Citywide conflagrations seldom happen today, having gone the way of the plague. But Christians of earlier eras often ministered and suffered amid such holocausts. Believers in Nero’s day were unjustly blamed for Rome’s fiery destruction. Eighty-nine churches perished in London’s 1666 fire. D. L. Moody lost virtually all his property in the great Chicago fire of 1871. But none of them exceeded the fire and fear that engulfed Canton during the days of Protestants’ first missionary to China.

Robert Morrison ministered in Canton despite the misgivings of the East India Company and the antagonism of the Chinese themselves. Yet he plodded on, finally baptizing his first convert after seven years of labor.

On Friday night, November 1, 1822, Morrison became aware of panic in the city. A fire, starting in a baker’s shop and driven by strong winds, was roaring like a furnace through acres of crowded, wooden houses. Multitudes fled in hysteria. The East India Company’s fire equipment was of little use, for the streets were clogged with fleeing humanity, and the water supply was poor.

Morrison, transfixed by the sea of flames, hurriedly penned a letter in Chinese before dawn on November 2, 1822 begging officials to pull down buildings in front of the fire to stop the inferno’s advance. But the Chinese refused to even read his letter, though he took it to the governor in person. By 8 a.m., the flames consumed the city’s manufacturing sectors. Shifting winds drove the fire along the riverfront, westward for a mile and a half. Multitudes were killed, burned, or left homeless. Thousands of shops and houses were destroyed. It was the end of the world in miniature. Looters tried to beat the flames to abandoned valuables, and Morrison recorded that 28 people were trampled while scrambling for money after a robber cut open a man’s cash-stuffed backpack. The missionary himself was relatively fortunate. He lost nothing of great value beyond a hundred pounds of paper intended for a new edition of his translation of the New Testament.

The earth came out of water and was made from water. Later it was destroyed by the waters of a mighty flood. But God has commanded the present heavens and earth to remain until the day of judgment. Then they will be set on fire, and ungodly people will be destroyed. (2 Peter 3:5b-7)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 2.

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