O God, in your providence you called Joseph Schereschewsky from his home in Eastern Europe to the ministry of this Church, and sent him as a missionary to China, upholding him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into languages of that land. Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is Sunday, our weekly celebration of the Resurrection, but it is also the Feast of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. Even though he is a saint from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, eras which are not part of my historic interest or speciality, I want to celebrate and remember him because he was an Anglican Bishop in China, and I have family ties to China. My maternal grandparents were missionaries in China with the Assemblies of God church in the 1930’s. My mother was born in Kowloon and my uncle was born in Shanghai. Also, Bishop Schereschewsky’s story is quite interesting.
Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, a name which is quite a mouthful! He was born in the nation of Lithuania on May 6, 1831, to a Jewish family. Early in his life he wanted to be a Rabbi, so he studied at the Rabbinical College at Zhitomeer, in Russia. He was also a student for two years at the University of Breslau, Germany. There was a group, the Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, in London and they published a New Testament in Hebrew. Samuel Schereschewsky read this New Testament, and as a result, became a Christian. He emigrated to the United States in 1854 and entered the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as he was interested in entering the ministry in the Presbyterian Church. However, after two years of study he decided to become a priest in the Episcopal Church and he transferred to General Theological Seminary in New York City,
from which he graduated in 1859. The Rt. Rev. Boone ordained him to the deaconate at St. George’s Church in New York later that year. He answered Bishop Boone’s call for workers in China, and he left for Shanghai, China that year. Bishop Boone ordained him to the priesthood at the mission chapel there in Shanghai on October 28, 1860.
Samuel Schereschewsky had a gift which I do not have; he was very good with languages. He actually learned Mandarin during his voyage to China! His first accomplishment in China was to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Mandarin and the Gospels from Greek into Mongolian. He continued to perform translations throughout his ministry. He translated the New Testament from Greek into Mandarin, and he also developed a dictionary of the Mongolian language. He later translated the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin, and the entire Bible into Wenli, a dialect of Chinese. When I helped put on an exhibit of historic Prayer Books at the library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, in 1998, I was able to obtain the Book of Common Prayer translated by Schereschewsky,
and it was an amazing feeling to hold something like that in my hand.
Some eight years into his time in China, a new missionary, Miss Susan Mary Waring, arrived from Brooklyn, New York. Two weeks later they were engaged to be married!
He earned so much respect for his work and his saintly life that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. elected him Bishop of Shanghai in 1875, but he declined the episcopate. He earned the Doctorate in Divinity from Kenyon College in 1876, and a second Doctorate in Divinity from Columbia University the next year. In 1877 he was elected to the episcopate once again, and, after some serious arm-twisting by the House of Bishops, he was consecrated Bishop of Shanghai at Grace Church, New York, by Bishops Bosworth Smith, Henry Potter, Bedell, Stevens, Kerfoot, and Lyman. He returned to China and established st. John’s University in Shanghai.
In 1883, stricken with Parkinson’s disease as a result of sunstroke and overwork, confined to a wheelchair. he became paralyzed and resigned his See. However, he continued his translation work and returned to China in 1895. Even though his hands were paralyzed
and his fingers no longer responded to his brain, he continued his work on the Wenli translation of the Bible, and even typed two thousand pages of this work with the one finger that did work! In 1897 he and his wife moved to Tokyo, Japan, where he continued his work on a dictionary of the Mongolian language. He passed away in Tokyo on October 15, 1906, and he is buried in Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo, next to his wife, who supported him constantly during his labors and illness. Four years before his death, he said, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”
I believe that Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky’s life is an amazing example of what one can do when we say yes to the call of God and allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
He didn’t even let paralysis and Parkinson’s disease keep him from working for the Reign of God.
Here is a poem about Schereschewsky which was given as a sermon by the Reverend Robert Cooper at Nashotah House Seminary on Schereschewsky’s feast day in 1973.
Something far greater than Jonah is there.
Russian Jew American Christian Chinaman
Yoked twenty years and more to your chair.
Who can bear to hear that this is God's plan?
"Eli! Master! I heard you calling me
from the doughy loins of my warm mother."
It was the voice of God that would not let me be
When night closed and struck me like a wrathful father.
"Ishmael, I hear you still in the desert places.
I am Isaac, son of promise. Remember me now
Carpentered to this chair by your God who grimaces
In Jew-faced Jesus. (Before him gentiles will bow.)"
Joseph is my name also. I am God's cuckold.
I was unswayed by the hot wife of Potiphar
I conquered her, and all of Egypt's grain rolled
Forth to become God's hard loaves on earth's altar.
I am your wheat, o my God in heaven
Sown in Russia milled in the U.S.A.
Baked a world away with Chinese leaven.
Myriads will rise up from me on your great day.
I was content at last to be your lifelong joke
To offer at your table my broken old crust
To learn to be consumed in bearing your light yoke
To sit those years in China long enough to trust
That I have seen the ways your bent things praise
How you laughed me straight through all my days.