The impact of evolution on the missionary evangelization of China
Few missionary endeavours have caught the imagination of the Christian church in the West, or suffered as many setbacks, as the evangelization of China.
The first Protestant missionary to reside in China was the Scot, Robert Morrison (1782–1834). With great zeal, he prepared himself in England for the task by studying Latin, Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, and medicine, learning Chinese, and joining the London Missionary Society. He wrote to a friend:
“I wish I could persuade you to accompany me. Take into account the 350 million souls in China who have not the means of knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour … .”1
In China, he wrote a Chinese grammar (1812), translated the whole Bible into Chinese (1807–1819), and compiled a three-volume Chinese-English Dictionary (1815–1823), all of which were invaluable helps to future missionaries.
In the next 25 years, missionary opportunity greatly increased as a result of political activity. Following the end of the first Opium War,2 the 1842 Treaty of Nanking ceded the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in perpetuity,3 and established five ‘treaty’ ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy that gave Western nations the right of residence and trade. Further treaty ports and ‘open’ cities were established in 1858 and 1860. This revolutionized the status of missionaries, who now also “possessed the legal right to travel anywhere in the Empire and to propagate their faith without molestation from the state”.4 Nevertheless, at that time most missionaries restricted their activities to these ‘open’ ports.
Hudson Taylor—the next pioneer
Of the many British, American and European missionaries who went to China in the next half century, the best known is probably James Hudson Taylor (1832–1905) from Yorkshire, England. Out of deep concern for the multitudes of Chinese who were dying without ever hearing the Gospel, he founded the China Inland Mission in 1865 for the purpose of sending missionaries into the inland provinces of China. Hudson Taylor’s faith principle was that “God’s work done in God’s way would never lack God’s supply”, and he urged his missionaries, before they left England “to learn to move men through God by prayer alone”. Taylor learned Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and later could preach in several dialects of Chinese. The initial C.I.M. membership was 24 missionaries, being two workers for each of the 11 inland provinces of China that had no missionaries, and two for Mongolia. The number grew to 828 by the time of Hudson Taylor’s death in 1905. Ruth Tucker wrote in her history of Christian missions:
“No other missionary in the nineteen centuries since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systematised plan of evangelising a broad geographical area than Hudson Taylor.”5
Missionary activity in China was not without opposition. In the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901,6 almost 2,000 Chinese Protestants were massacred, as well as 186 missionaries (including wives and children).7 However, the sufferings of Chinese Christians and missionaries, in this most severe persecution which Protestant missions had yet experienced in any country, focused the attention of the Protestant world on China. Evangelicals, inspired by the sacrifice of the martyrs, responded in large numbers to the challenge of ‘obeying the great commission’ and taking the Gospel to the people who made up one-quarter of the world’s population.
A decade of missionary evangelism
With the Boxers quelled, a decade of extraordinary opportunity dawned for missionary work in China. This involved many missionaries and mission societies in many denominations from many countries, with more missionaries engaged in evangelism than in any other activity.8 There was also the nourishing of the growing Chinese church with educational, medical, and Christian literature programs, as well as social reforms such as combating opium and the foot-binding of women, running orphan asylums, and schools for the blind, the deaf and the dumb.
According to church historian Prof. K.S. Latourette, the number of missionaries in China increased from 1,296 in 1889, to 3,445 in 1905, to 5,462 in 1915.9 And “by 1914 Protestant missionaries were to be found in practically all the chief cities and in many of the smaller ones.”10
The impact of evolution
After World War I, missionary activity in China faced new problems. These included the deleterious effect of World War I on the world economy and the status of Westerners, the rise of Chinese nationalism as well as banditry, the promotion of skepticism, agnosticism, and evolutionist philosophies by humanist visitors to China such as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell,11 and the formation of the Chinese Anti-Christian Federation in 1922 “on the ground that science and religion were incompatible” and that Christianity, it was claimed, had a hidden political agenda.12
In the home countries, in the mid-1920s, for the first time there was a decline in volunteers and finances. Less than ten years after the close of World War I, “Protestant missions were facing at their home base the most disturbing set of problems that had confronted them in the century and a quarter since they had become a major movement, and in China were fighting for their life.”13
Although missionary numbers increased from 6,395 in 1918 to 8,158 in 1925, this growth rate was only about half of that between 1904 and 1914. The most threatening factor contributing to this, according to Prof. Latourette, was the rise in the home countries of evolutionary naturalism and its sibling, liberal theology.
Prof. Latourette describes this as “a loss of assurance as to the validity of the Gospel and the superiority of Christianity over the other religions of the world. Christians were having to reconcile their faith with the vast flood of new knowledge that was pouring in upon them. … Was Christianity the truth, or had geology, the evolutionary hypothesis, sociology and psychology bowed God out of the universe, made religion only a development from primitive ‘ghost fear’, immortality a delusion, the Bible a faulty product of earlier and credulous ages, and Christian ethics obsolete? Some frankly became atheists or agnostics. Many were bewildered and while trying to cling to earlier convictions did so without enthusiasm. Some attempted so to reframe the statements of their faith as to make them consistent with the new discoveries and in doing so often departed widely from the historic creeds. Others, ‘fundamentalists’, branded these attempts as destructive ‘modernism’, maintained that the Bible was infallible, the older creeds final, and such of the scientific ‘discoveries’ as were not consistent with them false.”14
The crisis was severe. Not only did the theory of evolution enfeeble the faith of many but it also undermined the necessity of taking the Gospel to the lost who needed a Saviour, which had been the God-inspired imperative and zeal of the pioneer missionaries. One important factor is that Jesus is our “kinsman-redeemer” (Isaiah 59:20), and the kinsman-redeemer must be related by blood to those whom he redeems (Leviticus 25:47–49, Ruth 3–4). This is possible only because all of us come from one man (Acts 17:26), “the first man, Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), who is also the ancestor of Christ (Luke 3:38), “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Evolution denies a historical Adam, through whom we are Christ’s blood relatives, so denies this vital kinsman-redeemer concept that underpins all missionary activity.
The 1920s came before the rise of the modern anti-evolution, pro-creation movement with its wealth of scientific refutation of the theory of evolution, corroboration of creation, and its stance against the self-destruction of liberal theology, fuelled as it was (and is) by evolutionary beliefs. The later testimony of Josef Ton, an exiled pastor of the largest Baptist Church in (then Communist) Romania, is worth noting. He said:
“I came to the conclusion that there are two factors which destroyed Christianity in Western Europe. One was the theory of evolution, the other, liberal theology … . Liberal theology is just evolution applied to the Bible and our faith.”15
The Chinese Church has survived—not only despite the spread of evolutionism in the 1920s, but also the later extreme persecution in the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966–1976) under Chairman Mao Zedong, an out-and-out evolutionary materialist who described ‘religion’ as ‘poison’. Estimates of current church membership vary, but it is probably in excess of 70 million.
Jesus said: “I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Note: The author of this article was Missionary No. 3004 of the C.I.M.
References and notes
- Hallihan, C.P., Robert Morrison Bible Translator of China, 1782–1834, Trinitarian Bible Society Quarterly Record, Oct. to Dec, 2008, Issue 585, p. 17; www.trinitarianbiblesociety.org/site/articles/morrison.pdf. Return to text.
- The First Anglo-Chinese War (1839–42), known popularly as the First Opium War, was fought between the British and the Qing Dynasty of China. To control the spread of opium, Chinese officials confiscated supplies from British traders. The British government used its military power to enforce violent redress. Return to text.
- China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997, as per the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. Return to text.
- Latourette, K.S., A History of Christian Missions in China, Russell and Russell, New York, 1929, pp. 277, 360–61. Return to text.
- Tucker, R., From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya A Biographical History of Christian Missions, p. 73, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983. Return to text.
- The ‘Boxers’ was the Western nickname for a secret society of Chinese peasants known as I-ho ch’üan 义和拳 (‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’, or alternatively, ‘Righteous and Harmonious Society’ 义和团). From 1899 to 1901, their ‘Rebellion’ was against foreigners and foreign influence in religion, politics, and trade. They attacked the foreign communities in the capital Peking (now Beijing), in a 55-day siege, until subdued by a force of 20,000 Japanese, American, European, and some Australian troops. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 517. And the number of Chinese Catholics who died “was probably in excess of thirty thousand” (p. 513). Missionaries were more widely scattered outside the ports than were traders and diplomats, and so formed the majority of the foreigners who were killed. The China Inland Mission, with its policy of reaching the interior provinces, suffered nearly one-third of the missionary martyrdoms. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 618 Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 606. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 662. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 692. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 695. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 771. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 770. Return to text.
- Ton, J., New Life, April 15, 1982. Return to text.