With an eye on Protestant Christianity’s great adventure of missionary expansion, K. S. Latourette, noted historian of this expansion, proudly characterized the nineteenth century as a glorious one: “Never had any other set of ideas, religious or secular, been propagated over so wide an area by so many professional agents maintained by the unconstrained donations of so many millions of individuals.… For sheer magnitude it has been without parallel in human history.” In the past 150 years mission work was significantly successful in the Pacific islands, the East Indies, Ceylon, Burma, Korea, coastal China, Japan, India, Madagascar, South and Central Africa. By the end of World War II there were believed to be approximately one million Protestant Christians—half of whom were active Christians—in China.

This wave of predominantly British and American missionaries started from very scattered and humble beginnings. William Carey, a British Baptist shoemaker, and a self-educated teacher and preacher, set the spark in an effective tract in 1792. His efforts led to the formation of a Baptist Missionary Society. By the turn of the century the Church Missionary Society and the London Missionary Society were paralleling his efforts. Similar organizations arose in Scotland, then in America. The missionary society structure was paralleled by Bible Societies for the translation, printing, and distribution of the Christian Scriptures.


British and American Protestant missionaries began work in China at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This work was begun and supported by humble people who had generally been deeply affected by the evangelical revivals which rejuvenated Protestantism through most of the nineteenth century. These revivals were sessions of public prayer and preaching in which people who had not been Christians publicly committed themselves to Christianity, or people who had been nominal Christians committed themselves more deeply and sincerely—the type of religious activity that Billy Graham is doing in our generation. Much of the stimulus for mission work, volunteering or contributing, can be traced to this source.

As in the case of William Carey, many people who undertook the work lacked formal education but had genuine religious convictions. Some of those who had finer education disassociated themselves and scorned such tasks. To use Marxist terminology, the class-status of those who supported the new work most strongly was lower class. A rather convincing portrayal of this type of missionary is found in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The constant improvement of the wealth and power of this class all through the nineteenth century made this missionary expansion possible. The work was scattered and directed by various denominational or independent agencies. The thing that made it a movement and not simply a series of unrelated activities was this common religious motivation.

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The capitalist-merchant class not only withheld financial help but tried to suppress missionary work. The British East India Company was afraid that Christian missionaries would introduce religious strife and interfere with their trade. As long as possible they resolutely barred all missionary activities. Thus Marxist claims that missionary activity was the cultural arm of British-American imperialism is simply a wild attempt to discredit what they dislike.

But the temper of the times, which most Christian missionaries shared with their secular contemporaries, did greatly stimulate missionary activities. The twentieth century was the century of the common man. There were drives toward universalism in many areas of society. Napoleon’s introduction of conscription to raise national armies was a violent rejection of the old idea that only certain classes could bear arms. This idea lasted very late in Japan where only samurai had the right to a horse and sword. So it was with universal education and then universal suffrage. Old barriers and old distinctions fell. This was the “equality” of the French Revolution. It appeared, too, in a Christian context. Old ideas that Christianity was the private possession of certain classes or certain nations were doomed. Christianity was the common right of all.


The twentieth century was full of optimism and confidence. Great changes were taking place; there were new horizons and challenges. This confidence had a great deal to do with the way missionaries attempted to do their work. Missionaries tended to see the growth in wealth and strength of their home countries as God’s just reward for their religious faith. The benefits of modern civilization were the reward of Christian perseverance; indeed, the two went hand in hand. Thus it never occurred to these missionaries to make adequate studies of Chinese culture, or to worry about preserving certain elements in Chinese culture. In the West, the Middle Ages were gray; but there was no need to worry about them, for they were gone. In the present, the clouds are rising and the future looks gloriously bright. China also has a gray past extending into the present, but that doesn’t matter; we will all share the same glorious bright future.

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No one thought very critically about this, but the early missionaries did not make any clear distinction between religion and culture. The “Christian culture” of the future would be universal; no clear-cut distinctions would be necessary. Those who did study Chinese culture studied Confucianism and Buddhism in order to refute and discredit them. Therefore, these early missionaries started English schools; they just assumed that English was the language of a Christian culture. They taught Chinese poorly or not at all. They began schools for girls as well as boys, and taught their Chinese audience the necessity of universal education and democratic processes.

The Communist charge that they despised Chinese culture is unfair. They just did not take it seriously. They did not despise it any more than they despised their own Middle Ages; they considered it irrelevant. On the whole they had a much less violent antagonism toward it than Communists have for “the feudal past.”


The growth of liberalism and especially the social gospel in churches at home directly affected the mission picture. Major Protestant denominations sent more and more people for social service than for purely religious motives. There is a subtle but important difference in the religion-culture alliance of the social gospelers. The early missionaries owed a political-religious alliance to the Western world, as it was. But, like most socialists, the social gospelers were disaffected with the status quo; they owed their allegiance to the Utopian socialist constructs of the future. This disaffection with the present enabled them to criticize the “narrow nationalism” of their missionary antecedents. But it must be clearly kept in mind that they held the same narrow nationalism wherever the socialist future was concerned.

Social gospel disaffection meant that now the modern West was just as gray as the Middle Ages or China. Since they are all gray, they are equal. This judgment made it possible for missionary agencies to launch drives for “indigenous Christianity.” Efforts were made to set up national churches using the national language. Now foreign language study and the study of foreign cultures assumed a new importance. The West, as such, was no longer an enchanted land; the enchantment all lay in the common future.

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It is necessary to keep a record of disaffection clear. Liberals discarded their religious heritage in an effort to be modern. They felt miserable in their nakedness. The social gospel taught them to blame their inner poverty on the status quo, and to make the crusade to socialism their religious raison d’être. Though the cause of socialism has been beset by difficulties, in general the pilgrimage presses on.

In terms of missionary activities in modern China this means that many who come as missionaries have a desire to render social service to the Chinese people. They are interested in schools, hospitals, and other humanitarian works. They are partially disaffected politically with the Western world and with the Chinese government. They blame the United States for speaking belligerently about socialism, for being intransigent in dealing with Russia, and threatening to resort to force to resolve its conflict with Russia. The Republic of China shares the same onus. They believe China has dragged her feet in terms of socialist development, has made her peace with internal reactionary elements, and has obstinately refused to make peace with the Chinese Communists who have simply taken a different road to socialism.

“Modern liberals” feel that Nationalist China has tried the impossible task of stopping the clock. Since the future belongs to socialism, the future belongs to the mainland. When they are in Formosa, they are on the island as a second choice (since the mainland is denied them). They believe that as Christians they have a moral imperative to criticize the status quo. They are deterred only by prudence from criticizing ruthlessly the Nationalist government on Formosa at every opportunity. Often they champion “Formosan nationalism” as a possible opportunity to destroy or discredit the Chinest National government “from behind.”


To this point I have failed to make any clear distinction between socialism and communism. This is deliberate. The suggestion that socialism seeks political control by parliamentary processes, not by revolution or subversion, seems to me a pathetic attempt to protect socialism from the onus of revolutionary violence that haunts communism.

I think Marxism is best understood as a forced freeze of a certain period of Western intellectual history imposed and maintained by force and coercion or by fanatical fervor. It is a very sorry interpreter of the past and an incompetent guide to the future. It is reactionary in the truest sense of the word, for it is a part of the past that will never live again.

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Liberal Christianity and the social gospel have shared so many of Marxism’s suppositions and taken it so seriously as a religion that one must criticize them together in the same terms. Neither one has any real understanding of man. They have a wishy-washy idealized picture which proves impracticable as a working hypothesis. Marxism idealizes man in theory, but in practice finds it necessary to control him like an animal. Both have no understanding of evil (simply change the environment), and a weak understanding of history (a record of upward achievements). The type of society they expect and naively promise is hopelessly Utopian, utterly unrelated to anything that has ever existed on earth. With this crude understanding of themselves and the world, they have the temerity to be “social engineers,” and manufacture their way forward into accumulating social disasters.

The great strength of socialism is in the West, for there it is a live religion. People sacrifice and plot, betray and despoil, for the future that is on the threshold but just not quite here. The God that Failed is a very perceptive picture of socialist religion in action.

The one thing socialism cannot stand is success. For when it succeeds people try to redeem their promissory notes, only to find that the bank is bankrupt and someone has absconded with the money. I have known the burning hatred that people nurse against an ideology that has deceived them. The disillusionment with socialism in Communist countries is simply appalling. Communist leaders are usually forced to fill this vacuum in faith with a crude, crusading nationalism; and herein lies the real threat of war in our generation.

Western leaders prefer to ignore this disillusionment with socialism for fear it will discredit their own political programs and their own politico-religious loyalties. A devout believer and a person who thinks the religion in question is just a cheap fake find very little in common. This is the psychological gulf between communism and the free world, and it is a much bigger barrier than the iron curtain itself. Many Communist subjects and many Western citizens have a curious longing to change places. The Communist longs to return to a “reactionary past”; many liberals to push into the socialist Utopia of the future. What could they have in common? Those who live into the New Age of Communist control are rapidly disenchanted; those on the outside have a thirst whetted by denial; they are bewitched by socialist enchantment.

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For many modern religious leaders, “socialism” plays the same role that “heaven” did for their grandparents. It is that goal to be pursued above all others, the endpoint of their religious affections. In a manner well known to all religions, they stimulate widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. They foster disaffection; they dispose people toward change. This is a political parody of the conviction of sin and the offer of salvation.

Unfortunately, however, the churches cannot offer political salvation. While they try to lobby and engage in political action in a rather feeble way, the public will not permit them to play a purely political role. In the field of pure politics they have neither the intelligence nor resources of the Communist Party. Thus, in many cases, liberal Christianity scatters the seed and the Communist Party reaps the harvest. Liberal church leaders are amateur politicians; the Communists are professionals. This is why the Chinese with Western education were more disposed to accept communism than unlearned peasants. The social gospel has been a virtual “tutor unto communism.”

Those who have eyes to see are witnessing a marvelous demonstration of how false gods destroy their devotees. The liberal Christian West has cemented an alliance with political and social forces dedicated to its destruction. Wherever the Communists gain political control, they forcefully suppress Christianity as an opiate of the people. Liberal Christianity uncritically collaborates in its own destruction.

In Communist China, Christian activities are severely repressed. Thousands of missionaries have been driven away from their fields of endeavor. On the other hand, in the Republic of China, both Christian and missionary activities continue with some official encouragement, certainly no repression. We can only conclude that political programs meant more to the Cleveland Conference of the National Council of Churches than religious ones, that politics is dearer to them than religion. They have chosen their supreme loyalty; they have cemented their alliances. With inexorable justice, those whom they have chosen will destroy them.

Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.

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