The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi Province Since 1876


The author received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation on Timothy Richard. He and his family have been living in Shanxi since 1997. He thus writes not only as a careful scholar but as an experienced resident in China who unmistakably loves the place and the people.

Disclosure: This history of Christian missions in Shanxi is the eleventh volume in the series, Studies in Chinese Christianity, edited by Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin and me.

Introduction: Why Shanxi?

The history of Christianity in Shanxi deserves more recognition, says the author, as the setting of a number of notable incidents: the first Christian multi-agency international relief effort; the deaths of more expatriate and Chinese Christians during the Boxer turmoil; and especially fierce resistance to Japanese aggression, in which Chinese and foreign Christians were caught up. A number of outstanding missionaries and Chinese believers served there, including Hudson Taylor, Timothy Richard, Pastor Xi, “the Cambridge Seven,” and Gladys Aylward.

Furthermore, these people had to deal with a number of issues that continue to challenge Christians today, like enculturation, the relationship between evangelism and humanitarian aid, and indigenous principles in missionary work.

He alerts the reader that the story will focus more on the earlier years for a variety of reasons, and that the city of Taiyuan receives more attention than other places, mostly because he has lived there for so long. He admits he has “allowed [his] own experience on the field to influence [his] editorial decisions.” He tells us he took the title of the book from a letter from a missionary in 1925 who remarked on the “rush” of his modern train through ancient Shanxi and said, “How much more fascinating [are] the rushing on of the purposes of God.”

Kaiser intends his book to be “an introduction . . . to Protestant mission in Shanxi,” in the hopes that the examples of those who have gone before will help “today’s cross-cultural workers . . . to avoid some of the mistakes of the past and to imitate earlier successes.”

Chapter 1: The Age of the Pioneers (1876–1899)

United Response to the Famine

Shanxi had been known as a prosperous province of China for centuries by the time Joshua Turner and Francis H. James of the China Inland Mission arrived in 1876 with the intention of starting a local church. Roman Catholics had been present in Shanxi for a long time. Turner and James left after a short stay, returning in 1877 as the great famine was beginning. They tried to alleviate the suffering caused by the famine, but succumbed to famine fever and exhaustion and had to leave again. Timothy Richard, a missionary with the Baptist Foreign Mission, had begun his career in Shandong but was asked to visit Shanxi to investigate conditions there and make recommendations for foreign assistance.

The suffering he witnessed there, graphically described by Kaiser, moved him to the depths of his soul, and his reports were used to mobilize foreign missionary organizations and governments to raise money for famine relief. Richard decided to work closely with local magistrates, though that meant some frustration. They were suspicious of his motives but soon learned to trust him. Hundreds of thousands were given cash with which to buy food in a massive effort that consumed everyone’s energy and attention for months.

The CIM responded by sending J. Hudson Taylor’s second wife Jennie (nee Faulding) and several other women to establish orphanages for children whose parents had died, and who would otherwise be liable to being sold, or worse. They also set up elder care shelters and an “industrial school” for children.

After the famine had eased, missionaries, including Richard and his new wife Mary Martin, as well as those from the CIM, settled permanently in Taiyuan to preach the gospel and to establish schools, in an atmosphere that had helped to turn previous anti-Christian prejudice into admiration for a religion that would motivate foreigners to spend themselves for the welfare of the Chinese. Richard, who had early found street preaching to be ineffective, broadened the usual categories of “evangelism” by concentrating his efforts upon the educated elite, whom he saw as the “worthy” mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 10:11; by giving lectures on Western science; and by writing tracts that were not explicitly Christian but that indirectly pointed people towards Christian morals and concepts. He later also lectured on Marxism and translated a work on Marxist social economics.

During this period, relations between Richard and the CIM were cordial, mutually respectful, and affectionate.

Unity Broken

Sadly, the harmonious relationship was shattered when Richard’s influence upon CIM workers, among other things, began resulting in disaffection within the CIM and between the unhappy missionaries and CIM General Director Hudson Taylor. As Kaiser points out, a number factors were at work: Dissatisfaction with the relatively “low” standard of living which the CIM expected of its members; the requirement that they wear Chinese dress; accusations that Taylor’s leadership style was too authoritarian; clear differences between CIM missionary methods and those practiced and urged upon others by Timothy Richard; perceived theological differences; and personality conflicts. Finally, Taylor ordered his people to leave the formerly united church service and form a new church. Later, a number of missionaries left the CIM either to form another society, the Shouyang Mission (SYM), or to join Richard’s Baptist mission.

After Richard returned with his wife from his first furlough, he faced criticism from members of his own mission for what would now be called “liberal” theology. A BMS commission in London eventually cleared him of this charge.

Throughout all this, Richard expressed perplexity over Taylor’s apparent unwillingness to compromise, maintain unity, and accept both Richard’s missionary methods and his theology as valid. Others since then since then, including, it seems, Kaiser, have taken Richard’s side. Kaiser says several times that Hudson “split” the church in Taiyuan and claims Richard’s theology and basic missionary methods were not that different from those espoused by Taylor and other “evangelicals,” as they would now be termed.

For my assessment of this sad series of events, see “Evaluation” in Part II of this review.

Moving On

As with Paul and Barnabas long ago, however, this conflict resulted in a scattering of missionaries and the diffusion of the gospel in other areas of Shanxi. Kaiser tells the story of workers from the BMS, CIM, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and others.

He paints a vivid picture of the activities of missionary women, who often used an evangelistic tool called “the Wordless Book,” as well as visiting women in homes, caring for orphans and the elderly, and teaching in Christian schools.

From the early days, medical ministry played a prominent role. Pastor Xi, a converted opium addict who later became a powerful evangelist, preacher, church leader, and founder of a series of opium refuges, had been a practitioner of Chinese medicine. R.H. Schofield, a brilliant physician with the CIM who died tragically early, set the pace for later medical missionaries and had a major hospital named after him. The epidemic of opium addiction called forth various measures, including the controversial use of graduated doses of morphine, which Kaiser, following Alvyn Austin and many contemporary secular critics, treats critically.

More helpfully, the section on “missionary life in nineteenth-century Shanxi” paints a vivid portrait of the varied ministries of missionaries from different societies; the preparation that was given – or not given – to them before they arrived; the strict and usually effective language training offered by the CIM; the multiple hardships of missionary life, beginning with the arduous journey just to get to Shanxi, as well as primitive housing, poor food, and illness; their relative wealth compared to the Chinese around them; and the ongoing conflict within the CIM and between it and the BMS.

And the results? Everyone agreed that progress was painfully slow, and that the number of converts relative to the number of missionaries was disappointingly low—until, that is, the traumatic events of the summer of 1900.

Chapter 2: The Boxer Turmoil (1900)

Often referred to as the Boxer Rebellion, this wildly destructive rebellion began in Shandong and then spread to other northern provinces, including Shanxi. It stemmed from a number of causes, including anti-Manchu sentiment coupled with outrage over Germany’s occupation of the port of Jiaozhou in 1897. This action demonstrated “to all that the foreigners were now dictating demands to a wakened and impoverished Chinese state. These affronts, combined with a long record of German Catholic interference in local affairs, sparked the kindly of latent anti-foreignism in Shandong.”

The building of railroads, steamships, and the telegraph had cost thousands of jobs, with the railroads especially disrupting the fengshui which the Chinese considered essential to harmony between Heaven and earth. When a terrible drought led to famine in 1900, small fires burst into a huge conflagration.

Anti-Christian sentiment, noted above, had arisen in response to the practice of Roman Catholic priests and bishops of interfering with the administration of justice by invoking treaty provision protecting Christians from lawsuits, even when they were guilty. Protestants sometimes did the same but much less often. Thus, when even Protestants were targeted by the Boxers in Shanxi, it came as a shock.

Kaiser’s meticulously researched chapter traces the course of the turmoil, explains how the various types of martial arts groups coalesced into the Society of Harmonious Fists (“Boxers”); describes the manner in which they enlisted the help of demonic forces that possessed them and incited them to wild and barbaric acts; details the “power and prevalence of” rumors alleging horrible crimes by missionaries; and tells the story of how both foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians were attacked and often massacred, especially in Shanxi. Quite a number of Chinese believers risked everything, including their lives, to shelter or aid the missionaries.

Many missionaries and Chinese were killed outright, often after torture, but other foreigners died as they tried to flee to safety. Their treatment by angry Chinese officials and citizens in towns through which they passed makes for grisly reading, but their courage, devotion to Christ, and determination to return to Shanxi evince great faith and love. One wrote to his mother of their trials and the deaths of family members:

The Lord has honored us by giving us fellowship in His sufferings. Three times stoned, robbed of everything, even clothes, we know what hunger, thirst, nakedness, weariness are as never before, but also the sustaining grace and strength of God and His peace in a new and deeper sense than ever. . . And now you know the worst, mother, I want to tell you that the Cross of Christ, that exceeding glory of the Father’s love, has brought continual comfort to my heart, so that not one murmur has broken the peace of God within.

Kaiser summarizes, “Already, those who had survived were looking forward to the future. Their sufferings had only served to increase their longing for God’s Kingdom to grow in Shanxi.”

After foreign troops from eight nations occupied Tianjin and Beijing and then spread out into the countryside to eradicate all Boxer resistance, widespread looting, slaughter, and rape were carried out, especially by the Russians and Japanese. Because the Boxers had simply removed their red scarves and “melted into the population,” they could not be easily identified, so more Chinese people suffered from foreign troops than from the Boxers. Internecine strife also ravaged the province of Shanxi, as Catholic villages revived old conflicts with pagan ones. Famine and want once again stalked the land.

While order was being restored, the question of indemnity for losses suffered by Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries came up. In general, as Kaiser records, the Protestants were far more lenient in their demands than the Roman Catholics. Among the Protestants, the CIM stood out by first recording their losses in detail and then renouncing all claims. Other societies demanded reparations for property and lives, and all were especially concerned that Chinese Christians be compensated. American societies were the most insistent upon demanding their “rights” for repayment and sought help from their government.

Timothy Richard, who believed strongly in the value of Western education for the Chinese, demanded and received money to start a new university, one that included a Western Studies Department. This was the beginning of the modern Shanxi University.

Continued in Part II

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle