Fisherman in a Boat

Christianity in China

A Protestant Church in Communist China: Moore Memorial Church Shanghai, 1949-1989

A Protestant Church in Communist China: Moore Memorial Church Shanghai, 1949-1989, by John Craig William Keating. Bethlehem. PA: Lehigh University Press, 2012.

T
his fine historical study traces the vicissitudes of a major Protestant church in Shanghai, from its beginnings in 1887 almost to the present, with a focus on its experiences during the first forty years of the communist era. Though ostensibly limited to a single congregation, the book ranges widely, and manages to place this one institution within the broader arena of Christianity in China in the past one hundred twenty years. Though Moore Memorial Church (MMC) is unique, the author manages to use its history both to explain its particular role as a large institutional urban church and to show how it fits into the overall story of Protestantism in China.

In particular, he wishes to explore the relationship “between the Christian church and the government in China.” (3) Over the thirty years between the imposition of communist control in the early 1950s and the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s (and since), “MMC has had to adapt its work many times, to suit the changing political circumstances,”(3) and the study of these changes can illumine the overall picture of church and state in China. The book’s “central concerns are how this one church has been able to find a way to work with a communist government and what this might reveal about the nature of religion and politics in China.” (5)

In particular, the author wishes to cast light upon “the debate” between two distinct camps: Those, mostly based on Hong Kong, who “are adamant that TSPM and the official church in China has ‘sold its soul’ in co-operating with the communist government and that the only true Christians in China are therefore those who attend so-called ‘house churches’ or ‘underground churches.’” The late Jonathan Chao is cited as a prime example. On the other side stand people like Philip Wickeri who hold that “the official church in China is simply doing its best to find ‘common ground’ with the government in order to enable it to survive.” Keating wants to show that “the relationship between church and state in China is extremely complex and nowhere as black and white as some of these writers suggest.” (10)

MMC “has always been a prominent church. In part, this is because of its size and its location, in the center of China’s largest metropolis. On the eve of the communist victory, it was described by a foreign journalist as ‘The greatest mission church in the whole East, and probably in the non-Christian world.’“ (4) Fifty years later, MMC still stands at the center of “official” Chinese church life in Shanghai, and even the nation. Much has happened in between, however, and the story reflects, and illustrates, the general history of one form of Protestant Christianity in China - the large, urban, building-based, missionary-founded, clergy – dominated, institutional, “ecumenical,” “mainline” Protestant congregations which play a crucial role in the “official” TSPM/CCC organization, and particularly in its interface with similar entities in the West.

Brief history

MMC was built in 1887 and named Central Methodist Church. It was refurbished with a large gift from Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Royster Moore of Kansas City, and renamed Moore Memorial Church, in 1900. In 1925, it was moved to its current location on Tibet Street and rebuilt with funds raised both locally and from overseas. From the beginning, MMC was “totally foreign run.” It also had a strong connection with the Nationalist government, with some of its leaders being close friends of the powerful Soong family and then of Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang, with both sides deriving benefits from this cozy relationship. That does not mean, however, that the church’s clergy always approved of, or expressed support for, what the KMT government did.

The new building soon “became a focal point for the Methodist movement in China,” assuming an importance it still retains. (35) Topped by a tall neon cross, the structure represented all that was modern and Western in booming Shanghai, and attracted large numbers of people who were open to new ideas and interested in Christianity. Many became sincere followers of Christ.

An “institutional church” was defined in 1908 by Edward Judson as “an organised body of Christian believers, who, finding themselves in a hard and uncongenial social environment, supplement the ordinary methods of the gospel – such as preaching, prayer meetings, Sunday School, and pastoral visitation – by a system of organised kindness, a congeries of institutions, which, by touching people on physical, social and intellectual sides, will conciliate them and draw them within reach of the gospel.” (45). MMC was founded as such an institution, in direct contrast to fundamentalists who concentrated upon preaching the gospel and Christian worship and prayer meetings. There was “ a kindergarten, a nursery school, primary school, health clinics, language classes, occasional lectures, a reading room, kitchens, community organizations and many activities for students and young working people,” including a shoe-shine cooperative that taught boys how to make a living for themselves. (46)

One group, called “the naughty and nice girls,” began as a class on finance and home management, but expanded into its own community center, with a “day school that eventually catered for up to 230 children, an evening school for men and women, a weekly skin and eye clinic, a sewing group and a Sunday school. They also had a small plot of ground in which they grew corn and vegetables to help feed visitors.” (47)

When the Japanese began their vicious assault on China, MMC served as a haven for refugees and a base for caring for those impacted by the war. The Japanese occupied the building as soon as they marched into Shanghai soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, hoisting their flag above the cross, though eventually on a separate flag pole. Foreign funds were cut off, leaving the congregation hard pressed to continue the extensive social programs which had been part of the core of its ministry in the city. Later, missionaries were interned, and all humanitarian work ceased. Previous connections with foreigners were a great liability during this time.

After the war, the missionaries returned and the church was repaired with the help of foreign funds. With the outbreak of the civil war, humanitarian aid once more came to the fore of MMC ministries. When the Communists gained control of China, however, all foreign missionaries were soon expelled, and connections with these foreigners, who were labeled “imperialists” at best and “spies” at worst, became a huge liability for all Chinese who had worked with them. They were accused of being accomplices with the missionaries in their part in Western domination of China.

To protect themselves, many Chinese Christian leaders, including some at MMC, joined in the general accusations against their former foreign colleagues; others kept silent. Some of the denunciations were hard to understand, given the previous close relationships which had existed. Under the leadership of Wu Yaozong and others, the Three Self Patriotic Movement was formed, with the explicit goal of eradicating all foreign influence on Chinese Christianity. Though claiming to be “self-governing,” the TSPM was, in fact, under the governance of the Religious Affairs Bureau, itself part of the United Front Work Department.

Wu and others had also spearheaded the campaign to produce and promulgate the Christian Manifesto, which roundly rejected the foreign missionary project. (The Methodist Church, however, released a “patriotic covenant,” which was “even more revolutionary in tone than the manifesto.” (92)) Some Christians, such as Wang Mingdao, refused to sign, while others did so either willingly or simply in order to survive. Watchman Nee sought to protect himself and his Little Flock by submitting names which had originally been used for a building project. Those who signed willingly were frequently also those who had previously been part of the ecumenical movement and who were in sympathy with much of the Communist program; the YMCA was outstanding in this camp, and faced much less pressure as a result.

The TSPM not only cooperated with the government in accusing foreign missionaries and all who worked with them, but in denouncing all Chinese Christian leaders who would not join the TSPM, thus engendering bitter memories that have not gone away to this day. There was such persecution of unregistered churches and their leaders, in which the TSPM was an active party, even into the twenty-first century, that many cannot see the TSPM in anything other than the role of traitor to Christ.

The author wishes to show that not all Chinese Christian leaders who joined the TSPM were guilty of spiritual treason; in this he is surely accurate, though it seems to me that he leans heavily towards the side of downplaying TSPM hostility to unregistered churches in his attempt to set the record straight. Since the focus of his study is MMC, however, and since leaders of that congregation have not been as active in actual persecution of unregistered groups, perhaps his treatment is understandable.

The body of the book traces the ways in which MMC and the government related to each other in the Communist era, from the early days up to the 2000. In general, he finds that leaders and members of MMC tried to adapt to difficult situations in various ways, always seeking the survival of the church of themselves as individuals. He divides the period into four stages: Adjusting to the new regime (1949-51); the call to re-align (1950-58); a church under pressure (1958-66); a church closed (1966-79); re-opening (1979-89); and the church today (1989-).

He describes the different attitudes towards the Communist government found in both the missionaries and the Chinese leaders of MMC, and the different ways in which the government sought to bring the congregation firmly under its control. He also shows how some members of MMC tried to maintain affectionate ties with missionaries even after they had been driven out. He surveys different evaluations of the missionary enterprise, then and now, and notes a general softening of government attitudes toward the missionaries, who are now conceded to have done some good things for the people.
In general, precisely those institutions that had tried to engage in social work presented a great threat to the government, and were forced to curtail most, if not all, of these activities.

Beginning in 1958, “united worship” was required of all Protestant churches, which had been greatly reduced in number; this was part of a campaign to eliminate the vestiges of foreign denominationalism from Protestantism in China. Though the author insists that the content of sermons has never been controlled by the government, he does admit that in the “united worship” services there are “no prayers of intercession, no confession or absolution and worshipers do not exchange a greeting.” He believes that this “suggests that the official churches in China feel that these social elements of Christian worship are best avoided.” (123)

After the opening and reform initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, MMC “once again played a central role in the re-opening of official churches in China,” being one of the first to be opened again after the Cultural Revolution. From the beginning, it was used as a showcase of “religious freedom” in China and a regular stopping-point for distinguished visitors from abroad, whom the TSPM wanted to impress. The neon cross was replaced and the building repaired. As all across China, attendance quickly grew, and soon surpassed pre-1949 levels. Various reasons for this vast increase in church attendance are surveyed; the author believes the main cause to be the greater political space given to the churches by the state after 1979. Others would attribute the revival to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Many people come because they are attracted to the foreign appearance of the building, the foreign music, and the generally foreign feel of the worship service. They associate Christianity with all that is best in the West, and want to know more about this religion, which is not longer considered fully foreign but still retains a foreign flavor.

Though much has changed since 1949, much remains the same at MMC. The building, renovated and cleaned, stands as an impressive landmark in the city, and has been recognized as a prime example of 20th-century architecture. The impressive structure, with its stained glass windows and Western appearance, continues to attract people of all ages. The music and worship breathe a distinctly Western air, despite the introduction of some recently composed (and very patriotic) hymns by Chinese writers. As before, the worship service follows a typical “Western” liturgical pattern reminiscent of the Methodist – Anglican tradition (Methodism grew out of Anglicanism, of course). Despite great similarity in worship within TSPM churches, denominational distinctive have since re-appeared across the nation. The services and programs at MMC are led by clergy, as in the past. Older members, who are dying off, preserve the memories of former days, and rejoice in the restoration of a full range of services, but especially the choir, of which there are now five. Music has always played a central role in the life of MMC, and never more than today.

Founded as an institutional church, MMC operates a variety of social and spiritual programs, and the building is in use seven days a week, even though the range of charitable works is much smaller than before, since the government is keen to preserve its identity as provider of all essential services. In some ways, it is a “typical” institutional church in China.

This study set out to examine the “relationship between church and state at one particular inner city church,” and stays focused on that theme throughout. What about the present? The members of MMC are not “docile” slaves of the government, but neither are they rebels. The congregation does not, however, enjoy a relationship of “peaceful coexistence” with the state. (247) The relationship between the two is “both complex and ever changing.” (248) “The relationship with the state is still essentially a subservient one for all religions in China and MMC is not an exception to this rule.” (219)

On the other hand, the author maintains that neither the view that the official churches in China are puppets of the regime, nor the view that “it is a genuine and appropriate response to the political situation in China” is correct. He agrees with Ryan Dunch that “the control and resistance model does not adequately explain the situation.” (226). He concludes that “the people at MMC have had to operate under various restrictions and make compromises, particularly during the Mao era, but they are nonetheless genuine Christians, not communist puppets,” (228) though he does not hide the obsequious actions of some MMC clergy under communist rule.

In general, I believe that he succeeds in what he set out to do, by showing that not all members and clergy of MMC “sold their soul” to the Communists at every point, though he does not gloss over obvious instances of self-seeking subservience to the government. On the other hand, his study does not always give sufficient weight to the opinions of the “house church” advocates, though he cites them many times, nor does it adequately reflect the thinking and writing of those who have been following the developments of unregistered urban churches in recent years. It also seems to me that, despite valiant efforts to be objective, he has leaned towards the “official” side in his assessments at several points, and has not afforded appropriate weight to the “unofficial” point of view. He usually discounts the opinions of people like Jonathan Chao (who had a PhD in history) and other critics of the TSPM, while taking at face value statements made by spokesmen for the TSPM, including the late Ding Guangxun, whom not everyone will consider reliable. Still, for the main period of his study, 1949-1989, he seems to be quite accurate in his descriptions and judgments about life at MMC.

The author is fluent in Chinese and spent a great deal of time interviewing current and former members and leaders of MMC. In every chapter, he skillfully sets the situation in Shanghai within the larger picture of China, the experience of MMC within the larger context of Protestant Christianity in China, and all of Christianity within the larger context of China’s shifting political scene. He does a marvelous job of using the particular to illustrate the general, and the general to understand the particular. He covers both religious and “secular” history throughout.

He cites more than five hundred books, articles, internal publications and pamphlets, theses and dissertations, and electronic sources representing many different points of view. Despite my criticisms above, his use of this material otherwise largely fair, balanced, and judicious. Where he gives his opinions, he presents reasons for them, and usually makes a persuasive case for his conclusions. Even when you might disagree with him, you will do so with hesitation and respect. This is a superb work of history on a complex and important topic, and deserves a wide reading.

For some thoughts on possible lessons to be learned for China ministry today from the history of MMC, see the companion article from China Institute.

G. Wright Doyle