In August 1816 at the age of only 20, Walter Medhurst set sail from London aboard the General Graham. He was bound for Malacca (Malaysia) to establish a printing facility for the London Missionary Society and thereby begin a career as missionary, adventurer, printer, writer, translator, teacher and nineteenth century pioneer to China. After five months he reached Madras, India, where he was delayed for three months waiting for another ship, during which time he met, fell in love with and married his wife Elizabeth. Her life of struggle and survival growing up in India as the daughter of a colonel in the Madras Native Infantry adds colour and passion to Walter’s story.
Walter was ordained in 1819 in Malacca and together he and Elizabeth established a mission centre in Batavia (Jakarta), where he was forced to confront a renegade missionary involved in slave and opium trading. There he built a printing and publishing operation as well as a church and an orphanage, both of which still operate today. From Batavia, Walter set out to explore Java, Malaysia and Borneo, narrowly escaping an attack by pirates along the Malaysian coast, and he ventured deep into the interior of Borneo, through thick jungle, praying that he would not meet the head-hunting Dayaks. All the while, Walter’s objective was to establish a mission centre in China at a time when China was a society closed to foreigners. In defiance of the ferocious Chinese restrictions, Walter undertook a number of exploratory trips up the coast of China as far north as Shandong in order to distribute his Christian message and, in so doing, he confronted the embargo of the mandarins. In 1836, he returned to England with his family where he published a book, China: Its State and Prospects, and undertook a speaking tour of the country, recounting his experiences, promoting his book and raising support for his missionary activities.
Following the first Opium War and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, five ports were opened up in China for the purpose of foreign trade and Walter Medhurst took the opportunity in 1843 to set up the LMS mission centre in Shanghai. From this base he built churches, schools, a printing works, a hospital (now a major Shanghai hospital) and he undertook further clandestine visits to the interior of China, dressed as a Chinese. During the time of the Taiping Rebellion, Walter maintained contact with the rebel leaders and he became a leading source of information in Britain and America about the situation in China. In the years 1847-1850, he led the team that translated the Bible into Chinese, creating the Delegates Version which would be used by Chinese Protestants for the next 70 years. In recognition of his contributions he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by New York University and he became one of the first Directors of the Shanghai Municipal Council. The Shanghai Mission Press was the first printing works in China to use typography to print Chinese characters and was hugely influential in revolutionising modern printing methods.
At the age of 18, his son, also named Walter, entered the British consular services at a critical time, just after the outbreak of the First Opium War. After a 37 year career the younger Medhurst reached the peak of the Chinese consular service when he was appointed British Consul in Shanghai and for his services he was knighted by Queen Victoria. He was not the only family member to be made a British Consul, for their daughter Eliza married Charles Hillier, who became the first British Consul to Bangkok.
In 1856, as a result of failing health, Walter left China for the last time and returned with his family to England. He arrived back in London on 22 January 1857 and two days later he passed away. He is buried in the Abney Park Cemetery in London alongside other famous Protestants such as William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Perhaps his sudden death upon his return to England was one of the reasons he did not become the household name that his lifetime’s achievements warranted. Perhaps Mission to China may go some way to redressing that oversight.