One of the recurring questions surrounding the Shandong Revival is whether or not the missionaries spoke in tongues. Historically, Southern Baptists have held that “speaking in unknown languages” was not the biblical understanding of glossolalia, and certainly that speaking in tongues was not the biblical sign for the infilling of the Holy Spirit. However, for most historians of the time period,the Shandong revival has been characterized and labeled a Pentecostal movement. By this, they mean Pentecostal in the general sense, not necessarily denominational. Critics of the revival, such as John Lowe, Foreign Mission Board missionary to Qingdao and T. L. Blalock of the Baptist China Direct Mission, felt that there was a denominational issue, that the missionaries of the North China Mission (FMB) had abandoned the historic Baptist faith and had gone Pentecostal. Lowe’s criticisms were the most acute, directly accusing certain missionaries of speaking in tongues and encouraging Pentecostalism. He felt that one missionary in particular, William Carey Newton, had been anointed as a Pentecostal successor to an itinerant Pentecostal evangelist. At the same time, the clearly Pentecostal and indigenous Spiritual Gifts Society was active and growing in the area around Qingdao and among the Presbyterians in Weixian, in particular. Lowe felt that the whole province was going that way. In addition to Newton, Lowe accused other fellow missionaries. Blalock, a Baptist receiving support directly from Southern Baptist churches and not through the FMB, also made accusations against half a dozen NCM missionaries (though most of his accusations were probably based on rumor and not experience, since many of them proved false). One NCM missionary, Bonnie Jean Ray, admitted to speaking in tongues. Perhaps other did the same; if so, they hid it well. Most missionaries denied having the experience themselves, but all of them that favored the revival were willing to tolerate it.
The Southern Baptist missionaries held a view on tongues they shared with other prominent Chinese evangelists, Wang Mingdao and John Sung. Wang Mingdao had an experience of speaking in unknown languages following his water baptism at the instigation of a Chinese Pentecostal brother. After three days of seeking the experience, he stammered a few unintelligible sounds and the group rejoiced. Wang, though, rejected that experience because he felt that his true infilling with the Spirit came days before when he first repented of his sins and subsequently was filled with joy. Wang also held some influence on the NCM. He spoke at a Summer Conference of the North China Baptist Association in 1931, and annually visited the North China Baptist Theological Seminary in Huangxian as a visiting lecturer. The great Chinese evangelist John Sung visited the province numerous times during his many itinerations across China. He encountered those he labeled as Pentecostals, which were most likely those associated with or affected by the Spiritual Gifts Society. Sung, though, was not one to mix words; he recorded in his diary numerous occasions where he denounced a missionary, a pastor, or other church leader out loud in his sermons. He disagreed that tongues was the only sign of the infilling of the Holy Spirit and he continually opposed the Pentecostals on this fact. In fact, he recognized that he was not a favorite speaker among the other Bethel Band preachers when they visited the Province. Sung reiterated that the true sign of being filled with the Spirit is love, not Pentecostal experiences. However, in 1935, John Sung was surprised that he began speaking in tongues during a time of intense prayer. What is significant is that he continued to point his Pentecostal audiences to the true Holy Spirit principle of love for one’s brother and power in witnessing.
Neither Wang Mingdao nor John Sung forbade the common practice of speaking in tongues (or unknown languages). The missionaries of the North China Mission held the same policy towards one another and towards the native church. They decided at the beginning of the revival to embrace the movement. They were able to do this because in many respects the revival began within their ranks. Some of the missionaries were converted for the first time; almost all of them recounted the experience of the filling of the Holy Spirit after times of deep, heart-wrenching prayer that precipitated in genuine conviction of sin, some committed decades before. They confessed their sins publicly, repenting of racism, hatred, pride, stealing, unrighteous anger, and they made restitution. Some missionaries returned their diplomas to their colleges and seminaries from where they graduated, others left money at the alter as repayment for past wrongs. The Bible became a new book to them. If they were biblicists in principle before, they truly became biblicist in practice after. As good biblicists, they trusted Paul; though castigating the Corinthian church for their unruly excesses, he concluded his section on the spiritual gifts by instructing them, among other things, to not forbid the speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39). Of the dozen or so missionaries who were asked to account of their beliefs and practice before the mission board, they almost universally referred to this passage in particular. Only one admitted to speaking in tongues, and that in a time of deep and intense prayer. The rest claimed they did not, but all explicitly said their belief was in line with Paul on this very verse.
The other missions, the American Presbyterians and the English Baptists, took different approaches to the revival and had differing results. The English Baptists completely opposed the excesses of the revival and they saw little fruit as a result. The Presbyterians tried to contain the extreme groups and they faced some splintering as a result. They experience for the most part mixed results. The Southern Baptists largely embraced the movement. They found that over time Pentecostal practices waned while the movement continued to wax. More than one missionary claimed that even through the issues with tongues and other spiritual practices, the churches generally became stronger, even more “Baptist”. They claimed this was the case because like themselves, the Chinese acquired a newfound taste for the exquisite flavors of Scripture, and these brothers and sisters found Baptistic faith and practice to be the most biblical.
This FMB still disapproved of tongues and pontificated to individuals more than once that they believed speaking in tongues would disqualify any missionary from continuing in service to the Board. Bonnie Jean Ray, Mr. and Mrs. I.V. Larson, and Mr. and Mrs. John Abernathy each appeared before trustees of the Board. They all were cleared, and all of them retired from the board several years later without any incident. Tongues may have lasted for a season, but this should not be considered the defining characteristic of the revival.
*This post has drawn from several sources, including missionary correspondence, FMB Mission Minutes, diaries, and biographical works. This is just a small introduction to a greater treatment of this subject in my forthcoming dissertation on the Shandong Revival.
For a recent treatment of Southern Baptist Policy in regard to Tongues, see Emir Caner’s white paper on this subject.