Being Changed by China–Missionary Perspectives

Flynt, Wayne, and Gerald W. Berkley. Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdon, 1850–1950. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Wayne Flynt is Emeritus Professor at Auburn University and renowned authority on Alabaman History and Alabaman Baptist History. He is author of numerous books, and Pulitzer Prize nominee. Gerald W. Berkley served on several faculties as a Professor of History specializing in Chinese and East Asian history.

The purpose of Taking Christianity to China was to investigate the contribution of Alabama Missionaries to Chinese Christianity but more importantly to show the effect that living in China had upon the missionaries themselves. The authors take the approach of “collective biography” meaning that data from the 47 missionaries being studied were compiled to make generalizations about the lives of missionaries at certain points in history (xii). They identify three epochal stages of interaction between Alabaman missionaries and China: the pioneer period (1807–1880); years of steady growth (1880–1920); and years of steady decline (1920–1950). The authors dispute the prevalent thesis that the missionaries simply approached China as imperialists attempting to force upon the Chinese culture the foreign culture of home. Rather, their thesis is that the missionaries’ “service there changed them even as they sought to change China” (19) and thus, mainly as a result of the failure to “impose their culture on China” a third culture emerged “that was neither a carbon copy of evangelical Christianity from Alabama nor a replica of China” (20).

After the introductory first chapter, Flynt and Berkley dedicate ten chapters to recount the experiences of Alabaman missionaries in China. In the second through sixth chapters, they record the transition of the missionaries from a globalized Alabaman culture already experiencing the immigration of native Chinese, through the call and education of the missionaries, to their first landing in China and settling down among their new people. Through these chapters the authors give vignettes of certain individuals, to retain the personal connection of the story: T. W. Ayers, Martha Crawford, Willie Hays Kelly, the family of Mary Stuart, intermittently, Lottie Moon. Though the authors mention other missionaries and they do not focus on one denomination, the impact of Baptists stand out, mainly because of their larger numbers. Also significant, the fields of these missionaries were mostly in North China. While Shanghai is referred to quite often, the impact of the North China Mission in the Shantung province receives ample attention. As such, these chapters relate many of the difficulties the missionaries faced: marriages of convenience, arduous travel, finding a home, learning the difficult language of Chinese, understanding Chinese customs (and overcoming their cultural abhorrence of them), dealing with Chinese religion, going from missionary wife to wife of a missionary, having (or not having) children, finding rest among the work, facing poor health, and finding finances during troubled times. Such changes and struggles support a “third” culture rather than a “two culture” thesis, thus supporting the authors’ overall argument (see especially 75–92).

In the next four chapters, seven through eleven, Flynt and Berkley treated the peculiarities of work in China. In chapter seven, they noted the role the missionaries played in raising awareness about their work. Missionaries often wrote home and published books and while on furlough served as recruiters and fund raisers. These activities of missionaries served as other Americans’ primary source for understanding China (130). In chapter eight, the authors discussed the evangelistic work of the missionaries, as well as the growing social, educational, and medical ministries in the country. They also gave special prominence to the work among women by the women. Regarding their ministries, though, the missionaries did not view social, educational, and medical ministries as substitutes for evangelism or separate; rather, they saw them as a vital part of evangelistic work. The doctors and teachers saw their ministry wed with the gospel ministry, even if those back home favored evangelism (though, interestingly, the later work was funded with a preference for “social” ministries over funding evangelistic ministry). In the ninth, the authors further charted the changing role of women. They concluded their chapter, saying, “Whatever the intent of women missionaries may have been, whether to extend Alabama’s Victorian values or to convert the heathen through preaching that men would not do, they were ultimately subservient of Chinese gender roles” (237). Moving forward, Flynt and Berkley, in chapter ten, emphasized the conflicts that missionaries faced or participated in while serving in China. Missionaries faced conflicts with imperialist businessmen, with their mission boards, with themselves and with the Chinese. The authors argued that these conflicts were not “the ideal representation of their faith” (280). Then, in chapter eleven, they reported the relationship between the missionaries and the ebb and flow of Chinese politics. The missionaries increasingly faced opposition culminating in their removal by the Chinese Communist Party. The authors relate the reasons for their removal, even given their humanitarian benefit: “Christianity was a doctrine at variance with much of Confucianism; missionaries did demand access to all of China; missionaries did protect Chinese converts involved in legal issues against non-Christian Chinese; and missionaries did stress Western values in schools they opened in China” (285). As such, though the authors lauded the missionaries for their “atypical” respect for the Chinese people and their nationalistic conscious (319).

Finally, in the concluding chapter of the book, Flynt and Berkley traced the “legacy” of the Alabamian missionaries. Though not shying away from the embarrassing and negative impact of the missionaries, the authors even-handedly recorded the enduring impact of the mission to China. They found that the Communist takeover served to weed-out the rice Christians that western dependency had created. Then, the Church, following 1950, was forced to become self-sufficient, -governing, and –propagating. Thus, the church in China has been resilient, numbering more that 60 million (estimated in 1997) and led by many women pastors (reflecting the role of women missionaries a generation before). The authors also noted the “diaspora” of missionaries throughout Asia and the impact of missionary children on both the Orient and Occident. Overall, their book is an excellent treatment of the varied history of the impact of missionaries on China and of China on missionaries.

The overwhelming strengths of the book begin with the author’s attention to detail. They provided detailed accounts of each of the 47 Alabaman missionaries to China, though interspersed collectively. One receives a fairly accurate picture of the life of the average missionary of the time serving in China. Also, they took extra care to show the change and development of the worldview of the missionaries as a result of their experience. As such, they proved the point that the “two culture” thesis is unfair and inaccurate—the missionaries were not simply cultural imperialists. Furthermore, they proved their thesis that the missionaries’ experience in China aided them to change and develop their attitude towards both their own and Chinese culture, thus developing a “third culture.” Such a positive conclusion of the efforts of missionaries in China by a Professor of History and  a Sinologist is significant.

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