Book Review: It Is Not Death to Die: A New Biography of Hudson Taylor

(I hope you’ll forgive me for talking mostly about books the last two weeks. 🙂 I happened to finish several recently and I’m trying to finish off my spring reading plans.)

I’ve mentioned before the importance of reading missionary biographies, for our own growth and inspiration and to keep before us those names in church history that need to be remembered just like Washington, Lincoln, and others need to be remembered in our secular history.

Hudson Taylor is one of those names for several reasons. He was a pioneer missionary to China in the 1800s during a time when China was especially hostile and suspicious of foreigners. He wanted to convert people to Christ in their own culture rather than converting them to Western culture. He dressed as a Chinaman, much to the dismay and criticism of the overseas European community and even other missionaries, simply because he found that the most effective way to work with the Chinese. A missionary coming into a town dressed as a European was likely to be attacked and cause a riot. He suffered much hardship uncomplainingly and purposefully lived as simple a life as possible. He did not set out to start a mission agency, but the agency which sent him out failed miserably: they failed to advise or prepare him, failed to forward funds and communicate with him when he was on the field, causing other mission agencies to step in and help him and others, and then they had the gall to criticize other mission agencies in the periodicals of the day. The necessity of a mission agency attuned to the needs in China and resp0nsible in its habits led to Hudson beginning the China Inland Mission. There were a few missionaries in the bigger cities, but China wanted to go inland where the gospel had not been preached. Probably the most notable aspects of Hudson, however, were his simple childlike (but not childish) faith and his unswerving obedience to what he perceived God wanted him to do.

For these reasons I was very glad to see It Is Not Death to Die: A New Biography of Hudson Taylor by Jim Cromarty. There are two older well-known biographies of Hudson Taylor. One is a two-volume set, Hudson Taylor in Early Years: The Growth of a Soul and Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: The Growth of a Work of God by his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, first published in 1911. But the first volume is over 500 pages and the second well over 600, which can be quite daunting and they can sometimes be hard to find (Amazon only had used copies but I found them on sale just now here.) These are excellent and easily readable though they were written over a hundred years ago. The other well-known biography of Taylor is Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, also written by his daughter and son-in-law, but much more compact at 272 pages and still printed regularly today.

I had high hopes that this new biography by Cromarty would bridge the gap between these two and bring Hudson’s life before a modern audience that might not seek out the older books. And while it is a faithful representation with much research evidently behind it and I can recommend it, I wish it were more dynamically written. It’s a good reference book for people who want to know more about Taylor, but I don’t know if it would draw in those who are unfamiliar with him or those who do not like to read biographies.

Biographers do have it a little rough: they can write in a story form, which is more interesting but tends to be less accurate as the biographer has to invent conversations and situations to bring out the points he needs to; or they can right a factual version which can tend to be more encyclopedic and accurate, but which doesn’t appeal to the average modern reader. This one is in the style of the latter. I think it could have been much more condensed: there are many descriptions of various CIM missionaries’ travels which could have been left out or at least summarized. The book is 481 pages, not including indexes and end notes, and I have to admit I got bogged down in places.

But I do recommend the book. If you persevere, you will find great nuggets about Taylor’s character. He was not unflawed: he was very human and he would never have wanted people to think he was some super-Christian. But he loved and followed the Lord in an exemplary and humble way.

I marked way too many places to share, especially in a review that is long already:

But here are a few places that stood out to me:

His health, as he described it, could “not be called robust” (p. 49), but I hadn’t realized he struggled so much with his health through the years, including regular bouts of dysentery.

Before he went to China, the girl he had planned to marry refused his proposal because she did not want to go to China. He wrote to his mother, “Trusting God does not deprive one of feelings or deaden our natural sensibilities, but it enables us to compare our trials with our mercies and to say, ‘Yet notwithstanding, I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation'” (p. 55).

Once during a storm on the way to China in a ship, he took off a life jacket because he felt he was trusting in it rather than the Lord. Later he realized that was wrong thinking and wrote, “The use of means ought not to lessen our faith in God; and our faith in God ought not to hinder whatever means He has given us for the accomplishment of His own purposes…When in medical or surgical charge of any case, I have never thought of neglecting to ask God’s guidance and blessing in the use of appropriate means…to me it would appear presumptuous  and wrong to neglect the use of those measures which He Himself has put within our reach, as to neglect to take daily food, and suppose that life and health might be maintained by prayer alone” (p. 99). He was later said to be “a man of prayer, but it was prayer associated with action…’He prayed about things as if everything depended upon the praying…but he worked also, as if everything depended upon the working'” (p. 329).

To live in inland China at that time meant giving up what would be considered as Western luxuries, and Hudson tried hard to give a real picture of the mission field before new missionaries came over. “The only persons wanted here are those who will rejoice to work — really to labour — not to dream their lives away; to deny themselves; to suffer in order to save.” (p. 294). He wrote to applicants, “If you want hard work, and little appreciation of it; value God’s approbation more than you fear man’s disapprobation; are prepared, if need be, to seal your testimony with your blood and perhaps oftentimes to take joyfully the spoiling of your goods…you may count on a harvest of souls here, and a crown of glory that does not fade away, and the Master’s ‘Well done’…it is no question of ‘making the best of both worlds’ — the men who will be happy with us are those who have this world under their feet” (p. 303).

At one time he said. “My soul yearns, oh how intently for the evangelization of these 180 millions of the nine unoccupied provinces. Oh that I had a hundred lives to give or spend for their good…Better to have pecuniary and other outward trials and perplexities, and blessing in the work itself, souls being saved, and the name of the Lord Jesus being magnified, than any measure of external prosperity without it” (p. 297).

He was known to be a humble and unassuming man. Many meeting him for the first time were surprised that he didn’t “stand out,” but looked at first like a regular Chinaman. Spurgeon wrote of him, “Mr. Taylor…is not in outward appearance an individual who would be selected among others as the leader of a gigantic enterprise; in fact, he is lame in gait, and little in stature; but…his spirit is quiet and meek, yet strong and intense; there is not an atom of self-assertion about him, but a firm confidence in God” (p. 329). Many times he quietly and unassumingly helped and ministered to others, especially new arrivals. Once when a group he was with had to spend a night on a boat with a leper, and someone complained about the stench of his bedding, Hudson spent the night in his cabin uncomplainingly and bought him new bedding the next day. Another time when an exhausted group of travelers fell into bed without eating, Hudson prepared omelets for them all. Once when he knew of a paper that was critical of him, almost derogatory, he said, “That is a very just criticism, for it is all true. I have often thought that God made me little in order that He might show what a great God He is” (p. 400).

In one meeting, Hudson said, “What we give up for Christ we gain, and what we keep back is our real loss…Let us make earth a little less homelike, and souls more precious. Jesus is coming again, and so soon! Will He really find us obeying His last command?” (p. 383).

I had thought that the title of this book came from the hymn, “It is Not Death to Die,” originally written in 1832 and recently updated. But in writing of Hudson’s death, Cromarty cites the Banner of Truth 1977 publication of Pilgrim’s Progress, at the section where Mr. Valiant-For-Truth dies, and the line “It Is Not Death to Die” is in the passage he quotes but I have not found it in the online versions of Pilgrim’s Progress. Nevertheless, the sentiment is true. Dying to self and living for Christ, which Hudson Taylor exemplified, is true life, just as dying to this body makes way for heaven for those who have trusted Christ as Savior.

(For a more positive review that brings out some different things about Cromarty’s book and Taylor’s life, see my friend Debbie’s review here.)

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: It Is Not Death to Die: A New Biography of Hudson Taylor

  1. I love it when a book is marked up like that! It means that you got a lot out of it! Thanks for sharing this great book!

  2. I just finished a book about China (by a Christian journalist who used to work for NPR – how is that for unlikely?) and it whetted my appetite for all things Hudson Taylor. I was delighted to read your review. I think I’ll start with the earlier biographies, but this one is on my TBR list. Thank you!

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