On the Road to Siangyang: Covenant Mission in Mainland China 1890–1949


Jack Lundbom, a member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, has published notable works in biblical studies, including Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (2015) and Jeremiah (Cascade Books, 2015). On the Road to Siangyang is a labor of love and comes out of his own affiliation with the Evangelical Covenant Church, formerly known as the American Mission Covenant. Drawing upon an unusually rich store of personal conversations with former missionaries and their family members, as well as Chinese Christians, and supported by extensive documentation, this book will prove to be a gold mine for historians of missionary work in China. More than five dozen photographs of people and places from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first century bring the narrative to life.

(Disclosure: The author of this review is co-editor of the series in which this book is published and had a hand in the editing process.)

Chapter 1: “The American Mission Covenant Goes to China”

The American Mission Covenant began work in China with the arrival in November 1890 of pioneer missionary Peter Matson, who served for more than sixty years and laid the foundation for the entire ministry. Landing in Shanghai, he went immediately to the headquarters of the China Inland Mission (CIM), where he was warmly received by Deputy Director John Stevenson, invited to live on the CIM premises, and given introductory lessons in Mandarin by none other than Frederick William Baller, the head of the CIM language school for men in Anqing. Baller must have taught him well, for Matson went on to become quite proficient in Chinese and even taught other Covenant missionaries the language.

A week later, joined by the Rev. K. P. Wallen and his wife Mia Wallen, his first co-workers, he went with Baller to Anqing for further language study, dressed in Chinese clothes. The next year, he travelled with a CIM missionary to Fancheng, sister city to Siangyang, in northern Hubei Province. Consultation with Swedish Covenant missionaries resulted in an agreement whereby the American Covenant missionaries would concentrate their labors south of Fancheng, and the Norwegian Lutherans would focus on the area north of that city, with the allowance that both could work in Fancheng. This was a “comity” agreement meant to reduce unnecessary competition among missionaries and confusion among the Chinese.

Discussions with Howard Taylor, and then with Howard’s father, J. Hudson Taylor, led to the American Covenant missionaries taking over the lease on a property which CIM workers had once occupied and from which they had withdrawn. All along, the CIM and the Covenant missionaries enjoyed amicable relationships.

The next three chapters describe the Covenant mission’s three major types of work: Preaching, evangelism, and establishing a Chinese church; medical and benevolence work; and education work.

Chapter 2: “Preaching, Evangelism, and Establishing a Chinese Church”

When Matson and the Wallens began, tensions in China were already simmering with anti-foreign hostility that would eventually explode into the Boxer Movement. The early missionaries sometimes met with violence. Matson was mobbed, stoned, and almost killed at least twice, and good friends in the Swedish Covenant Mission were brutally killed. Additionally, two of his children died in infancy from the heat and poor sanitary conditions. Life was not easy, but they persevered and finally won the trust of the people.

They sold written works including tracts, Gospels, New Testaments, or the entire Bible, and they preached in a street chapel attached to their home. One-to-one conversations, especially with women, and the use of study groups, catechumen classes, literacy classes, and women’s societies where mothers were taught how to care for their babies rounded out their strategy. Reception by the Chinese moved from hostility to indifference to growing interest, and slowly a small congregation began to gather for worship. By 1902, after the Boxer Rebellion, more than 300 crowded into a new chapel on the mission compound in Siangyang. (Like most missionaries, they lived in a walled compound, complete with Western-style houses, a chapel, school buildings, and a hospital.)

Very quickly, new converts, some from the scholar class, not only professed faith but also offered themselves for education in the Bible and then as evangelists and church workers. In 1903 there were eight Covenant missionaries and sixteen Chinese helpers in the field.

For several years, growth came gradually, but in 1910 a great revival occurred, bringing fervent cries of repentance, urgent pleas for forgiveness, and changed lives, mostly among churchgoers and “backsliders.”

Music formed a basic component of life and ministry from the beginning. In time, new translated hymns added to the repertoire which had been growing since the early nineteenth century. The Chinese learned to sing well, and several excellent choirs were formed.

The Mission Covenant reached its high point in 1925, when there were fifty-two missionaries, 175 Chinese co-workers, forty-six outstations, and 2,255 students in various mission schools. After that, banditry and fighting among warlords, the great evacuation of 1927, the Japanese invasion, and Communist incursions constantly disrupted evangelism and church planting efforts. Japanese bombs killed civilians and destroyed mission buildings. Everyone had to leave the field eventually, as the Communists pushed the Nationalists from more and more territory. All the missionaries were gone by the end of 1949.

The goal always was to turn over all responsibility for the mission to Chinese Christians. These years of chaos, periodic missionary absence, and finally their complete departure were used by God to accomplish a process that otherwise would have taken much longer.

Chapter 3: “Medical and Benevolence Work”

This chapter, like those that follow, describes Covenant activities and personnel who engaged in ministry in Siangfan (the combined cities of Siangyang and Fancheng), Nanchang (Nanzhang), Icheng (Yicheng), Kingmen (Jingmen), and Kingchow (Jingzhou).

Peter Matson began treating the Chinese with simple remedies soon after he arrived in the area. When trained nurses and physicians joined the team, the ministry of healing expanded. “A great stride was taken when Bethesda Union Hospital officially opened in 1915” (74). By 1927, about 700 patients were being treated annually in the hospital, and over 10,000 in the dispensary. A nurses’ training school prepared Chinese Christian women for future medical work. As with other mission hospitals, evangelism by Chinese staff supplemented the work of doctors and nurses. Most of the other Covenant stations also had a dispensary to augment and support the proclamation of the gospel.

Foreign missionaries and their Chinese colleagues shared in all the hardships that befell the war-stricken region throughout the troubled period of the first half of the twentieth century. They too suffered the loss of spouses, children, friends, and neighbors. Refusing to abandon the people they had come to serve, they treated the sick and the wounded despite bombings, temporary occupation by armies, shortage of medical supplies, and all the other stresses that would have disheartened or frightened away others with less commitment.

Chapter 4: “Educational Work”

The Covenant Mission had decided to open schools for Chinese boys and girls from the very start. Peter Matson married Christine Swenson from the Swedish Covenant Mission in 1893. Christine, a trained teacher, saw the need for a girls’ school, so schools for girls and boys were begun. By 1895 they had forty pupils.

Soon schools for rural children were added, with classes meeting in Chinese homes. Matson regularly rode to these on horseback to hear the students’ lessons and to preach to the farmers. In 1900 a middle school in Siangyang offering some high school subjects expanded the ministry. This developed into the Siangyang Academy, directed by Carl J. Nelson, the first full-time Covenant educational missionary in China. Not all the students became Christians, of course, but the author tells the stories of some who did and who went on to render outstanding service to the Mission.

Like many other mission organizations, “Covenant mission schools quite purposely emphasized elementary, secondary, and higher education as being important in the work of evangelization. The aim was to establish an indigenous church with qualified Chinese leaders in all aspects of the work” (102–3). Some missionaries considered their role to be not only “supplemental, but indispensable” (102). Again like almost all missions (the CIM being a notable exception), “Covenant mission schools also emphasized social reform, which included the advancement and education of girls” (103).

Partly because of this educational ministry, “the people of Nanchang received the missionary not with suspicion and threats, but with a glad welcome” (104). Sometimes country folk would come to the missionaries and ask that a school be opened for the children of their village.

With the goal of building an indigenous church in mind, the American Mission Covenant joined with the Swedish Mission Covenant to establish a seminary in Kingchow. When the seminary was dedicated in 1909, the “Tarter general, in rank above the viceroy, came in person to offer his congratulations, and he honored the school with an inscription . . . expressing the sentiment that now China and the West were united in their efforts for the welfare of the people” (106). A preparatory middle school was added to the seminary in 1911, allowing the seminary to raise its requirements for admission and eventually to offer a full four-year course.

Unlike most mission educational endeavors in the coastal cities, which proved to be a secularizing influence in society, more than 50 percent of students who graduated from the middle school in Kingchow went on to serve in Christian work as teachers in the schools, evangelists, or pastors. As one missionary said, “This is a unique record. . . . As a result our mission is fairly well supplied with native workers with good training, while many other missions are constantly in lack of such men and women” (109).

When the Nationalist government required all schools to register and put a ban on religious education in primary schools in 1927, the Mission closed its middle schools and turned over its primary schools to the Chinese, who could decide how to proceed. Most of the Mission’s educational work was thus dismantled. The government also demanded that students and staff bow to the picture of Sun Yat-sen in the school assembly meeting. Both missionaries and Chinese Christians thought this was “coming too close to idolatrous worship,” and objected to the rule, which was eventually rescinded in 1930 (113).

To aid in educational ministry, Covenant missionaries “translated books, articles, and hymns into Chinese, some of which were published by the Covenant” (117). Included were major Bible reference works and a hymnbook.

Banditry, civil war, and the Japanese invasion created major disruptions, of course. General Ho Lung and his Third Red Army were active in southern Hubei from 1928 to 1931. They destroyed mission property and kidnapped three missions, whose ordeal is told in Appendix 1. As the Communists gained control, all mission activity, including the schools, eventually came to an end.

Chapter 5: “China in the Twenty-first Century”

Between 2008 and 2014, author Dr. Lundbom traveled to China. Aside from visiting major cities like Shanghai and Nanjing, he returned to the cities where American Mission Covenant missionaries had labored for more than fifty years before their departure. This long (fifty-page) chapter traces his journeys, sometimes day-by-day, and is especially enriched by photographs of these sites as they appear today.

Lundbom found what most other foreigners have discovered—that the narrative of the persecuted church, so widespread in the West, is no longer accurate. Restrictions remain, to be sure, and corporate public expression of the Christian faith is not legal outside the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement / China Christian Council network. Still, the churches he saw were thriving, some using the former structures that had been renovated and others using newer buildings. Everywhere he went, the author was warmly hosted as a “descendant” of the missionaries, who are honored for their sacrificial service.


The story of the three captured missionaries in Appendix 1 is follow by a short contemporary account of the martyrdom of three missionaries by Communists in 1948 (Appendix 2).

In sharp contrast, Appendix 3, composed by a Chinese Christian, presents “A Brief Introduction of Christianity in Nanzhang Country” as of 2008.

Appendix 4 consists of thumbnail sketches of covenant missionaries in China, some of them rather substantial. It is a gold mine of information that will serve scholars well.

Appendix 5 gives a list of former and current spellings of the Romanized version of place names found in the text.


On the Road to Siangyang joins a growing body of books and articles that almost completely refute the common image of Western missionaries shared by both Western and Chinese educated elites.

This unadorned historical narrative, written in a spare, sometimes catalogue-like style, shows that the missionaries were not agents of foreign governments who came to mislead, exploit, or oppress the Chinese people or to weaken the Chinese state. They were, on the whole, not arrogant, proud, hopelessly ethnocentric, or disdainful of the “natives,” but sincerely dedicated to the temporal and eternal welfare of the people they came to serve, often at great cost.

Though these missionaries often lived in Western-style dwellings beyond compound walls, this was to provide them with space, safety, cleanliness, and order so that they could live and work in China over the long term. From the beginning, they hoped that an indigenous Chinese church would develop, though they often failed to pursue this goal in the most effective ways. For example, they may have poured too many resources into expensive institutions that would be hard to maintain after they left, and they may have held on to positions of authority far too long. They laid a solid foundation, nevertheless—one which has been built upon well by Chinese believers.

And they did not, as many opined with confidence in the mid-twentieth century, “fail.” The author’s travel narrative shows how the seeds sown in sorrow have borne abundant fruit, despite (apparently) having lain fallow for decades. Their forcible expulsion, much lamented at the time, was used by God to bring about that fully contextualized Chinese church which they all longed to see.