Missionaries You Should Know: Matthew Yates

Matthew Yates’s accomplishments were numerous and notable, yet almost every success was preceded by serious setbacks. By God’s grace, Matthew and his wife, Eliza, remained faithful through every one of them. They set a shining example for all subsequent generations of Great Commission Christians.

Early Background

Matthew and Eliza Yates opened Southern Baptist missionary work in Shanghai, China, in 1847 and continued laboring there for over forty years until their deaths. Matthew was born into a farmer’s home in 1819 near Raleigh, North Carolina. He was one of ten children. His parents were strong Christians who were active leaders in their local Baptist church. He trusted Christ as his Savior through the encouragement of a traveling pastor who urged him to pray, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Almost immediately upon his conversion, he began to pray a second prayer, “Lord, what will you have me do?”

Matthew was made aware of the overwhelming lostness of the world after he read the life story of missionary Ann Judson. He wrote that after reading her biography, he would weep for hours while plowing the fields as he reflected on the condition of those who “knew nothing of Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world.”

“Almost every success enjoyed by Matthew and Eliza Yates was preceded by serious setbacks. By God’s grace, they remained faithful through every one of them.”

Overcoming Barriers to the Mission Field

The first obstacle Matthew encountered was his lack of education. Almost insurmountable for a country boy, God opened a door. Matthew received the first ministerial scholarship from the North Carolina Baptist State Convention to attend Wake Forest College. He worked numerous jobs, which included teaching singing lessons to fellow college students, to meet his personal needs. He was never a top scholar, but he was marked by a tenacious perseverance in his studies.

At the time of Matthew’s graduation from college, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board was newly established. The Board desired to open a mission station in Shanghai.  Matthew and his new bride, Eliza, were appointed for that field. Upon arrival, they began to study Chinese.

The standard practice for learning a foreign language was to hire a teacher and begin studying the written language. As Matthew began, though, his eyesight failed. He could not see well enough to read. This surprising affliction forced him out into the streets and markets to learn the language.

His sight did eventually return, but his course had been set. Matthew said, “Having been forced to give the spoken language special attention, I have been able to use it with much greater ease and fluency.” In fact, Yates became so fluent in the language that if a person closed his eyes while listening to him, he would not know Yates was not Chinese.

Depending on God Alone

The Foreign Mission Board had plans for a large team of missionaries in Shanghai. During those early years, most of Yates’s fellow missionaries fell ill and had to return to the US. Others moved to different parts of China, leaving Matthew and Eliza almost alone for twenty-three years. Setback after setback deepened their dependence on God—not the mission board, not fellow missionaries.

As Matthew began to see results from the preaching of the gospel, China experienced a bloody civil war known as the Tai Ping Rebellion. This forced Eliza and their baby daughter to leave the city. Matthew stayed behind, and he was virtually trapped in his home for eighteen months.

He witnessed sixty-eight battles. Bullets and cannon balls rained down on his house day after day. He could not continue his preaching ministry. So, he developed a Chinese/English dictionary and wrote a language training book called First Lessons in Chinese to aid future missionaries in language acquisition.

A Generous Benefactor

In 1861, Matthew and Eliza were getting back on their feet after the civil war in China. Just as they started making progress, civil war broke out in America. This cut off all financial support from home. God, in his providence, opened a door for Matthew to work as a translator. The money he earned not only allowed them to survive during those difficult years; it also enabled him to make investments in Shanghai property.

Those properties brought significant financial returns over the remaining years of his life. But Matthew and Eliza did not hoard their newfound wealth. Instead, they became astoundingly generous benefactors to numerous Christian causes, both in China and America. It was rightly said of Matthew Yates, “His purse, like his heart, was always open to the voice of God.”

Preaching without a Voice

Above all, Matthew saw himself as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached five to seven times every week, and after two decades of slow growth, an increasing number of people began to respond in faith to the message of salvation. Matthew wrote home saying, “After more than twenty-one years of labor, I have reached the Chinese heart. Oh, the joy that is in my little church.” His excitement did not last long, though, because he lost his voice and was unable to preach for years.

During that long, silent struggle, Matthew began to translate the New Testament into the Shanghai dialect of Chinese. His inability to speak drove him to devote himself to the work of Bible translation. Wall after wall blocked Yates’s progress. Yet, God always made a way through the walls.

Despite illness, loneliness, and opposition, Yates continued to serve for forty-one years until his death. On March 19, 1888, as his body was being taken from his house for burial, one thousand copies of his translation of the New Testament (minus Revelation) were delivered to the front door of the Shanghai Baptist church.

Investing in Eternity

Matthew Yates invested in things that outlived him. He continues to inspire us to faithful service in the face of difficulties. His life reminds us that we serve a God whose plans are always better than ours. Although we run into countless walls of adversity, God is able to make a way through them.

David J. Brady is the pastor of Christ Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was born in Guyana and raised in Belize, where his parents served as Southern Baptist missionaries. David is the author of an evangelistic book entitled, The Gospel for Pet Lovers. He is currently working on a book of short historical biographies of missionaries who have served with the Foreign Mission Board (now known as the International Mission Board). 

Recommended Resources: 

The Story of Yates the Missionary, by Charles E. Taylor