Seven young aristocrats—two of them famous athletes, and another two, military officers—forsaking the comforts of England to work with a relatively unknown missionary society in the back country of China—this was a story the press could not pass up, and these young men immediately became religious celebrities.

Known as the Cambridge Seven, they were one of the grand gestures of nineteenth-century missions. Their story, published as The Evangelization of the World, was distributed free to every YMCA and YWCA throughout the British Empire and United States.

Though their time together was brief, they helped catapult the CIM from obscurity to "almost embarrassing prominence," and inspired hundreds of recruits for the CIM and other mission societies. In 1885, when the Seven arrived in China, the CIM had 163 missionaries; they doubled by 1890 and reached 800 by 1900, one-third of the entire Protestant missionary force.

Their story—especially their brief encounter with the infamous Pastor Hsi of Shansi (Shanxi)—has another dimension: it gives a glimpse into the unbounded enthusiasm of early Protestant missions and late-1800s Chinese Christianity.

The Seven

Though they are remembered together, each of the Seven made commitments of faith and to the CIM separately, and each had unique ministries in China.

Stanley Peregrine Smith was the orator, scintillating, introspective, bookish, a real "percussion cap!" (as D. E. Hoste called him, for "the gun was already loaded" and Smith was the charge that set off the explosion). Son of a London surgeon, he was captain of the Cambridge rowing team and thus one of the most famous men in England. He was born again in one of D. L. Moody's revivals and helped found the Cambridge Christian Union, forerunner of many student Christian organizations. Smith had a soapbox in Hyde Park where he preached "not the milk and water of religion but the cream of the gospel."

The second was Charlie Studd—"a Roman candle." He was even more famous as captain of the Cambridge cricket team. Inarticulate but charismatic, Studd could impress hostile audiences. Many students came to heckle, expecting one, as a professor put it, "wanting in manliness, unfit for the river or the cricket field, and only good for psalm-singing and pulling a long face. But the big, muscular hands and long arms of the ex-captain of the Cambridge Eight cricket team, stretched out in entreaty, while he eloquently told the old story of Redeeming Love, capsized their theory."

Shortly after he arrived in China, Studd came into an inheritance of £25,000 (several million dollars today), which he invested in "the Bank of Heaven." He gave £5,000 to D. L. Moody to build Moody Bible Institute, and £5,000 to General William Booth to send 50 Salvation Army missionaries to India.

William Wharton Cassels, "Will the Silent," was an ordained Anglican clergyman, curate of a poor parish in south London. He was, according to his biographer, inordinately reserved with "something more than introspection" and was "a fervent lover of order. … To him obedience to marching orders was fundamental. And so were unity, order, and authority."

Dixon E. Hoste also loved order. His father, Major-General Hoste, was an "uncompromising Christian" who ran his family with "military precision." Young Dick joined the Royal Artillery, where he was converted during the Moody revival and gave himself to Christ "as completely as he had given himself to soldiering," according to Hoste's biographer.

The Polhill-Turners came next. Cecil was a lieutenant in the Royal Dragoons in Ireland, and brother Arthur was studying to become a priest.

The final member was Montague Beauchamp, a "rich young man" from an old evangelical family who became a generous benefactor of the CIM.

No gift of Pentecost

After a tour of the British Isles, the "sporting hearties" (as the newspapers dubbed them) sailed with much fanfare. Each spoke at a highly publicized evangelistic rally the day before their departure, in February 1885. They arrived in Shanghai six weeks later. Shanghai was a brawling, racially divided city, a cancer on the coast of China. The Seven stayed long enough to be outfitted in Chinese clothes before they were sent "inland" to Shansi province, far off in the northwest.

In Shanghai the Seven divided. Hudson Taylor took the Polhill-Turners, Beauchamp, and Studd to go on a round-about tour up the Yangtze (Yangzi) River, and then overland into Shansi from the south. They were to speak before English-speaking consuls, merchants, and customs officials. On the river, it was as if they were "on a continuous picnic." They refused to study and prayed to receive the Chinese language supernaturally. They had been so divinely blessed in England that they expected to receive the gift of language miraculously as a mark of God's approval. Taylor warned them that this was one of the "devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel," and when Chinese didn't divinely descend upon them, they "knuckled down to study."

The other three, Smith, Cassels and Hoste, went up the coast and held "spiritual life" meetings in Chefoo (now Yantai) and Peking (Beijing). Smith rhapsodized about the road ahead: "Oh, when He steps on the scene, how the hills melt before Him!"

Escorted by a "genial" agent of the American Bible Society, they left Peking to walk to Shansi, 30 days inland. Eventually they reached Pingyang [now Linfen], where they joined the other four. By July Cassels was able to write, "We are a very happy party, enjoying our work, enjoying our walks on the city walls."

In Pingyang the Seven's story entered another story, remarkable in its own right.

Remarkable "native" work

Pingyang was the most ancient city in China, the cradle of Chinese civilization, where humans learned agriculture at the dawn of time. It was a cosmopolitan city, sitting on the Big Road from Peking to Sian (Xi'an). For years rumors had been circulating of a remarkable "work of God" there entirely under "native leadership."

A few years earlier, veteran English Methodist David Hill had held a contest with cash prizes for "first-class literary essays upon Christian themes," such as "The Source of True Doctrine" and "Regulation of the Heart." The author of the winning essay was reluctant to claim his prize. No wonder. He was a broken-down scholar, a "native doctor," a "fixer" at the magistrate's yamen (court), an opium sot given to hallucinations, far from the "first-class" scholar Hill had hoped for.

Hsi Liao-chih (Xi Liaochi) had started smoking opium for some illness. Opium is the best pain-killer known to humankind, but like many of his day, Hsi was quickly addicted. He lay on his bed for a year and a half hallucinating that he had descended into hell.

After the contest, Hsi started working with Hill translating tracts. As a result, he was converted and, through prayer and "the usual medicines," was cured of his drug addiction. He had more visions, of ascending into heaven, where the Holy Spirit sent him back to earth to save suffering humanity. On his baptism, Hsi took a new name: Hsi Sheng-mo, "the Overcomer of Demons."

When Hill left the Shansi district, Hsi took charge of the few Christians. He returned to his village, where, according to his biographer, he learned "all he could from occasional intercourse with the missionaries, and [was] taught of God, often in quaint surprising ways."

These included Hsi's reliance on visions and dreams, and his gifts of healing and exorcism. For the missionaries, exorcism, the casting out of devils, was something to be spoken of in whispers. To Chinese Christians, though, the story of Jesus' curing "the demoniac among the tombs" (Mark 5:1-20) seemed very contemporary.

Hsi did not have to look far for his first evil spirit. His wife was a sullen and suspicious peasant woman, and when he was cured of opium, she thought he had been "bewitched" by the foreign medicine. Whenever he prayed, she would fall into "paroxysms of ungovernable rage." Hsi called for the entire household to fast, laid his hands on her head, and commanded the spirit to depart "in the name of Jesus of Nazareth." She was permanently cured and joined her husband's ministry as his full partner, responsible for the growing household of Christians and evangelizing the women.

Opium ministry

About two years after his conversion, Hsi found a new ministry: curing opium addicts. After the recent famine, many peasants turned to opium as a new cash crop, and soon the dusty fields were red and white with poppies. Shansi was one of the largest producers of domestic opium in China, and by the 1880s, it was reported in some villages that "eleven out of every ten people smoked opium!" First you consume opium, the saying went, and then opium consumes you. In the last stages of addiction, many sots sold everything to satisfy their craving: their wives and children, furniture, roof tiles, agricultural tools.

The first opium refuges experimented with a combination of Chinese folk medicine and "stimulants and tonics" to alleviate the "cold-turkey" symptoms of withdrawal. The stimulants included quinine, belladonna, sulfate of strychnine-and coffee. By 1880 morphine had been introduced and was nothing short of a miracle drug: it could be administered in decreasing doses (gradual reduction, not cold turkey). But morphine pills slipped out of the missionaries' hands into the black market as a cheap substitute for opium. In late-1800s China, morphine was known as "Jesus opium."

Hsi, however, had a dream in which the Holy Spirit revealed the recipe for "life-establishing pills." This was not just hocus-pocus, for Hsi came from a long line of Chinese doctors who handed down secret recipes. The pills he concocted were cheap and could be made from native drugs. Within a few years, Hsi opened 14 opium refuges where addicts would come for three-to six-week stays. As he travelled tirelessly through the countryside, he rode a cart emblazoned with a scarlet banner that read "the Holy Religion of Jesus."

As the missionaries encroached on his "turf," they became divided about his ministry. Some announced that the Kingdom of God was about to be established in south Shansi. Others felt that although Hsi was "full of life and fire," he brought in "superstition and fanaticism."

The first foreigners to enter Hsi's hermetic Christian sect were the Cambridge Seven, who came by Taylor's orders to learn Chinese and work with Hsi. It was, according to A.J. Broomhall's massive history of Hudson Taylor, "an admirable combination: Hsi, plus young, devoted, foreign workers."

Reacting to Hsi

What did these naive, young aristocrats know about the subtle snares of the narcotic mind? Nothing, except compassion and what Pastor Hsi taught them. Since Hsi was established and they were illiterate, they made an extraordinary decision—virtually unprecedented in missionary history—to work under Hsi as his "helpers." They would not assert "the divine right of missionaries" (as Smith called it) to "correct" Hsi. Their excessive zeal worried Hudson Taylor, who felt that they might drag the mission down with them.

Each of the Seven reacted differently to working with Hsi, revealing something about each. William Cassels, the ordained clergyman who loved order, was "hopelessly at sea." Appalled by the lack of church rules, he stayed a year before he took Arthur Polhill-Turner and Montague Beauchamp to Szechwan (Sichuan), where they established a proper Church of England diocese. Cassels was eventually consecrated Bishop of East Szechwan in Westminster Abbey, with a gothic cathedral at Baoning (now Langzhang).

Stanley Smith and Charlie Studd were soon casting out devils themselves. But they offended Hsi by supporting one of his rivals and had to be sent away within a few months. They both married and took their brides to an isolated mountain town called Luan for "a honeymoon with Jesus."

Abandoning the unobtrusive style of CIM evangelism, they started parading through the villages with banners and gongs like a Salvation Army band. "We thought the Lord would bless our efforts," Smith wrote. "I am not aware that the Lord did bless them particularly, but the Lord blessed us in our souls very much."

It was easy for Smith to get lost out there in the ancient mountains, always walking (except on the Sabbath), with his Greek New Testament. He eventually came to a quasi-Buddhist idea he called the "larger hope," that all humanity will be saved, "some in this life, and the others, as a result of adequate punishment and suffering, in the life to come." He went too far, and in 1904, after 20 years in the CIM, Smith was forced to resign. He remained in the Luan area as an independent until his death in 1926.

The Studds remained in Luan until 1894 and did not return after furlough. After a term in South India in a nondenominational church, at the age of 50, he founded the Heart of Africa Mission and went to the Belgian Congo, where he died in 1931.

Cecil Polhill-Turner was also a wanderer who stayed in Shansi with Hsi for a year. His goal was to be the first missionary in Tibet. He spent a few years in Sinkiang (Xinjiang), then in northern India, and in 1909 founded the Tibetan Border Mission, under the English Pentecostals.

Only Dixon Hoste maintained a long-term relationship with Hsi. In a rowing image, he said that Hsi was the "stroke," the pace-setter in rowing, while he was the coxswain. "It was a cox that was wanted, because Pastor Hsi was perfectly well able to stroke the boat. … What you wanted was a little man to sort of steer." Hoste proved to be a wise and patient advisor, Hsi's best friend who "sort of steered" until Hsi's death in 1896. "We just grew together," he remembered, with no distinction of Chinese and foreign.

Typical exceptions

The pilgrimage of the Cambridge Seven was exceptional only because it was larger than life. Their swings from enthusiasm to despair, from visions and supernatural gifts to "delusions and snares," was typical of missionaries of their generation. As John W. Stevenson, the Deputy China Director said, "we all had visions at that time."

Alvyn Austin is a writer from Toronto, Canada, and author of Saving China: Canadian Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1888-1959 (University of Toronto, 1986).