Samuel Wells Williams

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Samuel Wells Williams
S. Wells Williams (1812-1884).jpg
S. Wells Williams
Born(1812-09-22)September 22, 1812
DiedFebruary 16, 1884(1884-02-16) (aged 71)
EducationRensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Occupationlinguist, missionary and Sinologist
Chinese name

Samuel Wells Williams (22 September 1812 – 16 February 1884) was a linguist, official, missionary and Sinologist from the United States in the early 19th century.

Early life[edit]

Williams was born in Utica, New York, son of William Williams (1787–1850) and the former Sophia Wells, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church. Among his siblings were brothers William Frederick Williams (who worked with Dr. H. A. DeForest in Beirut, Lebanon)[1] and Henry Dwight Williams.[2] His father's Williams family moved from Massachusetts to Utica in 1800 where his father joined his uncle, William McLean, and assisted in publishing the Whitestown Gazette (today the Observer-Dispatch) and Cato's Patrol (later renamed the Patriot after it was sold to John H. Lathrop in 1803). His became a partner in 1807, and later a master printer and journalist before serving in the War of 1812.[1]

At age 8 he was impressed by the departure to Ceylon as a printing missionary of a James Garrett who was associated with his father's printing business. He studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. There he assisted in the writing of a botanical manual by Senior Professor and co-founder Amos Eaton, published 1833.[3]: 504–5  On graduation he was elected as a professor of the institute.


Williams as depicted by the Japanese artist Hibata Osuke's 1854 sketches

After a year's preparation, on 15 June 1833, just 21, he sailed for China to take charge of the printing press of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at Guangdong, China. He arrived at Whampoa, Canton, aboard the Morrison on 25 October 1833.[3]: 505  With the death of the pioneering missionary Robert Morrison the next year, he and Elijah Bridgman, who had arrived only three years ahead of Williams, were the only missionaries in the whole of China. He assisted Bridgman in the latter's Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect, published in 1842,[4] and Walter Medhurst in completing his English-Chinese Dictionary of 1848, two early works of Chinese lexicography.[3]: 506 

In 1837 he sailed on the Morrison to Japan. Officially this trip was to return some stranded Japanese sailors, but it was also an unsuccessful attempt to open Japan to American trade.[5]

From 1848 to 1851 Williams was the editor of The Chinese Repository, a leading Western journal published in China. In 1853, he was attached to Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's expedition to Japan as an official interpreter.[6]

In 1855, Williams was appointed Secretary of the United States Legation to China. During his stay in China, he wrote A Tonic Dictionary Of The Chinese Language In The Canton Dialect (英華分韻撮要) in 1856. After years of opposition from the Chinese government, Williams was instrumental in the negotiation of the Treaty of Tientsin, which provided for the toleration of both Chinese and foreign Christians.[7]

In 1860, he was appointed chargé d'affaires for the United States in Beijing. He resigned his position on October 25, 1876, 43 years to the day that he first landed at Guangzhou in 1833. Around 1875, he completed a translation of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew into Japanese, but the manuscripts were lost in a fire before they could be published.[5]

Later life[edit]

He returned to the United States in 1877 where he spent the last eight years of his life. Williams became the first Professor of Chinese language and literature in the United States at Yale University as well as the president of the American Bible Society on February 3, 1881. "He also revised his book, The Middle Kingdom. In his later years, he heavily corresponded with missionaries remaining in China, the American Bible Society and with Scribners concerning the publishing of The Middle Kingdom."[8]

Personal life[edit]

On November 20, 1845 Williams married Sarah Simonds Walworth (1815–1881), a daughter of Maj. John Walworth. Together, they were the parents of several children, including:

  • Sophia Gardner Williams (1855–1938),[9] who married Thomas George Grosvenor, C.B., second son of Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury, in 1877. Grosvenor was appointed secretary to the British legation at Peking in 1879 and died in 1886. Sophia married secondly to Sir Albert Gray, Counsel of the Chairman of Committees at the House of Lords from 1896 to 1922.[10]
  • Frederick Wells Williams (1857–1928),[11] editor of The National Baptist, a professor at Yale; he married Frances "Fanny" Hapgood Wayland (1864–1948), a granddaughter of Francis Wayland, President of Brown University.[12]

He died at his residence, 39 College Street in New Haven, Connecticut, on February 16, 1884.[2][13]




  1. ^ a b family, Williams. "William Williams Family Collection (1808-1851, bulk 1819-1851)". William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  2. ^ a b "A YALE PROFESSOR'S DEATH". The New York Times. 17 February 1884. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  3. ^ a b c Lane, G; Sanford, P P (1834). Methodist Quarterly Review. Methodist Church.
  4. ^ Bridgman, Elijah Coleman (10 June 1841). Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect. p. Preface.
  5. ^ a b "God's China: The Middle Kingdom of Samuel Wells Williams," Ch 6 in John Rogers Haddad. The Romance of China : Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). ISBN 9780231130943 (cloth alk. paper) ISBN 9780231504041 (e-book).
  6. ^ Biography of Samuel Wells Williams in The Far East, New Series, Volume 1, December 1876, pages 140-2.
  7. ^ Frederick Wells Williams, The Life and Letters of Samuel Wells Williams, Ll.D., Missionary, Diplomatist, Sinologue (New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1889). vi, 490p. at Internet Archive (link).
  8. ^ "Samuel Wells Williams family papers". Yale University. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  9. ^ "SOPIDA GARDNER WELLS WILLIAMS, CORRESPONDENCE, 1928-1930" (PDF). The Whitney Library New Haven Colony Historical Society. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  10. ^ "Gray, Sophia Gardner Williams Grosvenor, 1855-1938 - Social Networks and Archival Context". SNAC. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  11. ^ "Obituary Record of Yale Graduates: 1927-1928" (PDF). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University. 15 September 1928. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  12. ^ "Williams, Frederick Wells, 1857-1928". Yale University. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  13. ^ James Muhlenberg Bailey, "Obituary Samuel Wells Williams," Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 16 (1884): 186-93.

External links[edit]

  • Biography with photo
  • Samuel Wells Williams Family papers (MS 547). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. [1]