It is, one would hazard, a little-known fact that a crisis in the overseas missionary endeavor in the 1930s, particularly in China, helped precipitate the split of the Anglophone Protestant movement into Modernist and Fundamentalist camps.
Fundamentalists–committed to a literal reading of the Bible as the inerrant word of God–and Modernists–employing the arsenal of critical scholarship developed in Germany to identify, explain, and justify the role of man in the Good Book’s creation–had sparred for decades over doctrine, appointments, and sanctions for heretical or disobedient teachings.
Matters came to a head in the 1930s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded an overseas study tour of distinguished Protestant academics to evaluate the state of the worldwide missionary effort which, in the key region of China, seemed to have stalled at a penetration of 400,000 or 0.1% of the population after 100 years of determined evangelism.
The scholars’ report, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years, asserted that the traditional missionary approach–relying on dire warnings that the natives were headed straight to hell upon their demise unless they converted–was encountering growing resistance from a more sophisticated heathen audience increasingly drawn to nationalism, democracy, secularism, socialism, and Marxism as ideologies more relevant to their needs and aspirations.
The Modernists proposed to compete for hearts and minds overseas with a mushy syncretism that coexisted with the local religious and cultural values instead of trying to replace them. Pearl Buck, a missionary who declared it was not necessary to believe in the virgin birth or even the divinity of Christ to be a true Christian (it was only necessary to act in a Christian manner) typified the new dispensation.
In the resulting furor, Pearl Buck resigned, the Fundamentalists walked out, Modernism prevailed, and Fundamentalism became the virtually exclusive preserve of the U.S. Southern Baptists, who today occupy an outsized political space as the voice of militant Christian conservatives.
Unfortunately for the Modernist strategy, coexistence with the post-1949 Communist regime in China, let alone growing congregations, proved extremely difficult for the mainstream Protestant denominations.
Ironically, in recent years the CCP–which has acted for decades as the sole legitimate Chinese interlocutor with the foreign Protestant and Catholic religions– has experienced its own problems executing its self-assigned role as the exclusive ideological and moral authority inside China.
Reliable data and statistics are of course non-existent, but it would appear that the Chinese Communist Party–like the old school Protestant missionaries before them–is having difficulty leading or guiding an increasingly informed, sophisticated, and skeptical Chinese popular opinion toward a potentially stabilizing post-Communist ideology based on authoritarianism and national unity.
State-promoted Confucianism–that reliable bulwark of social order and the status quo–may provide a viable alternative to liberal democracy. However, the government is going to have its hands full with groups that seek to draw their power from a higher authority than the common good.
Meanwhile, the doctrinal stepchild–Fundamentalism–has moved toward a central, independent role in Chinese Christianity.
Today, Chinese Christian observance–driven by indigenous Christian churches of a largely fundamentalist tinge– is estimated to number anywhere from 50 to 100 million.
Christian optimism concerning the spiritual regeneration of China must be tempered by the awareness that Christianity will face a legion of domestic competitors in the spiritual marketplace. China is aboil with sects channeling and mashing up every extreme of Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and Christian religious experience.
If the precedents of South Korea and Mongolia are representative, it is unlikely that Christianity will every command more than a vocal minority inside China.
Furthermore, mainstreaming and leveraging Christian practice in Chinese politics and society is going to be be difficult. On the Protestant side of the fence, the PRC is home to a bewildering melange of Christian sects, many that tiptoe very close to, if not over, the line separating religion from cult.
At one end of the spectrum, the Three-Self (state-approved churches) and ecumenical evangelical operations carefully render unto Caesar in order to maintain their legal foothold in China–and provide the anxious Chinese government with a window into the unnerving world of Chinese Christian observance.
Franklin Graham, son of the (
Lianyungang-born) evangelical Billy Graham and grandson of the famous Presbyterian medical missionary in Lianyungang, L. Nelson Bell*, preached to over 10,000 people in Baoding last October under the arrangement of the Chinese government.
At the other end, the burgeoning Chinese “house church” movement (congregations that decline to register with the authorities) spurns any government attempts to direct or control its highly decentralized activities.
Reportedly, many of the house churches trace their roots to Watchmen Nee, a devout and idiosyncratic Chinese preacher and martyr who died in PRC incarceration in 1972.
In contrast to this indigenous inspiration, it is asserted that over half of China’s house churches have aligned with the charismatic Pentecostalism preached by Dennis Balcomb of Bakersfield, California on his trips to China beginning in the 1980s.
Chinese Pentecostalism offers much for the orthodox Protestant and Marxist to chew on.
In one instance, Balcomb reports that one of his evangelists successfully raised a child from the dead, apparently without seeing the need to correct the misapprehension of the villagers that “Jesus of Henan” had performed the office.
One of my co-workers went up to Saan Xi Province to preach the Gospel. The people in that area are very superstitious and they worship many idols. He went and preached to the people saying, ‘Our God is a great God. He is the one who created the universe. He is able to cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear even the dead to raise again, but what can your God do for you?’
After he preached, a man ran to the hospital where a boy has just passed away. He told the boys parents, ‘There is a Jesus from Henan came who said he can raise people from the dead.’
So the mother took her dead child to my co-worker saying, ‘Jesus from Henan please raise my son from the dead.’
My co-worker was shocked when he saw the dead child for he had never raised anyone from the dead before. There was nothing he could do but just cry out to God. At first he was very worried in his heart that if nothing happened, all the people would say he’s a liar and they would not believe in Jesus. So he started to pray, but after a while, nothing happened so he prayed again and still nothing happened. Then he prayed to God, ‘Lord, I don’t mind to loose face, but I really don’t want this to cause the people mock your name and not believe in you. Please show forth your glory in this place.’
As he was praying that prayer, the mother of the child said, ‘Look, my child is alive again!’
He saw the child stand up and he ran throughout the house. Due to this miracle, many people in that area burnt all their idols and believed in Jesus.
In another instance, Balcomb, with no apparent appreciation of the absurd, reports on the titanic struggle of one of his Chinese evangelicals to get a middle-aged woman to maintain an adequately respectful demeanour in the frequently raucous environment of a Pentecostalist meeting:
There was a 40 years old lady who was demon possessed who came into the meeting. She was scolding and screaming at us while I was preaching. She was disturbing the whole meeting so that I could not continue to preach. I then asked the whole congregation to kneel down and pray. As we were praying, she came to the front and continued scolding and laughing at us.
I then stood up and said, ‘In the name of Jesus shut up!’
Not only she did not shut up, but she said the same thing to me, ‘In the name of Jesus you shut up!’
I then said, ‘In the name of Jesus kneel down!’ but she said the same thing back to me.
Whatever I said she would repeat the same thing. I had never experienced that before. I didn’t know what to do but cry out to God desperately.
I prayed to God, ‘I don’t want to be defeated by the power of the devil.’ I decided that no matter how long it may take or how hard it was, I was going to continue to pray until the demon was cast out.
At that time I knew that I could not pray in the understanding for she would repeat every word I said. So I laid my hands on her and started to pray in tongues. As I continued to pray I discovered that she wasn’t saying anything and she was softening down. As she became weaker, I became stronger in the Spirit. Then the lady tied her hands together and put her head down to the floor. She cried out, ‘Please don’t pray anymore!’
I continued to pray in tongues. After a while, she felt on the floor like a dead person. Then after a few minutes, she woke up and was back to normal. Because of this miracle, many people believed in the Lord in that village.
To place the extremes of current Chinese Christian religious practice in perspective, it is instructive and perhaps inspiring to look at a previous bout of what might be characterized as “irrational spiritual exuberance”–the bloody collision between foreign Christian faith and nativist Boxer belief–that occurred during China’s chaotic transition from empire to republic in the early 20th century, as reflected in incidents from the life of Jonathan Goforth.
Dr. Goforth was one of the most famous Christian missionaries in China.
He was also an unwavering fundamentalist.
It is easy to understand why.
It is difficult to believe that Mr. Goforth would have borne the sacrifices and suffering he endured in China–or exposed his Chinese converts to mortal peril–for the sake of the Bible if he considered it simply a collection of recycled Mesopotamian myths, strange tales, extravagant genealogies, and Pharisaical special pleading shot through with occasional and ineffable divine inspiration.
The Goforths lost five of their eleven children to sickness and misadventure in China. The entire family was nearly wiped out during the Boxer rebellion as they evacuated their Henan mission.
Jonathan Goforth’s wife, Rosalind, described the scene as their caravan of oxcarts was attacked by a mob outside Xindian, a village on the outskirts of Nanyang:
One blow from a two-handed sword struck [Goforth] on the neck with great force…but the wide blunt edge struck his neck leaving only a wide bruise…His left arm which was kept raised to protect his head, was slashed to the bone in several places. A terrible blow from behind struck the back of his head, denting in the skull so deeply, that, later, doctors said it was a miracle the skull was not cleft in two. This blow felled him to the ground…Struggling to his feet, he was struck down again by a club…he saw a horse coming down upon him at full gallop. Upon regaining consciousness, he found this horse had thrown his rider and fallen on smooth ground, close beside him, and kicking furiously, the animal had formed a barrier between him and his attackers till he was able to rise…
Thanks to a combination of inferior swordsmanship, equine misadventure, and a mad rush for plunder that Mrs. Goforth deemed miraculous, the Goforth party was able to escape the mob and stagger across the fields to a nearby village, where they unexpectedly found shelter.
Mrs. Goforth recounts the kindness of their rescuers in the unnamed village, and provides a coda that some might find ironic:
“Why were they so kind?” one man was asked. He replied, “We are Mohammedans. Our God is your God and we could not face him if we had joined in destroying you.”
Dr. Goforth’s search for answers in the wake of the Boxer catastrophe led him to embrace the Protestant revival movement as the only religiously viable alternative he saw to the recruitment of cynical “rice Christians” by the well-heeled Catholic church and the defensive, accommodating syncretism increasingly practiced by Protestant missionaries in China.
The revival movement–an emotional approach to Christian faith that relied on charismatic preaching and the dramatic public confession of sin– had exploded in Wales and spread throughout the world,achieving one of its greatest successes in Korea in 1907.
Readers of this blog, if not the general public, know that as a result Pyongyang–now identified in the Western mind simply as Kim Jung Il’s playground of Stalinist delusion–was known before World War II in evangelical circles as “the Jerusalem of the East”.
Goforth investigated the lessons of Korea and applied them to Christian evangelism in Manchuria.
He achieved remarkable results, at least in the localities where his titanic energy and conviction could be brought directly to bear.
It is interesting to note that the Christian revival movement achieved signal success in Korea and Manchuria–two regions suffering the tremendous cultural and political dislocations of Japanese occupation. Manchuria, in addition, was dealing with the stress and disruption of an entirely new social order founded on the mass movement of millions of Han emigres into the Manchu homeland.
Today, evangelical Christianity has deep roots in South Korea, and has also achieved striking gains in Mongolia, which suffered a similar trauma, the virtual collapse of its economy and society in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Soviet aid in the 1990s.
Goforth, in his struggle against “the Modernist menace”, labored to demonstrate that China was a fertile field for his brand of Fundamentalist evangelism.
Goforth composed a pamphlet describing his revival activities in China entitled “By My Spirit”, as part of his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince a skeptical Protestant establishment of the religious truth and practical efficacy of his approach.
Nevertheless, he may have been on to something, as the rise of charismatic and revivalist observance inside China indicates.
Students of history, religion, popular movements, thought reform and self-criticism, the Cultural Revolution, Falun Gong, charismatic cults in general, and modern mainland Chinese Christianity in particular can profit from Goforth’s descriptions of the intensity of the revival movement in China.
Goforth quotes the recollections of Dr. Walter Phillips, a self-styled skeptic, who attended the revival meetings in Jinzhou:
“The people knelt for prayer…The voices grew and gathered volume and blended into a great wave of united supplication that swelled till it was almost a roar, and died down again into an undertone of weeping. Now I understood why the floor was so wet – it was wet with pools of tears! The very air seemed electric — I speak in all seriousness – and strange thrills coursed up and down one’s body.
“Then above the sobbing, in strained, choking tones, a man began to make public confession. Words of mine will fail to describe the awe and terror and pity of these confessions. It was not so much the enormity of the sins disclosed, or the depths of iniquity sounded, that shocked one. . . . It was the agony of the penitent, his groans and cries, and voice shaken with sobs; it was the sight of men forced to their feet, and, in spite of their struggles, impelled, as it seemed, to lay bare their hearts…Never have I experienced anything more heart breaking, more nerve racking than the spectacle of those souls stripped naked before their fellows.
“So for hour after hour it went on, till the strain was almost more than the onlooker could bear. Now it was a big, strong farmer grovelling on the floor, smiting his head on the bare boards as he wailed unceasingly, ‘Lord! Lord!’ Now a shrinking woman in a voice scarce above a whisper, now a wee laddie from the school, with the tears streaking his piteous grimy little face, as he sobbed out: ‘I cannot love my enemies. Last week I stole a farthing from my teacher. I am always fighting and cursing. I beseech the pastor, elders and deacons to pray for me.’ And then again would swell that wonderful deep organ tone of united prayer. And ever as the prayer sank again the ear caught a dull undertone of quiet sobbing, of desperate entreaty from men and women, who, lost to their surroundings, were wrestling for peace.”‘
Goforth presided over these orgies of self-abasement–which evoke the extremes of self-criticism during the Communist era and included awkward and less edifying aspects such as casting out of devils and anonymous denunciations of “hindering” church elders–with a watchful humility.
One 1908 revival focused on an crisis that must have affected Goforth very strongly–the lasting hurt carried by a Chinese Christian community near Mukden (Shenyang) in the aftermath of the Boxer massacres.
Goforth relates the event in By My Spirit:
The Christian community in Shinminfu had been terribly persecuted during the Boxer uprising of 1900. Fifty-four had suffered martyrdom. The ones who were left prepared a list, containing 250 names in all (of those who had taken part in the massacre). Some day, it was hoped, the way would be opened for them to wreak on these full and complete revenge.
…one of the evangelists came and knelt down in front of the platform. ..”I haven’t confessed the worst sin of all,” be cried brokenly. “I won’t forgive. …In the Boxer year a man came and murdered my father, and ever since then I’ve felt that it was my duty to avenge his death. … I simply can’t forgive that man. I must destroy him.” …
…as many as nine boys got up in that way and told how their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters had been murdered before their very eyes…But they all confessed that they were utterly miserable, and asked us to pray for them that they might have grace to forgive those who had wronged them.
…all the time the evangelist was kneeling there by the platform, weeping. At the conclusion of the meeting he finally rose to his feet and faced the congregation. His face was drawn and haggard. “My mind is made up,” he cried. “I will never rest until I have killed the man who murdered my father.”
I thought that that would be the last that I would see him. But when I entered the church next morning there he was standing by the platform [and proclaimed his change of heart. Addressing the nine boys who had lost family members to the Boxers, he stated]…
“I have bought these nine hymn books and I am going to present one to each of you, in the hope that every time you open it to praise God from its pages you will recall how that I, an evangelist, received from Him grace to forgive the murderer of my father.”
Just then the list containing the names of those upon whom the Christians had planned to take revenge was brought up to the front and torn into bits and the fragments trampled under foot.
To some observers the inspiring element in these anecdotes from Goforth’s life is perhaps a human impulse towards compassion that transcends theology and religious boundaries.
The transcendent struggle between the impulses toward revenge and foregiveness that Goforth witnessed contrasts markedly with Balcomb’s vaunting of his disciple’s ability to outshout and outwrestle a heckler in his church.
There is every reason to believe that, if and when the governments of China and North Korea liberalize religious observance, Protestant evangelism will claim significant numbers of adherents.
It would be nice if, when the post-Communist dispensation emerges, China obtains the spiritual harmony it needs, instead of the antagonism the government merits for its largely crude and unsuccessful attempts to control and exploit the beliefs of its people.
But, as Ross Macdonald wrote resignedly in The Long Goodbye, “I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people.”
* In the first version of this post, I misidentified Billy Graham as born in Lianyungang. Actually, his wife, nee Ruth Bell, was born in Lianyungang when her father, L. Nelson Bell served there as as surgical chief and administrative superintendent at Love and Mercy Hospital in Tsing-Ksiang-Pu, as Lianyungang was then known. Sorry for the error and thanks to reader SR for catching it and pointing it out to me.
Ruth Bell Graham attended high school at the Pyeng Yang Foreign School in Pyongyang–an alma mater few can claim–and hoped to become a Christian missionary in Tibet. She abandoned her dream when she met and married Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois. Instead she kept the home fires burning for decades in North Carolina as he crisscrossed the world building his ministry.
Interestingly, she did not abandon her Presbyterian faith even though she was married to one of the world’s most famous Baptists.
Bell Graham encouraged her husband’s engagement with Asia and was able to return to Pyongyang in the 1990s at the invitation of Kim Il Sung. The Graham evangelical organization has tended to its relationship with North Korea. Franklin Graham has visited North Korea three times to deliver humanitarian aid, preaching on one occasion in 2008. For its part, Pyongyang has apparently attempted to use the Graham family as a communications channel in its so far unsuccessful attempts to negotiate directly with the United States.
The Gardener is never so near as when He is pruning