Dr. Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, from 1877 to 1883 missionary bishop of the American Church in China. He was born at Tanroggen, in Russian Lithuania, in the year 1831, and brought up in the religion and learning of the Jews, graduating from the University of Breslau. The reading of the New Testament in a Hebrew translation, which had fallen into his hands, convinced him of the truth of Christianity. This must have been the Society’s version, as at that time Professor Delitzsch’s and Salkinson’s versions were not in existence; and therefore, the Society was the first agent in the Bishop’s conversion. Soon after his confession of Christ he went to the United States. He acquired his knowledge of Greek in the Theological Seminary at New York, which he entered in 1857. The Christians with whom he first came into contact belonged to the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations; he was baptized by a minister of the former, and studied theology in a seminary of the latter body. But before he had finished his studies, he had learned and acknowledged the position of the Episcopal Church, and was admitted a candidate for holy orders under the Bishop of Maryland. In 1859 he was ordained deacon in St. George’s Church, New York, and in the following year was advanced to the priesthood in China, whither he had accompanied the elder Bishop Boon on his return from a home visit.
In the autumn of 1861, Schereschewsky made a translation of the Psalms into the colloquial. This was his first work. In 1863 he moved to Pekin and began, with Bishop Burdon of Hong Kong, the translation of the first Mandarin Prayer Book. The main part of this book, viz., Morning and Evening Prayer, the Collects, and the Psalter, were his work; Bishop Burdon taking the remainder of the Book. This was completed in 1864. In 1865 a committee of five leading Chinese scholars, Dr. Edkins, Dr. Martin, Dr. Blodgett, Bishop Burdon and himself, undertook the translation of the New Testament into Mandarin. This is still in use generally throughout the Empire. The only other Mandarin version in existence at that time was Dr. Medhurst’s “Mandarin,” which was based on the so-called “Delegates’ Version” in Wen-li. The Bishop began the translation of the Old Testament himself into Mandarin, in the autumn of 1865, and finished this colossal undertaking at the end of eight years. This, with the Mandarin Testament mentioned above, forms the ordinary Chinese Bible in general use by Christians in China, and is read at every service from the lecterns in the China Mission of the American Episcopal Church, as mentioned in the organ of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the American Church.
In 1875, Dr. Channing Moore Williams, the American Bishop for China and Japan, having been assigned to the work in Japan alone, Dr. Schereschewsky was elected Bishop of Shanghai. With great modesty and self-distrust he declined the office; but being again chosen in 1877, he was persuaded that it was his duty to undertake its labours and responsibility. He returned as Bishop to Shanghai in the autumn of 1878, and, in the course of the year 1879, translated the whole Prayer Book into Wen-li, or classic style, blending with it as much as possible the English and American Prayer Books, with the hope that all missions of the Anglican communion might use it in China. Although this hope was not gratified, the book was for many years the only one in use in all the American missions, and formed the basis of the colloquial versions which have since superseded it. In 1879 the Bishop went up the river to Wuchang, and began the translation of the Apocrypha. He had only completed one book when he was smitten down during the intense heat of the summer or 1881, and his physicians ordered his removal to Europe, whither he went the following spring. He was under treatment from 1882 to 1886, at Geneva in Switzerland. In 1883 Bishop Schereschewsky, unwilling to retain an office whose duties he could not discharge, resigned his Bishopric.
With wonderful perseverance he now devoted all his energies of mind, which remained unimpaired, to the work of bringing the Scriptures within the reach of the Chinese nation. Fully acquainted with their language in its different forms, and being not only a skilful Sinologist, but one of the most learned Orientalists in the world – and that by the testimony of Professor Max Müller – using a pen as long as he could hold a pen, and then, owing to paralysis, working on a typewriter with the two fingers which he could control, he translated the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into the Mandarin dialect, leaving to a secretary only the reduction of the typewritten words into the Chinese character. For twenty years, day after day, in China, and for a while in Massachusetts, and more recently in Japan, when he was near a printing-press which he could use, he worked under disadvantages which would have put an end to the courage and the labours of almost any other man. Not long before his death he completed his greatest work, the translation of the whole Bible, including the Apocrypha, into the Wen-li dialect. He also wrote Chinese grammars and dictionaries, and translated the Gospels into Mongolian, preparing also a dictionary of that language. He died at Tokyo, on October 15th, 1906.
We may add the following extract from the Bible Society’s memoir of the Bishop, written by the Rev. Crayden Edmunds, M.A.:
His early training, whereby he came to know Hebrew better than any other language, especially fitted him to become a translator of the Old Testament. This peculiar fitness was soon recognized by his missionary colleagues, who about 1865 entrusted him with the translation of the Old Testament into Northern Mandarin. He also worked on the Peking Committee as a translator of the New Testament. His version of the Old Testament, first published by the American Bible Society in 1875, has since been repeatedly issue by both the A.B.S and the B.F.B.S. A revised edition appeared in 1899. But a still greater work was his translation of the whole Bible into Easy Wenli; he added the New Testament in this case, in order to secure uniformity; both Burdon and Blodgett’s, and Griffin John’s versions of the New Testament being in a somewhat different style. This Bible the A.B.S published in 1902.
The significance of Bishop Schereschewsky’s achievements, however, lies not so much in their extent and scholarship as in their testimony to the indomitable courage of the man and his devotion to his work. Six years after his consecration as Bishop he became paralysed, and had to resign his episcopal jurisdiction. His malady increased till it left him with the use of only the middle finger of each hand. Fortunately his intellect remained unimpaired, and with these two fingers he was able to type out his MSS., which were afterwards rewritten in Chinese characters by his secretary.
But the toil was well worth while. To this man alone has it been granted to give to the two hundred and fifty million Mandarin-speaking Chinese, as well as to the mass of readers in China, the Oracles of God as found in the Old Testament. Reviewing, therefore, his life in the light of these facts, we amy surely trace the divine purpose in taking him from one task, for which a successor would without difficulty be found, and setting him free for another, for which his whole previous life had been a unique preparation. As a translator his influence has been far wider than it could have been as a Bishop, and Chinese Christians will ever remember, with gratitude to God, the great scholar who out of weakness was made strong – who laid so well and so truly the foundations of the Bible in their greatest vernacular, and in the more popular form of their written language.”
Bernstein, A. 1999. Jewish Witnesses for Christ. Jerusalem: Keren Ahvah Meshihit.