Alfred Woodroffe, Christian Missionary and victim of the Boxer War
19 May 2015
Alfred Woodroffe (1872 to 1900)
No part of Alfred Woodroffe’s life was easy but he had a simple, robust faith which called him to respond to the challenge of taking the Christian Gospel to China to what was then seen as the very end of the earth. He overcame many obstacles and eventually it was circumstances completely beyond his control that led to his tragic, untimely death.
Alfred Woodroffe’s mother lived in Costock but shortly after her marriage to a groom in a local stable and the birth of Alfred (her first child) they moved to Loughborough where Alfred grew up. For his basic education he attended the Churchgate Church of England School and on leaving there worked as a butcher’s assistant.
On Sundays he went to the Parish Church but became convinced that the Christian gospel should be actively proclaimed, an aim which he pursued for the rest of his life. He came to Baxtergate Baptist Church with its then fiery Rev. Edward Stevenson as senior minister and settled into its evangelical worship and outreach. He was baptised at the age of 18 along with other young people on 6th July 1890.
A year later he moved to Cardiff and worshipped in Tredegarville Baptist Church, where he became a Sunday school teacher and outreach worker which included leading services in the local Barnado’s home. While in Cardiff he applied to Dr. Guiness’s College (later Cliff College) for training for the mission field and on his second application was accepted.
During his three months’ vacation from College, he returned home to Loughborough and led services in our Church and helped with outreach in Baptist churches in the town and surrounding villages. His valedictory service was held on Wednesday August 25th 1897. A few weeks later he sailed with ten other young men on the long voyage to China.
The China Island Mission began in 1865 under the leadership of Rev. James Hudson Taylor and William Berger at a time when the vast country was becoming more open to foreigners and allowing Christian missionaries to enter. Hudson Taylor responded energetically to this opportunity, travelling widely in Britain urging young men and women to respond to this challenge for Christian witness and the adventure of helping to open up the land and people for the Christian gospel. He also travelled through America and Australia seeking recruits so that in all, some 800 missionaries were recruited in his lifetime. In his busy life he managed to make twelve visits to China to assess progress and encourage the missionaries.
For the missionaries there was no salary offered, which obliged them to live ‘by faith’ and become closely involved with their local communities, living, working and dressing like them. For Alfred Woodroffe, coming from a hardy labourer’s family in Loughborough, this part would have been no problem and he would have seen it as just part of reaching out to the Chinese people with the Christian gospel.
The Boxer War
The opening up of the Chinese empire to western influence happened from the middle of the 19th century.
China was unprepared for the modern age but neighbouring Japan had developed western industry and had weapons which enabled it to defeat the Chinese armies in 1894. The outcome to this was the humiliating loss of Korea and the ceding of the island of Taiwan to the Japanese.
At the same time in the towns and villages there was feeling against Christian missionaries because of their threat to local ancient beliefs and the withdrawal of converts from festivals and local taxes. It is against this background that the Boxer War took place. In all fifty-eight missionaries died, including twenty-one children. These actions were viewed with horror by the local people.
After several months at a CIM training and linguistic college where it was said that ‘he smiled his way through the difficulties of life,’ Alfred was posted with a young Australian to the province of Shansi which borders on Mongolia. In this rugged countryside he became noted for his tireless touring of the villages which often lasted several weeks. It was the area of the country most affected by the Boxer uprising and so in 1900 when Woodroffe was 28 years old, the two missionaries fled into the mountains, where they suffered and died.
His death received only modest notice in Loughborough because premature death on the mission field was all too frequent at the time. As a former member of our church, we can be proud of his Christian life of witness and service to the Chinese people.
Stan Cramer, Loughborough Baptist Church
Sources: Our Union Magazine: the Organ of the Loughborough district and West Leicestershire Baptist Union, November 1900.
Other texts consulted: Forsythe, R.C. The Chinese Martyrs of 1900 and The Chinese Millions, Vol. 8, New Series, 1900. Pub. China Inland Mission.
These texts are held in the Archives of the China Island Mission at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. You can read ‘The Chinese Martyrs of 1900‘ online, with the article about Alfred Woodroffe on page 86 (page 54 in the original text).
Read an article about Protestant Missionaries and the Boxer War from Loughborough University historian, Dr Thoralf Klein.
Read a story from Loughborough resident Eva Weng on how her family’s life in China was changed forever after meeting British missionaries.