At a large, nationwide missionary conference in Shanghai in 1907, a respected senior missionary, veteran of decades in China, said, "The self-government of the Chinese Church is not something which we [foreign missionaries] shall grudgingly concede under necessity but something we shall eagerly anticipate and promote."

Chinese Christians must have had their doubts. The conference took place 100 years after the arrival of the first Protestant missionary in China, Robert Morrison. Yet of the 1,100 delegates, only six or seven were Chinese.

All during the great missions century, from the 1840s to the 1940s, missionaries claimed their purpose was to help create a Chinese church, run by Chinese Christians. Eventually an indigenous Chinese church emerged, but first it had to overcome political and social obstacles—and foreign missionaries themselves.

"Christian" rebels

There were only a few dozen Protestant missionaries in the 1840s and 1850s, and these were limited to the five port cities. Chinese congregations were small and weak, and self-government was out of the question. But during these years, the first example of indigenous Protestant Christianity, wholly led by Chinese leadership, emerged in south and central China. It is called the Taiping Rebellion, a violent and destructive mass movement that sought to overthrow the Manchu dynasty.

The Taiping leader was Hung Hsiu-ch'an, who had been exposed to Christian doctrines through Chinese-language tracts. Hung also underwent a startling vision in which he was transported to heaven. He said God the Father spoke to him, declared him to be the younger brother of Jesus, and commissioned him to purify China of false religion—in Hung's words, to "seize the killing power in Heaven and ...

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