The Legacy of James Legge

By Pfister, Lauren F. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of James Legge


Pfister, Lauren F., International Bulletin of Mission Research


Born the fourth son of a merchant in the small town of Huntly in northeastern Scotland, James Legge (181597) grew up in a Congregational home that maintained a strict but warm evangelical environment.(1) The church the family attended was nicknamed the Missionar Kirk because of its evangelistic emphasis. Having become involved before the turn of the nineteenth century in establishing Sabbath schools and supporting local itinerant preaching, this church had also already sent one of the first missionaries to China from its own congregation, William Milne (1785-1822), the collaborator of Robert Morrison. To people in this and other Dissenter forms of evangelical life at the time, missionaries were religious heroes and were held in as high honor as any other religious, military, or political hero.

Both Legge and his eldest brother, George (1802-61), received their university education at King's College, Aberdeen, and later attended Highbury College, the Congregational seminary in the London area. James excelled in classical languages, proving his educational achievements by being the first ever to obtain the highest academic scholarships among all competitors both before and at the end of his university career.

At the time of his graduation in 1835, when his brother George was already becoming established as a Congregational minister in England, James Legge was still unsettled about his personal religious commitments. Determined to resolve "the great problem of religion" in a manner that demonstrated his own mature reflections and personal choice, Legge ended up spending eighteen months teaching in a Congregational secondary school, or "college," in the small town of Blackburn, England. In spite of his self-proclaimed intention to be independent, he was in fact continually influenced by his eldest brother's circle of ministerial and lay Christian friends, to the point that his first teaching job was arranged through one of these contacts. (Later his brother's theological writings continued to form a groundwork for Legge's own spiritual efforts and intellectual writings.)(2) Much to his benefit, the principal of the school, a Mr. Hoole, was a positive Christian example and open supporter of his new faculty member's quest for religious solutions. Through Legge's own vigorous studies, his reading in religious literature, as well as the dialogues and disciplines promoted by Mr. Hoole, by the beginning of 1836 the young Scotsman had professed his desire to be a Christian, which he publicly proclaimed by joining the local Congregational church. Always vigorous in pursuing what he believed to be his duty, Legge became an active lay preacher and church supporter, caught up in the rising wave of Dissenting evangelicalism in England and Scotland that produced a set of major religious revivals commencing in 1840.

By the time he applied to enter Highbury College in the spring of 1837, Legge was nearly determined to become a foreign missionary. Within a year he applied to the London Missionary Society and was accepted as a candidate. Some questions about his health made India, one of his first interests, an unacceptable option, and so after some further examinations and discussions, the way was opened for him to work in China. Consequently, for the last year in seminary he studied Chinese at the University College in London with a former missionary to the Chinese in Malacca, Samuel Kidd (1799-1843). In the meantime he won the approval of his Congregational pastor in London and lifelong theological mentor, John Morison, to marry Morison's only daughter, Mary Isabella. Graduating from seminary in the spring of 1839, Legge was first married and then one month later in May was ordained for work in China. The couple left in July 1839 for their post in Malacca with plans to help at the Anglo-Chinese College, where Kidd had previously taught.

The Political Context

Legge was a representative of the second generation of missionaries to the Chinese, Robert Morrison having arrived thirty-two years earlier and William Milne twenty-six years earlier. …

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