The great English poet and hymn writer William Cowper wrote the following well before Robert Morrison left for China:
Great offices will have great talents, and God gives to every man the virtues, temper, understanding and taste that lifts him into life and lets him fall just in the niche he was designed to fill.
Robert Morrison was the man God raised up for His glory and destined him to become the first Protestant missionary to China and subsequently the first missionary to translate the Scriptures into classical Chinese.
Just imagine once, the times in which he lived . . .! China was an elusive and ancient country, far away from Europe and could only be reached after a 5 month journey by sailing ship. The emperors of China had pronounced the death sentence on any of its nationals that would teach a foreigner the Chinese language. They prohibited the import of western goods. They even forbade westerners to enter on Chinese soil. Silver was the only form of payment for goods, such as silk, tea and ginger, purchased from their country. Foreign religions were banned and prosecuted with the death sentence.
All the trade in those days between the British Empire and the Orient was conducted through the British East India Company. The East India Company, in pursuing its trade with China, likewise banned missionaries from its territories and blocked any attempt to spoil its lucrative opportunities. Such were the times when Robert Morrison left for China. From a human perspective, it was impossible. Not only was China a closed fortress, but Morrison’s own country, England, blocked him from going there. But what is impossible with man is possible with God. It was God’s time. He would send one of His servants to lay the groundwork for the translation of His Word to that ancient nation of China. Thus, Robert Morrison became the father of Protestant missions to China.
Born on January 5, 1782, in the town of Morpeth, England, Robert Morrison grew up in a Presbyterian family. His father James was a farmer and elder in High Bridge Presbyterian Church. As a teenager, Robert studied the Bible diligently and was moved by articles in missionary magazines. At the age of 15, his heart was exercised to become a missionary, and at the age of 20, he felt the Lord called him to become a missionary to Africa. The next year, in 1804, he was accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS), who appointed him as missionary. Robert soon began his study at the Missionary Academy and took additional studies in medicine and astronomy. Contrary to his expectations to go to Africa, the LMS asked him to go to China. The British and Foreign Bible Society sponsored this assignment, having a direct interest in the translation of the Bible into Chinese. Morrison accepted and began his preparation for China. He immediately began to study Chinese and could often be found in the British Library researching the collections of Chinese literature.
The aforementioned East India Company practiced a strict prohibition on missionaries wanting to go to China. Thus, he sailed on January 31, 1807 to the United States to ask for protection from the Consul of the United States in Canton (Guangzhou), China. After his arrival in New York, with letters of recommendation in hand, he proceeded to Philadelphia and was able, through some influential Christian friends, to obtain a letter from the then Secretary of State, James Madison, written to the Consul in Canton, asking for his protection and residence within the American quarters in this Chinese city.