[Death : 17 - 04 - 1919]

With bold ambitions to take the gospel to China and be an ambassador for God, Timothy Richard was a highly influential and yet controversial character.

Early life

Timothy Richard was from Camarthenshire in Wales. Converted during the revival of 1858-60 and after studying at Haverfordwest Baptist College, he applied to the Baptist Missionary Society for service in China.

The situation in China

The Opium Wars (1840s-1850s) had opened Chinese ports and cities not just to trade but also to missionaries. The BMS Committee decided in 1859 to send mission workers to China but the climate was not particularly favourable for Westerners; numerous missionaries died, others resigned, and the Committee considered withdrawing altogether.

Soon after Timothy Richard arrived at the trading port of Yantai (Chefoo) in 1870, he found himself alone in charge of the mission and the sole representative of BMS in the country from 1874-1877. He felt that Yantai was not the best place for the BMS mission, particularly because several other mission societies were working there. Richard’s vision was to reach the Chinese interior and its vast population.

In the winter of 1875, he moved inland to the walled city of Qing Zhou (Ching-chou-fu), an important administrative, educational, business and religious centre in Shandong (Shantung) province, which had a population of 30,000 and more scope and hope for evangelistic activity.


Richard believed that ‘the best way to make Christianity indigenous was to adopt Chinese methods of propagation’ ie giving Christianity a Chinese face. Richard’s methods were inspired by the Scripture passage: ‘whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave’ (Matt 10: 11). He believed that the way to witness was to find the ‘worthy’ men of integrity and use their influence to reach the rest of society.

Richard sought out the religious teachers and educated government officials. He realised that it was important to approach discussion and witness from within the culture and present Christianity in a form acceptable to the Chinese. In order to further immerse himself in the culture, Richard mastered the language, wore Chinese dress and took a Chinese name: Li Ti-mo-tai.

Among ordinary people, Richard and the first Chinese evangelists used methods of public story-telling in their witness. They hired a room open to the main street and, whilst tea was served, they talked to the crowds and told stories. Occasionally they were able to hold deeper conversations with individuals.

After two years, there had been over 300 baptisms and there were a thousand enquirers to keep Richard, other missionaries and the local Chinese pastor busy. Richard organised new Christians into groups with local leaders and they came periodically from the villages to the city of Qing Zhou (Ching-chou-fu) for training. Richard’s vision was for evangelism to be done by indigenous itinerant workers. The Chinese church was being structured as a self-financing, self-governing and self-propagating body.

Diverse activities

China was regularly subjected to famine. The missionary-led attempt to relieve the famine in the winter of 1876/7 was one of the first major programmes of humanitarian relief in modern history. Richard became the most important organiser and administrator of the famine relief and funds that arrived in several provinces from overseas.

In response to the severe famines that had ravaged the land, Richard believed that modern science was needed to avert similar future catastrophes. He spent four years writing and holding a series of lectures to the educated classes on apologetic and scientific issues. He also firmly believed in the importance of education for the spread of the gospel and dreamed of establishing a Christian college in every province in China, an idea not supported by the Committee back home.

However, as reparation for an earlier persecution of Christians, the Governor of Shanxi province consulted Richard on something appropriate and he proposed a university at Taiyuan, with both Chinese and Western departments. Although it was forbidden to teach Christianity on the curriculum, Richard as Chancellor was able to appoint numerous Christian missionaries on the teaching staff.

During his last 28 years in China spent in Shanghai, Richard had a share in the production of at least 300 books, which were instrumental in opening up China to Western knowledge. His other activities and passions included:

• Education projects

• Campaigning in the Anti-Footbinding Society

• Serving as the Secretary of the International Red Cross Society in Shanghai

• Editing The Tiensin Times whilst he was in Tianjin (Tiensin)

• General Secretary of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge, where he was supported by BMS until his retirement in 1914

Controversial but committed

Richard was ‘an original but controversial missionary thinker’, not always popular with the fellow missionaries and sometimes not in agreement with the Committee. Not all shared his visions for educational work and he was refused money and support for many of his planned projects. Some people disliked his techniques of mission and evangelism and others disagreed with his theology.

On the other hand, Richard was an enthusiastic and committed man. Throughout his life, he was always studying and learning more. The relationships he built with Chinese government officials aided the missionary work and also led to the Chinese government calling upon him as the Protestant advisor on foreign missions. In recognition of his work, Richard and his ancestors for three generations were granted the highest Chinese rank.

Others have sung Richard’s praise as being without parallel in BMS history. One described him as “one of the greatest missionaries whom any branch of the Church, whether Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox or Protestant, has ever sent to China” and another wrote of him as “a remarkable blending of shrinking modesty and vaulting ambition, of benignity of expression interrupted by occasional flashes of flaming indignation; of self-abnegation approximating to servility, combined with a restlessness of contradiction and an indomitable self-will.”

Richard himself advised others in their conduct:

"If you see the Governor, do not look upon yourselves only as the representatives of the Missionary Society; remember that you are ambassadors of God."