Lee believes that in the twentieth century, “the emphasis of Christianity … focused on the identification of the gospel with the indigenous culture and the alignment of the relationship between State and Church.” True enough, and the life and career of Allen Yuan form an ideal opportunity to study both of these processes in the Chinese church. Wisely, she states that “a man dedicated to God also reflects his sense of mission as well as his blind spots through his life.” Thus, her portrait of Yuan includes both his successes and failures, his virtues and his shortcomings. Her main point is that “With God’s presence, a seemingly insignificant life becomes uniquely significant.”
Yuan’s childhood did not bode well for his future life: an adulterous, profligate father engaged in constant conflict with an angry mother. Later, he was indulged by well-to-do grandparents and their servants with whom mother and children lived for several years. The boy emerged with “a rather paradoxical personality … he was cowardly and shy yet having a profound hatred of evil; pampered yet feeling unloved; inhibited yet having a strong personality; careless yet conscientious; innocent yet depressive. He was insecure and had no intimate friends.”
After a while, his father was able to send Yuan to a school where he learned both English and the Chinese classics. For a while he was passionately devoted to the nationalist cause and absorbed the writings of Sun Yat-sen. When his youthful spirit could find no peace, he sought answers in Buddhism and Confucianism, but without success.
Two Christian teachers greatly influenced him, one of them a foreign woman married to a Chinese. Though they sent him to listen to the famous Wang Ming-dao, he refused to accept a foreign religion. Finally, on an icy day in December 1932, Yuan experienced the presence of God in such a powerful way that he repented of his sins, asked forgiveness, and submitted his life to Christ.
At once, he began sharing the gospel with friends, most of whom responded positively. After a period of instruction and a strict examination of his faith by Wang Ming-dao, Yuan was baptized, but he still struggled vainly with indwelling sin and guilt until a visiting charismatic preacher prayed for him, and he was filled with the presence, power and peace of the Holy Spirit. At that point, God’s love flooded his heart. (Yuan was connected to the “charismatic,” even Pentecostal, wing of Protestantism, but the author wisely does not emphasize that aspect of his life, for Yuan worked among and influenced all branches of “conservative, evangelical” Christianity.)
Yuan’s later life followed the same course: intense striving for holiness, radical reliance upon the Spirit of God, burning zeal for evangelism, and the kind of fierce ecclesiastical independence that marked his mentor Wang Ming-dao. All of these would bring him into prominence among the Chinese Christians and trouble with the Chinese Communist government.
He relied on unsolicited donations for support and would not be bound by denominational ties just to have the “security” of a regular salary. “If we want to evangelise as effectively as the apostles did, we should imitate their methods.” This dependence upon God alone lost him the help of a Norwegian missionary early in his ministry in Beijing but set him free from foreign entanglements and reliance upon the help of man.
As an evangelist, he used a variety of methods—such as singing hymns and beating a drum with his family outside the door of his church, as well as radio preaching—but he knew that only God could convict sinners and give true faith. His preaching centered on the core elements of the gospel—forgiveness of sins, new life, and following Christ—and did not dwell on secondary matters. His hard work, persistence, and patience finally bore fruit.
When the Three-Self Patriotic Movement was formed, and all churches were ordered to join, Yuan refused for three major reasons. First, his church had always been self-governing and self-supporting. Second, Christ was the head of the church, so the church should not “form any worldly alliance.” Finally, the liberal theology of the TSPM leaders made cooperation, much less submission, impossible.
Though many in his church deserted him, he would not attend the compulsory political education classes for pastors. When a meeting was held in which he and others were invited to express their opinions, he boldly rebuked those who had caved in to the TSPM. As a consequence, he was branded a “right-winger.”
Warnings came from well-meaning friends and from the TSPM, and Yuan began to realize that he would be taken away soon. His courage failed him at times, but he finally decided, “I would rather suffer than conform…. I don’t believe God will give us a burden we are unable to bear.” He told his wife, “A Christian looking forward to the rewards in heaven should not be bothered about what happens on earth.”
The noose tightened as coworkers were arrested. Yuan armed himself by reading the book of Job over and over again and received God’s peace in his soul. His greatest struggle was the danger to his family should he be arrested, but he finally gave them up also to God’s care.
Trials aplenty awaited him during the coming twenty-one years in prison: being given only one chopstick with which to eat meager rations; incessant interrogation (Yuan remained silent or gave simple, honest answers); betrayal and beatings by fellow prisoners; solitary confinement; physical abuse; hard labor; worry about his family; and a life sentence.
God took care of him, however. Despite intense cold, hard work, and malnutrition, he never once fell sick. The Lord provided for his family and protected him from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. A vegetarian diet and physical exertion strengthened his health. He never doubted God, nor did he resent his enemies.
Yuan was not without fault, of course. By Western Christian standards, he neglected his wife. He had a very short temper. Though he diligently supervised his children’s education and made sure that they were organized to do household chores, he seldom “took them out to play and did not know how to communicate with them. As a result, they were afraid of him.” Indeed, “family relationships were not high on his list of priorities.” In later years, he often spoke of some of his weaknesses with coworkers.
The author also introduces us to his remarkable wife, without whose loyal and courageous support Yuan would not have been able to serve, or even survive, much less succeed as he did. Yuan knew this and credited her with 80 percent of his effectiveness.
His perseverance under trial bore fruit after his release in 1979. Though never rehabilitated, he was able to carry on with evangelism, meeting with foreign visitors, writing letters, and supplying taped sermons for seekers and believers in the House Church movement. Despite growing government harassment and pressure to join the TSPM, Yuan refused to cease from gospel work until his death.
A very helpful chapter on his theology and another on his friendship with Wang Ming-dao show Yuan to have been a man of faith in the Bible, among his many other traits, including reliance on the Spirit; focus on Christ; insistence upon a changed life as evidence of conversion; belief in the autonomy of the local congregation and strict separation of church and state; willingness to cooperate with other evangelicals; a belief in the gifts of the Spirit but little enthusiasm for the extremes of the charismatic movement; a conviction that house churches, not denominations—and certainly not the State-ordained Three-Self church—were the true pattern for today.
What were some of the “secrets” of Yuan’s fruitfulness as evangelist, pastor, and leader—and prison survivor? Simple faith in God, very hard work, self-denial, frugal living, a truly outstanding and devoted wife, total dedication, and heroic courage all contributed to his fruitfulness.
Personally, I found A Living Sacrifice both informative and inspiring and commend it to anyone seeking a better understanding of the phenomenal growth of the church in China as well as the continuing tensions between unregistered churches and the official church.
G. Wright Doyle