The ‘Golden Age’ of Missions and the ‘Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment,’ 1902-1927
“Ironically, the undoubted tragedy of the Boxer events in 1900 ushered in a period of more than two decades during which both the foreign mission enterprise in China and Chinese Christian communities seemed to flourish,” even as “the Christian movement … was sliding toward a precipice.” (93) The defeated Qing government inaugurated a series of ambitious reforms, many of them inspired by Protestant missionaries and their urban converts, especially those educated in Protestant schools. Numbers of adherents grew, as did autonomy from missionary control.
Independent congregations, founded and led by Chinese, proliferated, despite the indifferent response of Western missionaries, who were not always sure whether the Chinese were ready to run their own churches and institutions, as the careers of Marcus Ch’eng (Chen Chonggui) and Cheng Jinyi illustrate.
What Bays calls “the “Sino-foreign Protestant Establishment” emerged by the dawn of the 20th century and was in place by 1915. Consisting of the recognized leaders of the Protestant missionary societies, it gradually grew to include a coterie of younger Chinese Christians, many of whom had been educated in the West. The flavor of the missionary contingent was rapidly changing from the predominantly evangelical group of the 19th century to a more liberal crowd, mostly from the U.S, who were fired with idealism of the Student volunteer Movement, the Social Gospel, and the general optimism of the pre-World War I period.
These were joined by Chinese, many (though not all) of them equally liberal, who aimed not just for partnership with foreigners, but for a truly indigenous – that is, independent – Chinese church, one that would abolish denominational distinctions in a national church of China. This goal was achieved in 1927, and up to one-third of all Chinese Christians eventually were part of what became the Church of Christ in China. In the first three decades of the century, this SFPE engaged in both evangelism and social action, including political advocacy. The leading lights on the Chinese side figured prominently especially in the latter, even as they advanced liberal theological views in what some called “Indigenous Theology.”
There were other actors, however, especially those missionaries like Jonathan Goforth and Chinese like Ding Limei, who engaged in vigorous and fruitful evangelistic endeavors. Dozens of new mission organizations, and even more free-lance missionaries, many of them from the Holiness/Pentecostal movement, further diversified the Protestant landscape. “Revivalism as a missions strategy after about 1920 was more likely to be used by conservative evangelical groups and independent traveling evangelists than by the SFPE.” (105)
Around 1920, the former consensus among missionaries broke down, as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy erupted. When the Church of Christ in China was organized, many conservatives refused to join. Things would never be the same among Protestant Chinese, even to this day. (Throughout this narrative, Bays evinces much greater sympathy for the “ecumenical” Protestants than for the conservatives, whom he seems to consider uncooperative and narrow-minded.)
At about the same time, the May Fourth Movement forever altered the intellectual landscape of China. All things old, including Confucianism and Christianity, were considered outdated and even superstitious, and all things foreign, including missionaries and their institutions, were labeled as imperialist. Chinese Christians joined in the call for local control of schools, hospitals, and church organizations as part of the raging nationalism, and some academic theologians sought to reconcile Christianity with Chinese religious traditions. In the general anti-foreign mood, those Chinese who had thrown in their lot with the SFPE did not escape being tarred with the “foreign” brush.
As the 1920s drew to a close, Roman Catholics still outnumbered Protestants, and were being led more and more by Chinese, but Protestants were increasing at a faster rate, especially in the cities, but also in rural areas, where indigenous sectarian movements were gathering steam.
The Multiple Crises of Chinese Christianity, 1927-1950
“In the first half of the twentieth century, the foreign missionary movement in China matured, flourished, declined, and died. In these same decades, a Chinese church was born, a church which today is growing very rapidly. . . [F]rom 1900 to 1950, Christianity forsook its foreign origins and put on Chinese dress. It was not an easy process.” (121)
This fast-paced chapter opens with the scathing criticisms of the missionary enterprise in China by Pearl Buck at a major church conference; the widely influential report, “Rethinking Missions,” which reflected liberal theology and “advocated an overhaul of missionary thinking, especially, on such questions as the exclusivity of Christianity”; and “the massive financial crunch in the early 1930s” that hit the “expensive institution-heavy facilities, especially hospitals, schools and colleges” of the SFPE.
Not all missions were equally affected, however. More evangelical groups like the China Inland Mission (CIM) and Pentecostal revivalists continued to flourish and grow rapidly. David Adeney of the CIM worked effectively with students; the martyrdom of John and Betty Stam spurred a fresh wave of applicants to the CIM.
Meanwhile, the National Christian Council launched several projects aimed at rural reform which, also, foundered on both the size of China and the “intractability of some of the rural realities that Christian reformers faced,” such as the stake which local elites had in the status quo. The same could be said for reform efforts in urban areas, in which the YMCA played a leading role, and which were stymied by “business and industrial power structures.”
Equally fruitless was the new Life Movement sponsored by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. Its failure brought embarrassment to the many missionaries who had embraced it largely because of the Chiangs’ identification with Christianity.
The liberal churches associated with the Church of Christ in China sought social reform, while conservative groups aligned with the Bible Union of China pursued evangelism and church building. During this period, a variety of new and fully independent movements arose. Bays traces the expansion of the True Jesus Church, the Jesus Family, Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and his movement (the “Little Flock”), the Spiritual Gifts Society, along with a number of outstanding individual evangelists. The author provides brief but compelling accounts of Wang Mingdao; Dora Yu and women’s evangelism; the Bethel Band and the “paradoxical” John Sung (Song Shangjie); Marcus Ch’eng (Chen Chonggui), clearly one of Bays’ heroes (whereas his portraits of Wang Mingdao and John sung are rather negative, perhaps partly under the influence of Lian Xi’s somewhat jaundiced treatment of this whole group. It should be said, also that, that Song did not “stress” healing, though his prayers did lead to many miraculous cures. His emphasis lay, rather, upon repentance, faith, and holy living).
Bays makes the most of meager materials to follow the fortunes the church during the Second World War, when Japanese occupation forced many to work under an umbrella organization, which others, such as Wang Mingdao, refused to join. During the war, the evangelical and Pentecostal movements grew; Chinese necessarily assumed leadership in all areas; Christianity was spread more widely throughout the nation; and the SFPE suffered further loss of vitality.
At the end of the war, when missionaries returned, there were many struggles over control, with Chinese understandably reluctant to return to a subservient role. Student work resumed, with the more liberal YMCA tending to support the Communist side in the burgeoning civil war, while the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship – with David Adeney again taking a major role – emphasized more evangelical themes. Churches mirrored this split, with the liberals connected with the National Christian Council lining up with the Communists and conservative groups tending to support the Nationalists, though not unaware of their corruption and incompetence.
During the war, Roman Catholics, with their large land holdings, were reluctant to irritate the Japanese. Afterwards, those same properties made them vulnerable to the anti-landlord campaigns of the Communists, already alienated by the anti-communist stance of Pope Pius XII. Wartime collaboration between the American OSS and some Roman Catholic missionaries merely confirmed the suspicions of the new rulers of China.
Christianity and the New China, 1950-1966
Like virtually all Chinese governments in the past, the new communist rulers insisted upon “monitoring religious life and requiring all religions, for example, to register their venues and leadership personnel with a government office. The repeated historical experience of sectarian popular religious movements . . . turning into anti-dynastic rebellions was sufficient to make all central governments instinctively vigilant of religion.”
What was new, however, was “a powerful central state that was capable of demanding their compliance,” and a Marxist ideology than sought “systematically to reduce the influence of religion in society,” believing that it would eventually disappear. The “centerpiece” of their policy was simple: “cutting all ties with their foreign former associates and foreign institutions, putting them under the jurisdiction of state and party bodies assigned to monitor them.”
The government found a ready-made slogan for this policy: “Three-Self.” Under the rubric of “self-government, self-propagation, and self-support,” the churches would be completely severed from all foreign connections. This had been the stated goal of missionaries for decades, of course, but had been unrealized, as we have seen, except in the case of the independent Protestant movements. Now the Chinese believers would be absolutely free from all foreign domination – though, of course, not free from government oversight and even control.
From 1949 to 1954, the Protestants were largely brought into the new “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.” The story is a bit messy, and does not make very happy reading, but Bays does justice to the complexity of the situation. With a very few notable exceptions, the leaders in the TSPM were the same theological liberals who had previously been prominent in the SFPE.
The Korean War greatly accelerated the process of breaking ties between Protestant Chinese and foreigners, and intensified various anti-foreign movements by the government, which merged into campaigns to denounce and remove from leadership all except for a few totally cooperative Christian leaders.
Those who were attacked were charged with criminal, rather than religious, offenses, to prevent their becoming martyrs. In the case of Wang Mingdao, however, his refusal to participate in the TSPM because of the liberal theology of its leaders led to harsh treatment that was largely spearheaded by the future head of the TSPM, K.H. Ting (Ding Guangxun). Later, Chen Chonggui, an evangelical who had supported the TSPM and served as a vice-chairman, was ruthlessly purged. The memory of these events remains fresh in the minds of many in the unregistered churches.
During this same period, Roman Catholics resisted the government’s efforts to control them and force them to join Catholic Patriotic Association. A systematic campaign of vilifying the foreign missionaries as foreign imperialists, proclaiming religious freedom while denouncing all who used religion to undermine the government, and imprisonment for those who would not cooperate and incentives for those who did, resulted in the creation of a permanent split between the officially sanctioned CPA and a large “underground” contingent of Roman Catholics who remained loyal to the Pope.
The Great Leap forward devastated the economy of China and produced a horrible famine; at the same time, most churches were closed in a rabid anti-religious campaign. Already, however, a some Protestants and many Roman Catholics had begun to gather in homes, sowing the seeds of powerful movements. By 1966, it seemed that Christianity in China had almost died out.
From the End of the Cultural Revolution to the Early Twenty-first Century
From 1966 to roughly 1976, the entire country was plunged into a maelstrom of insanity and violence caused by Mao Zedong’s struggle to regain control of the Communist Party. Christians suffered along with everyone else, though sometimes even more severely, as “all religions were abolished” in a “nationwide eradication policy” that seemed for a while to have succeeded. During this time, Protestants gathered, of necessity, in house churches. The salvationist and revivalist message continued the legacy of the conservative/evangelical missionaries and independent Chinese Christians. Their faith was also millenarian, “looking to the imminent return of Christ,” and it was “to an extensive degree Pentecostal . . . highlighting ‘gifts of the Spirit’ such as speaking in tongues, prophecies, and miraculous healings” – characteristics true of many of the rural churches even today. Quietly but rapidly, they grew in numbers.
During the era of “reform and opening” which began in 1978, both the TSPM and the Catholic Patriotic Association were re-instated, led mostly by the same leftists whom many believers had come to distrust and even despise. Despite this, Protestant church buildings, when re-opened, were filled to overflowing. Needs for proper pastoral care were – and are – acute, and training resources stretched beyond their limits. The unregistered groups proliferated, as did the number of TSPM adherents, largely unhindered by the state, which had other, more important problems to tackle.
Bays skillfully describes how the growth of rural Protestantism and Roman Catholicism results from a fertile mix of spiritual hunger, social dislocation, political freedom, Pentecostal zeal, real miracles, and a great deal of similarity to Chinese popular religion. The product is a most amazing smorgasbord, ranging from “orthodox” evangelical/fundamentalist/Pentecostal groups to the wildest of cults, all of them reflecting the strongly pragmatic, utilitarian, and eclectic nature of Chinese religiosity. Roman Catholicism, still largely rural, is even more indistinguishable from popular Chinese religion, except for difference in ritual.
The wildfire growth of Protestant Christianity in the countryside began to slow in the 1990s, to be replaced by an almost equally rapid increase in the cities, especially among intellectuals. These new urban Christians are quite sophisticated and aware of recent trends in Western churches. At the same time, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scholars are investigating Christianity for the first time in Chinese history in a development that points toward a future in which Protestantism could become more potent in public life.
Bays closes this marvelous survey with several comments: Most Protestant Christians do not face persecution; Christianity will continue to grow, but perhaps not as fast as in recent decades; China will not become a “Christian nation.” But Chinese Christianity will form an increasingly important segment of the worldwide church.
G. Wright Doyle