An Opportunity Missed: A Review of How Christianity Came to China: A Brief History


Imagine a history of the U.S. Marine Corps written by a pacifist. Or a description of childbirth by a male gynecologist; a portrayal of femininity by a misogynist; a study of a Rembrandt portrait by a learned but blind art critic who prefers the Impressionists; an analysis of Mozart’s Requiem by a brilliant but deaf admirer of Beethoven.

In each case, many, perhaps most, of the facts would be accurate. In each case, also, the main thing, the heart, the essence, the core, the substance would be fundamentally misunderstood and the resulting product fatally flawed.

Professor Kathleen Lodwick possesses impressive credentials for writing a history of Protestant missions in China: a long teaching career, decades of careful research in the archives, previous publications of monographs, biographies, and an index to the Missionary Recorder, travels to China, and interviews with experts. She demonstrates familiarity both with a multitude of details and with the broader landscape.

Thus, her well-organized and mostly well-written history contains a great deal of helpful information, general overviews, and perceptive analysis.

Organization of the Contents

The author begins with a brief chronology of the missionary movement in China. The second chapter, “Denominationalism,” actually says little about denominations, since missionaries generally made little of denominational differences. Instead, this section deals with missions and missionaries, broadly speaking. Chapter Three, though also misleadingly called “Sociopolitical,” describes some missions methods, especially education, as well as banditry and other dangers.

Chapter Four, “Geographic,” talks about China’s government and society, where missionaries served, comity among missions, and numbers of Christians. Chapter Five presents brief cameo descriptions of about forty missionaries and Chinese Christians, organized into seven categories. The last chapter discusses four theological issues that either caused controversy or led to major changes in the Western sending churches.

This thematic structure allows the author to group people, events, and themes together in a way that provides a broad picture that is usually helpful.

Interesting Information and Opinions


The author rightly points out that Ricci’s attempts to emphasize the similarities between Chinese culture and his version of Christianity sometimes led to confusion; the Jesuits’ strategy of trying to convert China from the emperor down showed a complete misunderstanding of the religious and ceremonial role of the of the monarch; and the radical exclusivity of Christianity has always posed a problem for the Chinese, who are basically religiously inclusive.

Protestant missionaries helped the Chinese by translating works on international law to enable them in negotiations and often served as intermediaries to ameliorate the effects of treaties upon China; granting extraterritoriality to foreigners and legal protections to Chinese Christians caused innumerable conflicts and engendered deep hostility; Roman Catholics, in particular, took advantage of the treaties to regain lost property, purchase more land, and upset the local social structure.

Lodwick notes the uniqueness of the China Inland Mission (CIM) at several points: Unlike most missions, under Hudson Taylor’s leadership the CIM did not seek consular protection and refused to take indemnity funds after the Boxer Rebellion. CIM missionaries also tried to dress and live as much like the Chinese as possible. They did not follow the common practice of having formal dinner parties, complete with European dress, table settings, and cuisine. The CIM at its peak may have had as many missionaries in China as all other missions combined. The CIM did not go into debt and did not solicit contributions. It was also interdenominational in membership. Because of very high standards, “CIM people were soon known to be the most linguistically skilled of all the missionaries.” (113)

Lodwick shows how the missionaries were from the first horrified by the opium trade and later united in a decades-long campaign to bring it to an end.After the Boxer “Interlude” (as she calls it), Chinese Christians began to play a more prominent role in the “mainline” churches, and to form independent organizations. She also shows why granting complete control of churches and mission institutions to Chinese Christians posed some very difficult issues for foreign mission boards.

Some scholars have concluded that Bishop Ding Guangxun was a member of the Communist Party from the fact that he was the head of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, because all leaders of non-governmental organizations were members of the Party.After China “opened up” in the 1980s, many foreign Christians rushed in to “help,” but without understanding the history or cultural context of China, and ended up doing more harm than good. Lodwick records the opinion of one researcher that there are more “missionaries” in China now than had ever been there before 1949.


The main point of this section is, “Denominationalism was not an issue among Protestant missionaries in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it was in their home countries.” (63) Considering how much criticism on this very matter was leveled at missionaries by Chinese and that a major – perhaps the major – reason given for the formation of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was the felt need to abolish denominationalism, Lodwick’s explanation for her claim deserves a fair hearing.

Beyond the opening two paragraphs, the rest of this chapter ranges over such diverse topics as “The Early Missionary Character,” “Protestant Methods and Practices,” the problem of translating Christian terms into Chinese, the process of becoming a missionary, “Board vs. Faith Missionaries,” “Being Selected and Sent,” “Medical Doctors in Missions,” difficulties of travel, finances, difficulties of learning Chinese, the process of a Chinese person becoming a Christian, everyday missionary life, missionary children, and the CIM. Readers will find much here that is very illuminating.


After a paragraph on the sorts of people who gravitated towards the missionaries, Lodwick writes about Bible women, education of Chinese (most of the chapter), the Chinese banking system, banditry and murders of missionaries.


Under this heading, the author introduces to us a survey of Chinese geography, Chinese history, Chinese social organization and government, the influence of Confucianism, the geographic distribution of missionaries, and statistics on China’s Christians, including the number of Chinese Christians today.

Missionary and Chinese Christian Biographies

Lodwick helpfully divides missionaries into six rough classifications: Pioneers, Adventurers, Scholars, Teachers, Medical Doctors, and Women. Though she is fully aware that many people belong in several categories, and that strict classification is impossible, I found this arrangement quite interesting and thought-provoking. I did wonder whether she could have also added “Pastors” and “Evangelists,” however.

She acknowledges the impossibility of including more than a small sampling of possible candidates, but most will find her collection of short biographies fairly representative, especially considering her decision to include both Roman Catholics and Protestants, as well as Chinese Christians.

Four Theological Controversies

This final chapter discusses “The Chinese Rites Controversy in the Roman Catholic Church,” the “Fundamentalist Controversy” among Protestant missionaries, “Ecumenism in the China Missions,” and “The Feminization of Christianity” in China as a result of the overwhelming number of women who served as missionaries.

As I said earlier, Lodwick has given the reader a great deal of interesting information and opinions on almost all aspects of the (mostly) Protestant missionary enterprise in China.

In particular, we learn about the context of the missionary movement and its basic contours. We also see how many major difficulties and even dangers the missionaries encountered. This was not a life for lovers of ease or the faint of heart!

She also acknowledges the major contributions that missionaries made to China, some of which were “the introduction of Western education...; modern schools for women; education for the blind and the deaf; Western medicine; nationalism; Western philosophy; humane treatment and hospitalization for the mentally ill; control of dangerous drugs, namely opium; and equal treatment for men and women.” (xviii)

Lodwick appears to be much more familiar with the more progressive missionaries of the later nineteenth century. Many of her criticisms about their desire to “change China,” not taking time to understand Chinese culture, and seeking to import, or perhaps even to impose, a supposedly superior Western culture upon a collapsing China, apply to many of the idealistic young people who went to China as part of the Student Volunteer Movement and to their more liberal elders. She is right when she says that they failed to convert China and that the chief beneficiaries of this modernizing movement were secularists in general and the Communists in particular.

Alas, an otherwise generally useful book suffers from so many flaws, both minor and major, that it is, as one scholar said to me of Alvyn Austin’s work on Hudson Taylor, “an opportunity missed.” [1]

As seen in the preceding brief survey, several sections break the thematic consistency of the chapters, and raise questions as to why they were placed where they were. For example, most of the material in “Denominationalism” has nothing to do with that subject. In other words, what appears first as a topical arrangement lacks the coherence one would expect from the chapter titles. Perhaps the complexity of the missionary enterprise in China would make any rigid division of material impossible. Still, the organization of the book could be tighter.

A few minor errors stand out, like the use in two places of 1809 as the date when Robert Morrison arrived in China (it was 1807). She calls Liang Fa’s Good News to Exalt the Age a “pamphlet,” when it was, in fact, a 500-page book with extensive discussions of a variety of topics pertaining to Christianity. The name of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) is misspelled on page 100.

More fundamentally, however, when it comes to the heart, the core, the essence of missionaries and their work, Professor Lodwick just “doesn’t get it.” My copy has so many question marks (??) that I can only select a few outstanding misstatements as samples of an overall lack of comprehension that renders the entire book of dubious value for any but the most discerning reader.

Major Misstatements

After noting that, in the words of Jonathan Spence, the missionaries traveled far from home in order to “change China,” she comments, “Perhaps the Westerners failed because few, if any, ever asked the Chinese if they wanted to change or to be changed.” (xix) First, as Dr. Brent Fulton pointed out in his excellent review, we can contest the flat assertion that the missionaries “failed.” [2] Second, Lodwick’s snide remark entirely misses the conviction of the missionaries that those who have not heard of Christ need to be presented with the gospel, even if they are not yet aware of that need.

This is just the first of many similarly misleading and even snarky comments. Some others: “Some American groups working with Chinese Christians still hope that they will always be like Western Christ.” (xxi) Evidence, please?

“In all likelihood, it [Christianity] will never attract a majority of the population.” (xxi) Who ever said it would? Long ago, Jesus stated clearly, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

“Most missionaries, who understood or appreciated little of China’s culture, were likely unaware that they were attacking the very foundations of Chinese society with their conversion efforts.” (9) This is a major theme of the book, and one that is largely wrong.

First, most missionaries who stayed in China for any length of time came to understand and to appreciate a great deal of China’s culture. You only have to read some of their letters and biographies to see how much they learned.

Second, they were only too aware of how profoundly some aspects of Christianity threatened the power of the elite, the religious establishment, the subjugation of women, Confucian concepts of human goodness and self-salvation, and a host of other deeply embedded cultural and religious ideas and institutions. How could they not be aware, when they faced – as Lodwick loves to point out – the hostility of the educated power elite as well as the fury of the Boxers?

“Some missionaries and Chinese Christians, namely Dr. John Dudgeon...and Pastor Xi (CIM), made fortunes for themselves by selling Jesus opium pills to Chinese addicts.” (30) This charge assumes that the main ingredient of Xi’s pills was morphine, which Alvyn Austin claims and which may or may not be true. More vicious, and also following Austin, is the charge of self-enrichment. Like Austin, she adduces no evidence for this accusation, and ignores the high opinion of Xi held by missionaries who worked closely with him, notably Dixon E. Hoste. Like Austin, she also fails to mention the multi-faceted approach to the treatment of opium addiction practiced by Xi and others like him that included fasting, prayer, Christian teaching, and life in a new community. Like Austin, she also completely overlooks the power of the Holy Spirit to deliver addicts, as the experience of Xi himself dramatically demonstrated.

“Ideally, missionaries should have been working themselves out of their jobs, because if they were successful in converting the Chinese to Christianity, then the Chinese would have their own churches. Several factors worked against this: first, for the missionaries, working in China was how they earned their livings, so to give up and return home meant starting all over for themselves and their families.” (41) Aside from the CIM, most missionaries did live far above the Chinese, and this was a genuine matter of concern. Lodwick’s invidious attribution (here and several times in the book) of sheer self-interest, even greed, to the missionaries defies the evidence from their own letters and stories, however.

Lodwick accepts the opinion of a recent Chinese scholar that “the contemporary Chinese church will continue to be most popular among the marginalized people in Chinese society...”(48). Is she entirely out of touch with the massive growth of Protestantism among educated urbanites in the past thirty years? I suggest a cursory search on the Internet [3] or, better yet, Brent Fulton’s China’s Urban Christians, for an antidote to such ignorance. [4]

She opines that the “informal, foreign missionaries in China today will likely have little impact on the growth of the Christian church.” (61) How does she know? Has she asked Chinese Christians who have been influenced by the lives and words of the Western Christians who have gone to China in the past thirty years as witnesses of Christ? I have talked to many who trace their conversion to the presence of such people.

“From many scholarly studies..., it is clear that women missionaries went to work in overseas missions largely to escape the limitations of careers open to them in their home countries.” (65) “Additionally, if one wanted to travel, joining a mission meant one could see the world at someone else’s expense.” (226) For anyone who has read even a few missionary biographies, these statements are nothing short of ridiculous, at least for evangelical missionaries.“Rather than accommodate themselves to Chinese society, as Matteo Ricci had tried to do, the Protestant set out to change China and make it more like the West. Accordingly, they set up mission stations, generally, walled compounds set apart from the surrounding Chinese, where they lived a totally Western lifestyle, but with the help of Chinese servants.” (67) Like so much else in the book, this passage contains some hard truths and, to her credit, Lodwick immediately says that the “only group that tried any assimilation was the CIM.” On the other hand, she does not explain why most missionaries decided to live in walled compounds. There were very practical reasons, such as the health and safety of their families; the need to regulate the flow of visitors, especially to the medical clinics that were almost always included in the mission station; providing protection in times of turmoil; offering a quiet place where teaching and training could take place, and more.

“In the early years, even medical doctors were required to be ordained, as their work was seen as converting the heathen, while looking after the health of the missionaries and their families. There was no thought or plan in the early years that mission stations might have clinics or hospitals and treat the Chinese.” (75) Again, we have here a statement with some truth: mission compounds with clinics or hospitals were a later development. On the other hand, some of the earliest missionaries, like Peter Parker, Hudson Taylor, and his colleague William Parker, all started out by treating Chinese as an act of mercy and demonstration of the love of God, often at great risk to themselves. Caring for the medical needs of the Chinese was not by any means an afterthought.

James Legge’s “monumental translation of the Chinese classics into English occupied most of his time in Hong Kong in the 1870s.” (178) In fact, Legge engaged in a full range of missionary activities, working on his translations only in the early morning.

The China Inland Mission

Relying a great deal on Alvyn Austin’s inaccurate history of Hudson Taylor and the CIM, Lodwick portrays Taylor and the CIM in a way that can only be the result of almost complete ignorance of the sources and probably also a strong negative bias. [5]Aside from the positive comments I noted earlier, almost everything the author says about the CIM is inaccurate. Though I could easily provide documentation to refute her false claims, that would take too much space. In what follows, I comment on some briefly; others I merely quote. You can assume that these are demonstrably false.

She describes Hudson Taylor’s policy of having his workers wear Chinese clothing as “superficial accommodation” that “likely amused most Chinese who encountered these foreigners.” (67) Clearly, she has not read the actual stories of the way that Chinese responded to this gesture of respect and love.

Lodwick repeatedly pictures J. Hudson Taylor as “eccentric” (38, 67). No doubt he was unusual, a non-conformist whose adoption of Chinese dress shocked more traditional missionaries at first. “Eccentric,” however, he was not. On the contrary, he was eminently sane, practical, and highly skilled at relating to others, both Chinese and Western.

“The largest of the faith missions was the CIM, which relied on God to provide all its needs. In practice this meant it recruited from among wealthy families in both Britain and America.” (73)

“One CIM missionary son told the author that he was not sure his father ever converted anyone to Christianity, but he did do a lot of hunting, which he greatly enjoyed.” (98) Perhaps that is true, but Hudson Taylor also did a lot of hunting to provide food for fellow travelers, and many were converted through his preaching.“Some [missionaries], like the CIM missionaries, baptized anyone who seemed remotely interested in Christianity.” (89)

“The [Chefoo] school was organized along the lines of a British boarding school and was not concerned with advanced education for its alumni.” (102) The first clause is true, the second laughably false.

“Taylor was a highly secretive, eccentric Britisher with little education.” (103) Here I shall quote a relevant paragraph from an article I wrote on Taylor:

Hudson Taylor was a diligent student. His daily Bible reading was done in Hebrew, Greek, and English. To gain entrance to medical school, he had to pass examinations in Latin, Greek, German, and French, as well as geography, mathematics, mechanics, chemistry, zoology and botany. After qualifying as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and then receiving his Licentiate in Midwifery, he continued his study of medicine, both Western and Chinese, but also read widely in mathematics, astronomy, magnetism and chemistry, Chinese history and culture, and theology. He was an avid naturalist, observing and classifying the varied flora and fauna of China which so fascinated him. For his reports on such subjects and on the topography and cities of China, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He eventually learned not only Mandarin, but also Shanghainese, the Tiechiu dialect of Swatow, and the Ningbo dialect, the last well enough to revise a vernacular version of the New Testament which had been made for speakers of that tongue. [6]

To this I shall add what even Alvyn Austin admits, that Taylor also later completed the very demanding CIM language and culture study curriculum developed by the eminent sinologist F. W. Baller.

As for Taylor’s alleged secretive nature, please see my review of Austin’s biography, referenced earlier.

“While in China Taylor married his first wife, Maria Dyer, who was reputed to be the richest woman on the China coast.” (103) Maria did have independent means, but she used them to fund the work of the mission, while she joined her husband in living among the Chinese as simply and sacrificially as one can imagine.

“For Taylor, anyone who felt ‘the call’ was acceptable to his mission, especially if they could find funds to support their work.” (106)“Taylor was known to have had a bank account in London, but of course, he alone knew how much was in it and he reported to no one.” (106) Every part of this sentence is outrageously and inexcusably wrong.

“Denominationalism meant little, if anything, to Taylor, although he did subscribe to a fundamentalist view of Christianity and eventually withdrew from the Church of Christ in China, an all-China body that had formed out of the mission conferences.” (106) The first two clauses are accurate, but the last faces the awkward fact that Taylor died many years before the formation of the CCC.

“As the CIM recruited new members, Taylor decided to stir up some publicity by sending to China seven recruits, who had attended Cambridge University together.” (112) A cursory reading of any account of the Cambridge Seven would have prevented such a silly statement.

After acknowledging that the CIM missionaries “were soon known to be the most linguistically skilled of all the missionaries,” Lodwick immediately makes the stunning claim that it “was not only the CIM missionaries who were ignorant of China and its culture.” (113) I leave the reader to try to figure this one out.

Beyond Sloppy: An Opportunity Missed

Professor Lodwick could have capped her long and illustrious career as a scholar of the Protestant missionary movement in China with a fine, balanced, nuanced survey. Instead, she has produced a work that is beyond sloppy. There is no excuse for the number and nature of the errors she has placed into a work that could have been very useful.Without imitating her ready confidence in reading missionaries’ motives, despite contrary evidence, I shall only point out two obvious facts:

First, she clearly has not taken the time to read important sources. For a survey of this sort, such negligence is hard to explain. The Bibliography purports to include only “scholarly” studies, and not the “emotional” ones that Lodwick considers unreliable. Even so, she could have made use of A.J. Broomhall’s Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, a seven-volume history that contains a great deal of information that would have saved her from so many embarrassing mistakes. Several volumes in the series Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf & Stock, also provide a wealth of accurate accounts of missionaries and their work. [7] The omission of Christopher Hancock’s biography of Robert Morrison seems strange. [8] General introductions to missions, such as the volumes by Dana Robert and Scott Sunquist, give a much clearer and more balanced view of the overall missionary movement that would have helped Lodwick avoid some of her unsubstantiated generalizations. [9]

Aside from these “scholarly” works, Lodwick would have profited from literally dozens of missionary biographies that tell the story from the inside.

Second, she displays a consistent bias against what we might call “evangelical,” or what she would term, “fundamentalist” missionaries. She completely misreads their motives, because, it would appear, she does not share their worldview. Apparently discounting the possibility that a love for God and for lost souls impelled the more conservative missionaries, she consistently attributes baser motives to them. She does not give proper weight to the success of the missionary effort in planting seeds for a church that has now grown into the scores of millions. In this, she ignores the almost unanimous verdict of Chinese Christians, who speak of the missionaries with gratitude, even when they have to acknowledge their flaws.In other words, like Alvyn Austin’s study of Hudson Taylor, this book fails as history because it does not adequately account for the results of the lives and labors of the missionaries.

For a much better and more accurate introduction to the missionary endeavor in China, I recommend Missionary: A Historical Study of the Gospel into China, by Yuan Zhiming and Chen Shangyu, a book-and-DVD combination published by China Soul For Christ Foundation. For a review by Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin, see

In short, as a genuine “outsider,” the author has given us an unnecessarily truncated and distorted view of the missionary movement in China. Perhaps it is time for a critical “insider” to write the story.

G. Wright Doyle

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle