It is one of the largest nations in the world, with arguably the largest church. China was viewed by Westerners as a stockroom, a place full of goods and riches ripe for the taking. Throughout its history, it seems China has been viewed as a way to gain more than a place with its own culture and merits. The church, however, saw it as a place full of people that God loved, a place that needed a Savior.
The earliest arrivals of the gospel in China are not well documented. A stele (stone slab with carvings to stand as a monument) from the 600s states that a Syrian monk was the first Christian missionary to the country. But although the church flourished in China for a brief time, by the year 845 Emperor Wuzong had decreed that all foreign religions were to be banned. From that time there is little history of the church in China until far later.
The very mission-focused Catholic Jesuits made their way to China in the 1500s, and survived there for a long time despite political turmoil and the upheaval of dynasties. They were able to last until the 1700s, and returned later until nationalism and Communism drove them out in the twentieth century.
In the 1800s, Westerners found themselves increasingly drawn to China. Missionary Hudson Taylor, at the age of 21, moved to Shanghai and pioneered a new way of life for Protestant missionaries. Spurning ideals of living separate from the natives, he dressed in the Chinese style, grew a traditional man’s ponytail, and invested his time in learning Mandarin and making connections. When illness forced him home to England, he spent his time working to develop a plan for a new missionary society that would greatly increase the number and scope of people trying to reach the Chinese. His society was named the China Inland Mission, and it radically changed the face of Christian missions—not just in China, but around the world.
Taylor’s society accepted candidates from all sorts of walks of life, which included sending single women into the heart of inland China. This opened doors in the 1900s for women like Gladys Aylward. A young woman when she felt the call to China, Aylward wrote a response to an elderly woman’s call for help and travelled through great peril to reach the place where Miss Jeannie Lawson worked. Here she assisted in running an inn for travelling mule drivers, eventually turning to saving orphaned children. During the war between China and Japan in 1938, she and one hundred children that she had rescued fled over the mountains from coming invaders. At not even five feet tall, Aylward was hardly an impressive woman by sight, but God was able to use her nonetheless.
The history of missionaries and the spread of the gospel in China has fluctuated greatly. Not for lack of effort, the consistency and sustainability of the church has been difficult to maintain there. But partially due to the human efforts of missionaries, but of course mostly thanks to the hand of God, the church there has never entirely died, despite stiff persecution.
Next month’s article will delve more into the modern state of the church in China, as well as the persecution it faces, then and now.