The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi Province since 1876, Part II

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. I did not, however, have a part in the production of this particular work.

Part Two

Chapter 3: The Golden Age of Mission (1901-1937)

After the Boxer turmoil, returning missionaries met with a mixed reception. Some Chinese were much more open to the gospel than before, partly because of the way that those who had suffered for their faith faced death with peace and even joy. Jonathan Goforth, returning from the massive revivals in Manchuria, came to the province and held meetings at which Christians showed the same willingness to repent and be renewed by the Spirit. With his ministry, Pentecostalism had entered Shanxi. Other missionaries met sullen resentment in the countryside, where Boxer sentiment lingered.

Modernization came quickly to Shanxi under the governorship of Yan Xishan, who was also friendly to missionaries. Railroads, the telegraphy, Western education, and other accoutrements of the 20th century changed the way many people lived, while old customs remained.

Most missions, especially the CIM, saw a major upsurge in new workers to replace those lost to the Boxers. Traditional missionary work, such as evangelism, Bible teaching, church services, and medial ministries, continued and expanded. The divergent emphases of Hudson Taylor and Timothy Richard became much clearer, as the CIM focused on gospel presentation, biblical education for Christian workers and their children, and hospitals and clinics that worked hand-in-hand with evangelists. Others, like the BMS, poured more and more energy, manpower, and money into secular education, medicine, and social services, often centering upon the YMCA. Kaiser notes that the China Mission Yearbook reflected this trend, with more and more articles talking about “discussions on organization, education, social service, and politics.”

The results were similarly different: The CIM reported the greater increases in church membership than the BMS and the ABCFM, which turned over all its educational work to the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (OSMA).

They all had to deal with the thorny issue of recantation, since although many Christians had stood firm during the Boxer persecution, even to the point of death, many others had recanted. Most allowed truly repentant Christians to be readmitted to fellowship after a period of discipline.

As elsewhere in China, Shanxi Christians and missionaries took steps to develop churches that were independent of foreign control or even support. Completely indigenous movements also sprang up, such as the True Jesus Church (TJC) under the charismatic leadership of Gao Daling. Within the existing churches, leadership positions were filled by more and more Chinese. In society, Chinese professionals were making substantial contributions to medicine, education, and social work.

Kaiser does an excellent job of combining overviews of changes in Chinese society nationally and then in Shanxi with “big picture” descriptions of developments within Protestant and Roman Catholic missions in China, then within Shanxi. Going deeper, he illustrates missionary life and activity in Shanxi with more detailed portraits of outstanding and representative missionaries. These vignettes, culled from letters and other primary sources, are alone “worth the price of the book,” as the saying goes.

During this period, Kaiser discerns and explains four major trends, including: the increasing shift in missionary power from the British to the Americans; the huge increase in “institution building”; and the radical “shift in the theological assumptions underlying and driving Christian mission,” with liberal theology replacing traditional evangelical commitments. The new theological “currents were threatening to denude Christian mission of its explicitly spiritual content,” and affected the Chinese churches associated with “mainline” denominational missions.

Finally, “developments in Chinese politics were combining with a growing sensitivity toward and appreciation for Chinese culture to compel expatriate missionaries to embrace a more distinctly Chinese church.” Again, this affected more and more Chinese who were associated with Christianity; they began to reject traditional Christianity and re-define the faith in terms of its usefulness to society.

The Chinese church grew and changed rapidly in the early part of the twentieth century. The author highlights especially the steady, though sometimes uneven, moves toward full indigenization, both in Shanxi and around the country. He describes both “mainline” and "institutional" organizations, such as the National Christian Council of China (which grew into The Church of Christ in China), and the independent initiatives in Shanxi like the Taiyuan Chinese Independent Church, which called Gao Daling to be its first preacher. Gao later joined the True Jesus Church.Rising nationalism, especially among young people added fuel to this movement. As radicals became more and more prominent, the Anti-Christian Movement caused tremendous turmoil. Foreign missionaries were stigmatized as agents of imperialistic governments, a development that would lead eventually to the expulsion of all foreigners from China in the early 1950s.

All these factors led after 1927 to a drop in financial support for missions in China and in the number of missionaries, with the CIM again being an outstanding exception. Chinese Christians stepped in to fill vacated positions, furthering the growth of truly indigenous churches.

Chapter 4: Shanxi Mission in the Midst of Conflict (1937-1949)

The brutal Japanese invasion of China, followed by eight years of devastating conflict and occupation, and then by four more years of civil war, radically changed Christian missions. Kaiser vividly describes the impact of the Japanese and then Communist assaults upon, and then occupation of, cities like Taiyuan. Many missionaries stayed at their posts, heroically serving the people as evangelists, pastors, teachers, and doctors and nurses, despite danger, disease, deprivation, and even death. Even after having been driven from their stations by war, they would find a way to return to the people they loved.

As before, the author first paints the national scene, then provides local details, with moving examples of individual missionaries like Peter and Valborg Torjesen, Gladys Aylward (the “little woman”), Paul A. Adolph, and Harry Wyatt. (For more on the Torjesens and Aylward, see their stories at the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.) He tells also of the life of missionaries who were interned with other expatriates at a camp in Shandong.

Chapter 5: Legacy (1949-2015)

Not long after the Communists “liberated” China in 1949, missionaries had to leave; almost all were gone by the end of 1951. Then the Chinese Christians had to find a way to live under the new regime, which gradually brought every domain of society under strict control. Although Christians were at first allowed to worship openly, in time they were forced either to go “underground” or to join the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

Kaiser focuses most of his attention on the history of Christians in Shanxi, and especially Taiyuan, in this last chapter, since he is most familiar with that story. He shows just how terribly the people suffered during the horrendous famine caused by Mao’s disastrous policies during the “Great Leap Forward,” then the chaos and persecution of Christians during the Cultural Revolution. Again, stories of individuals provide concrete illustrations of how many believers survived and even sometimes spiritually thrived in these awful years. He also includes the sobering fact that “the most common theme in Shanxi Christian Cultural Revolution narratives was betrayal,” as professing Christians turned on others to save themselves.

“The Reemergence of the Taiyuan Church in the Era of Opening and Reform” tells a happier story. Gradually, new freedoms allowed Christians to assemble publicly under the auspices of the China Christian Council. Foreign Christians began to show up as teachers at local universities, and then as “underground” missionaries. Sadly, too many of these caused did more harm than good out of misguided zeal and ignorance. Kaiser commendably does not hesitate to name some names.

Others, however, came to serve with local Christians, and in cooperation with the government. Kaiser gives credit to these, which included such groups as the Educational Services Exchange with China (ESEC) and the organization with which he has served for many years, the Evergreen Family Friendship Service, founded by a descendant of Peter Torjesen. Groups like these stressed “long-term and linguistic ability at the core” of their identity. A fellowship for foreigner Christians was formed and registered with the government. All their activities were open and limited to “legally acceptable channels and venues – to the registered church.”

Alas, the presence of foreigners, especially extreme charismatics and those who claimed access to foreign funds, often exacerbated existing tensions among local Chinese Christians, who were struggling to overcome the divisions caused by persecution during the hard years. Kaiser also shows how the leaders of the official church, who tended to be theologically liberal, sought to control the growing congregations and suppress evangelicals, and how they were gradually displaced by the sheer numbers, spiritual quality, and growing competence of evangelicals. As most and more of these received biblical and theological training, they were elected to positions of leadership.

Over the years, the kinds of work in which expatriate Christians engaged broadened, from teaching English and studying Chinese, to “business ventures, agricultural development, professional training, and medical work, as well as more traditional poverty relief and community development efforts.” Many of them chose not to try to lead local churches, but to work alongside and even under local Chinese Christians.


This lively narrative combines broad historical vision with fascinating “micro” studies that fill out the overall story. The author has done a great deal of research, and draws upon letters, official mission archives, mission histories, missionary biographies, ethnological studies, both English and Chinese documents, secular works of history, pro- and anti-missionary perspectives, Chinese and Western writers, contemporary information, and his own rich personal experience. This makes for a work of unusual breadth, depth, and insight.

Personally, I found several sections most informative; the very comprehensive analysis of the various forces that led to the Boxer turmoil and the nuanced treatment of the actual course of events, which were not as either most missionaries at the time and since, nor contemporary Chinese scholars assert they were. The chapter on missionary lifestyle, including language learning, hardships, and “nervous breakdowns,” reminded me of the high cost of missionary service in China. And perhaps only Kaiser could have written the history of the past several decades of Christianity in his adopted home of Taiyuan.

One minor criticism - it seems to me, however, that his treatment of the conflict between Timothy Richard and Hudson Taylor fails to give adequate weight to all sides of this complex series of events. CIM workers who complained about their financial straits, the requirement that they wear Chinese dress, and Taylor’s director leadership were in open violation of explicit covenants which they had signed before leaving home. By all accounts, Taylor exercised extreme patience in dealing with insubordinate members of the CIM.

Whereas Taylor did not reject all of Richard’s ideas or methods, Richard not only promoted his own approach, but criticized that employed by others, notably the CIM, which stressed direct and explicit proclamation of the central message of the gospel. Some have claimed that Richard’s emphasis upon education and mercy ministries stood in opposition to the practice of the CIM but this, as even Kaiser notes, ignores that fact that Taylor and the CIM started schools for Chinese, used medicine in ministry to Chinese, and “dropped everything” and committed all their resources, including Taylor’s wife, to the urgent task of famine relief. It was never a matter of whether to engage in medical, educational, and relief work, but whether these should permanently displace communication of the biblical message to Chinese, or even distract from the priority of verbal proclamation.

As regards theology, though Richard never denied any core doctrines of the faith, he did not make a point of communicating them. As time went on, he increasingly highlighted similarities between Christianity and other religions, and played down the fundamental differences. He took a stand on ancestor worship that was rejected by more than 95% of his missionary colleagues. W.A.P. Martin, who agreed with him on this, was on the committee that cleared Richard of heresy charges; he, too, was more “liberal” than most missionaries at the time.

Very significantly, Taylor and Martin remained friends to the end, and are seen together with Griffith John in a photograph taken just before Taylor’s death in 1905. Richard’s writings and public pronouncements had by then diverged so far from what would be termed “evangelical” that he and Taylor were clearly not in the same theological boat. It is likely that Taylor saw this early on, and realized that Richard’s influence in the united church at Taiyuan would, as he said at the time, only confuse Chinese as to what the gospel really was.

In addition, it seems that Kaiser may have given too much credence of Alvyn Austin’s China’s Millions in some places, including the discussion of Pastor Xi and his opium refuges. Austin seems to overlook Xi’s insistence that only prayer, faith in the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit could provide permanent deliverance. Xi also placed recovering addicts into a very supportive community to help them avoid further lapses. (Check out my assessment of Austin’s information-filled but fundamentally inaccurate and misleading book here.)

For more on these two great men, see the articles on Richard and Taylor in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.

Aside from these small criticisms, I have nothing but praise for Kaiser’s achievement. This is missions history at its best – comprehensive, balanced, fair, accurate, nuanced, enlightening, and very edifying. Above all, he shows how, in the “rushing on of the purposes of God,” both foreigners and Chinese have contributed to the solid growth of a church that is finally fully Chinese, despite the government’s persistent attempts to label Christianity as a foreign religion.

For some thoughts on what those wishing to serve among the Chinese can learn from this story, go to our review at Reaching Chinese Worldwide.

ReviewsJason Truell