrow those ancient superstitions which constitute the most formidable barriers in the way of material and social improvement.|5~

He debunked the Chinese concept that Haley's comet or Venus passing by the sun in 1874 could represent evil omens for China but not for the rest of the world. He gave numerous examples of how human beings could investigate and control natural phenomena, because they "wear heaven on their head and tread upon earth as their footstool," a popular Chinese proverb. Nature was predictable, he affirmed, and this meant that tiandao, the heavenly way, punished evil, protected from danger, and rewarded good. Pompei's destruction came from tiandao, because it was such a licentious city.|6~

During his early years in Beijing, Martin was convinced that Chinese officials needed some knowledge of Western law in their international relations. Otherwise, he contended, they would not know how to act as they moved into the modern world and entered the family of nations. Ready at hand as a suitable textbook for him to translate was Henry Wheaton's well-known treatise of 1836, Elements of International Law. Martin remarked of this first effort of translation:

I was led to undertake it, without the suggestion of anyone, but providentially I doubt not, as a work which might bring this atheistic government to the recognition of God and his Eternal Justice; and perhaps impart to them something of the Spirit of Christianity.|7~

This work, for which Martin was provided a room and translation help by the Chinese government, was distributed throughout China and to the Japanese government, where it was warmly welcomed as Japan's first introduction to this subject. The Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board was not certain that Martin's six-month's work on this project was really missionary work. He curtly replied to its inquiry that this translation "will not stand second in influence to the translation of the Bible."|8~ He was beginning to see his role not merely as a proclaimer of religious truth but also as a "pioneer of progress," a contributor to the development of his adopted country. Because there was some link between Christianity and civilization, the arrow of modernization would reach its religious mark.

From Missionary to "Pioneer of Modern State Education"

Because of his serving as an interpreter in the American delegation in 1858, his translating Wheaton, and his general availability as an adviser to the American legation in Beijing, his fame grew among the Chinese as well as in the diplomatic world. Consequently, government officials asked him to take part in the Tong Wen Guan, a new school they had started to train interpreters for diplomatic service. At the beginning of his work at the school, Martin only taught English for two hours a day. When the school was expanded two years later, he was asked to become principal and to serve as professor of international law and political economy. In order to fulfill these added responsibilities, he resigned from his mission society in 1869.

Why would Martin give priority to this position over that of being a "real" missionary? First, he saw this opportunity as a continuance of his missionary career--he would be able to influence the "leading minds of the nation." Second, he wished to reform China's ancient educational system, and he felt that a government-sponsored school, with an expanded curriculum of liberal arts subjects, was one of the best ways to do this. Third, he believed that to work as a teacher in a school under government auspices was one of the best roles for a foreigner who wished to help in the modernization of China. At a time right after the U.S. Civil War, when his own mission board was struggling financially, it did not hurt that Martin's salary was ten times greater than what he was receiving as a missionary.

And why did the Chinese government, very conservative at this time, wish to invite an outsider to direct its school? Like Matteo Ricci earlier, Martin was a "foreign expert," and the Chinese government has always been ready to use such people for its own purposes. Martin served at this school for nearly thirty years, and when, in the last two or three years of the nineteenth century, it led to the founding of the Imperial University of Beijing, Martin became the administrator of the foreign faculty. Many of the graduates of the Tong Wen Guan became interpreters or accepted diplomatic positions. The school also contributed to the modernization of China at a time when its leaders were just beginning to get interested in this subject. Whether it influenced many students to accept the Christian faith is more questionable. The Chinese nation and its people were glad to take science and education from the West, but they wished to preserve the Chinese cultural "essence," and this had little room for the Gospel. Martin may not have hoped for actual conversions, but only that, under his direction, it would be "less anti-Christian than it would otherwise be."|9~

A fulfilling task that grew directly out of his administrative position in the Tong Wen Guan was his appointment in 1880 by the Chinese government to tour several foreign countries and report back on their educational systems. This trip, taking him to Japan, the United States, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy over a two-year period (1880-82), led him to emphasize the need for nations to learn from each other and to stress the value of comparative educational statistics.|10~ This educational venture, his work with the Tong Wen Guan, his later relationships with the Imperial University of Beijing, and his short tenure with a school established by Zhang Zhihdong, governor-general of HunanHubei, in Wu Chang in central China in the post-Boxer period, make it appropriate to think of Martin as the "pioneer of modern state education in China."|11~

Missionary schools run by Calvin Mateer and D.Z. Sheffield were equally innovative but were unrelated to the state. John C. Ferguson and D. C. Tenney developed the "most thorough and well-equipped government colleges" in the pre-Boxer period at Nanyang University (1897) and Tientsin University (1895) respectively, but they followed a trail that Martin had blazed thirty years earlier.|12~

Shortly before he began his work with the Tong Wen Guan, Martin found himself pressed into duty as a mediator and/or interpreter in many political events. For example, when the Chinese government appointed Anson Burlingame, formerly American minister to China, to be a minister plenipotentiary on their behalf as he returned to the United States, Martin defended this action in six long articles that he wrote in the New York Times under the pseudonym "Perry Plus."|13~

All of Martin's varied activities in science, international law, and education had one aim--to win China to the Christian faith. More than other missionaries, he made good use of his pen to relate the Gospel to all levels of Chinese people. Otherwise his missionary methodology was not unusual or particularly creative. More important to him than specific methodology was a flexible attitude toward Chinese religions and the ancestral cult.

"Confucius plus Christ"

While not tolerant of the errors of Mahayana Buddhism, he felt that its belief in the immortality of the soul and a divine being made it a better preparation for the Christian faith than the materialism of Daoism or the agnosticism of the current Confucianism. He believed that Confucianism at its best was an ethical philosophy "consonant with the spirit of Christianity."|14~ Its five basic relationships, he contended, were rooted in the very nature of human beings and lacked only the "last link with Heaven" to complete them.|15~ Therefore, the solution for new converts was "Confucius plus Christ," and never "Confucius or Christ."|16~

His views on the Christian attitude toward the ancestral rites were more controversial. These ceremonies are a complex of four activities: burial, the ritual in the home, annual sacrifices at the grave, and annual services in the ancestral hall. Martin did not wish to advocate anything that smacked of idolatry. He rejected outright, however, both the possibility and the wisdom of abolishing a cult with such cohesive power in society.|17~ He first presented his views publicly at the General Missionary Conference in Shanghai in 1890. His views reflect many modern insights used by agents of change confronting adverse institutions. First he rejected both the form and function of patently idolatrous elements that recognize the deceased as tutelary deities. Second, he modified both the form and function of certain "announcements" so that they would not be regarded as prayers, but as mere expressions of natural affection. Third, he accepted both the form and function of kneeling and bowing, affirming that while these actions might be idolatrous in certain contexts, they definitely were not in others.|18~

In the heated discussion following the presentation of this paper, Hudson Taylor, whom Martin once said had "erred in leading his followers to make war on ancestral worship, instead of seeking to reform it,"|19~ led nearly everyone in the assembly to stand in expression of their dissent from Martin's views. Only Timothy Richard and Gilbert Reid publicly affirmed their support, while many, according to Martin, stated privately that they concurred with the general sentiment of his paper.|20~

Martin's strategy in adopting these relatively tolerant views was to work for mass conversions in China. How might this happen? First, baptism should precede inquiry and catechism, rather than following them. Second, "whole families, entire clans, villages or districts" should be admitted to baptism as soon as they "committed themselves to a better doctrine, however imperfectly it might be apprehended." Third, the catalyst for this would be the conversion of the head of the family or clan. Fourth, teaching and training, having gained a much larger audience, would follow rather than precede baptism, and this would eliminate many false motives. Fifth, the rapidly growing number of converts would "exert an irresistible influence on the community to which they belong.|21~

The Dashing of Great Expectations

During the Boxer Rebellion in North China, Martin and many of his colleagues were penned up in the siege in the British legation. This was the disappointment of his career. He tells of his meeting with Robert Hart, inspector-general of Chinese customs:

As we looked each other in the face, we could not help blushing for shame at the thought that our life-long services had been so little valued. The man who had nursed their Customs revenue from three to thirty millions, the Chinese were trying to butcher; while from my thirty years' teaching of international law they had learned that the lives of Ambassadors were not to be held sacred.|22~

John Fairbank once commented that we are often disappointed in China because we expect too much from her. Martin's direct proclamation of the Christian faith in China had its results--nothing great, but probably more than that of other missionaries in its total impact. His hopes that he could wed Western knowledge with the Christian faith and produce a modern China ready both to become Christian and to join the "family of nations by 1900 were hopeless fantasies. But his optimism, a product of the nineteenth century, was shared by most of his colleagues, even though they did not labor so strenuously to achieve such progress.

Following a short period in Zhang Zhihdong's school in Wu Chang, Martin was appointed in 1906 as an honorary missionary with no salary by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. He kept himself busy preaching, teaching, writing, interacting with Chinese officials, and doing whatever came to hand as a "self-supporting professor of things-in-general."|23~ At his death in Beijing in 1916, he had served longer in China as an adult missionary than any other person, before or since.

In his eulogy for Martin in the Missionary Review of the World, Arthur Brown commented appropriately that his was a "life of extraordinary length, marked by extraordinary powers, filled with extraordinary labors, and crowned with extraordinary achievements."|24~


1. John W. Foster, "An Appreciation of Dr. W. A. P. Martin," in Indiana University Alumni Quarterly, 1917, p. 134.

2. Ibid., pp. 134-35.

3. The author of this article has written the only biography of Martin in English, entitled W. A. P. Martin: Pioneer of Progress in China (Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1978). In this article I refer to the original primary sources used for this book and only rarely to the book itself.

4. Martin, "Western Science as Auxiliary to the Spread of the Gospel," Missionary Review of the World, n.s., 10 (October 1887): 773.

5. First Annual Report of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China, published in North China Herald, January 29, 1874, p. 89.

6. Martin, "Flying Machines Measure the Weather," Peking Magazine, III, p. 23; "The City of Naples," II, p. 19.

7. China Letters (CL) 7, Peking, Martin to Presbyterian Board, no. 44, October 1, 1863.

8. CL 7, Martin to Board, no. 46, November 23, 1863.

9. CL 10, Peking, Martin to Board, no. 169, December 1, 1869. For more detail on the Tong Wen Guan, see Covell, Martin, pp. 169-98.

10. The report of this journey was published in Martin's Chinese work Xixueh Kaolue (A resume of Western education), which is no longer available. See also "Notices of Recent Publications," Chinese Recorder 14 (September-October 1883): 332. No indication exists that his report influenced the educational policies of the Chinese government.

11. Robert E. Lewis, The Educational Conquest of the Far East (New York: F.H. Revell Co., 1903), p. 173.

12. Ibid.

13. See these articles in the following issues of the New York Times: October 23, 26, 28; November 3, 9, 20, 1868. Each article is entitled "The Chinese Embassy."

14. Martin, Lore of Cathay (1912), p. 221.

15. Ibid., p. 212.

16. Ibid, pp. 247-48.

17. Martin, Hanlin Papers, 2d ser. (1894), p. 341.

18. Ibid., pp. 343-46.

19. Martin, Cycle of Cathay (1900), p. 214.

20. Martin, Hanlin Papers, 2d ser., p. 355; Records of the General Conference of Protestant Missionaries in China, 1890 (Shanghai, 1891), p. 59.

21. Martin, "Conversions En Masse," Chinese Recorder 40 (November 1909): 625-27.

22. Martin, Siege in Peking (1900), p. 97.

23. Arthur Smith, "The Nestor of Protestant Missionaries in China," Chinese Recorder 41 (April 1910): 289.

24. "Rev. W. A. P. Martin, D.D., of China," Missionary Review of the World 40 (March 1917): 195-201.


Major Works by Martin

1880 Hanlin Papers; or, Essays on the Intellectual Life of the Chinese. 1st ser. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh.

1894 Hanlin Papers. 2d ser. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh.

1894 Chinese Legends and Other Poems. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh.

1900 Cycle of Cathay. 3d ed. New York: Fleming H. Revell

1900 Siege in Peking. New York: Fleming H. Revell

1907 The Awakening of China. New York: Doubleday, Page.

1909 Tiandao Hejiao (Christianity and other creeds). Tungchow: North China Tract Society

1912 The Lore of Cathay. 2d ed. New York: Fleming H. Revell

1912 Tiandao Suyuan (Evidences of Christianity). Rev. ed. Taibei: Wenchuan Publishing Company.

Selected Works about Martin

Covell, Ralph. W. A. P. Martin: Pioneer of Progress in China. Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1978.

Duus, Peter. "Science and Salvation in China: The Life and Mission of William Alexander P. Martin, 1827-1917." A. B. Honors thesis, Harvard University, 1955.

Farquhar, Norma. "W. A. P. Martin and the Westernization of China." M.A. thesis, Indiana University, 1954.
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Title Annotation:Presbyterian preacher
Author:Covell, Ralph R.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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