Missionaries to China: The Letters of Timothy and Mary Richard

Collections - Posted 15-04-2019

This year is the centenary of the death of the Baptist missionary Dr Timothy Richard. Born in Ffaldybrenin, Carmarthenshire, Richard has been described as ‘one of the greatest missionaries whom any branch of the Church has ever sent to China’. He was appointed Secretary of what became the Christian Literature Society for China, he was Chancellor of what was later Shanxi University, he was conferred the rank of Mandarin of the Highest Grade by the Chinese Government and was awarded the Order of the Double Dragon. Such was his influence that it has been claimed that ‘he enjoyed greater power than any Welshman in history, apart from David Lloyd George’ and that the name of  ‘Li Timotai’ was known and respected throughout China.

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The National Library of Wales marks the centenary by presenting a collection of 32 letters that Timothy and his wife, Mary, wrote to his mother, Eleanor, in Ffaldybrenin, near Llandeilo. The letter have been specially digitised and are now available to read online for the first time.

Timothy Richard was the youngest of nine children born to Eleanor and Timothy Richard of Tanyresgair, Ffaldybrenin. He was baptized in 1859, when he was about 14 years old, and became a member of Caeo Baptist Church. He entered Haverfordwest Baptist College in 1865 and was sent as a missionary to China by the Baptist Missionary Society in 1869.

It is the extent of Richard’s later influence that gives particular significance to these documents, but they also serve as a record of his personal experiences as a missionary, and of challenges that would have been faced by the many other missionaries and their families who travelled to distant parts of the world during the 19th century.

Written between February 1878 and May 1884, the first nine letters belong to the early period of his mission to China. In the eight years between his arrival at Shanghai and the earliest of the letters, Shandong and Shanxi, the provinces where he was based, had suffered widespread famine which had claimed millions of lives. Richard’s response was to organise relief for the victims, and he succeeded in raising thousands of pounds towards the cause.

Timothy writes to his mother in Welsh (the following excerpts are my own translations of the text) and, in a letter dated 20 October 1882, he tries to convey the geographical scale of China and the challenge that he faced as one of the few Christian missionaries there.

Think of Wales.’  he wrote. ‘There are many who have never been beyond the county where they were born. The whole of Wales is hardly a small place. Think of Wales tenfold, now Wales a hundred-fold, now three hundred-fold, one after the other, that’s how it is with the vast land of China. How many missionaries are there in the whole land? There aren’t enough people to place one missionary in an area the size of Wales. Imagine there were only one preacher in the whole of Wales and you can comprehend how few are the labourers in this vast land. Keep praying for us – we are often in danger.  Yet thank God for his great mercies in delivering us since we arrived here.’

The letters demonstrate clearly his conviction and commitment to the mission, the sacrifices made and the dangers that they faced as a family. He spent long periods away from his wife Mary and their daughters, visiting the disparate churches which had been formed and distributing Christian literature. When writing the letter dated 17 May 1884, he had received news of the birth of his fourth daughter and notes that this was the third time that he had to leave home when expecting a new arrival. Three months later, he mentions that Mary was not recovered from the birth, that the baby was also unwell, and that he expected to return home in three weeks.

The collection of letters includes two that were written by Mary Richard to her mother-in-law (written in English). Mary (née Martin) had travelled to China with the United Presbyterian Mission, and it there that she and Timothy met. They married in 1878. In her letters, Mary also shares her conviction, her support for Timothy, but also her longing for family and friends:

… it is now 7 years since I said goodbye to all the dear home friends. I often wish I could see you to tell you how happy your son Timothy has made me. God is very good to us. We and our children enjoy very good health. Out little girls are a great joy to us. Ella & Mary still pray in Chinese not knowing enough English. They always remember grandma in Wales.’

In the spring of 1885, Timothy Richard and his family made the journey back to Wales. 23 of the letters were written between April 1885 and May 1886. They were sent from various towns and cities  in England, Scotland and Wales as Timothy travelled widely to give talks to churches and at colleges about the missionary work in China. They family was to return to China to continue the work in the autumn of 1886.

View the letters online using the Library’s Collections Viewer 

Dr Dafydd Tudur

Head of the Digital Access Section


This post is also available in: Welsh

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