Revival Preaching and the Indigenization of Christianity in Republican China
This important article highlights significant issues in the study of the indigenization of Christianity in China. Gloria Tseng, who is Associate Professor of History at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, is currently working on a history of twentieth-century Chinese Christianity.
Born in Taiwan, Tseng is able to draw upon Chinese-language sources in a way that few western scholars can match, and yet she enjoys the benefits of a strong western-style education in historical research.
Hardly anyone could have foreseen the rise of powerful and popular revival preachers in the hostile atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s. Widespread anger at the West had spawned a corresponding anti-Christian attitude, especially among Chinese intellectuals, leading to the withdrawal of many western missionaries. At the same time, growing theological liberalism among those missionaries had reduced the numbers of those who preached the traditional evangelical message of Jesus Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and coming back to save those who repent of their sins and believe in him.
Though both Wang Mingdao and John Song (Song Shangjie) came from Christian homes, they otherwise differed in many respects. They shared a fundamental similarity, however: a conviction that the Bible is true and that the historic Christian gospel must be preached widely so that their fellow Chinese could be delivered from their sins and come to know God through faith in Christ. Each one traveled widely throughout China; preached countless sermons; focused on expounding the Scriptures; exposed sin and called for radical commitment to Christ; and opposed modernist theology.
Both Wang and Song criticized the liberalism that had affected many western missionaries and some Chinese leaders in the “mainline” denominations. Though Song began his preaching career working under a westerner, he later embarked on a completely independent preaching ministry; Wang was free from foreign attachment from the beginning. Both men, nevertheless, accepted invitations from western missionaries and Chinese denominational ministers to speak in their churches, although both were also fearless in their indictment of hypocrisy and corruption among Chinese clergy and missionaries.
Neither Wang nor Song valued academic theological training. Wang never went to a seminary or Bible school, and Song totally rejected the liberal theology to which he had been exposed during his brief time at Union Seminary in New York. Each one relied mostly on his own exegesis of the Scriptures. Of the two, Wang seems to have stuck more closely to the text. Song’s interpretive methods have been criticized as “fanciful,” though he did preach from the Bible and hone in on the central tenets of the gospel message. Selected sermons and articles of both men are available and very popular among Chinese believers. Tseng holds that Wang’s printed sermons and articles are more helpful than Song’s for believers today. Still, their utter rejection of theological education of any sort is seen as unfortunate for the Chinese church. Happily, this attitude has changed among younger Christian leaders.
The author concludes that “the ministries of Wang and Sung illustrate ways the timeless and universal Christian message of salvation took root in historically and culturally specific circumstances.” She goes on: “In both cases, one sees that the indigenization of Christianity in early twentieth-century China defies reductionist sociological or political explanations.” In sum, they demonstrate that the old biblical message can take root in China when Chinese Christians proclaim it clearly and boldly, and with lives of zeal, courage, and faith.
Tseng’s brief study is a helpful balance to the claims of those who say that Chinese people have no concept of sin and cannot be reached effectively by a message centering on the cross of Christ, as well as to historical works that focus on the Chinese and foreign Protestant “Establishment” in the first half of the twentieth century. The great success of Wang and Song in their own day, and the continuing popularity of their printed sermons and articles, remind us to be careful to avoid generalizations about what Chinese people will be able to hear and an undue emphasis upon the “mainline” denominations of Republican China.
This article, and all the contents of the IBMR, may be freely accessed online at www.internationalbulletin.org.
For more on John Song and Wang Mingdao, see the articles on them in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. For some lessons from the careers of John Song and Wang Mingdao, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide.