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Christian History Home > 2008 > Issue 98 > From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church

From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church
Missionaries in China were hampered by pressures from home, mistakes in leadership, and identification with the West, but they planted the seeds that would someday yield an astonishing harvest.
Daniel H. Bays | posted 8/08/2008 07:42AM

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In these years it could be dangerous to be a Christian in China, whether foreign or Chinese. A few months after David Adeney's arrival in 1934, one of the most dramatic incidents of martyrdom in China missions history occurred. John and Betty Stam, an attractive young couple who were products of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and had come to China with the CIM a couple of years before, were stationed in a small city in Anhui province (central China). When Communist troops captured the city in late 1934, they beheaded the Stams and killed some local Christians who pleaded for the foreigners' lives, but the Stams' three-month-old child was safely taken to a nearby mission station. This story gained much publicity and motivated many young people to go to the mission field.

The effect was much the same as what happened after the death of Yale graduate Horace Pitkin in the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Pitkin died along with more than 10 other foreign missionaries—Presbyterian, Congregational, and CIM—in Baoding, not far from Beijing. His death spurred a surge in mission applicants, many from East Coast colleges, and the establishment of the Yale China Mission in the early 1900s.

The End of the Golden Age

The Boxer Uprising had begun as a peasant rebellion against the increasing commercial, political, and religious encroachment on Chinese culture by Western nations. The Boxers killed hundreds of foreigners, including about 250 missionaries and missionary children, as well as 20,000 or more Chinese Christians (who were considered traitors). In retribution, the occupying troops of eight nations killed at least that many other Chinese in 1900-1902. It was a disaster for China. Yet paradoxically, this national trauma triggered a national reform movement. For a short time, the xenophobia of the past was discredited and China was more open to the West. (Later, the Communists would praise the Boxers as patriots.)

This gave Christian missions in China the largest opportunity they had ever had—truly a "Golden Age." Mission schools suddenly had high prestige and waiting lists. Members of the elite class became Christians. Rates of growth skyrocketed, especially for Protestants. After the revolution which overthrew the feeble Manchu dynasty in 1911-1912, the provisional president of the young Republic was Sun Yat-sen, a baptized Christian. In 1913, the Republic's second president asked the foreign missionary community in China to pray for the nation. Protestant missionary numbers soared from more than 1,300 in 1905 to 8,000 in 1925. Many Christians were confident that events were moving inexorably towards the "Christianization" of China.

It was not to be. The Golden Age lasted less than two decades, until the mid-1920s. What went wrong? During that time, practically all missions in China failed to sufficiently cultivate a Chinese leadership in their mission structures and to permit that leadership to shepherd the flock into independent and self-supporting local churches. The rhetoric of moving from (foreign) mission to (Chinese) church was always present, but it was mainly hollow. At times it appeared that the foreign mission establishment had given way to Chinese leadership. The national missionary conference of 1907 had only half a dozen Chinese delegates out of more than a thousand; the next major conference in 1924 was called the "Christian" (not "missionary") conference, and more than half the delegates were Chinese.

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