Historical overviews ground the Theological Consultation

Friday, December 5th

by Craig Perry

I was deeply honoured to present a short presentation of the history of the United Church of Canada at the joint China Christian Council/Three Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Church and United Church of Canada at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. My presentation followed an informative presentation by YAN Xi Yu, who teaches the history of Christianity at Nanjing Seminary. I wish to share with you the main points of his presentation supplemented by facts and quotes from A New History of Christianity in China by Daniel H. Bays, director of Asian Studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Mr. Yan shared three distinct periods of Protestant Christianity in China: 1) the late 19th and early 20th century 2) the first half of the 20th century and 3) the second half of the 20th century to early 21st century which is the current period.

Protestant missionaries first arrived in China in 1807 with the arrival of Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society. European and American missionaries instituted not only the Christian religion but numerous aspects of Western society including education and medicine. With the exception of Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, most missionary societies stayed isolated to China’s coastal cities. “The single most impressive visible result of the missionary labours of the late nineteenth century was the laying of an impressive institutional foundation upon which the Chinese church would build.” Bays p. 70.

Yan highlighted the three missionary conferences held in Shanghai in 1877, 1890 and 1907 of which almost no Chinese nationals were present. Almost all of the foreign missionary societies attended the conferences, but they did not all agree on what their purpose in China was and how best to bring to gospel and Christian civilization to the people.

The position of Protestant missions in China continued to strengthen after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-Sen. However, the disagreements that had been building during the three previous conferences were starting to tear apart unity in Protestant China. The fundamentalist-modernist controversies that were happening in American Protestantism were also occurring in China.

In 1922 another major conference was held, but this time with more Chinese delegates than Western ones. This was the precursor of the National Christian Council of the Church of China (formally established only in 1980). This began the process of Chinese taking control of the Protestant Church and the decline of foreign missions.

China, however, was about to experience a series of events that would change its face forever. In 1936 Japan annexed Manchuria, and then in 1937 invaded mainland China. With the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Americans entered the war against the Japanese. The war strengthened Chinese nationalism and further contributed to negative feelings towards foreign influence in China. By the time the war ended in 1945, the Protestant Christians attempted to rebuild their network of churches but were quickly interrupted by the growing conflict that resulted in the Chinese Civil War.

After Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Protestant churches reorganized under exclusively Chinese leadership as the Three Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Church in China. It was founded under the principle of three “selfs”: self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. It recognized the negative effects of foreign Imperialism on China.

From 1966 to 1976 during the years of Cultural Revolution, religion was illegal, churches were closed, and church leaders were considered counterrevolutionaries – sometimes imprisoned or reeducated. We don’t know very much about the church’s history from this period. In 1978-79, after Chairman Mao’s death and the rise to power of Deng Xiaopeng, churches were allowed to reopen again under a plan for reforming the government’s involvement in the private lives of Chinese citizens. No one anticipated the rapid recovery of the Protestant Church in the 1980s and 90s. Currently there are over 30 million registered Protestant Christians in China and over 20,000 registered places of worship in the China Christian Council/Three Self Patriotic Movement.

The China Christian Council/Three Self Patriotic Movement is a long-standing and close partner of the United Church of Canada. The UCC was one of the first churches to receive an international delegation from the newly reformed China Christian Council in the early 1980s. Through friendship with Protestant Church leader Bishop K. H. Ting and church leaders in Canada a number of exchanges took place, renewing a longstanding friendship going back to the missionary era. Our December 2015 delegation hopes to continue this relationship of friendship and cooperation as we continue to learn from each other’s experience in ministry in our individual contexts and to provide future opportunities for our next generation of leaders to encounter each other and each other’s faith in Jesus Christ.

The featured image is a photograph of a young Bishop K.H. Ting taken in 1946.  It was at this time t‎hat Bishop Ting was in Canada, and was Mission Secretary of the Canadian Student Christian Movement.   (Photo taken by Craig Perry)

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