David Abeel: Pioneer Missionary to China


David Abeel. From the Archives of the Reformed Church in America

Rev. David Abeel was one of the pioneer missionaries to China. He was born June 12, 1804, at New Brunswick, New Jersey, of parents who immigrated to America from Amsterdam. When fifteen years of age, he made application to West Point Military Academy, but owing to the great number of applicants, he was induced to withdraw his request. Providence had, unknown to himself, determined that he should be a soldier in a higher service than that of the United States. He then turned his attention to medicine, and while engaged in its study, came under deep religious conviction. Many weary days and sleepless nights were his, as he struggled on to the light. Finally, under the wise counsels of Rev. Dr. Livingston, he found Christ, and then the great question of his life became: “How can I do the most for the Master?”

In 1823 he entered the theological seminary at New Brunswick, remaining there three years. During that time he was busy in mission work. While in seminary he wrote down the following resolution:

Conscious of the importance of making an unreserved surrender of myself to the service of Him under whose banner I have enlisted, I would solemnly determine, by the restraining influence of the Spirit of God, on this, the 15th of September, 1825, to renounce every known sin, though it cost me the pain of plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand, and of living as far as possible a life consistent with my high vocation.

On April 20, 1826, he was licensed to preach, at which time he wrote:

I feel impressed with the view of the solemnity and deep responsibility of my office. My life, my health, my time, my talents, all that I have, I sincerely desire to consecrate to his service. And now would I come to the determination in my Henry Martyn’s first endevour at native preachingFather’s strength to live a life of faith and holiness—to keep myself unspotted from the world—to live in the habitual commission of no sin—to mortify the old man with his affections and lusts. Oh, how shall I preach to others that which I practice not myself? O Thou, great God, I have no strength of my own; I look to Thee for Thy grace.

He was called that year as pastor of the Reformed church at Athens, New York. He describes the place as being in morals very much like its namesake in the old world. But he bravely began his work, at first in a school house, as the congregation had no church of their own. Earnestly he prayed for the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and the Lord blessed his two and a half years’ ministry there to the salvation of many souls. His incessant labors, however, broke down a frame never very strong, and he was forced to leave. Meanwhile he had been reading missionary works, as the lives of David Brainerd and Henry Martyn.

These prepared him to make his ultimate choice for missions. Two main difficulties lay in his way. One was his own feeble health, the other was the fact that he was the only son of his parents, and they were slow to give their consent.

Just then, however, Providence opened the way, for the Seaman’s Friend Society wanted someone to go to Canton, in China, to preach to the sailors there, and the American Board wanted him to prepare to preach to the Chinese. Hoping that a sea voyage would build up his health, and that he would get an opportunity to preach the gospel to the heathen, he sailed, October 14, 1829, and reached Canton February 25, 1830.

He at once began to work very faithfully among the seamen, but after laboring thus for the Seaman’s Friend Society for nearly a year, he was transferred to the American Board for whose work he had been preparing by spending much time in learning the Chinese language. Yet it was dangerous to study Chinese. When the Chinese teacher was instructing him, he kept his door locked. When the officers came to see what the foreigners were doing, the teacher put the books in a box and material for making shoes on the top, as he feared he might lose his head if it were found out that he taught the foreigners Chinese. As Abeel could do nothing in China because foreigners were not allowed to teach Christianity, the American Board ordered him to make a tour of the islands of the Archipelago and visit Java, Borneo, Siam and the Dutch missions there that he might labor among the Chinese scattered in those islands.

During these voyages he distributed Christian books, held religious conversation with the sailors and with the Chinese. While at Batavia, he stayed with the earnest missionary, Mr. Medhurst, and engaged with him in mission work, and also in the study of the Chinese language.

His health failing, in 1833 he was compelled to come to America. During the voyage his health greatly improved. He landed in 1833 first in England, where his physicians urged him not to sail to America during the winter. He then went to Paris, where he stirred up interest in missions by holding missionary meetings. When he returned to England July 25, 1834, he described the degradations of the women of the East. He showed that missionaries’ wives who had always done what they could, were unable on account of family duties to do all that was necessary. He presented an appeal to the Christian women to go as missionaries to their sex. This resulted in the formation of a Woman’s Missionary Society. It aimed at the Abeel’s successor Elihu Doty with his wife. From the archivese of the Reformed Church in Americaeducation of the women of China and the East. Other societies were soon formed—as in Scotland in 1837. The Reformed have therefore the honor of suggesting the organization of the first of the Woman’s Missionary Societies, which have done so much for the cause of missions.

He then sailed for America, and on account of his health spent the next winter in the South. But everywhere he spoke on missions. Much of his time was taken up in visiting colleges and theological seminaries. On his return from the South, he visited the churches of the Dutch Reformed denomination, producing a deep impression for missions. He also endeavored to organize the first Woman’s Missionary Society in the United States, at the house of Mrs. Bethune, the mother of Rev. Dr. Bethune. Rev. Dr. Anderson, the secretary of the American Board, was present, but wished them to defer their organization. Mrs. Bethune answered him: “What! Are the American Board afraid that the ladies will get ahead of them?” Owing to Dr. Anderson’s wish, there was a division among those present. Some were in favor of going on; others, out of respect for Dr. Anderson, were anxious to wait. Then Dr. Abeel, with tears rolling down his face, appealed to them to organize, saying: “What is to become of the souls of those who are ignorant of the offers of mercy and of the Bible?” Although no Woman’s Society was organized then, yet his effort brought forth fruit later in the organization of the Union Missionary Society at New York in 1861, under Mrs. Doremus.

But he was again laid aside by sickness. He attempted to sail for China in October, 1836, but was prevented by a sudden attack of sickness. He was then sent to the West Indies to recuperate. While at St. Thomas, the physician discovered that he was suffering from an organic disease of the heart—an enlargement which interfered with the action of the lungs and might prove fatal at any moment. But being resigned either to live or die, he permitted nothing to interfere with his favorite work, and went on in his labors for the Lord. Just then, when his chances of returning to China seemed destroyed by ill health, he met the celebrated Dr. Griffin. After they had conversed together about the spiritual needs of Eastern Asia, Dr. Griffin prophetically said: “My son, your work is not yet done in China—the Lord has yet much for you to accomplish in that place for His glory.” Finally, after spending his time as his health would permit in speaking in churches, colleges and seminaries about missions, he was able to sail, October 17, 1838.

He arrived at Canton on February 2, 1839, anxious to work for the Master. But again Providence hindered him, for the opium war broke out between England and China. He was therefore compelled to leave Canton for Macao, and then ordered to visit the different Dutch Reformed missions in Borneo. This war, in the providence of God, was the means of opening up China to missions. The Chinese wall of separation fell down like the walls of Jericho, and the set time to favor Sinim (China) had come. The prospect of having access to four hundred millions of souls was very exhilarating to him. He returned to China and landed at Amoy in 1842, ready to begin permanent mission work among the Chinese. He settled at the island of Kolongsou, about half a mile from Amoy, where he could live under British protection. And now began his real work among the Chinese. For twelve years he had been, like the Apostle Paul in Adria, driven up and down on the coast of China, without being able to find entrance. Now, however, he began laying the foundations of the successful Reformed mission at Amoy.

He was surprised at the beginning of his work to receive social visits from high Chinese officials. Evidently China was opening up to the Gospel. His audiences also increased. After having lived in these regions for so many years, fettered and David Abeel residence in China. From the Archives of the Reformed Church in Americatongue tied, such liberty and receptivity on the part of the Chinese was delightful. In 1843 he attempted a tour inland, but found it very dangerous, as the inland Chinese were still bitter against foreigners. Still he scattered religious books and held personal conversation with many of the natives. In June, 1844, he was very glad to welcome his fellow missionaries and successors, Doty and Pohlman. Nor did they come too soon, for two months later Dr. Abeel was compelled to leave his post on account of ill health. He sailed for Hong Kong, and also visited the island of Quemoy, near Amoy. Here he greatly desired to settle, because of its delightful climate, but alas, he was not permitted to stay. He tried to preach in Chinese, but on account of his weakness and the irritation of his lungs, he was compelled to stop. His last sermon was on the text: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” a very fitting topic with which such a sick man as he was should close his mission to the heathen. Worn out in body, he was compelled to return to America, April 3, 1845. To avoid the next cold winter, he went to Georgia, and then returned for the summer. Finally, on September 4, 1846, he fell asleep in Jesus at Albany, New York. Twelve days before he died he wrote:

Wonderfully preserved! With the kind and degree of disease which generally has a speedy issue, I live on. All things are mine. God sustains me through wearisome days and tedious, painful nights. When I embarked for home, the latter part of the fifth chapter of Hebrews was blessed to the production of the assurance of hope. I have not lost it. Death has no sting. Oh, may the Conqueror continue with me till the close and then!

His life was an illustration, like Henry Martyn’s, of how weakness of body can yet be used for great labors for God. No Foreign Mission Board today would think of sending out any one as sickly as Dr. Abeel, yet what a wonderful work he did. He was a man of no peculiar gifts of genius, but of great solidity and strength of character. His was rather the genius of spirituality, which elevated and made brilliant his powers. Rev. Dr. Anderson says of him:
Our brother was not a Paul, nor was he a Peter; he more resembled the beloved John. He was fitted to conciliate, to win. He was a good pioneer in a mission. It was a good thing for the Amoy mission that he was the one who commenced it. And to this, among other favoring Providences, we owe much of the peculiarly tolerant spirit among the leading Chinese of that place.