William Milne — A Forgotten Minister in China

Rev. William Milne, D.D.

For many Christians, especially the Chinese Christians, Robert Morrison seems to be an essential name to be known, for Rev. Dr. Morrison was the first Western Protestant missioner to China in the 18th century.  In the 18th century Western world, the Great Awakening was going on and spreading abroad, and at the same time, God raised many missioners who were prepared and with passional hearts to serve the Lord in the foreign cultures, Robert Morrison was one of these missioners. In the year of 1804, Morrison joined the London Missionary Society and was ordained as a missioner to China on January 8, 1807. Morrison served in China over twenty years, and he passed away on August 1st, 1834 and was buried in Marco. Most of Morrison’s missionary in China can be found in Milne’s “A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission To China.”During Morrison’s missionary in China, God had used him greatly, for Morrison translated the entire Bible into Classical Chinese (which made him received a D. D. from University of Glasgow). Morrison also edited the first English-Chinese Dictionary and the first Chinese news paper. During his missionary he also baptized the first Chinese Christian — Cai Gao (蔡高), and ordained the first Chinese pastor — Lueng Faat (梁發). Robert Morrison had a wonderful and great missionary in China, but few Christians know that behind Morrison there were two important helpers, who helped Morrison to finish his missionary, they are William Milne and Lueng Faat.

If Robert Morrison was the first Protestant missioner to China, then William Milne was the second. William Milne was born in Scotland as Morison did. Milne was three years younger than Morrison, and Milne was ordained to be a missioner to China five years after Morrison did. Milne became the only but best friend and co-worker to Morrison in China, and later he listened to Morrison’s advise and moved to Java with his wife, Rachel Cowie. Milne spent most of his times in Malacca, where he set up printing press and school (the Anglo-Chinese College), translated the Bible and preached the Good News to the local Chinese in Chinese language.

William Milne is a very interesting figure for me. While I am reading a biography on Rev. Lueng Faat, I found out that Milne was the spiritual mentor to Leung. In Robert Morrison’s book which was written to remember Milne, Morrison recorded the four questions which were put to Milne before he was ordained by the laying on of the hands of several Christian ministers, which were (1) What reason have you to suppose that you are a Christian? (2) What induced you to devote yourself to the work of a Missionary of Jesus Christ to be heathen? (3) How do you purpose to exercise your ministry among the Heathen? (4) What are the doctrines which you believe to be contained in the sacred scriptures? Milne spent many words on answering these four questions, in order to explain his understanding and answers briefly. In Milne’s answers to the ministers’ questions, Milne explained his believes as well as his vision of ministry. I believe to think about the four questioned which were put to Milne is very essential and important to the ministers and Christians today as well, for we all need a very serious and clear vision on serving the Lord, so that we will spend our time on this vision and we can also get faith and strength from the Lord on the right vision. It is also for theological students to make a clear vision of service. We need to make sure what is God calling us to do, so that we can work hard on that area while we are still preparing ourselves.

In Morrison’s book, “Memoirs of the Rev. William Milne, D. D.,” he recorded Milne’s rules for himself. On January 1st, 1810, Milne made rules of conduct and resolutions for himself:

I. As To Myself

1. To spend a little time thrice a day for meditation, prayer, and reading the sacred scriptures, and some devotional book.

2. To spend some extraordinary time every three months for the state of my soul and work.

3. To spend some time on Saturday night, from eight o’clock, in religious exercises for myself, and relations, and friends, in Scotland.

4. To attend as many prayer-meetings as I can, for the benefit of my soul.

II. For Study

1. Not in general to spend above six hours in bed.

2. To make eleven and five the hours of rising and going to bed.

3. To endeavour to spend about fourteen hours in study and devotion, the rest at victuals and recreation — walking twice a day for my health.

4. The different parts of the day to the studies, as they will best suit.

III. To Others

I. To treat my tutor and fellow students with respect.

II. To receive reproof or remarks on my conduct and performances with meekness — even though harsh and unreasonable.

III. To endeavour to observe, in giving reproof, not to offend, but to profit.

IV. To endeavour, by conversation and otherwise, to be useful to my fellow students.

V. To endeavour to be useful to all

1. In my preaching to aim at the conversion of souls, and the advancement of grace in saints.

2. In my conversion with men, when I meet them in this place, and in the places where I go to preach, to endeavour to be a pattern.

3. To go out once or twice a week into different houses to perform family worship, and give suitable exhortations. N.B. [Latin: Nota Bene, Note Well] This I have reason to believe was not wholly in vain.

4. To endeavour to awaken and promote the spirit of religion by correspondence. In order to this, to keep a little book for noting materials for correspondence.

5. To keep some account of my matters, sermons, progress, and correspondences. [1]

6. Not to be too forward nor positive in stating my sentiments — of others. To avoid partiality, keep myself, first, that I may not offend others, second, that, not being engaged in controversy, I may the more easily find out the truth.

7. To read my diary and these rules every Saturday night. N.B. Some of these could not be kept, except one were always in the same place.

[1] The spelling of the words were modernized by the author.

The rules quoted above are part of Milne’s rules in his life, as he had made more rules for himself in the further years of service and Christians life, which was made depend on his positions and situations at those times. While I was reading Milne’s rules to himself, I found each single rule is just like an arrow which is shooting to my heart. Although the rules are not exact words from the Scripture, these rules are still very helpful to a Christian to control himself. Also, according to Milne’s rules, there are some reminds can be found for Christians who want to serve the Lord and preach the gospel. First, a Christian must know himself well before he makes a decision to become a missioner, by which I mean a Christian must confess himself before the Lord and examine his own sins and bad habits before the Lord, so that he can ask the Lord to help him to avoid these sins and learn self-controlling through practice the rules made according to his sins. Second, it is very important for a Christian to spend much of his times on devotions and Bible studies, which can help him to clarify his faith and his relationship with the Lord. Third, it is also very important to have good relationships with tutors, fellows, and brothers and sisters, so that the missioner can be a pattern to the people he serves, which shows them how to love each other.

As a Christian, I believe the grace and the chosen of the Lord, but now as I had learned the life of Milne as a missioner in China, I thanks my God and praised Him, for He did not create man as robert. The grace and chosen of the Lord is essential and the most important part for a Christian missioner to know and understand, which means we are chosen to serve the Lord and His chosen people. But on the other hand, we Christians also have the opportunity to respond Christ’s calling, which is to prepare ourselves both by knowledge and by spirituality, by which I mean that we Christians need to learn the Bible without ceasing and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as well as exercise ourselves by self-controlling and devoting with Christ, and by doing so, we can be well used by the Lord. I believe the rules of Milne are one of the reason why God used Milne very much among His Chinese people. I also believe that by practising the rules which are set for our self-control, it is also a method for us to deny ourselves, and depend on Christ more.

The missioners are the models for we Christians to learn from, for they are the pioneers of the Gospel. Even though they had be suffering in many persecutions, and experienced many problems, but the Lord loves them and strengthen them. Their faith had been shaped and strengthen by the Lord in the frontline, and their love of God was deepened. As a Chinese Christian, I praise the Lord my Christ, for He planted the seed of His Gospel in China according to Morrison, Milne and Leung Faat’s work. William Milne was a very close friend and the spiritual tutor to Leung Faat, he was also the person advised Morrison to ordain Leung as a paster whom can succeed their work on evangelism. On November 6, 1820, Milne was conferred on an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by University of Glasgow, according to his great work on translating the Bible and preaching the Gospel in China. On March 1819, Mrs. Milne passed away, which made Milne very sad, for he loves his darling very much, therefore he made a memoranda for his wife, Mrs. Rachel (Cowie) Milne, the daughter of Charles Cowie, Esq. of Aberdeen:

She is requested to attend occasionally, in my absence, to the following things, as health and other circumstances may permit.

I. To keep a journal or diary of such things as may strike her mind. For example, what chapter she reads with her servant — what subjects she converse on with her — what effect she thinks is thereby produced — what her own views and exercises may be as to God, the mission, the church generally — what books she reads or lends, &c. What observations she makes.

N.B. It is not necessary to write much — nor perhaps will my Love’s circumstances admit of writing every day; but now and then a little.

II. To continue to write out her own history, as it will keep in her own mind many past events; and may, at a future day, be profitably read by our dear daughter, if God should spare her life.

III. To learn some of the Dialogues by heart, in order to make the colloquial language of the Chinese familiar.

IV. To take particular care of her health — not to want any thing that is requisite for herself or the baby.

V. To endeavour to keep her mind easy by trusting all to the care of God — by faith in Jesus — by the hope of eternal rest.

VI. To look after my books.

VII. To prepare herself as fully as she can for future usefulness.

These are the injunctions of her own.

Rev. Mr. Milne loves his wife so much, so that after his wife passed away, while he was writing journals to remember his wife, he always swept and the journals are wet by his tears. For most of the “post-modern generations,” it is so hard to understand Milne’s love for his wife, but we must know the situation Milne was in. In Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), men were allowed to have more than one wife, for even the emperors had thousands of concubines. As the first missioners in China, Morrison and Milne were so lonely, for they are both the evangelists and the church planters, whom were the only two Christians in a different world, therefore their wives were their closed friends and supporters. Even though it is doubtless that Morrison and Milne did wonderful job on preaching the Gospel, but it is still essential for their wives’ support. This made me remember what Rev. Dominic Tse (modern pastor of North York Chinese Christian Community Church, Toronto) and his wife told me in one conversation. They told me that even though I am single right now, I still need to think about and pray for my future wife, whom shall be a person has same vision with me on the Christian ministry, so that my future wife and I can support and encourage each other on the hard way of serving the Lord. I may not really understand how Milne loved his wife and how his wife encouraged him in his ministry, but what I can understand so far is they are the pattern of Christians and of the missionary families, for they love each other and got blessed from God for their love. Also, because of Milne’s love to his wife, Leung Faat, the first Chinese pastor, kept his faith on Christ, leaded his only wife and child to Christ and baptized them after Milne’s death.

By thinking of his wife, Milne was sick and was called back by the Lord on June 2nd, 1822, by age of 37. Milne rested his work on earth. Praise the Lord, who is worthy to be served! Milne was blessed by the Lord for both his work on earth and his family. His children were also blessed by the Lord, for his son, William Charles Milne was also a missionary in China later. I believe it is ok for me to summarize Milne’s life and his influence by quoting B. B. Warfield’s words in his article, “The Religious Life of Theological Students“:

A minister must be both learned and religious. It is not a  matter of choosing between the two. He must study, but he must study as in the presence of God and not in a secular spirit. He must recognize the privilege of pursuing his studies in the environment where God and salvation from sin are the air he breathes. He must also take advantage of every opportunity for corporate worship, particularly while he trains in the Theological Seminary. Christ Himself leads in setting the example of the importance of participating in corporate expressions of the religious life of the community. Ministerial work without taking time to pray is a tragic mistake. The two must combine if the servant of God is to give a pure, clear, and strong message.


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