Lessons from James Legge's Career

(Also see articles on the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity and the Global China Center).

Though he died more than a hundred years ago, James Legge has left several volumes of translations of all the major early Chinese classics. Scholars may criticize some aspects of his work, but on the whole they acknowledge the translations and commentaries as both a monumental achievement and a resource for us today.

I personally have found his introduction, translation, and commentary of the Analects indispensable for my own study of Confucius, and his careful description and evaluation of Confucianism and Daoism most helpful and insightful.

Aside from the books themselves, Legge’s legacy includes valuable lessons for us today. Here are some that come to mind:

·        The necessity of self-discipline. Legge rose early every day to work on his study of the Confucian classics, which he did before beginning his “direct” missionary work or university teaching.

·        The value of perseverance. He worked at this huge task steadily for five decades. This patient, persistent labor produced a cumulative effect of almost fabulous proportions.

·        The inevitability of sacrifice. Legge and other missionaries to China expected to endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. They did not shrink from their mission when buffeted by illness, setbacks, difficulties, and even the deaths of loved ones.

·        The necessity of understanding Chinese culture. Legge insisted that missionaries must take the time to read and understand the great literary works of ancient China, in order to convey the gospel effectively. He also believed that the scholar must live among the people in order to get into their mind and soul. J. Hudson Taylor, who was as committed to “direct” missionary work as anyone, treasured Legge’s translations and recommended them to others.

·        The role of scholarship in Christian witness among the Chinese. Few will match James Legge as scholars, but some will be led by God to make major investments of time and energy in reading, reflecting, and writing about Chinese civilization and society. Their work will benefit those who aim to be effective practitioners. We must recognize that others with different gifts and callings have significant roles to play in the advancement of the kingdom of God.

·        The indispensable role of partnership between Chinese and foreigners. Legge highly regarded his Chinese co-workers in church ministry and in scholarship. He acknowledged that he could not have done what he did without their collaboration, and he even helped further their work.

·        The ruinous effects of slander. Legge’s missionary detractors may have been correct in their critiques of some of his opinions (I think they were), but they sometimes used intemperate language and even slander against him and others like him. Indeed, some of their charges lacked sufficient grounds, and misrepresented his real commitment to the fundamentals of the faith. They also ignored clear statements which indicated his belief in the essentials of the Christian faith and as its unique supremacy. The resulting breach of unity among missionaries only slowed the progress of the gospel among the Chinese. Sadly, that same sort of baseless calumny is all too common among Christians today (see Carl Henry: Theologian for All Seasons, for more on what I call “evangelical slander”).

·        The danger of small concessions. As much as I admire Legge and believe that he was a sincere Christian, he did, in fact, make unnecessary compromises, thus providing his critics with fodder for their accusations. For instance, influenced by German higher criticism, he said that parts of the Old Testament were of equal value with some of the Chinese historical records, which we know today to be incorrect. His rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin may have influenced his sanguine estimation of early Chinese religious views.

·        The abiding fruit of solid character. All agree that James Legge exemplified Christian values. Despite some flaws and failings, he lived a consistent life of godliness and faithfulness that can inspire us today.

-G. Wright Doyle