This is the biography of an American missionary in China. It is the life story of Pearl Buck’s father. Only the names of the people are changed.
Absalom Sydenstricker (1852–1931) (renamed Andrew in the book) was the eighth of nine children born to a Presbyterian farming family in what would become West Virginia. At 22, Sydenstricker left home to complete high school. He went on to graduate from Washington and Lee College and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. His resulting honors degrees were in classical languages.
In 1879, just prior to seminary graduation, he was accepted by the Southern Presbyterian Mission Board to be sent out to China. A marriage was arranged, he was wed just after graduation, and a month later the couple was on their way to China.
Sydenstricker would serve in twenty missions spread all over China during his career. His background in languages and his exposure to many regional forms of spoken Mandarin molded his approach to mission work and, indeed, led him to insist that the bible, hymnals, and tracts be translated into popular Mandarin—instead of the scholarly classical Chinese used by Western missionaries for more than a half-century—in order to reach the common people with the gospel.
Sydenstricker was unique among bible translators due to his command of Greek and Hebrew as well as his insistence on readability for the average Chinese Christian. He had a running feud with the “official” translators whom he blamed for the poor state of Christianity in China. While spectacularly unsuccessful against those “official” translators, his work heavily influenced the bible in use in China today.
Modern scholarship has shifted away from studying individuals to focus on broad movements within the missionary community—such as liberalism, anti-opium activities, or women missionaries. While these inquiries can be important and helpful, a look into personalities like Sydenstricker reminds us that there were missionaries of immense influence—within their often gigantic mission fields—who are not so easily classified.
Sydenstricker was a contradictory and irascible man, isolated him from the rest of the missionary community, but he was also a man of stern convictions and complex personality—sufficient reason to look again into the lives of individuals in order to gain understanding of today’s Chinese church.