Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

John Song: Bringing Peace Amidst Chaos

Paper presented to the American Society for Church History annual meeting, January, 2010.

T
he setting

John Song was born in southern China in 1901 and died in the suburbs of Beijing in 1944. Despite his relatively short life and ministry, he made a huge impact on his own generation and has left a lasting legacy.

John Song’s life and career were set against a backdrop of almost unprecedented change, chaos, and suffering for China.[1] During his early childhood, the Qing Dynasty was in its last stages of collapse, to be replaced by the Republic of China, which for the most part ruled China only nominally, with many independent warlords competing for supremacy all across the nation. Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 created further havoc, and formed the setting for most of Song’s ministry.

Without trying to simplify an immensely complicated picture, we can identify a few major causes of the manifold suffering into which John Song spoke.

Disease, disability, and death

Everywhere he went, John Song encountered multitudes who were afflicted with all sorts of diseases and disabilities; for much of the time, they also faced danger from bandits, ravaging warlord armies, communists forces, and Japanese aggression. Death stalked the roads and haunted the towns and cities.

Material need and poverty

China’s masses have always lived in poverty, but civil war, Japanese attacks, official corruption, aggravated by famine, drought, and flood, took a terrible toll, so that Song was confronted with people in real need for daily sustenance.

Moral corruption

The breakdown of the Confucian system, rapid social change as modernization competed with traditional values, China’s endemic official corruption, and the natural effects of paganism combined to expose the innate sinfulness of human nature, so that even church leaders were not exempt from egregious crimes and failings.

Social breakdown, family strife

Not surprisingly, John Song’s audiences would be troubled by conflicts with family members and others in the community. Marriages were of course buffeted by infidelity and resentment, not to mention drugs, drunkenness and gambling, while churches were riven with strife.

Anti-foreign sentiment

Reeling from a century of foreign military incursions, and enraged at the ferocious Japanese aggression, Chinese intellectuals and common were also convinced that their nation and culture had to absorb modern technology and even some ideas from Western nations. Christianity appealed to them at some level, but they chafed at the sense of superiority which some missionaries evinced. The result was a confused mixture of admiration and resentment towards things foreign.

Profound spiritual hunger

At the bottom of all this lay the poverty of soul which could not sustain the stresses of life in such horrific conditions and which induced a profound spiritual longing for forgiveness, freedom, and hope.

John song’s ministry

Song’s father was a pastor, idolized and imitated by the young boy, who himself was known as “little pastor” because he accompanied his father and even preached to his classmates. After a brilliant educational career in the United States, the culmination of which was a Ph.D. in Chemistry, he honored his early commitment to become a preacher and entered Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was at first influenced by his theologically liberal teachers, but everything changed when he underwent a dramatic conversion while attending evangelistic meetings.

Fully transformed, Song zealously evangelized his professors, warning them of eternal punishment if they did not repent. You will not be surprised to learn that they were not amused, and had him locked up in an insane asylum, where he proceeded to read the Bible through forty-one times in a few months.

He was released through the efforts of an American pastor, and returned to China, where he soon began an itinerant ministry that would take him all over that vast nation and into the surrounding countries of Southeast Asia.

Let us now examine how John Song brought peace to people caught up in a vortex of chaos.[2]

Physical danger, disease, disability, and death

To a degree perhaps unmatched in Christian history since Jesus and the Apostles, John Song exercised a truly stunning ministry of physical healing through prayer. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people were delivered from all sorts of illnesses, infirmities, and addictions after he prayed for them. These miracles – for such they clearly were – were witnessed by countless people, many of them originally skeptical of this aspect of John Song’s ministry.

From his diaries, supplemented by personal testimonies and newspaper accounts, we catch a glimpse of this remarkable demonstration of God’s love and power, the sheer variety and extent of which alone approach the fabulous, were they not so evidently factual.

A brief list must suffice. For example:

Opium addicts received instant delivery.[3] Smokers kicked the habit “cold-turkey.”[4] Those possessed by evil spirits were delivered.[5] In a meeting in 1934, Song records that “One child, unable to walk for 6 years, could walk instantly. One woman who had not been able to lift her arm, could lift her arm instantly after prayer. Another person could hear after being deaf for 6 years.”[6]

Not surprisingly, not all were healed, and not all healing came at once. One eyewitness wrote of what he saw as a young boy of thirteen:

I saw people leading the blind, and carrying the paralyzed. The crippled were hobbling forward on their crutches. I heard people say that some were completely healed, some half healed, and some not healed. However, with my own eyes I saw a pile of crutches and sticks.[7]

A leper was cleansed after he confessed his sins and received prayer and the laying on of hands.[8]

Song also taught others to pray, including members of the evangelistic bands he set up after every evangelistic and revival meeting. His diaries record many instances of God’s answers to their intercessions for healing.[9]

Unlike many others with a healing ministry, however, John Song did not give precedence to physical well-being. At each meeting, he first preached a sermon on the need to repent and to trust fully in Christ for salvation. He insisted that full repentance of sins must precede lasting healing. Only then would he descend from the platform and move along the lines of the sick, laying hands upon them and praying for each one, sometimes after also anointing them with oil.[10] When he was about to go to Taiwan, which was occupied by Japan at the time, he was told that the colonial authorities would forbid him to pray for the sick. He gladly consented, since his chief aim was to bring sinners to a saving knowledge of God. Nor did he emphasize spiritual gifts as many other “charismatic” preachers did. In this, as well as in his simple and self-denying lifestyle, he was not like modern-day “health and wealth” preachers.

Paradoxically, John Song was himself a “wounded healer.”[11] His frequent travels over rough roads and using uncomfortable conveyances[12] and simple diet, not to mention his utterly grueling schedule, depressed his immune system. His diaries are replete with records of splitting headaches; toothaches; aching feet; serious colds; sea-sickness; and crushing fatigue.

I could hardly go on, as I was feeling exhausted…. My body was in great pain but I set such agonies aside.[13]

Unfortunately, I had severe headaches and vomiting. With my feeble body I willed myself to carry the cross in preaching the Gospel.[14]

In the next city my body felt so miserable I had to have surgery, but that didn’t stop me from preaching.[15]

Above all, however, Song was horribly afflicted with an illness which he acquired while overworking to put himself through college in America. It flared up whenever he taxed his body too much, which was often. This “thorn,” as he called it, was so loathsome and repulsive that one hesitates to mention it in public, but historical fidelity requires it. John Song had anal fistulas that caused him indescribable pain and which oozed pus and blood, producing an offensive odor. Sometimes they hurt him so much he had to preach sitting down or even lying on a bed on the platform. Despite several surgeries, they would not go away, and in the end they killed him at a relative early age.

His cries of agony resound through the diaries, along with repeated confessions of faith in God’s goodness, for he was aware that his own bodily frailty helped to curb his pride and remind him of his sins, especially a short temper. He writes, “Father, why is my body so weak? Dear Father, please guard my heart, for I understand deep down that all this suffering is to make me humble.”[16]

Therefore, one of John Song’s major contributions to his suffering countrymen consisted in his own patient endurance of chronic pain and in his steadfast hope in the life to come.

Though he served those who were sick by praying for them, thus affirming the value of physical health, he also strengthened them by showing how a Christian bears up under affliction.

For example, he ordered his companions not to tell others about his thorn in the flesh, or the need to wash his underwear daily, for he did not want them to offer their help. His constant labors as a preacher despite obvious suffering also spurred others on to zealous service.

Danger was everywhere. He writes:

The day I went from Yi Xian to Jinan, I heard the sounds of bombs. The wealthy were fleeing to inland China, but the poor were coming to the Lord! In one meeting I was speaking on Heaven and Hell with the air raid sounded. The audience was frightened and order was disrupted, and I pleaded with them to be calm, and I used the promises of Jesus to comfort them…. We continued with the service, after which we learned that the siren was a false alarm…. After the meetings in Jinan concluded, I went to Yantai, where enemy planes passed overhead everyday…”[17]

John Song shared the perilous conditions of his fellow citizens. He did not shrink from traveling into combat zones, or preaching with enemy planes flying overhead. His calm demeanor in the face of death must have stimulated others to a similar faith in God’s providential care and ultimate victory over the grave.

Material need and poverty

Lacking in money himself, there was little he could do for the multitudes of poor among whom he ministered, but he brought them comfort by sharing in their poverty wherever he traveled. His preaching included instructions on how to escape from wealth-destroying habits and sins, and his healing prayers infused new strength into many, enabling them to work for a living.

In the midst of extreme poverty, John Song himself lived extremely simply. He insisted upon traveling third class on the train, when he could have afforded better seating and saved himself the crush of people which disturbed his concentration and his sleep. When given money for travel expenses, he typically returned it, or donated most of the funds to someone in greater need. He wore a plain Chinese-style scholar’s gown and carried a tattered leather briefcase.

He stayed wherever he found a welcome or a place to rest, which usually meant that he slept on hard surfaces, often infested with fleas or lice and surrounded by noise. He had many faults, including losing his temper over unpalatable food, but quickly repented, and usually simply accepted whatever he was given, sharing in the poverty of his hosts.

Unlike too many other popular evangelists, Song never took advantage of numerous offers of money that came his way, but stuck to his conviction that following Jesus meant forsaking comfort.

John Song brought relief to others not only by sharing in their material poverty, but sought ways to help out whenever he could. As I said above, he repeatedly gave money to those in greater need, denying himself and his family in the process. He also encouraged Christians to reach out to those who lacked material necessities.

Knowing that a great deal poverty stems from unwise and even wicked living, Song spoke frankly about such money-wasting sins as gambling and substance abuse, as well as wealth-destroying practices like theft and fraud. As his listeners turned from these evils, resources were freed up for better uses and money restored to those who had been defrauded. Corrupt officials and church leaders who renounced their evil ways began to lead their people in paths that preserved precious wealth and put it to productive uses.

Swamped by China’s immense suffering, however, John Song know full well that he could not fill the bellies of the hungry or generate income for the poor. He shared in the misery of his hearers, strengthened himself by his firm grasp upon the promises of God for a better future. The return of Christ figured largely in his preaching, as did reminders that soon all our needs would be more than fully supplied in a New Heaven and a New Earth. He was not trying to encourage complacent passivity, but to offer peace and strength for those who could not realistically expect things to change much in this life.

Social breakdown, family strife

The unraveling of Chinese society which had begun already in the 19th century continued unabated after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the inauguration of the Republic in 1911, as we have seen. John Song’s ministry addressed this social breakdown in a variety of effective ways.

Modernization, the collapse of Confucian values, and the widespread disorder of the years during which he ministered only exacerbated the already unbalanced structures of Chinese family life. John Song sternly rebuked all sexual immorality, pointing out the adultery of even church elders, deacons, and pastors in no uncertain terms. In the wake of his preaching and praying, men and women repented of infidelity and abuse and marriages were restored.

Conflict and strife afflict all too many churches, Chinese congregations among them. Everywhere he went, John Song sought earnestly to promote church unity. He attacked abuse by leaders; exhorted members to forgive and love each other; and taught them how to follow the meekness of Christ in their relationships with each other. He set a striking example of humility by quickly confessing his own offenses in public.[18] Apologies to interpreters whom he had treated harshly stunned both the individuals involved and the congregations who heard a great man admit his faults.[19]

Inter-church divisions troubled him deeply, as either congregations or denominations sought to protect their own “turf” or expand at others’ expense. Because some Western missionaries insisted upon retaining their power or their prestige, thus offending their Chinese associates, Song not infrequently had to administer sharp rebukes. Always, he sought to work with all the churches in the town or city to which he went, and urged them to cooperate with each other after he had departed.[20]

Profound spiritual hunger

From his own experience, John Song knew full well that our deepest need is for spiritual peace, a peace that can come only from a reconciled relationship with God. Bodily healing, sufficient funds for daily living, safety, and even harmonious personal relationships are all very good, but all only temporary. In the end, we shall all face death, and then the judgment of God. To those with a sensitive conscience and a longing to get right with God, Song offered a message of full pardon and forgiveness. Knowing that others were morally complacent, and even church members and leaders were living double lives of hypocritical pretense, he also courageously rebuked specific sins, as we have seen, and called everyone to repentance, lest the judgment of God fall upon them.

In his own words, he thought that the preacher should speak on

Repentance; Heaven and Hell, and the cross and the blood of Christ;…hating of sin and complete consecration; … being filled with the Holy Spirit; …the life of faith, as well as… love… In addition, one must live a life of hope.[21]

This balanced message of God’s severity and kindness, presented in telling fashion by a man who obviously lived before God with a tender conscience, moved countless hearers to tears.

He frequently records his wonder at the zeal to hear God’s Word which people were demonstrating:

The County Chief joined us [for a meal in a sister’s house]. He used to be a devout Buddhist, but now hungered for the Word.[22]

The foreigners in Shang Kang and a handful of preachers had come on foot and by vehicle, traveling a distance of some 300 li to attend our meetings. I take my hat off to these people whose hunger for the Word was great indeed.[23]

Some 3,000 people filled the church that night as another 1,000 or so spilled over beyond the surrounding walls… After the meeting, I went to take a look at their lodging area. Scores of people were crammed into small cubicles and sleeping on heaps of straw. The next morning, the crowd swelled to 5,500 people. In the afternoon some 4,000 followers sat on the ground under the hot afternoon sun and listened attentively to the sermon. Such hunger for the Word is rare indeed![24]

Even under such chaotic [wartime] conditions 1,000 people attended the meeting there… At the time I was suffering from a bad cold, but the spiritual hunger and the urgency in prayer displayed by the audience heartened me.”[25]

In Yuchang, I saw many of the people bringing their own food and walking long distances to the meetings. Each day they would eat 1 or 2 small loaves of bread (mantous) each. At night 50 people would crowd into one room. How could they sleep? Some would stand and others sit, living like this for 8 days. I had to exclaim, ‘Lord, how great is Your truth, that people would hunger after it so!’”[26]

John Song not only preached powerful sermons, usually in a series at one place; he also realized that more extensive Bible teaching was necessary both to fill the minds of disciples and to equip them for the ministry of evangelism he was mobilizing them to carry out after he left. Thus, he organized several Bible conferences, some of them lasting a full month, in which he would expound the entire Bible, book by book.[27] To supplement his oral instruction, he published his testimony and some sermons in several books, and presented others in a magazine.[28]

Here we see another way in which John Song differs from many other itinerant evangelists and revivalists. He believed that only systematic teaching of the Bible could satisfy the spiritual hunger of people beset by chaos and confusion, as long as that teaching relied on the power of the Holy Spirit to bring inner and lasting transformation. In fact, reliance upon the Holy Spirit stood at the center of Song’s ministry. When one person asked why his sermons were so powerful, he replied, “I forget myself whenever I preach, so that the Holy Spirit may be fully released… I have no wish to talk about knowledge, only about Truth that bears the mark of the Holy Spirit.”[29]

This dependence upon the Holy Spirit for power in preaching issued from a deep conviction that only God can satisfy the human heart. Amidst all the vicissitudes of life, only God’s Word can guide and comfort us. Only the Risen Christ can bring us peace with God through his sacrificial death upon the cross for repentant sinners, power to live lives of faith and purpose, and assured hope of eternal life. All these, Song believed, came to us from God’s inner working of the Spirit.

But not to individuals alone. Just as his preaching attracted large crowds, so his teaching encouraged them to live together in harmony, and his evangelistic bands worked as teams united by a common purpose. In all aspects of his ministry, therefore, he helped countless people to overcome the sense of alienation from each other and from God that is our
common lot.

Conclusion

From this brief examination of the life and ministry of John Song, we see how he, along with many other Chinese Protestants in the same era, brought peace, calm, and even joy and hope, in a world wracked by chaos and suffering.

Some sought to alleviate suffering and provide tools for better living through education or rural reform in the secular realm. Others, like Watchman Nee and John Song, worked with religious organizations to bring transformation from within the individual which would impact others as well. Both approaches were needed in a nation that was being shredded by every sort of stress and strife.

In particular, both Song and Nee worked outside the control of the denominations that had been established by Western missionaries, though Song welcomed their cooperation and usually held meetings in their buildings. The effect of these new ministries was to create an indigenous Chinese Christianity rooted firmly in the soil of Chinese culture but also reflective of the modernization that contact with the West had brought. They were thus able to channel rising nationalism and even xenophobia in a productive direction.

Though Song did not found a new denomination like Nee, he left a lasting legacy through his writings, personal story, and the impact that his ministry made upon untold people.

Notes

  1. The tumultuous story of China in the first half of the twentieth century has been well treated in the standard histories, such as John K. Fairbank, China: A New History, and Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, but also in more focused studies, such as Lloyd Eastman and others, editors, The Nationalist Era in China: 1927-1949 (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1991; taken from the Cambridge History of China); Diana Lary, China’s Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); James Sheridan, China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History 1912-1949 (New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Col., Inc., 1975); Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000)
  2. The following analysis will be based mostly upon two English versions of Song’s autobiography: The Diaries of John Sung, translated by Stephen L. Sheng, D.D.S. (930 E. Grand River, Brighton, Michigan 48116, 1995), which will be referred to as DJS; and The Journal Once Lost: Extracts from the Diary of John Sung, compiled by Levi (Song’s daughter), translated by Thng Pheng Soon (Singapore: Genesis Books: An imprint of Armour Publishing Pte Ltd, 2008), which will be referred to as JOL. The former of these two volumes, though considerably shorter, is easier to read than the latter, which is marred by poor translation and editing, though containing much more information from original sources.
  3. DJS 31.
  4. DJS 39.
  5. DJS 30.
  6. DJS, 40.
  7. DJS, 112. See also DJS, 109.
  8. JOL , 263.
  9. JOL, 307.
  10. “[I] first helped them to thoroughly confess their sins, then I anointed them with oil and laid hands on them and prayed for them.” DJS, 100.
  11. The term comes from Francis MacNutt, noted for his own healing ministry.
  12. See, for example, DJS, 120, 123-124.
  13. JOL, 443.
  14. DJS, 156.
  15. DJS, 157.
  16. DJS, 159.
  17. DJS, 122. See also 133
  18. DJS, 103; JOL, 369.
  19. JOL, 345.
  20. DJS, 99.
  21. DJS, 115. See also JOL, 342, 383-384, 408.
  22. JOL, 292.
  23. JOL, 293.
  24. JOL, 294.
  25. DJS, 123.26 DJS, 131.
  26. JOL, 341 344; for a full list of Bible conferences, see JOL, xxxiv-xxxvi.
  27. For a complete list of his publications, see JOL, xxxvii.
  28. JOL, 350-351. See also JOL 352, 380, 382-383