The Legacy of Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff

Article excerpt

Few missionaries are more controversial than Karl Gutzlaff, German missionary to China during the secand quarter of the nineteenth century. Extravagantly praised for his dedication to bringing the Gospel to all China, he was censured with equal immoderation when his attempt to convert the whole nation through Chinese evangelists proved a fiasco. For a hundred years after his death in 1851, negative images of Gutzlaff prevailed. Recently, Herman Schlyter, A. J. Broomhall, and I have attempted more balanced assessments.

Understanding this conflicted, complex individual is not easy, however. At one moment he gloried in his exploits, braving an ice storm or outbluffing a mandarin in order to make known the Christian message; in the next, he could refer to himself as the insignificant instrument of God. He chafed under the strictures of his Dutch missionary society and quickly became an independent missionary, beholden to none but God. He acted as interpreter for opium smugglers so that he could make illegal forays to China coastal villages to distribute Bibles and religious tracts. Like many missionaries of his era, he acted on the premise that a higher law justified defying human restrictions on Christian evangelism.

Gutzlaff s legacies include the strengthening of Chinese perceptions that missionaries were the forerunners of imperialism; even Westerners often cited Gutzlaff as a prime example of the unfortunate intertwining of Western religious, political, and economic expansion. Simultaneously, Gutzlaff probably did more to popularize China missions and to awaken Western Christian congregations to Christ's Great Commission than any other Protestant missionary of the early nineteenth century. Among those Gutzlaff inspired to volunteer for work in East Asia were Issachar Roberts, notable for his connections with the Taiping rebels; J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission; and John T. Gulick, the first of many Gulicks to work in China and Japan. As an independent missionary, Gutzlaff was a pioneer among missionaries such as David Livingstone, who volunteered for China but was sent to Africa, where he went his own way; Albert Schweitzer, also of African fame; and hundreds of evangelicals today. These legacies, however, do not encompass the whole of Gutzlaff's multifaceted career.

Early Years

Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff was born July 8, 1803, the only son of a tailor in Pyritz, Pomerania. His mother died when he was four, and his father soon married a widow with eight children. Relations with his stepmother, according to some sources, were distant and contributed to his becoming a loner at an early age. After attending a municipal school offering a classical curriculum, Gutzlaff apprenticed to a saddler. While at school, he encountered the Enlightenment heritage and began to question the tenets of his religion; later, he lived with a Moravian family and came under the influence of a pietist, evangelical interpretation of Protestantism. In this nonsectarian Christocentric version, the essential doctrine was God's sacrifice of his Son, which offered hope to all willing to become servants of the Savior. Paramount was the experience of rebirth in Christ. Romanticism, with its celebration of individualism, exoticism, and excess, was also pervasive in early nineteenth-century Germany. Contradictory though romanticism, Pietism, and rationalism might be, Gutzlaff responded to each. Above all, Gutzlaff was ambitious and adventurous, even considering the possibility of becoming a missionary in some foreign land.

Once when Emperor Frederick William III visited Stettin, Gutzlaff and a friend boldly threw a welcoming poem into the emperor's carriage. Frederick William was pleased and offered to educate the two, designating Gutzlaff for the Berlin Mission Institute. Initially Gutzlaff seemed a misfit in this small pietist institute founded by Johannes Janicke. He did not demonstrate proper humility but rather expressed a desire to become an eloquent preacher; he did not lead a life of prayer; and he showed too much interest in secular learning, enrolling for courses at the University of Berlin. …