Letter from William Speer

Publication Year: 1854


Letter: William Speer to Rev. J.C. (John Cameron) Lowrie, San Francisco, August 14, 1854 (RG 31, Box 45, folder 1, letter #32) 

  San Francisco, August 14, 1854 

 Rev. J.C. Lowrie: 

 Dear bro. 

Our new Mission House has now been open for somewhat more than two months. Our progress thus far has been encouraging. The amount of labor to be done is far beyond my own strength, & all the direct assistance I can bring to bear. What has been accomplished has opened the way for a much larger amount of good. 

First: Preaching in the Chinese language has been maintained twice each Sabbath, except once when confined to the room with sickness. The audiences have not been over forty. Obstructions in the street have made the house difficult of access from the Chinese quarters. Nearly all the attendants have been individuals who have come specially to be present at our worship. When the street is graded & planked passers by can be gathered in. These companies have appeared to comprehend, and have confessed the reasonableness of, the truth presented to them. One individual has seemed to be deeply moved with its power. He is in habits of daily prayer & private study of the Scriptures. Several are quite regular attendants. And I have been gratified with the intelligent interest increasingly manifested by several them. It will be my great object to infix religious impressions by simple exposition & enforcement of passages of Scripture. My only confidence is in the “Sword of the Spirit.” No weapon of human temper & point can penetrate the Chinese heart. They are fond of flowers of speech & a lofty style; & they have sufficient intelligence to take an interest in explanations of the arts & sciences. But the experiment of changing the Chinese religion by these means has failed in the hands of the Jesuits. And it is clear that preaching to the Chinese must be “not with enticing words of man’s 

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 wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit & of power” – supernatural power, acting through the plain setting forth of the gospel. Weak, & fearful, & trembling much, as one must, with a dispensation of the gospel committed to his hands, how comforting the assurance that through the cross of Christ is “the wisdom of God & the power of God” exercised for the salvation of dying men. 

  small note included with letter] 

 The first communion service in Chinese w[as] held in the chapel on Sat. July 9. Previously the members of the church had united with the Rev. Mr. Williams church on such occasions. A few American friends were present, & joined us in spirit, though unable to comprehend the words uttered. “Mortals have many tongues; the immortals one.” 

 [continuation of page 2] 

 The monthly concert in English has been twice observed and lectures given on missionary subjects. The first in the Mission Chapel was on the past efforts to convert the Japanese. It was an interesting coincidence that at the same time, within sight from the chapel windows, the ship Morrison lay at anchor, preparing for a voyage to China to obtain emigrants. This vessel was commenced by the infidel Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, before his death; but like his college it passed when completed into Christian hands. It was finished by the devoted friend of missions, D.W.C. Olyphant, of New York, & named after the Rev. Dr. Morrison, the first missionary to China. It was sent on a missionary visit to Japan in 1837, having on board Gutzlaff, Parker, & Williams, with Mr. Olyphants partner Chas. W. King, & his wife. Though little was accomplished at the ports of Yeddo & Kagosima, where they anchored; yet the visit will stand on record as the earliest Protestant attempt to give the gospel to the Japanese. The ship Morrison was the first vessel on which the Bethel flag was raised in Chinese waters; on which occasion, Sat. Dec. 2, 1832, the Rev. Dr. Morrison preached a sermon from Rev. 1:3. The Rev. Ed. Stevens had just then arrived & commenced his labors as the first seamen’s chaplain at the anchorage Whampoa. This vessel has for some years been employed in the whaling service. Now, when 

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 nearly worn out, she again goes forth on this providential mission of bringing the heathen to the Christian land, here to receive the light of the gospel. 

In the evening school seventeen names have been enrolled as regular attendants. We have new faces, as visitors for a few times, at almost every session. The philosophical experiments, &c, on Saturday evening, usually bring out a crowd. The prayer meeting on Wednesday evening is engaged in with apparent profit, by the scholars. 

One of the most interesting employments of the month has been the establishment of a dispensary for the sick. This has been greatly needed. The Chinese doctors possess little scientific knowledge, though there are quite a number in the city; & their prices are high. Our medicines & medical services are still more expensive. On nine prescribing days, Wednesdays & Saturdays at noon, the names of forty eight patients have been enrolled; & advice has been given to as many more. Several of those cured have come back to present their thanks in form, & express their gratitude for the benefits obtained. A great many patients have been landed from several ships, within a few weeks, ill or dying with scurvy. This is the result of the packing of old & slow vessels with from one half to twice the number they are allowed by law to carry. The “Libertad” started from Hong Kong with over 500 passengers, of whom above one fourth, probably not far from one third, died before or since her arrival. The “Exchange” has lost, out of 513, about one hundred. This is partly the fault of Englishmen & Americans connected with the shipping: though 

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 it happens that the two ships are both owned by Chinese. The officers & seamen must always be white persons. The medical attendance at the Dispensary has been chiefly performed gratis without pecuniary recompense by two Christian physicians, connected with the Presbyterian church. Drs. Ayres & Coon; whose names I mention with gratitude. The medicines have been generously furnished here at cost prices by those engaged in the business. This department of labor opens up a field of much promise as an auxiliary to the missionary work. 

On last Monday, Aug. 14, according to the act of the General Assembly, I was received into the presbytery of California, by transfer from that of Canton. On the same day, Lai Sam was allowed to take his seat as an elder representing the Chinese church, which was thereby placed united to this presbytery. On the same day, Calvary Church, which has just been organized by the Rev. Dr. Scott, connected itself with the presbytery, & obtained leave to prosecute a call for that brother before the presbytery of Louisiana, in accordance with his own consent, previously given. 

In the work of tract distribution, the visitation of the sick, & kindred duties, Lai Sam continues to be a useful as’st. 

Humbly trusting that the labors attempted here are remembered in the prayers of brethren & churches in other portions of our land. I remain 

Affectionately & sincerely yours, 

William Speer 

Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions secretaries' files, 1829-1895.
PHS Call number: ARCHIVES RG 31, Box 45, folder 1, letter # 32. Letter from William Speer to Rev. J.C. (John Cameron) Lowrie, San Francisco, August 14, 1854 [manuscript letter and transcript]

Source note

Reverend William Speer (1822-1904) was a Presbyterian minister who had spent four years as a missionary in Canton, China before being appointed the first missionary to the Chinese in California in 1852. Speer used his medical training to help treat Chinese immigrants and also established a small medical practice with doctors doing pro bono work. Speer advocated for Chinese immigrants, defending them in court cases and fighting anti-Chinese legislation. This letter was written a little over a year after Speer founded the Chinese Presbyterian Mission in San Francisco. Speer wrote it to Reverend John Cameron Lowrie (1808-1900), the Corresponding Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Before he worked for the Board, Lowrie had been the first American Presbyterian missionary to India in the 1830s. 

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Reading questions

1.    Who wrote this letter, and what was their purpose for writing it?

2.    Speer writes that the Chinese like “flowery” and “lofty” language, but this is not enough to convince them to convert to Christianity. What does lead to success in converting the Chinese, according to Speer (pages 1 and 2)?

3.    Why does Speer mention the ship Morrison in his letter? What about this ship is interesting or important (page 2)?

4.    Why did Speer think it was necessary to open a dispensary to serve the Chinese immigrants in San Francisco (page 3)?

5.    What caused so many cases of scurvy among the newly arrived Chinese immigrants in California, according to Speer (page 3)? Who does he say is ultimately at fault?

6.    What duties did Lai Sam perform in the Presbyterian mission, according to Speer? Why do you think he was elected as an “elder representing the Chinese church (page 4)? An elder, in this context, is an elected member of a group of people responsible for governing a local church. 

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Source type
History Topics
Chinese American History
Mission History
Presbyterian History
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)