Reared and schooled in Michigan, he was the first Methodist missionary to China. His stay was short but his legacy lives on. Meet the Rev. Judson D. Collins.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Conference Communications
The date was September 6, 1851. The Michigan Annual Conference was in session at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Monroe, Michigan. It was the annual “Missionary Day” and Dr. James Watson was preaching.
He had just mentioned Michigan’s gift to foreign missions, Judson Collins, when the door of the church silently opened and a pale, gaunt man came walking slowly down the aisle. Dr. Watson paused. It was Judson Collins. His brothers, also preachers in the conference, rushed to greet him, realizing from his appearance he had come home to die. He was 28 years old. He died the next spring, May 13, 1852.
The saga of Judson Dwight Collins is one of the seldom-told stories of Michigan Methodism. His parents, Betsy and Sepheus Collins settled in Unadilla, near Stockbridge, MI. They had one daughter and eight sons, four of whom became Methodist preachers. A family of deep faith, his parents had been so moved by the story of Adoniram Judson, the first missionary to Burma, they named this son after him.
At 15 years old Judson attended a revival service at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, was converted, and joined the church. When the University of Michigan opened its doors in 1841, Judson Collins was one of the five members of the freshman class and in 1841 he was part of the first class to graduate from the new university.
He decided to become a missionary and felt called to China but took a position on the faculty of Albion College as he prepared for his life’s work. He taught chemistry, botany, and Greek while he studied medicine, Hebrew, and anatomy.
Collins kept applying to the mission board with the desire to go to China, but the reply was always the same –“no work there and no money to establish one”—until finally in 1847 his appointment came. He set sail from Boston on April 15, 1847, and five months later he stepped off the ship in China on September 6, 1847, the first Methodist missionary to set foot on Chinese soil.
They were not well-received in Foochow, so he spent a year studying the language until he could preach in Chinese, again with limited results. After that first year, Collins established a school, but unsuitable food, hard work, and the climate drained his strength. In ill health, he finally left after three years, feeling that he had little to show for his efforts.
The trip home took five months, but with communication being what it was, no one in Michigan was anticipating his arrival until the day he walked into the conference session. Collins died with little awareness that the school he built continued to grow and formed the foundation for education in Foochow. For years, many people in Foochow continued to honor his memory and at the Collins Centennial in 1947 the University of Michigan named him as one of their honored graduates. At the time, President Angell said, “It remained for the University of Michigan, through the person of Judson Collins, to make the most significant contribution to China’s history. He went as a missionary and laid the foundation of its educational life in a little public school in Foochow.”
Collins is buried in the family cemetery, a United Methodist historic site, near Unadilla, MI. Ironically, the Presbyterian Church honors his work with a stone boulder outside, and with some effort, you can still visit the “Collins Plains Cemetery.” A stained-glass window in the Chelsea United Methodist Church and the United Methodist camp near Onsted bear his name and witness to his ministry. The logo for the camp shows interlocking images of the USA and China.
In a day when China has risen to prominence in the political and economic world, Michigan Methodists should take pride in the fact that two centuries ago, a Michigander became the first Methodist missionary to China as we seek to find ways of extending the mission of Christ around the world today.
A stone marker in his honor stands on the campus of Albion College with the commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” May the spirit of Judson Collins inspire us today.
~ Note: Judson Collins Center, the United Methodist Camp named in honor of the Rev. Judson Collins, is closed for the 2020 camping season.
Last Updated on September 20, 2022