The Historical Dilemma of Framing Bishop Charles Ridley Duppuy’s Life 1881-1944

Tim Yung is a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong whose research focuses on the South China Anglican Church in the early twentieth century. His reflection on the life of Bishop Duppuy stems from his participation in an ongoing book series by the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui about the bishops of Hong Kong.

Before writing the biography of Bishop Charles Ridley Duppuy as part of a project run by the Hong Kong Anglican Church, I systematically explored the historical writing on his life, as any reasonable historian would do. Immediately I was struck by the vastly different approaches adopted by contemporaries and by historians in attempts to frame the life of Bishop Duppuy.

1 1920 Newly-consecrated bishop
Duppuy in 1920 just after his consecration (reproduced courtesy of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Archive)

At one extreme were the historical accounts that focused on Duppuy’s achievements. The briefest form was Duppuy’s obituary in The Times, which summarized his life by listing his ministry experience from his theological studies in Oxford to his early ministry in Aston, then his later ministry at Bradford followed by becoming Home Secretary of the Church Ministry Society, then war chaplaincy in France and becoming Bishop of South China, and finally his appointment as a canon and archdeacon in Worcester.[1] More recent works concerning the history of Anglicanism in Hong Kong also highlight Duppuy’s achievements. Two monographs published in 2013 and 2015 independently situate Duppuy in chapters entitled ‘The Making Of’. Stuart Wolfendale points out Duppuy’s competent administration in ‘The Making of a Cathedral’ in his history of St John’s Cathedral, whereas Moira Chan-Yeung discusses how Duppuy’s clerical network and policy of indigenous devolution helped his successor, Ronald Hall, in ‘The Making of a Bishop’.[2]


At the other extreme were accounts by contemporaries who knew him personally. These accounts tended to celebrate his character and friendship alongside his accomplishments. His former colleague, Herbert Holland, first recalled Duppuy’s ‘statesmanship in regard to the home propaganda and education of [the Church Missionary Society]’ before celebrating Duppuy’s ‘infectious gaiety and… cheery laugh which created an entirely new atmosphere’.[3] In Worcester, the Church Army sisters with whom Duppuy would conduct evangelistic missions expressed gratefulness for how he and his wife would visit them regularly, as well as how Duppuy was ‘a true friend and adviser’.[4]

2 1937 London Reunion between missionaries
Duppuy (circled) at a 1937 reunion with missionary friends (reproduced courtesy of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Archive)

This contrast compelled me to reflect not only on my own account, but also on the methods used in religious biography and church history. How should such a biography do justice to its historical subject? The bigger question presented was the scope of church history and whether it could cover the realm of friendship and personality. This reflection led me to two instances where I witnessed academics wrestling with this dilemma. The first was The Oxford Handbook of Anglicanism, an edited volume published in 2016 in which historians, theologians, and clergy examine Anglicanism with an inter-disciplinary approach. Chapters discuss Anglican history, missions, regional contextualization, identities, controversies, and practices, but Anglicanism to them is not so much a fixed system, but an unsettled entity. It is faith and witness over time as people focus on ‘being and doing church – in the past, present, future’.[5] The second was a talk given by Richard Madsen, a prominent sociologist whose work analyzes Chinese Catholicism. Madsen spoke of expressing religious identity through biography and not merely through rituals, doctrine, and culture.[6] In effect, both of these voices advocated that church history can be depicted creatively by putting the ‘human’ in ‘humanities’. Most historians are aware of this feature and rightly include it in their work. Yet, the tendency is for the focal point to be elsewhere. Although there is substantial research on emotions and interpersonal relationships in church history, it is scarce in relation to the existing body of academic writing, which tends to focus more on tangible themes such as institutions, practices, and beliefs. [7]

As I examined the historical evidence, it became apparent that a clear reflection of Duppuy’s life journey would require a broad approach to church history which addressed both the conventional and the interpersonal. For example, it seemed important to mention Duppuy’s shrewd financial management in Worcester. However, it was more than a system he created as a residentiary canon. Rather, it was the cumulative experience of his time at Church Missionary House and at the South China Diocese, as well as his learning from peers and colleagues across England and China. Equally, his various appointments were connected to his peers and connections over the years. Finally, his warm personality is best understood on the backdrop of his early experience with grief and war, as well as his mother’s steadfast love. In recounting the journey, one discovers that his ministry and life as a bishop cannot be separated from his character and relationships. This approach to religious biography is aptly summarized by John D. Barbour, who points out the importance of illuminating a person’s character alongside their beliefs and values.[8] The life of Charles Ridley Duppuy cannot be fully appreciated without the context of his character, friends, and family.

3 Duppuy's Grave in Worcester Cathedral
Duppuy’s grave in Worcester Cathedral

All this makes me ponder on the enterprise of church history. Whilst writing my thesis in the field of Chinese Christianity, existing literature has a tendency to explore the institutional, social, political, and cultural aspects of the past with relatively few mentions of friendship, relationships, and personal character. However, I do wonder if there would ever be work focusing more on emotional, psychological, or interpersonal elements in church history. Honestly, I understand that my thesis must fulfil certain requirements and flow a certain way by virtue of the fact that it is what it is – a doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder what lies ahead for the framing of church history in the days to come as historical methods tend to reflect the viewpoints of their surrounding society.


[1] ‘Right Rev. Dr. C.R. Duppuy’ Times (28 Sep 1944), p. 7. Accessed Dec 1, 2017 at The Times Digital Archive,

[2] Stuart Wolfendale, Imperial to International: A History of St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 2013), 129; Moira M.W. Chan-Yeung, The Practical Prophet: Bishop Ronald O. Hall of Hong Kong and His Legacies (Hong Kong, 2015), 31-35.

[3] R.E. Doggett, Ridley Duppuy: Friend and Bishop (CMS Press, 1946), 23-24.

[4] Worcester Cathedral Library, A405(11), p. 72, ‘Memorial to Bishop Duppuy’ (13 Apr 1946).

[5] Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke & Martyn Percy (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 11-15.

[6] Richard Madsen, ‘Comparative religious sociology as a vocation’. Talk for Sociological Forum delivered at the University of Hong Kong (11 Sep 2018) with mention of a forthcoming book on this topic.

[7] Two series that stood out in academic publishing were the ‘Emotions in History’ series by Oxford University Press and Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotion.

[8] John D. Barbour, ‘Character and Characterization in Religious Autobiography’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 55:2 (Summer 1987), 307-311. Although his article discusses religious autobiography, the main points are nevertheless relevant and can be applied more generally to religious biography more generally.

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