The Reverend Charles Preston arrived at the port of Hong Kong on May 12th, 1854 after a voyage of 160 days from the city of New York. His final destination was the city of Canton, China – where the Presbyterian Missionary Board had established a base of operation that included a school, hospital and chapel. There he would engage in his life’s work: trying to convert the people of China to Christianity.
Rev. Preston was born in Antwerp, Jefferson County, NY, on July 26th, 1829, the first child of Dr. and Mrs. Calvin Preston. His middle name was selected as a tribute to Charles Grandison Finney, a social activist and leader of the Second Great Awakening, a a Protestant reform movement that sparked religious revivals with emotional preaching.
The Prestons moved to Galway, Saratoga County, NY, in 1830. Attracted to the village by a family connection, they built a six bedroom home and raised a large family on East Street.
In Galway Charles’ mother groomed him for missionary service to China, a priority of the Presbyterian Church. Charles Preston studied at the Galway Academy under the guidance of the Reverend Gilbert Morgan, becoming a member of Galway’s Presbyterian Church at the age of fourteen. He next attended Union College, graduating in 1850, and then Princeton Theological Seminary, where he completed a three-year course. He was commissioned missionary to China by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1853 and left by sailing merchant ship, the Horatio, departing from New York for Canton in November of that year.
His plan was to preach to the Chinese in their native language was side-tracked by an assignment to teach English in the Mission School, an approach to religious conversion that he opposed on philosophical grounds. This put Charles at odds with a well-connected leader of the China Mission and ultimately led to his death. He was rescued from this educational endeavor by the outbreak of the Second Opium War, a conflict primarily between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty over the insistence of the English to freely distribute opium to the Chinese (in part driven by a massive trade in-balance associated with English consumption of tea from China). Rev. Preston relocated to Macau where he developed the language skills necessary to preach in Cantonese.
At the end of the War, Rev. Preston returned to Canton where he built a chapel with his own and donated funds. There he preached for many years returning to the United States only once, leaving a son to be educated in Windham, Connecticut schools. He would never see him again.
After 23 years of missionary service his health began to decline, probably due to chronic dysentery. His doctor recommended return to the United States, but Rev. Preston’s plea for transfer on medical grounds was turned down due to “insufficient funds in the Mission treasury,” or equally likely in retribution for his advocacy of preaching in the native language. In a desperate attempt to save his life his doctor sent him to Hong Kong to recover. He died six days later at the home of a missionary with his wife and six children at his side. He was buried in the Happy Valley cemetery in Hong Kong; an obelisk monument provided by his three brothers marks the grave with the inscription “I am only resting.”
His wife and family returned to the United States where Charles’ brothers William and Platt, wealthy mill owners in Waitsburg, Washington, came to their rescue.
A tribute to Rev. Preston in the Union College Archives concludes with: “He learned the Chinese language as few foreigners learn it. He became the most effective preacher among our missionaries and filled Canton with his Gospel.”
Alan Maddaus is the author of The Prestons of East Street – The Story of an 19th Century American Family (Epigraph Publishing, 2019) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portraits of Charles Preston, Union College ca. 1850; and Rev. Charles Preston, Canton, China ca. 1877 courtesy the family of Laura Preston Chase.