Christianity in China 1900-1950: The History that Shaped the Present

Today’s Chinese Christians have roots that go back over 200 years for Protestants and 400 years for Catholics. In my view a grasp of the essentials of that history, at least for the 20th century, is crucial for us to understand the Chinese church under Communist rule.In the first half of the 20th century, the foreign missionary movement in China matured, flourished and then died. In these same decades, a Chinese church was born, a church which is today growing incredibly rapidly. In effect, in the 50 years from 1900 to 1950, Christianity in China forsook its foreign origins and put on Chinese dress. The turbulent forces of history, which shaped all aspects of China’s politics, economy, and culture, also burst upon foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians. If we take a historical telescope and focus just on two years, 1932-1934, we can see the transformation of Christianity in China in mid-stream:

Pessimistic Portents

On an autumn day in 1932, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, born in China of missionary parents and herself a Presbyterian China missionary, strode to the podium in the ballroom of New York City’s Hotel Astor, to address 2,000 Presbyterian women. Perhaps the most famous missionary of the day, Buck, who had just received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth, addressed the topic, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?” While her answer was technically “yes,” it was so qualified and so unenthusiastic, and her criticisms of missionaries for being arrogant, ignorant, and narrow-minded so trenchant, that at the end the audience was stunned. They did not even applaud until Buck was almost off the stage. This event ignited a firestorm of agitated comment, pro and con, by critics and defenders of foreign missions, in almost all quarters of American Protestantism. It was a sign of the times.Another sign of the times was the publication just a few months earlier of a seven-volume study which had been commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the foremost individual financial supporter of missions in the U.S. This project, entitled “Rethinking Missions,” was condensed into a single volume and published under the title Rethinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years. Widely circulated and read, the Laymen’s Report forthrightly advocated an overhaul of missionary thinking, especially on such questions as the exclusivity of Christianity. On the whole, it was shot through with modernist theology, and although it greatly offended evangelical mission supporters, it was very influential.In 1932-33, Robert Service, former college track star at UC-Berkeley, who went to China in 1905 with his wife Grace, and who pioneered the establishment of YMCAs in West China, was faced with an unexpected early retirement. Having poured out his life in service to the Chinese people and in loyal commitment to the “Y” and its mission, he was sacked by YMCA headquarters in New York. Service was one of many thus cut loose or given involuntary retirement. In the midst of the Great Depression and dwindling contributions, the YMCA and other well-established missions in China had a massive financial crunch in the early 1930s. Their expensive institution-heavy facilities, especially hospitals, schools and colleges, swamped the mission budgets. Many missionaries headed home in the 1930s.

Positive Portents

Although it is clear that missions were on the defensive by the early 1930s, not all were, esp. not the evangelical ones. There were still enthusiastic young people answering the “call” to China. The China Inland Mission (CIM), that remarkable international creation of J. Hudson Taylor, continued the dramatic growth it had enjoyed since the late 1800s. Its “faith mission” principles (no denominational or other regular financial support) managed to adapt to the new climate of scarcity. Even as other missions were shrinking because of discouragement or shrinking budgets, the nondenominational CIM launched a successful campaign to add 200 missionaries. Learning of this campaign for “the 200,” the late David Adeney, a young British college student at Cambridge, felt a strong call to China. He came to north central China in 1934, and found his niche working with students, which he did until leaving China in 1950. He established personal ties which remained intact though dormant for more than 30 years, and which were renewed in heartwarming fashion in the 1980s when Adeney returned to China.In addition to continuing signs of life in the CIM and some other theologically conservative missions, a wave of Pentecostal revivalism was sweeping some parts of China. Its stress on the “gifts of the spirit,” including prophecy, divine healing, and speaking in tongues, had a huge impact on some missions. A host of new missionaries from small new missions or as individuals, almost all of them faith missionaries, arrived in China. Many of these were Pentecostals. A traveling Norwegian evangelist, Marie Monsen, was the catalyst for the famous “Shandong Revival,” with participants seeing and hearing tongues of fire and roaring winds, even falling down half-conscious. These new ideas and claims also fed the growth of most of the independent churches that were organizing by the 1920s.What was going on in the early 1930s among Chinese Christians? A portent of life and growth in the church was John Sung, a fiery independent evangelist/revival leader, traveling the country and drawing huge crowds. We can also see the Peking Fundamentalist pastor Wang Mingdao (who would have a fateful clash with the new regime in the 1950s) building his own “tabernacle” for services in Peking, in addition to doing speaking engagements all over China. Other independent Chinese Christian groups and leaders were leaving their mark on these years as well: Watchman Nee was working out his Holy Spirit-centered theology, the Jesus Family was learning how to live communally in rural Shandong province, and the True Jesus Church had grown explosively for more than a decade. All these were home-grown Christian movements, although all their founders came out of missionary-run churches.In these years it could still be dangerous to be a Christian in China, whether foreign or Chinese. A few months after David Adeney’s arrival in 1934, one of the most dramatic incidents of martyrdom in China missions history occurred. An attractive young couple who were products of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and had come to China a couple of years before, John and Betty Stam of the CIM, were stationed in a small city in Anhui province (central China). When Communist troops captured the city in late 1934, they beheaded the Stams, and killed some local Christians who pleaded for the foreigners’ lives, but spared their 3-month-old child, who was safely spirited to a nearby mission station. This story gained much publicity, and motivated many young people to go to the mission field. The historian cannot but remember the death of Yale graduate Horace Pitkin in the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Pitkin died along with more than ten other foreign missionaries—Presbyterian, Congregational, and CIM— in Baoding, not far from Peking. His death spurred a surge in mission applicants, many from East coast colleges, and the establishment of the Yale China Mission in the early 1900s.

The “Golden Age” of Missions?

The Boxer Uprising in which Horace Pitkin died in 1900 was a popular antiforeign movement which swept out of the north China plain and with which the Manchu court in Beijing allied itself, ordering the killing of all foreigners. It was a disaster for China. It involved not just the massacre of about 250 foreign missionaries, but also the slaughter of perhaps 20,000 or more Chinese Christians (and, it should not be forgotten, the reprisal killing of at least that many other Chinese by the occupying foreign troops of 8 nations in 1900-1902). Yet paradoxically these events, a true national trauma, by totally discrediting the policies of xenophobia of the past, triggered a national reform movement and an orientation towards the West. This gave Christian missions in China the largest opportunity they had ever had—truly a “Golden Age.” Mission schools suddenly had high prestige, and waiting lists. Members of the elite class became Christians. Rates of growth skyrocketed, especially for Protestants. After the revolution which overthrew the feeble Manchu dynasty in 1911-1912, the provisional president of the young Republic was Sun Yat-sen, a baptized Christian. The Republic’s second president in 1913 asked the foreign missionary community in China to pray for the nation. Protestant missionary numbers in China soared. Already at more than 1,300 in 1905, they reached 8,000 in 1925. Many Christians were confident that events were moving inexorably towards the “Christianization” of China.It was not to be. The Golden Age lasted less than 2 decades, until the mid-1920s. What went wrong? As I see it, Chinese history moved faster than missions history in those 20 years. During that time, practically all missions in China failed sufficiently to cultivate a Chinese leadership in their mission structures and to permit that leadership to shepherd the flock into independent and self-supporting local churches. The rhetoric of moving from (foreign) mission to (Chinese) church was always present, but it was mainly hollow. For example, whereas the big national missionary conference of 1907 only had a half-dozen Chinese delegates out of more than a thousand, the next major conference, in 1924, was called the “Christian (not ‘missionary’) Conference,” and more than half the delegates were Chinese. Moreover, many bright young well-educated Chinese took leadership roles in the various institutions of the Sino-foreign Protestant world. But looks were misleading; it appeared that the foreign mission establishment had given way to Chinese leadership, but it was at best a partnership, and an imbalanced one at that. For example, missionaries in almost all cases still controlled the purse-strings. The result was that the best Chinese leaders nurtured by the Protestants, for example Cheng Jingyi, respected head of the Church of Christ in China (a Sino-foreign denomination established 1927), and Yu Richang (David Z. T. Yui), gifted national secretary of the YMCA, never shed the image of being subordinate to foreign missionaries.The Protestants had Chinese in leadership roles where they had at least the appearance of responsibility and power, even if that power was limited by the close association with foreign missions The Roman Catholic church in China suffered even more from tokenism. The Catholic hierarchies in China, many of them dominated by the French, had for decades permitted (and closely supervised) the training of Chinese priests, who after ordination were given mundane tasks and little responsibility. But no Chinese bishops were consecrated until 1926, after a couple of maverick European missionary priests, in particular Fr. Vincent Lebbe, a Belgian, convinced the Pope to break the stranglehold that the European hierarchy had over the Chinese clergy. Even so, Chinese priests still continued to be largely relegated to secondary roles in the local parishes, and the new Chinese bishops were shunted into subsidiary functions.In fact there was almost certainly no conscious conspiracy of foreign missionaries to deprive Chinese leaders of the means of emerging and flourishing. There was often respect, genuine friendship, and collegial cooperation between missionaries and Chinese priests and pastors. But in the new political atmosphere that was brewing after 1920 in China, such ties were fatally compromising to the Chinese involved.In the 1920s, popular resentment against the decades-old legal and institutional structures of foreign privilege and immunities in China, which dated back to treaties signed by the Manchu government in the mid-1800s, boiled over. This popular nationalism fueled the rapid rise of the two major political parties which have dominated Chinese politics from the 1920s to the present: the Kuomintang (The Nationalists) and the Communists. Although the two parties became bitter rivals and then mortal enemies, they agreed totally on the need to eliminate as soon as possible foreign privilege, esp. foreign immunity from Chinese laws, which was so galling to Chinese patriots. This was as true of the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, himself a Christian convert and married to Soong Mei-ling, from one of China’s most prominent Christian families, as it was of the Communists, although under Chiang there were several other Christians in government and polite, even cordial, relations with the foreign mission establishment.Missionaries enjoyed these foreigners’ privileges as well. There had been an occasional missionary prophet (for example Frank Rawlinson, editor of the Shanghai missionary journal The Chinese Recorder), who warned that the seeds of the “treaty system,” as it was called, might bring a harvest of wrath someday. That day arrived in the mid-1920s, and the most radical elements of Chinese nationalistic opinion considered missionaries, and for that matter Chinese Christians as well, lackies of foreign governments and of “world capitalist exploitation”. These attitudes, which pervaded the Communist party, continued strong until the last foreign missionaries were expelled from China in 1951-1952 by the new government. In my view the missionary community, and the mission project as a whole, paid a high price for its failure to distance itself from at least some aspects of the structures of Western political, military, and economic power in China.This portrayal of the missionary record may seem unfair to some. Missions had brought many blessings to China. Chinese Christian schools had been the first places where Chinese could receive a modern education, and the first to permit enrollment of girls and to employ women teachers. Missionary hospitals and clinics had saved tens of thousands of lives, and missionary-coordinated famine relief saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Missionaries had been leaders in the movements to abolish the opium trade and to end the custom of binding and crippling the feet of young girls as a means of increasing their desirability for marriage. All in all, their contribution to the making of modern China was considerable. Yet they were reviled and demonized by the new regime after 1949, although they are quietly given credit for their accomplishments, and warmly welcomed back to visit, in China today.From the 1920s on occurred a development which was healthy in the long run: the growth of independent, wholly Chinese-led movements that had roots deep enough for the believers to hold fast when the storms came. At the time of establishment of the new government in 1949, it is likely that fully 25% of Protestants were in these independent churches. They constitute a surprisingly little-known story, with some fascinating personalities: Paul Wei, the Peking cloth dealer who founded the True Jesus Church; Jing Dianying, who developed and ruled rural Christian communities of the Jesus Family on the principles of common ownership and group-directed life; Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee); John Sung (Song Shangjie) and other talented members of the “Bethel Band” of zealous young musician-evangelists who spread revival all over China. Some women were important leaders, as well, for example Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu), whose Bethel Seminary in Shanghai produced the “Bethel Band.”

Conclusion: from Survival to Revival

If missions were anathema to many Chinese, and many Chinese Christians were tainted with a foreign identification, how did Christianity enter the Communist period after 1949 with enough resilience to survive the dark valley of 30 years and to flourish since 1980? One reason is that the missionary movement was not entirely ineffective in the 1930s and 1940s. After Japan went to war with China in 1937, most missionaries left, but hundreds stayed in “Free China”, beyond Japanese reach, and ministered during the Pacific War. (Even more, over 1000, were interned in camps by the Japanese, where most were not always abused but where many died, the best known of whom was Eric Liddell, of “Chariots of Fire” fame). Chinese Christians who remained under Japanese rule now suddenly had full responsibilities for their churches and fellowships, and many rose to the challenge, developing leadership skills that were later useful under Communism. And in the brief period between the Japanese surrender in Aug. 1945 and the communist victory in the civil war in 1949, a few thousand missionaries returned (including David Adeney). By this time the hated treaties were gone, and foreigners were under Chinese law. The CIM was the most active in sending back its missionaries, and sending new ones. But this only meant soon having to evacuate a few hundred CIM missionaries as the communists took the upper hand in the civil war, established their new govt. in 1949, and finally decided in 1951 to expel all foreign missionaries. Dramatic stories abound concerning the extrication of the last missionaries from the remote hinterlands of China.Thus ended the foreign missionary movement in China, but not the Christian movement. As we now know, resilient groups of believers carried on. They were to be found both in the missionary-related churches and especially in the indigenous, independent Christian movements which I have mentioned. I have told the story of the missionaries, the sincere but flawed sowers of the seed. And I have told the first part of the story of those Chinese Christians who carried the faith into the last half of the 20th century, and saw the bountiful harvest beginning in the 1980s.

ArticlesJason Truell