How the Very First Chinese Bible Translation Came to Be

Usually, it is a joy to read mission history. There are great stories of revival, of miracles, of love in the face of hate and of people who persevered in the face of unthinkable persecution. But there are also deeply sad stories; stories of missionaries and mission organisations getting it wrong, abusing others, fighting each other and serving with an attitude of superiority. In a strange way, these stories are comforting too. It tells me that when we see, experience, or even participate in these things, it is nothing new and God’s work has continued despite the unfaithfulness his people have displayed.

There is one story I would like to share with you which I found when I researched the origins of the first Chinese Bible translation. There was a French priest by the name of Jean Basset who started to translate the Bible into Chinese in the early 18th century. He died before he finished the New Testament and his manuscript was never published. It ended up in the British Library in London, where it was forgotten.

Meanwhile, about a century later, an Anglican clergyman named Rev. William Moseley was trying to get the rich and important people in England interested in forming a society to translate the Bible into Chinese. Rather bizarrely, the accepted wisdom at that time was that this would be impossible. Those most knowledgeable about China maintained that “the (Chinese) language would not allow of any translations whatever to be made into it.”  Moseley set out to prove them wrong.

He gathered evidence of books that had been written in Chinese by early Jesuit priests in the 16th century. He also argued that a royal document by the British king had been translated and presented to the Chinese emperor. But most of all, he wanted to find the partial Bible translation that was rumored to exist, and kept in the British Library. That would be his best proof that it was possible to translate the Bible into Chinese. When he finally found it, he wrote it was “an unspeakable pleasure” and “nothing but a sense of decency prevented the most extravagant marks of joy.”

To cut a very long story short, eventually this partial translation was copied and taken back to China by Robert Morrisson, who used it as the basis of the first full Chinese Bible translation. Had I stopped my research there, I would have felt nothing but joy about the way God used the persistence of Rev. Moseley.

But the way Moseley tried to convince his wealthy contemporaries that the Bible needed to be translated into Chinese, and that they should finance this project, was dark and disappointing. He argued the Chinese were ready for Christianity because they were already civilized, contrary to the “ignorant, indocile, cruel, sons of Africa and America, and the South Seas”. He argued that even “the Apostles did not visit the wilds of Africa or the uncultivated nations of other parts, but invariably fixed upon spots, which civilization had prepared for their labours.”

But it gets worse. Moseley also appealed to their greed and colonial sentiments. “In a religious view, the conversion of its inhabitants is the only possible means of their salvation: in a civil view, as it is the only method of effectually securing the advantages of a free trade.” And he went on to say that “no country is capable of affording us larger or more valuable cargoes; or of sooner enriching our merchants, and filling our treasury. But local prejudices deny us the favours; and the evil is never likely to be removed, till a change takes place in their religious sentiments.” In other words, China’s conversion will bring us free trade and a lot of money.

My heart broke for the evil on display here. The racism, the greed, the superiority, the ignorance even. And yet, these deeply flawed people with deeply flawed motives were used to bring China the word of God in their own language. There is no excuse for their dark motives, only gratefulness that God accomplished His purposes in spite of them.

So, let’s continue in mission together, in repentance, in humbleness and in trust that the story does not begin or end with us. Thank God.

Quotes are taken from ‘The origin of the first protestant mission to China’, by W.W. Moseley, Simpkin and Marshall, 1842, digitized by Google and freely available online.


  1. Mary Ellen Gilvey

    It’s awesome the Chinese have a bible in their own tongue language that is. The Bible is about TRUTH. GOD and JESUS CHRIST.

  2. Patricia Reider

    Praise God that he can use anything and anyone to bring to people to him. It’s sad that Rev. Mossely motives were personally motivated to get money or he wrongly thought he had to use this kind of argument to get the bible translated into Chinese but we serve a mighty God whose word must and will go to every tongue, tribe and nation on the earth. God’s word never returns void and is sharper than any two edged sword. Praise you God!


Leave your thought