Elijah Bridgman was born into a devout Massachusetts family with Pilgrim roots. He became a Christian at age 11 in the early stages of the Second Great Awakening. While attending a newly founded evangelical seminary, he heard of Robert Morrison’s 1827 letter asking the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send two missionaries to join him. With the support of merchant D.W.C. Olyphant, the American Board chose Bridgman to assist Morrison in working with Chinese and David Abeel to work separately with foreign sailors in China. They arrived in Guangzhou in 1830. He met Morrison the next day and Liang Fa soon after. Abeel died of illness a few years later, but except for one short furlough, Bridgman would spend the next three decades in China and become the acknowledged leader of the missionary community after Morrison’s death in 1834.
Bridgman was a scholarly man with a gift for translation and literature work. He started a boys’ school within a few months of his arrival, and one of his pupils was Liang Fa’s son. With Morrison’s encouragement, he founded The China Repository, an English language monthly magazine which informed foreigners about China. Bridgman edited the periodical for nearly two decades and published many articles critical of the opium trade. To help Chinese understand the West, Bridgman founded the East West Exchange, a Chinese-language periodical, and also wrote a history of the United States.
After the First Opium War, Bridgman worked as a translator and advisor for the American government during their treaty negotiations. He was part of the First Missionary Conference, which met in Hong Kong in 1843 and focused on the need for a new, unified Bible translation. As the work progressed, a sharp dispute arose, and the result was two versions that differed in style and selection of the word for God. The Bridgman Version, preferred by the Americans, was more colloquial and used “Shen” for God. The Delegates Version, preferred by the British, was more classical and used “Shangdi” for God.
God provided the scholarly Bridgman with a wife who was an educational pioneer. In 1845, 39-year-old Eliza Jane Gillet arrived in Hong Kong with two other single women missionaries. Within two months Eliza became the 44-year-old bachelor’s wife and helpmate. They adopted two girls, and after their move to Shanghai in 1847, she opened the first Protestant school for girls there. Except for a furlough in 1852-53, they lived there until his death in 1861. After Bridgman’s death, Eliza moved to Beijing, where she opened a girls’ school that eventually became the Women’s College of Yenching University. Health reasons forced her to move back to Shanghai, and there she opened another school and died in 1871.
The 50th anniversary of Morrison’s arrival was celebrated at the Bridgman home in Shanghai. Bridgman wrote: Thus by a wonderful and myseterious providence, wide and effectual doors have been opened for Protestant missionaries….As the years roll on, during the next coming half century, His truth, if we rightly read the promises, will make achievements, bright and glorious, beyond anything witnessed by his people on earth since the days of the Apostles and primitive martyrs. China can be no exception.
E.C. Bridgman (1801-1861), America's First Missionary to China. Michael C. Lazich. (E. Mellen Press, 2000), p. 373-4