Huangshan, China

Christianity in China

Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950

Review by Martha Stockment
Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950, Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1997.

his volume is a collective biography of forty seven Alabama missionaries who served in China between 1850 and 1950. The chapters are separated topically, addressing major issues the missionaries faced. Within each chapter are stories about select missionaries, meant to illustrate both the individual lives and the broader experiences that they shared. Although this approach makes it somewhat difficult to get a comprehensive story on any one of the missionaries, the authors include an appendix with a short biography of each missionary and an index listing the page numbers where the specific missionary is mentioned. In this way, readers can piece together the lives of each missionary. The topical approach allows the reader to come away with a larger picture of missions in China during the time in which these Alabama missionaries served. It also allows the authors to address the question of whether the Alabama missionaries during this time period failed in their mission, as many historians suggest, or whether they succeeded in their labors to spread Christianity among the Chinese. This volume posits the latter.

The Mission

The first chapter addresses the strategy and tactics of missionaries in China. Missionary attitudes changed over time, and the authors propose there are three broad epochs which define the Protestant missionary experience in China. The first lasted until 1880 and centered on individual converts through evangelism. Growth during this period was slow. The second period lasted from 1880 through 1920 and focused on social ministries: education, medicine, science, etc. This period was the most successful in terms of the number of Chinese converts. The third period began after 1920 and ended with the Chinese civil war between Nationalists and Communists in 1950, which forced out the Alabama missionaries. This period was characterized by a decline in missions, brought about by internal conflict, Chinese opposition, and declining support back home.

Historians have leveled criticisms against the missionaries to China, accusing them of cultural, economic, and political imperialism and of emphasizing evangelism over social ministry. However, these charges are more accurate for early nineteenth century missionaries, not their colleagues in the twentieth century. Many of these missionaries sought to learn the Chinese culture and adapt to Chinese social norms. They also tried to involve the Chinese in leadership and make Christianity self-sufficient in China. The authors propose that a new culture emerged among the missionaries which was neither wholly Chinese nor wholly Alabamian, but a combination of the two.

Alabama Culture and the Missionary Enterprise

To understand the Alabama missionaries, it is important to understand the culture from which they came. Most of Alabama was rural, with over half of the population living on farms. Public health was poor and illiteracy rates were high. Individualism reigned, and denominational discord thrived. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were suspicious of one another and argued over doctrinal differences. Fundamentalism vs. modernism was beginning to create inner turmoil even within denominations. Racism infiltrated all of society, even the churches. Women occupied a subordinate sphere relative to men. This is the culture that the missionaries brought with them to China and the culture from which Alabama missionaries found themselves departing once they reached China.

Preparing for China Missions

The Alabama missionaries were well-educated and professional; they were the best and brightest of their time. They were teachers, physicians, ministers, nurses, businessmen, journalists, and bookkeepers. Most were from large and supportive families. All went through the same basic steps of conversion, experiencing a call to missions in China (which many initially resisted), and obtaining an education. Most missionaries then married, many of them simply for convenience, as most mission boards discouraged single missionaries, especially in earlier years. The last stage of preparing for China missions was the journey there, which was often long and arduous.

First Contact with China

When the missionaries arrived in China, they were greeted by veteran missionaries and transported to the missionary compound, where they lived in the homes of other missionaries for a period of time. The veterans would show them around the city, introduce them to Chinese, arrange for a language teacher, and guide them through social customs. Learning to speak Chinese was one of the greatest difficulties the missionaries faced. Two years of exclusive language study resulted in bare literacy, but lifelong study was necessary to become truly fluent.

Understanding Chinese Culture

The missionaries faced the difficulty of how to merge two cultures while maintaining respect for each. Traditional Chinese culture contained the philosophies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, which had to be challenged in order to demonstrate the need for salvation. However, missionaries had to figure out how to differentiate essential Christianity from the peripheral so that they were not tempted to dispute aspects of the Chinese culture that were not in conflict with the Christian faith. As missionaries studied Chinese culture, they became increasingly sensitive to it, and gradually began to learned to separate Western culture from Christianity. To be successful missionaries, they had to understand Chinese culture and relate to the Chinese as equals, which the missionaries began to do better and better as they engaged with the Chinese over time.

Missionary Life in China

Living in a strange land, the missionaries turned to their life at home and their families as a refuge. Vacations in China were important times of respite. Furloughs back home were less restful, as they had to travel and give speeches for mission societies and denominational boards. However, contact back home was still important to the missionaries, who often experienced homesickness in their early years. Health problems also affected the Alabama missionaries; the mortality rate among wives was especially high. Missionaries experienced constant financial problems; stipends were low and they received inadequate funding for their projects. Life in China was often difficult.

Reporting Home about China

For the uneducated population of Alabama, the most important source of international awareness came from the missionaries. Missionaries communicated, recruited, and raised funds from their constituents. While home on furloughs, missionaries had to accept invitations to speak at missionary societies and denominational meetings to generate support and enthusiasm. The denominations relied on money raised from lay people to support the missionaries, so generating funds was vital. Recruiting was also important work; many missionaries cited the appeal of other missionaries as their reason for going to China.

Missionary Work

All of the Alabama missionaries worked in one of the following careers while in China: preacher, physician, nurse, teacher, or housewife. All of these professions had the same goal: to convert Chinese. Initially, the missionaries relied on preaching in order to witness to the Chinese. However, they found that this method was slow, and they turned to other things like medicine and teaching to open the doors of communication for the gospel. Missionaries wielded a powerful influence in China through their schools, where China’s economic and political leadership was formed. Physician missionaries in China were well-respected because of their power to heal, and Chinese listened to their testimony. Over time, the missionaries found these two avenues to be most effective in reaching Chinese hearts.

Woman Consciousness among Alabama Missionaries

Male contact with females in China was limited, so Western women were needed to evangelize among the Chinese women. Although this defied cultural norms back home, where women were not supposed to speak publicly, circumstances in China forced women to preach. If they did not do it, there was no one else who could reach the Chinese women. Missionaries also saw the influence that women in China had over their children and felt that the conversion of Chinese women was important in raising a new generation of Christians. Married missionary women were often too busy with responsibilities at home, so single women were more effective at missions work. They sought to liberate the Chinese women from some of their more restrictive customs by forbidding foot binding in their schools and protesting certain arranged marriages. They also sought to model greater equality among the sexes through their application of Christian principles to family life.

By far the most famous of these intrepid women was Lottie Moon, who became the icon of Southern Baptist missions.

Conflict among Alabama Missionaries

Missionaries experienced conflict both with other Westerners in China and with other missionaries. Businessmen in China criticized missionaries when their efforts threatened harmonious business relations, and missionaries criticized imperialistic sympathies and lax living among businessmen. Missionaries fought amongst themselves both because of differences in personality and temperament and because of disagreements over policy and theology. Although missionaries saw the need for cooperation in China and denominations worked together more than they did back home, the clash between modernist and conservative theology was still a major source of conflict.

Missionaries also fought with their own mission boards over finances (missionaries wanted to be able to solicit their own funds) and at what point Chinese churches were ready to be self-supporting (missionaries often pushed for the Boards to allow Chinese churches to become self-supporting before the Boards thought the churches were ready). The Boards often could not understand the missionary’s position since they were not present in China.

Missionaries and Chinese Politics

In a time when Westerners penetrated their country both secularly and religiously, it was hard for the Chinese to distinguish between the two. The Opium War between the British and Chinese government opened up Chinese port cities to both trade and missionaries. Although missionaries disagreed with the opium trafficking, they benefited from the opening of treaty ports. The Taiping Rebellion, which considered itself Christian, led to fears of foreign Christianity. Anti-missionary violence broke out over what the Chinese considered to be a heterodox faith, and the resulting Boxer Rebellion threatened even more lives. For a brief period after the Boxer uprising, missionaries saw unprecedented progress for the church. In time, however, China saw a decline in its position among world powers and reacted with a strong display of nationalism, eventually leading to the birth of the Communist Party in China. Missionaries denounced the Communist Party as anti-Christian and feared the death of Christianity in China should Communism win out.

The Second World War put a temporary halt to this, as American missionaries united with their Chinese brethren, urging the United States to stop Japanese aggression. In the midst of war, many of the missionaries chose to remain in China, offering much-needed social ministries. This demonstration of faithfulness amidst tribulation resulted in a new bonding between the missionaries and Chinese. The civil war between the Communists and anticommunists in China after the end of World War II ultimately resulted in victory by the Communist Party, and Mao Zdong proclaimed the new People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The Communist Party launched a movement to end foreign presence in China, and missionaries were forced to leave the country.

The Legacies of Alabama Missionaries in China

At first, missionary efforts in China appeared to be a failure. Communism led to the apparent disappearance of Christianity in China, and the missionaries appeared to have been complicit in the cultural imperialism historians denounced. After Mao’s death, however, Christianity in China underwent a revival. Persecution in China had strengthened Christianity there, rather than quenching it. And although they sometimes meddled politically, the missionaries left an important and positive cultural legacy of schools, modern medicine, and more. Many of their children returned to China to serve as missionaries. Although the numbers of Chinese converts were small, the missionaries planted seeds that bore fruit, and many of the converts were concentrated in Chinese leadership. Ultimately, China changed the missionaries more than they changed China. The Alabama culture they brought with them was challenged by the culture of China, and a new culture emerged, one in which the missionaries took on new roles and developed new views on the most effective way to spread Christianity among the Chinese.

This well-researched and engagingly written volume deserves widespread and careful reading by all who study the history of missions.