Learning from Charles Gutzlaff (1803-1852)

Charles (Karl Friedrich Augustus) Gutzlaff blazed like a comet across the sky of early missionary attempts to reach the Chinese and left a trail that still impacts Christianity in China.

Originally a German missionary, Gutzlaff later Anglicized both his name and his national identity, even as he did all he could to become “Chinese to the Chinese” in his efforts to bring the saving knowledge of Christ to China’s millions.

For a brief biography of Gutzlaff, go to http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/g/gutzlaff-charles.ph,

The definitive biography is now Opening China: Karl. F.A. Gutzlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827-1852, by Jessie Lutz. For a review of that book, see www.globalchinacenter.org.

This article seeks to draw out some of the implications of Gutzlaff’s amazing career for Christians today.


Negative Lessons

The dangers of using power to “advance the kingdom of God”

Perhaps most obnoxious to the Chinese in his own time and to us today is the fact that Gutzlaff not only took sailed on ships carrying opium for his evangelistic journeys and worked for the East India Company (EIC) as interpreter, but he also served for many years as interpreter, diplomat, and even spy for the British government.

Like some other Protestant missionaries of that era, he saw no conflict in engaging both in evangelism and imperialism – or, at least, in helping the British to “open” China to commerce, including the hated opium trade. On the contrary, he believed that free trade and normal diplomatic relations would benefit China by allowing the blessings of Christianity, foreign goods, and modern science to lift its people out of superstition, poverty, disease, and societal corruption.

Even before he took employment with the EIC, Guztlaff repeatedly violated Chinese laws against foreigners entering the country and against the propagation of Christianity. He appealed to the example of the Apostles, who obeyed “God rather than man,” but brought disgrace and death to the officials who could not prevent him from penetrating their jurisdictions. In the process, he not only confused the Chinese about the true intentions of missionaries, but confirmed their suspicions that Christianity was merely a weapon in the hands of imperialistic Western governments.

The cost of justifying worldly means to achieve spiritual ends.

Gutzlaff repeatedly violated the laws of China. He was not ashamed to treat Chinese officials in a high-handed, imperious manner in order to gain access to their cities for the propagation of the gospel.

The questionable assumption that one must live in China. Like Robert Morrison, for many years, Gutzlaff could not be content with working on the periphery of the forbidden Middle Kingdom, but had to penetrate its borders. Though he had been very successful among Chinese sailors and residents in Southeast Asia, he refused to wait and pray until God opened doors to reside in China. And like Morrison, many of his troubles and major mistakes flowed from this fundamental assumption.

The risks of early baptism

Unlike most missionaries, who assumed that it would take time for Chinese to understand the Christian message enough to make a solid commitment, and who therefore waited for months or even longer to instruct inquirers before baptizing them, Gutzlaff believed in relatively early baptism. He would follow up with catechetical teaching later.

He accepted a simple profession of faith, willingness to receive Christian teaching, and membership in a church as indications of true conversion. 

Alas, many of his “converts” did not “stick.” A majority seem to have turned away from Christ under pressure or temptation.

The risks of relying on “indigenous missions”

Gutzlaff believed that China must be evangelized primarily by Chinese Christians, not Western missionaries.  To that end, he planted a church and trained Chinese Christian converts in Hong Kong, where he resided after the First Opium War. He intended to use them as preachers of the gospel, with Scriptures and Christian literature, into the interior where foreigners were not allowed. To that end, he formed the Chinese Union. So far, so good.

After some instruction, he sent them off with literature to sell. When they returned with stories of conversions and detailed reports of sales, he believed them. Everything seemed to be in order.

The truth was that most of them were united in a pact to deceive him. They re-sold the literature to the publisher rather than distributing it in China, while they enjoyed the opium dens and brothels of Hong Kong.

Unable to go with his agents, Gutzlaff could not monitor their activities. He relied totally on their own reports. When all this came out, both he and his Chinese Union suffered irreparable loss of credibility, and the whole enterprise collapsed.

The temptation to exaggerate our successes

Always optimistic and ebullient Gutzlaff sent home glowing accounts of his evangelistic activities and the progress of the Chinese Union to his supporters in Europe, generating a great deal of enthusiasm for China missions.

Imagine the letdown when his numbers turned out to be inflated and his “successes” less than he had painted them.

Today’s analogy might be publicizing numbers of people who said a “prayer to receive Christ,” as if they were truly converted.

The need for integrity in communication

While earning money in secular employment, Gutzlaff portrayed himself as a full-time missionary who needed financial support from home. Not good.

Question: Are modern Christians guilty of any of the above mistakes?


Positive Lessons

Though Gutzlaff made some serious mistakes, we should not ignore his greatness as a pioneer missionary. Consider:

His burning zeal

Gutzlaff has a burning zeal to reach Chinese with the gospel, through any possible means and at any possible personal cost. He spared no efforts to carry the Christian message through preaching, the distribution of literature, and mobilizing Chinese converts to take the gospel to their own people. His heart glowed with an intense passion for the spiritual, physical, and social welfare of China’s millions.

His life-long diligence in learning to communicate with Chinese people of all classes and regions.

He augmented an inborn talent for acquiring languages with assiduous, disciplined, and unrelenting study and practice, greatly enhanced by living among Chinese people whenever he could. He achieved fluency in four dialects, as well as mastery of the etiquette so prized by the educated elite. Very few foreigners have ever matched this level; one of them was J. Hudson Taylor, who greatly admired Gutzlaff.

His use of literature.

Like Morrison and most Protestant missionaries, Gutzlaff distributed Bibles, Bible portions, and other Christian literature as widely as he could. These printed materials were considered as “seeds” sown, some of which would later bear fruit. Evidence abounds that they were right, especially since Chinese tend to reverence the printed word. Many, of course, many just threw away what they had received, which is why most missionaries insisted on selling books and tracts for at least a nominal price.

His profound knowledge of Chinese history, culture, society, politics, geography, religion, and regional differences.

Gutzlaff read voraciously in both Chinese and European languages, quickly becoming a recognized expert in all matters Chinese. Some of his works show signs of haste, but most evince an exact and broad knowledge that impresses sinologists today. He ranks among the greatest missionary-scholars who showed their love for China by diligent study and voluminous writing.

His belief that China must be evangelized by Chinese Christians.

Sooner than most, he recognized that missionaries must put most of their energies into training Chinese converts to take the gospel to their own people. That he failed through the impossibility of proper supervision does not negate the principle. J. Hudson Taylor shared the same conviction, learning from Gutzlaff’s mistakes: He almost always paired his missionaries with Chinese co-workers, who both taught the Westerners and learned from them as they collaborated in evangelism and church planting.

His powerful and effective calls for Western Christians to support China missions.

Gutzlaff was one of the ablest promoters of missions to the Chinese ever. Scholarly articles in both missionary and secular journals; a stream of both learned and popular books; earnest appeals in European, British, and American Christian periodicals; countless letters to his supporters; and extremely persuasive public speaking when at home – all combined to create a huge and lasting surge of interest in taking the gospel to China. The results included financial support, the formation of many mission societies, prayer, and the sending of missionaries to China.

Here again, his influence upon Hudson Taylor was profound. His reports fueled Taylor’s passion for China. His example must have led to Taylor’s even more effective promotional writing and speaking about “China’s Spiritual Needs and Claims,” as his first major tract was called. He, too, combined graphic stories, solid information, biblical exhortations, potent public presentations, and his own example to mobilize ongoing support for missions to China in Britain, Europe, and North America.

His tireless and unremitting toil.

Gutzlaff possessed enormous energy, which he poured into serving the Chinese in every way possible. He allowed himself no personal diversions or luxuries, but expended all for the cause of Christ among the Chinese. Even while fully employed with the EIC or British government, from early morning to late at night, he threw himself into incessant labors to evangelize, teach, train, and mobilize Chinese for ministry to their own.



“The greatest missionary contribution of Gutzlaff was probably his inspirational example of holy consecration, sacrifice, love, eloquence, and zeal.” (Vann McClain, “Gutzlaff, Karl Friedrich August, in A. Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000, 422).