The Call of William Milne 195 Years Later: From Aberdeenshire to Malacca

A couple of days ago [September 5th] I visited Malacca, Malaysia, about three hours’ drive north of Singapore.  Malacca is a famous trading post of days of yore, alternatively overrun by the Portuguese, Dutch and British at different points during the last 500 years.  The traces of past rulers remain in various forms, from the ruins of fortifications (the Portuguese “A Famosa” dating to 1511) to churches which have survived. 

One spiritual monument is the iconic Christ Church which dates back to 1753.  Situated in Malacca’s main square, with a distinctive reddish hue, its inside walls have various memorial plaques which commemorate spiritual contributors of the past.  Here is one: 

Sacred to the Memory of the Reverend William Milne, D.D., Protestant Missionary to China, Under the Auspices of the London Missionary Society

For seven years he resided at this settlement as principal of the Anglo-Chinese College; superintending the education of Chinese and Malay youths, composing useful and religious tracts in their respective languages, and officiating in this church as a faithful minister of the Gospel of Christ, but the chief object of his labours in co-operation with the Reverend Robert Morrison, D.D., was the translation of the earliest Protestant version of the Holy Scriptures in Chinese, in which he rendered most valuable and efficient service. 

He was born in the year 1785, in Kennethmont, Aberdeenshire, left England as a missionary, 1812, and died in Malacca, June 2nd 1822, at the age of thirty-seven.

Who was this man who lived a short life 195 years ago and what can he teach us about calling today?   

First, he had clarity of conviction regarding his call from God.  He travelled—literally—half way around the world to give his life in service.  Milne was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  He was ordained as a missionary to China on July 16th, 1812.  Milne was very clear about his calling.  He proposed "to go from house to house, from village to village, from town to town, and from country to country, where access may be gained, in order to preach the Gospel to all who will not turn away their ear from it."  That’s conviction!

Secondly, Milne single-mindedly pursued his calling—he was not dissuaded by challenges.  He and his wife left England on September 4th,1812 and arrived in Macau on July 4th, 1813—some 10 months later!  After this long journey, Milne, with his wife and infant child were expelled by the Roman Catholic priests there after three days.  Presumably not the welcome he was hoping for.

Another challenge was in doing the work of a missionary.  He and his wife left Macau for Guangzhou, where he was to prepare for his work. He undertook the arduous task of learning the Chinese language.  He lamented that:  "Learning the Chinese language requires bodies of iron, lungs of brass, heads of oak, hands of spring steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah."

Third, he sacrificed much. In those days, there were surely no illusions about the sacrifices made in relation to extended family—when leaving England, it was unlikely they would see their respective familes ever again.  Life spans were shorter and travel was much more complicated.  This was not the era of the one-week missions trip quickie. 

Milne set sail knowing the he, his wife and future children would be largely on their own.  His wife, Rachel, gave birth to six children, and two of them died in infancy. Among the four surviving children, the youngest was born when Rachel was suffering from a serious illness, and was baptized at Rachel's dying bed.  Rachel then died shortly thereafter.  William Milne only lasted another three years before he passed away.  Not easy, to be sure.

Fourth, he pursued his calling with diligence.  During his time in Malacca, Milne published various tracts in Chinese--despite his challenges in learning the language.  His 1819 tract "The Two Friends" became the most widely used Chinese Christian tract until the early twentieth century. Milne was remarkably prolific for one who began writing so late in life and 21 Chinese works are attributed to him.  In addition, he produced two substantial books and a Malacca periodical in English.

Milne was diligent in other ways, too.  He set up a printing press and school, continuing to preach the Gospel to the local Chinese.  In January 1816, Milne visited Penang, (about 300 miles north, on the coast) and established a printing press there also. Milne was also the first Principal of The Anglo Chinese College at Malacca. He collaborated with Robert Morrison, another missionary, to produce the second complete Chinese version of the Bible.

Fifth, he mentored those he converted, some of whom has wide subsequent influence.  One such person was Liang Fa, who converted to Christianity in 1815 and was baptized by Milne.  Liang Fa became the first Chinese Protestant minister and evangelist. Liang Fa later became renowned as the author of the Christian literature that inspired Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion.

In short, William Milne provides us with valuable lessons for today.  He had the strong conviction of his calling.  He took on and overcame challenges.  He sacrificed much.  He pursued his calling with diligence.  He had great influence as did people he mentored.  We can continue to learn from the life and times of William Milne even 195 years later.