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American Missionaries in China

American Missionaries in China: 1830-1900

In 1830, Elijah Coleman Bridgman became the first American Protestant missionary to arrive in China. In the 1830s and 1840s, which marked the early years of American Protestant missionary activity in China, the American missionaries lived and worked in the Thirteen Factories at Canton, under the restrictive Canton system.Artist's Rendering of the Thirteen Factories at Canton






The Thirteen Factories at Canton, right.

Foreigners, including American merchants and missionaries, were forbidden from traveling outside of the Thirteen Factories, could not engage in business deals with any Chinese citizens except for a select few, and were forbidden from learning Chinese. The missionaries, including Bridgman's contemporaries Dr. Peter Parker and Samuel Wells Williams, faced penalty of death if they were discovered to be preaching Christianity. In this unwelcoming environment, Bridgman, Parker, and Williams began secretly learning Chinese and translating the Scripture into Chinese.

Samuel Wells Williams

Dr. Peter Parker









Elijah Coleman Bridgman


Samuel Wells Williams, top right.
Dr. Peter Parker, top left.
Elijah Coleman Bridgman, left.




Like missionaries after them, Bridgman, Williams, and Parker learned Chinese and used their other skills to bring Christianity to the Chinese citizens. Both Bridgman and Williams translated the Bible into Chinese.   Robert Morrison, a British Protestant missionary who had been the first missionary to arrive in China in 1807, had been translating the Scripture and had compiled a Chinese-English dictionary. 

The Scripture Translated into Chinese

Scripture Translated into Chinese


Scripture translated into Chinese, left and right.

Williams and Bridgman expanded on Morrison's efforts in order to enhance later missionaries' and the American government's understanding of China and the Chinese language.

To this end, Williams wrote The Middle Kingdom, a two-volume work about the history, culture, and customs of China. In an effort to increase American knowledge of China, Bridgman started The Chinese Repository, which was the first journal of sinology. Additionally, many missionaries familiar with Chinese language and customs served as cultural and linguistic intermediaries for merchants and government officials.

Pamphlet depicting Chinese culture

Pamphlet created by missionaries depicting Chinese culture, for other missionaries' or foreigners' reference.

Dr. Peter Parker exemplified the new kind of missionary: the medical missionary. The Chinese populace was in desperate need of medical services, and American missionaries' medical expertise granted them greater access to Chinese citizens and offered opportunities to spread Christianity.

The Sino-British Treaty of Nanjing, 1842, and the U.S.-Sino Treaty of Wangxia, 1844, following China's defeat in the Opium War granted Western powers greater access and rights in China, including the abolition of the restrictive Canton system. These settlements granted foreign access to five new treaty ports, which increased the number of people that American missionaries could reach. Missionaries were still prohibited from openly proselytizing, however, and Christian converts were few.

Even without legal restrictions on Christianity, it was largely unpopular among the Chinese, especially among local leaders, as the tenets of Christianity clashed with and undermined the ingrained tenets of patriarchal Confucianism. Confucianism had formed the basis of Chinese society, culture, and government for millennia, and the introduction of Christianity to China became a destabilizing force.

The British-Sino Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, following the Second Opium War, greatly benefitted the growing number of American missionaries in China, as it granted them access to travel anywhere in China, and it granted them the freedom to proselytize anywhere in China. An increasing number of medical missions, following Dr. Peter Parker's example, and schools for Chinese children, were established as more Protestant missionaries flocked to China, encouraged by the greater freedoms assured by the Treaties.

The One Hundred Protestant Missionaries of the China Inland Mission

The 100 Protestant Missionaries of the China Inland Mission. All arrived in China by 1887.


As foreign women were now permitted in China (they had been forbidden under the Canton system), the number of female American Protestant missionaries increased in the latter half of the nineteenth century. These women focused their efforts on converting Chinese women to Christianity, and also on modernizing initiatives. These efforts, notably the lobbying to abolish the oppressive Chinese practice of female foot-binding,  further destabilized the Confucian foundations of Chinese society.

Female missionaries and bible women in the Foochow Mission, 1902.Miss Hartwell and bible women in the Foochow Mission, 1902.


More missionaries and proselytizing only served to exacerbate the societal tensions and unrest throughout China. Governmental corruption, harmful population growth, and humiliation at the hands of intruding foreigners found outlets in anti-Christian and anti-foreign riots throughout China. The most notorious was the Boxer Uprising, from 1899-1901, in which Chinese Christians and foreigners, including American missionaries, were targeted and killed by a discontented group called The Righteous Hands. Some missionaries left China before they were killed; others wrote letters home assuring their families that they were safe.

Presbyterian Missionaries Killed during the Boxer Uprising



Presbyterian Missionaries Killed during the Boxer Uprising.


Boxer Uprising and the foreign forces entering Beijing









The Boxer Uprising and foreign (United States, British, and other) forces entering Beijing to suppress the Boxer Uprising.

Although U.S.-Sino relations, especially in regards to missionary relations, began with the U.S. restricted and subject to the whims of the imperial Qing government in the 1830s, relations had evolved by 1900 to allow the United States much greater freedoms and missionary rights in China. Given the anti-Christian and anti-foreign sentiment and violent outbursts in China at the turn of the century, relations were still rocky between the two countries, but this time the modernized, militarily powerful United States dictated the terms of U.S.-Sino relations. Understanding American missionaries' integral role in U.S.-Sino relations as interpreters, intermediaries, and educators is key to understanding U.S.-Sino relations in the historical context of 1830-1900 and the historical foundation for U.S.-Sino relations today.


Created by Jessica Hannah. Last edited 4-20-2009.