Fisherman in a Boat

Christianity in China

A History of Christianity in Asia: Volume II 1500-1900

Samuel Hugh Moffett. A History of Christianity in Asia: Volume II 1500-1900. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York: 2005. Hard cover. 740 pages, including bibliography and index. ISBN 1-57075-450-0.

O
nly the sections on the growth Christianity among the Chinese will be discussed.

Samuel Moffett has presented us with a work that is comprehensive, yet concise; lucid, yet lively; balanced and yet not totally without an occasional, but mostly-controlled, bias; incisive, yet irenic – not a small achievement in a history of this scope!

Volume II begins with the arrival of the Jesuits in Macau, and brings us up to the beginning of the immense changes that took place in the 20th century. (A third volume is in preparation by a younger scholar, Scott Sunquist, editor of the Dictionary of Asian Christianity.

Chapter 5 (Once More to China: “Missionaries and Mandarins”) relates the rise and fall of the second major Roman Catholic attempt to reach China. The author tells how the early Jesuits, especially the great Matteo Ricci, won the esteem and the ear of China’s mandarins. Years of hard work, mastery of the Chinese classics, immense knowledge of Western science – all these led to the conversion of high-ranking Chinese scholars, and even the admiration of more than one emperor.

Moffett show his balance by including the stories of three Chinese believers, “the three pillars of the Chinese Church,” and by giving both sides a fair hearing as he reviews for us the long and sometimes bitter “rites controversy” that ultimately led to the expulsion of all Roman Catholic missionaries from China.

The issues, then as now, are complex. Moffett does his best to show why the Jesuits believed that the traditional ancestor ceremonies were merely expression of respect, not worship, and why the Dominicans, Franciscans, and several Popes thought they constituted idolatry. He does seem to favor the Jesuits a bit, however, as did the Emperor, and as do most later Chinese and Western commentators, with some exceptions, including this writer!

(Although the Emperor and his eminent scholars probably did consider bowing to pictures of ancestors merely a mark of respect, the common people – among whom the Jesuit’s accusers lived and worked – clearly regarded them as acts of worship to departed spirits. The same distinction may be found today in modern Taiwan, where the Roman Catholic Church now allows acts of reverence (“worship”?) toward ancestors.)

Chapter 10 includes a section on the Dutch in Taiwan (Formosa: Gateway to China? 1642-1661), which tells how Dutch missionaries made a substantial impact upon the aboriginal tribesmen whom they found in the countryside. That same group welcomed Presbyterian missionaries in the 19th century, and now comprise a large section of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church.

Chapter 13, “The Door to China Opens Again (1807 – 1860), begins with the coming of Robert Morrison to China and ends with the failure, and religious impact, of the Taiping Rebellion.

Once again, Moffett displays critical charity as he evaluates the monumental achievements of the early pioneer Protestant missionaries, especially Morrison, whose translation of the bible laid the foundation for all subsequent renditions. He notes both the involvement of some of them with the opium trade (Morrison later worked for the East India Company and Gutzlaff rode on Company ships – the only ones available) and their firm and vocal opposition to it.

As with the earlier Jesuit effort, Chinese converts played an essential role in the spread of the gospel, and the intrepid Liang Fa and others receive their due from the author (as they usually did from their spiritual fathers, despite later neglect in missionary reports).

The Chinese will never forget – or allow others to forget – that the gospel came with the gunboats; this sad fact is given ample treatment by Moffett, who acknowledges both the burden of this heritage and the obvious implication of some of the missionaries in European imperialism. At the same time, he records how the “opening” of China at the point of the bayonet was seen as the work of God allowing many to hear the saving news of Christ despite government opposition.

The leader of the Taiping Rebellion has been aptly called one of the most interesting megalomaniacs in Chinese history. His own writings, originally influenced by a book written by Liang Fa, constitute “theological anarchy, an explosive mix of Bible truth, Chinese mythological fantasy, and imperial egocentricity” (this being a good example of Moffett’s sometimes racy style). The rebellion began and ended in blood and fire, the smoke of which can still be seen and smelt.

Moffett concludes his survey of Christianity in China in Chapter 22: China’s Christians at Empire’s End (1860-1900). As always, he covers a lot of ground quickly without being unhorsed or failing to observe lovely flowers along the way. In forty pages, he tells the story of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission; the “Roman Catholic Recovery”; increasing national influence of Protestants, especially those of the more “liberal” variety; the growth of a truly Chinese church; and the “Chinese Backlash,” which culminated in the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion.

A few quick notes:

Taylor’s contribution was truly monumental, and receives the evaluation which it deserves. Drawing heavily on A.J. Broomhall’s seven-volume biography (see my review), Moffett confirms earlier judgments of Taylor’s aims and his accomplishment. Like the other missionaries, Taylor and his followers relied heavily on Chinese helpers. He engaged in evangelism, but sought also to train converts and establish an indigenous church. Firmly evangelical, he furthered ecumenical cooperation at every turn. While calling for a thousand men to go to China, he sent more women than men, and employed them in pioneer evangelism.

Roman Catholics rebounded form earlier losses, but did not grow as fast as the Protestants, being greatly hampered by their association with the French government, which used its power to guarantee special rights for Catholic converts, thus arousing the ire of nationalistic Chinese.

Timothy Richard receives special attention, as an immensely influential – Moffett claims he was the most famous – missionary. His turn from early evangelism to later immersion first in social work and then in education is well known, but Moffett – always seeking balance and peace – affirms that Timothy never forsook his childhood faith. According to the author, he and Taylor were not as different as is usually pictured.

Given the modern scholarly bias in favor of Richard – and against Taylor – I would question whether charity has trumped fact in this treatment of the two. Though Taylor and his colleagues definitely threw themselves into famine relief and medical work as much as anyone, their commitment to the Gospel was never in doubt, as was that of Richard. Still, Moffett carefully examines the charge of syncretism leveled at Richard, and finds it unconvincing.

I greatly appreciated the fine balance shown by Moffett in his discussion of the more “evangelical” missionaries and those convinced of the usefulness of literature, education and social transformation from the top down. He observes that “the priority given to evangelism and church growth by conversion … proved to have important social consequences.” On the other hand, he highlights the abiding relevance of Richard’s “effective church planting method.” Things are not always as black-and-white as they seem.

In a marvel blend of conciseness and concrete detail, including touching stories, Moffett takes us to the end of the century when the Christian message was beginning to permeate China, with momentous consequences for the coming convulsions of the h20th century.

Although I am embarrassed to confess that I have not read the rest of this book, I am not ashamed to recommend it on the basis of the masterful survey it gives of the beginning of the modern era in Chinese Christian history.