Elijah Coleman Bridgman Goes to China

Elijah Coleman Bridgman was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, USA April 22, 1801.  He was to become the first missionary sent to China by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). It was this Board that had also sent Adoniram Judson to India – America’s first foreign missionary.

Mainly Congregationalist in its denominational make-up, the ABCFM later embraced other denominations – until about 60 years later when “denominations came to feel they could operate more effectively with separate organisations … and left the ABCFM with Congregationalists as its chief supporters” (Encyclopaedia of Modern Christian Missions, page 655).

Elijah Bridgman trained at Andover Theological College and then sailed for China on 14 October, 1829.  Here he met up with London Missionary Society worker, Robert Morrison, China’s pioneer missionary.

Bridgman devoted a year to conquering the Cantonese language – later writing a 730-page manual on it! (Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 155). In 1832 Bridgman started a mission press and began publication of ‘The Chinese Repository‘, which he edited until 1847. This monthly magazine was designed to awaken the Christian world’s interest in the spiritual needs of that vast land. This was the world’s first major journal on China, making Bridgman America’s first China expert.

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In 1836 he commenced translating the Scriptures into Cantonese, but this task was suspended when the tragic “Opium War” broke out (1839-1842).  But by 1845 the Chinese Emperor pronounced an edict permitting missionary work. The same year Elijah Bridgman married Miss Eliza Jane Gillett. Together they continued to serve the Lord, “on one occasion nearly sacrificing their lives to an infuriated mob” (Great Missionaries, page 102).

They worked together at Guangzhou and adopted two little Chinese girls. Eliza later, in 1850, founded and managed for 15 years the first girls’ school in Shanghai.

Failing health led to Dr Bridgman’s death in Shanghai on 2 November, 1861, and his wife temporarily returned to America. Then, at the age of 59, and alone, she returned to the mission at Peking, where she and her late husband had laboured. Here she secured substantial property and started Bridgman Academy, noted for educating a large number of Chinese women leaders.

Just a decade later she, too, passed into the presence of her Lord, on 10 November, 1871.

To put Bridgman’s work in perspective, Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission which directed English missionaries to China, was formed in 1865, four years after Bridgman’s death.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

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