Liang Fa – The First Ordained Chinese Pastor

Liang Fa – The First Chinese Ordained Pastor

            In 1804, fifteen-year-old Liang Fa moved to the big city of Guangzhou (then known as “Canton”) to find work, first as a brush-maker, then as an apprentice printer. His parents had provided a good classical Chinese education as long as their means had allowed, but poverty had forced them to stop.  

            In Guangzhou, Liang was introduced to the Scottish Robert Morrison, who arrived in 1807 as the first Protestant missionary to China, and to his Chinese helper and disciple, Cai Luxing. Morrison and Cai were working together on a Chinese translation of the New Testament. It was illegal work. Teaching Chinese to foreigners and translating and publishing their books was punishable with death.

            In spite of these restrictions and of an instinctive, initial hostility to the gospel (including the daily Bible readings the missionaries insisted in holding), Liang continued to work on their printing projects. Six years later, when William Milne arrived from Britain to assist Morrison, Liang helped him to learn Chinese and to print Chinese language tracts. He also accompanied him on a mission trip to Malacca, a state in Malaysia, where Milne set up a printing press and a school, while preaching the gospel to the locals (both Malay and Chinese).

Liang’s Conversion

            By 1815, Liang had learned enough of the gospel to understand that it possessed what he had always wanted and what no other religion could offer: the power to clear him of guilt and deliver him from the bondage of sin. In a later tract describing his conversion, Liang described his previous, frustrating struggle against lust, lies, and evil thoughts and words. His visits to the local temple, his prayers to the gods, and his efforts to adhere to the teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism could not overcome the evil he perceived in his heart.

            When Liang asked to be baptized, Milne examined him and found that he had a thorough understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Liang explained his experience with these words: “I trusted that I had obtained the remission of sins and that Heavenly God on High had purified my great sins. Then I took a name for myself, called, ‘Student of the Good,’ [Xueshanzhe] and from then on, my heart turned from evil and I studied the good.”[1]

            Morrison and Milne both saw a change in Liang. Besides holding on to his assurance of salvation, he became increasingly bolder in sharing the gospel. He was particularly fierce in his condemnation of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and all forms of idolatry, which he found insufficient in providing not only true peace of mind, but also a true remedy to the corruption in the society around him. They promoted selfishness rather than compassion, he thought.

Witness and Persecution

            His knowledge of the Chinese classics proved itself useful in explaining the gospel to his country-men. Once, a fellow passenger on a boat, skeptical of Liang’s reliance on the Bible, quoted the Confucian philosopher Mencius as saying, “It would be better to be without books at all than to believe every book.” Undaunted, Liang replied with another quotation by Mencius, “A good man may be deceived by a distorted representation of facts, but cannot be deluded in believing things palpably absurd.”[2]

            In 1819, Liang returned to his home village to get married and to preach the Gospel to his people. He brought with him 200 copies of a 37-page tract to distribute to his friends and neighbors. When the police discovered these copies, they burned them together with the printing blocks Liang had used to publish them. They also arrested and imprisoned Liang. He was released after Morrison intervened, but he had to pay a steep fine and be beaten thirty times in his legs with a heavy bamboo cane “until they flowed with blood.”[3]

            Liang remained forty days with his family and then returned to Malacca for a year. When he came back to his village, he was able to bring his wife to Christ and have her baptized. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage, in spite of repeated separations.

            Milne died in 1822, and Liang went back to Guangzhou where he studied under Morrison and was ordained in 1827 – the first Chinese to receive this ordination. He continued his ministry even after Morrison’s death in 1834, often engaging other printers and training them just as Morrison had done with him.

            Due to persecution, he had to spend much time outside of China, mostly in Malacca and in Macao. Even his family was arrested once, and Liang was only able to rescue thanks to some money provided by John Morrison, Robert’s son.

Liang’s Ministry

            In 1845, China lifted the ban on preaching the gospel. Liang worked with other foreign missionaries, particularly two medical doctors: Peter Parker, who opened a hospital in Guangzhou, and Benjamin Hobson, Robert Morrison’s son-in-law, who established a small medical center in Macao. Liang served as chaplain in both hospitals. He once remarked that illness can often soften the hardest hearts.

            He also wrote over twenty commentaries and tracts. During the prefectural and provincial imperial exams, when thousands of scholars arrived in Guangzhou, he was ready to distribute his tracts to ensure these scholars could understand Christianity’s message of God’s omnipotence, the bondage of sin, and the freeing nature of the gospel.

            It was at one such session that Hong Xiuquan, who became the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, first encountered Liang's 500-page work, often translated as Good Words to Admonish the Age. The work, sometimes as a four-volume set, included a copy of the New Testament in Chinese vernacular (based upon Morrison's classical Chinese translation), ten homilies, and some tracts. It is considered the most thorough confession of faith written by a Chinese in the 19th century. Although Hong Xiuquan misused the text, treating it as a political work, Good Words was the catalyst for many conversions.

            Typically, Liang avoided political discussions. The only time he intervened was just before the Opium War, when he asked John Morrison to try to persuade the British government to avoid the conflict. Even in this, his concern was the gospel. If the British went to war against China, he thought, they would be seen as enemies, and the Chinese people would stop listening to foreign missionaries.

            Liang died on April 12, 1855. Two days before, he had preached on Matthew 10:28: “Be not afraid of them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” One of his disciples, Mr. Chau, continued his work as pastor and chaplain.

            At times, Liang was discouraged by what he considered a slow progress of the gospel in his country. After his death, however, the number of Christians in China, largely influenced by both his writings and his sample, continued to multiply.

[1] Liang Fa, quoted in G. Wright Doyle, Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer Protestant Missionaries and Chinese Church Leaders, Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015, 54.

[2] George Hunter McNeur, Liang A-Fa: China's First Preacher, 1789-1855, ed. by Jonathan A. Seir, Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013, 43

[3] Ibid., xxii


Simonetta Carr