The Legacy of Karl Friedrich August G[ddot{u}]tzlaff

By Lutz, Jessie G. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Karl Friedrich August G[ddot{u}]tzlaff


Lutz, Jessie G., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Few missionaries are more controversial than Karl G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, German missionary to China during the second 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 G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, 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.

G[ddot{u}]tzlaff's legacies include the strengthening of Chinese perceptions that missionaries were the forerunners of imperialism; even Westerners often cited G[ddot{u}]tzlaff as a prime example of the unfortunate intertwining of Western religious, political, and economic expansion. Simultaneously, G[ddot{u}]tzlaff 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 G[ddot{u}]tzlaff 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, G[ddot{u}]tzlaff 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 hundre ds of evangelicals today. These legacies, however, do not encompass the whole of G[ddot{u}]tzlaff's multifaceted career.

Early Years

Karl Friedrich August G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, 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, G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, 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 German y. Contradictory though romanticism, Pietism, and rationalism might be, G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, responded to each. Above all, G[ddot{u}]tzlaff was ambitious and adventurous, even considering the possibility of becoming a missionary in some foreign land.

Once when Emperor Frederick William III visited Stettin, G[ddot{u}]zlaff and a friend boldly threw a welcoming poem into the emperor's carriage. Frederick William was pleased and offered to educate the two, designating G[ddot{u}]tzlaff, for the Berlin Mission Institute. …

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