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A legacy all of grace

Remembering James Hudson Taylor III

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

When missionary Hudson Taylor landed in Shanghai after five months at sea, he made a pact with his first recruits from England: Everyone was to dress as the Chinese did. For men in those days, 1866 to be exact, that meant the silk robe and the "queue": a shaved head in the front and the rest gathered into a long ponytail. "I have never heard of any one, after a bona fide attempt to become Chinese to the Chinese that he might gain the Chinese, who either regretted the course taken or wished to abandon it," he said.

In 1865 Taylor had returned to England from China and deposited 10 pounds sterling (about $50 then) in a bank account in Brighton. He called the account "China Inland Mission." In a year's time he raised $13,000 and sailed for China with 24 workers, expanding the evangelistic work he began at age 21 to areas unreached by the gospel-"West of the Mountains, South of the Clouds, North of the Lake," he wrote-inland China. Eventually more than 800 missionaries joined that work, and the explosive growth of Christianity in China is often traced to those 10 pounds sterling and that young man. In 1949 there were less than 1 million Christians in China; in 1979 there were 30 million to 40 million and today Protestants number 60-80 million and Catholics 12 million.

In January 2003 when I met Hudson Taylor's great-grandson, James Hudson Taylor III, he wore a suit and tie. We met in a high-rise with a rickety narrow elevator in Mongkok, an area of Hong Kong that never sleeps, jammed with restaurants and businesses advertised by neon signs and banners bearing Chinese calligraphy that run as far and high as the eye can see.

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The setting and Taylor's suit represented a commitment to the Chinese no less eccentric, sincere, deep, or lasting than his forebear. Taylor was born in 1929 in the ancient city of Kaifeng on the south bank of the Yellow River, where his parents served as missionaries. He died on March 20 in Hong Kong at age 79 after suffering with liver cancer. But like both the apostle Paul and his great-grandfather, the fourth generation standard-bearer found other ways to open doors for gospel work while at the same time becoming Chinese that he might win the Chinese (1 Corinthians 9).

"We have got to face the reality that today the work is not the work of 1850 or 1865 when CIM was established," Taylor told me. "Whether we like it or not we can't go into China to 'evangelize' . . . the colonial era and the power of imperialism is over, and we do not have that luxury today. I would like to do what my great-grandfather did 150 years ago," and then he paused to laugh, "but he did not have to get his visa renewed every year."

About 20 years ago Taylor began assembling professional teams-doctors and later teachers and agriculture experts-to renew the work in inland China. The teams were so well received that in some areas they were allowed to replace government workers, Taylor recalled-leading eventually to the creation of a nonprofit he headed called MSI Professional Services. "We see today the weakness of our approach to evangelism when we limit it to a full-time professional missionary. I see the carrying forward of the Great Commission if we can utilize professionals or those with specialties to bring needed services to communities that otherwise would not welcome missionaries." That need has only increased, and particularly in rural areas, as an economy built on the "Four Modernizations" falters beneath worldwide recession.

It would be easy to conclude that it was all in the great-grandson's DNA. But Taylor insisted it was "all of grace." At the age of 12 he was interned along with his classmates, a brother, two sisters, and his grandfather in a Japanese concentration camp beginning in 1942 until the camp was liberated by U.S. forces in 1945. He told me he was not a Christian at that time and did not become one until a year after his liberation-moved, he said, by the "genuine integrity" and example of his parents, his grandfather, and of one of his teachers in the camp, Eric Liddell.

Hudson Taylor once promised God, "As for me and my household, we shall surely serve the Lord." With a fourth generation departed-but did I mention a fifth and sixth on hand?-the Taylor family story shows a God who is faithful to every generation. And one who makes all things new.

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