Chinese Theological Review 18

Remembering the Past as a Lesson for the Future


Luo Guanzong

History is the summation of this or that period; reality is the continuation of objective existence. History is what has been; reality is development and change. History is a record of the past; reality a manifestation of today. But history and present social development cannot be separated. History is an eternal textbook, a record of the successes and failures, experience and lessons, of our forebears, offering inspiration and admonition to those who come after. We must deal squarely with history in order to correctly face the future.

This volume takes as its title the Chinese saying, the past not forgotten is a guide for the future. The hope is that it will aid Christians, (secular) scholars of Christianity, and all those who care about Christianity in understanding Christianity in modern Chinese history, a historical period which must not be forgotten. Keeping the lessons of that experience firmly in mind is helpful in doing theoretical and practical work related to Christianity well, and in strengthening patriotic thinking and national cohesion.


Modern Christianity came to China in the nineteenth century and made a considerable contribution to Chinese society. Unfortunately, the entrance of Christianity to China cannot be separated from imperialist aggression against China; Christianity was used by colonialism and imperialism.

The most important event in Chinese Christianity in the twentieth century was the initiation of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSM/TSPM) following the establishment of new China. The greatest achievement of the Three-Self Movement was the severing of the relationship between Christianity and imperialism, throwing off the control of the foreign mission boards, and enabling a foreign religion used by imperialist aggressors to be transformed into an independent Christianity run by Chinese Christians themselves, self-governed, self-supported and self-propagated. On this basis TSPM enabled Christianity to adapt to socialist society, to be a church in a socialist nation that is run on three-self principles and to advance the path of theological reconstruction.

The fundamental reason the Three-Self Movement was launched was to counter the manipulation of Christianity by the forces of imperialism in their aggression against China. The inception of the TSPM in 1951 took place at the height of the accusations and attacks on imperialist aggression in China by the people of China. Chinese Christians, too, personally experienced, uncovered, and made accusations concerning the serious crimes of colonial and imperialist manipulation of Christianity. Through the common efforts of Christians, on the basis of statements and missionary and foreign consular documents, much persuasive documentation was uncovered. These words and actions, evincing complacency toward the trend of events as aggression moved forward, became incontrovertible evidence of guilt, enabling us to gain a deeper knowledge of this issue.

The TSPM is a half-century old. The materials we uncovered consist mainly of excerpts and individual essays. Recently, a number of people have hoped it would be possible to organize this material. Today, this foundation of materials uncovered by our forebears has been compiled according to historical period and important events. Our approach has been based on the following principles: 1) We are not writing a history of Chinese Christianity, but a history of the manipulation of Christianity by imperialism in its aggression in China; 2) We write according to historical developments in China, for apart from the facts of our national history, we have no way of understanding the substance of the words and actions of foreign missionaries and their nations' officials at the time; 3) In terms of documents, insofar as possible, we will use the original words of foreign missionaries and officials and, relating these to the contemporary historical background, add whatever explanations and commentary are necessary; 4) Our authors all have their own writing styles and we have not tried to impose unity; 5) Documents previously published in Tian Feng have been included in an appendix.


From the very beginning, colonial and imperialist aggression against China used Christianity to serve its ends. To be sure, when this issue was discussed in the early days of the TSPM, religious sentiment made it difficult for some to accept these facts and objections were raised. Later, with the emergence of a large quantity of historical evidence, awareness grew more widespread; though understandably some people still do not have a thorough or complete understanding of the situation. Strangely enough, however, some people still call it a fabrication. And so we must provide an explanation:

1 The exposure and criticism of the crime of manipulating Christianity for colonial and imperial ends in China did not begin with the establishment of new China or with the TSPM. As early as 1922, during the anti-Christian movement, non-Christian students and intellectuals were the first to oppose imperialist aggression against China; in so doing they were also in the vanguard in sharply attacking the use of Christianity for imperialist ends in China. During the foreign mission board and missionary controlled "National" Christian Conference held in May of that year, Chinese Christian delegates also raised the criticism that the history of the entry of Christianity into China was linked to her humiliation.

The West called itself Christendom, but offended Christian doctrine by invading and humiliating China, such that Christian evangelism in China was greatly impeded. They went on to say that the church, under the control of mission boards and missionaries, was in fact still a foreign church, and thus subject to outside condemnation.1 In the May Thirtieth Incident of 1925, while all Chinese people joined to condemn the imperialist murder of our compatriots, many patriotic Christians attacked those so-called Christian nations who were selling opium, starting wars of aggression, forcing signature to unequal treaties, ceding of territory and payment of indemnities, and much more. Some missionaries went against Christian doctrine, saying one thing and meaning another, to cover up crimes of aggression by their governments.

All these are historical fact; historically patriots in and outside the church have attacked these crimes of aggression in which imperialist forces made use of Christianity. The exposure of these crimes undertaken by Christian leaders and believers after the founding of the TSPM is in fact a continuation and development of the anti-imperialist patriotic movement of our patriotic Christian forebears. Though now we are able to criticize more profoundly and more concretely, and substantiate more fully, the facts of this history are proven and undeniable.

2 There are many statements by western officials and Christians recognizing the close political and economic relationship between Christianity and the big powers.

The American China missionary and historian K.S. Latourette, writing of the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin), said "The treaties placed not only missionaries but Chinese Christians under the aegis of foreign powers. It tended to remove Chinese Christians from the jurisdiction of their government and to make of Christian communities imperia in imperio, widely scattered enclaves under the defense of aliens." The results of the toleration clauses, then, were far from being always creditable to the name of Christ. And he strongly asserts that the Church had become a partner in western imperialism.2

There are also many examples of the recognition by American consular officials of the important contributions to their own diplomatic activities made by Christian missionaries. J.W. Foster, an early US Secretary of State, in his American Diplomacy in the Orient, described signal contributions of missionaries on behalf of US diplomacy, saying that the contributions of missionaries to the diplomatic relations between western nations and those of the Orient were particularly outstanding, and absolutely essential.3

Charles Denby, American Minister to China for thirteen years, said that for nearly one hundred years, men and women missionaries had striven on behalf of (U.S.) prestige, language and business in China. Without them, the national reputation would dim. Undoubtedly, without them, U.S. commerce would have suffered huge losses and its diplomacy have been deprived of one of its major supports.4

In its annual report for 1932, the North American Board for Foreign Missions openly admitted that all telegrams and important documents, including important first-hand intelligence reports, were immediately passed on to the State Department in Washington.5

On 18 September 1955, the editorial in the Christian Century, titled "The Church in the Cold War," stated, on the possibility of missionaries taking part in spying activities, that missionaries and mission boards had experienced a great deal of pressure to report on conditions in their areas to U.S. intelligence departments, and that many mission sending agencies had discussed the issue internally behind closed doors.

In the 1980s, the U.S. National Council of Churches and other important church organizations, in their statements on relations with China, acknowledged that the missionary movement was a component of western efforts to control China and bring influence to bear. Western missionaries and their churches in China were all under the protection of the unequal treaties with which the big powers oppressed the Chinese people. The close ties between the missionary movement and the economic and political forces of imperialism hurt their witness to Christ and caused Jesus Christ and the Gospel to be linked, in the eyes of many Chinese, to the power and might of the big western powers.6

Many western scholars of religion criticize the close ties between Christianity and imperialism, and many church persons of conscience admit that these ties harmed the missionary movement. All this illustrates that the manipulation of Christianity in the cause of imperialist aggression is objective historical fact.

3 The present volume aims to use historical fact to illustrate that the thesis that imperialist forces manipulated Christianity in carrying out aggression is a historical judgment witnessed by their own words and actions.


Given that the thesis referred to above is a foregone conclusion, concrete implementation and execution of the policy of aggression cannot be separated from the activities of missionaries and foreign mission boards either. And thus, the proper assessment of missionaries' contributions and errors is of concern to all. Many people think of missionaries as ambassadors of the Gospel, and cannot speak of them in the same breath as imperialist aggression. This is a very complex issue.

There are the individual contributions of missionaries and their deeply moving achievements; but missionaries cannot escape their links to the foreign mission boards and to governments either. Many missionaries carried on other activities while spreading the Gospel, and these included, to varying degrees, whether consciously or not, participation in (foreign) government activities.

Following TSPM criticism of the use of religion as an agent of imperialism, many Christian writers prefaced mention of missionaries with the phrase "agents of imperialism." This had changed by the 1980s, with the feeling that missionaries could not be lumped together, but should be discussed on an individual basis, especially with the "Love Country, Love Church, Together Enter the Twenty-first Century—A Summation of Fifty Years of the Chinese TSPM" resolution passed in 2000 by the Joint Standing Committees of the CCC and TSPM, which clearly stated: In the 1950s, the TSPM labeled all missionaries agents of imperialism. This is wrong. We should differentiate among missionaries on the basis of their actions during historical events. Any actions of theirs which benefited the Chinese people will not be forgotten.

The key to the assessment of the missionaries is that it must be done on the basis of individual actions and individual ties to the (foreign) government policy of aggression.

Foreign mission boards have actively denied that links existed between mission boards and missionaries and foreign government policies. The clearest example is a letter dated 8 May 1950 from the China Committee of the North American United Mission Board to Chinese Christian leaders which said that the mission work of this Board in China had never had any direct link to (American) government policy.7 This is succinctly put, but the facts suggest otherwise.

It may be recalled that in 1943, when the British and American governments repealed their unequal treaties with China and signed new treaties, the Christian Century editorial said that while Americans often have forgotten and do not speak of the links that formed between governments and those persons the Christian mission boards sent to non-Christian countries to work, the people in the countries to which they went never forget.8 The editorial was very clear, admitting that the activities of the mission boards and missionaries were related to their governments' policies. Since all the facts are there, it said, the people of those countries where the mission boards worked will never forget. But it is not easy for Americans to admit; thus to say forgotten actually means avoided.

In fact, since the advent of the western big powers' aggression in China, they exploited the services of missionaries, and many missionaries, directly or indirectly, sold opium, gathered intelligence, urged war on China. Some took direct part in the armies of aggression or took part in the planning and coercion of the Qing government in the matter of signing the unequal treaties. Nearly all mission boards and missionaries welcomed the victory of the war of aggression and the selection of a new government and economic benefits. Many missionaries, under protection of the unequal treaties moved deep into the interior of China like colonial conquerors, rampaging through towns and villages, bullying and humiliating the people, arousing their resistance. This is what led to what are known as the missionary cases. The establishment and expansion of missionary regions was closely allied to spheres of influence carved out by imperial powers. These are commonly known historical facts.

After the Boxer Movement, the U.S. and British governments and mission boards increased their cultural aggression. Their aim was to foster a group of leaders obedient to them in political thinking who would control all aspects of Chinese government, economy, culture and society. Influenced by such leaders, the Chinese people would no longer resist the imperial powers. This was seen as a much more effective means of reaching their goal of total domination of China than wars of aggression. This can be seen in their evangelical activities, in their schools, hospitals and relief activities: all ways in which they trained the talent they needed and bought support. This is especially true of the dissemination of their theological thinking along with their evangelism: a theology which was an apologetic for imperialist aggression, an effective way to hoodwink believers.

With the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, September 18, 1931, and the Japanese invasion of China, the Chinese people embarked on the high tide of the National Salvation Movement, but until the outbreak of the War in the Pacific in 1941, the American policy of appeasement toward Japan induced the Chinese government to submit to Japan. In every evangelistic meeting in China, at every international Christian gathering, American missionaries acted in conjunction with U.S. government policy on the issue of Japanese aggression in China.

In 1946, following World War II, in order to strengthen its pro-Chiang Kai-shek, anti-Communist policy, the U.S. government went so far as to make the famous missionary John Leighton Stuart its ambassador. He openly both administered U.S. policy toward China and directed mission board and missionary activity in China.

To sum up, the activities of foreign mission boards and missionaries in China have always been inseparable from their governments' policies toward China. Some well- known missionaries were important figures in masterminding schemes and implementing their governments' China policies. How can anyone say the evangelical work of the mission boards in China never had any direct link to their governments' policies!

Were all missionaries involved in political activities of aggression then? No.

Many missionaries came to China with a mission of spreading the Gospel and many gave their lives for it. They translated the Bible and did much for cultural exchange, medicine and health, worked to transform social traditions, and social service work. Some sympathized with and supported the 1911 Revolution. In 1937, during the Nanjing Massacre, there were American missionaries and foreign nationals who risked suffering and danger to form a safety zone to protect Chinese citizens. These we will always remember. However, because missionaries came from various social backgrounds in countries like Britain and America, their levels of education meant that they could never completely escape the political views of their own country toward oppressing other peoples. Even more importantly, because of the close connection of the entire missionary enterprise with (foreign) governments, missionaries who were sent out could not shake off the fetters of their governments' China policies.

Following the imperialist invasion of China, the aggressors were the militarily mighty big powers; China was a weak and humiliated nation. The big powers were rich, scientifically and technically advanced, while semi-colonial China was poor and backward. Its people lived in misery. Foreign mission boards and missionaries had money and influence. Chinese churches had to depend upon the assistance of foreign mission boards: mother churches to the Chinese daughter churches; a mother-and-child relationship subject to the missionary. Authority in the administration, personnel and finances of the churches were in the hands of the mission boards and missionaries. Many missionaries harbored feelings of superiority; they had come to distribute charity, to save the Chinese. During the National Christian Conference of 1922, because the church was entirely under the sway of foreign missionaries, Chinese church leaders and delegates could only indirectly criticize the missionaries' arrogation of power in the Church, could speak only obliquely of missionary despotism, their hope that missionaries would rid themselves of national and ethnic biases, and so on.

Many missionaries regarded the poverty and suffering of the Chinese people as due to their lack of belief in God and their sinfulness, while they saw their own nations' wealth and power as due to blessings from God because they were Christian countries. Perhaps they did not understand that these different fates were mainly created by imperialist aggression against China. The so-called truth that imperialism, through its exploitation of evangelism, wanted to preach was that the poverty, backwardness and suffering of the Chinese people was the will of God, and they must submit and not resist. This explains why many missionaries, rather than doubting the policies of aggression of their governments, praised them and, consciously or not, served their governments' policies of aggression toward China.

Because the mission boards took their orders from the U.S. Department of State, and missionaries were under the control of the mission boards, the freedom of missionaries was limited. That is why they did nothing when the Japanese attacked and heavily bombed Shanghai in 1932. One hundred five missionaries who witnessed the invasion joined to issue a statement, accusing the Japanese army of barbaric cruelty. These missionaries spoke out of humanitarian conscience, to uphold human rights and justice. But several days later, the North American Board of Foreign Missions issued its Statement to American and Canadian Churches, saying that the situation in the Far East was enormously complex, that they should be very careful in making judgments and not be overly hasty; that they should not be influenced by reports and articles that reflected misunderstandings and error. Clearly, the statement by the 105 missionaries went against the policy of appeasement toward Japan of the American and British governments and the mission board issued its statement to stop their mouths.9

In Chengdu around the time of victory over the Japanese, too, the Canadian missionary James Endicott (Wen Youzhang), because of his sympathy with and support for the progressive student movement, took part, along with Y.T. Wu and others, in student meetings and demonstrations against the civil war, and even spoke at these meetings, saying it was his profound belief that their actions were in accord with Christian doctrine. But because his activities went against the Canadian and American government policies of supporting Chiang and opposing the Communists that the mission boards upheld, Endicott ran into opposition from within the mission board and eventually had to withdraw from the mission.10 After World War II, the Chinese people opposed the dictatorial and corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek, and the nation was politically polarized. But the American government continued a policy of propping up Chiang and opposing the Communists, through strong political, economic and military assistance to the Chiang government. Among missionaries in China at that time, the absolute majority followed in being pro-Chiang and anti-Communist, in complete accord with the American policy.

In early 1949, when the war of liberation had met with decisive victory, Moore of the China Bible Society had the idea that the dissemination of a great quantity of Bibles would be a deterrent to the Communists, and he wanted the American Ambassador Leighton Stuart to wire the State Department for instructions. The missionaries in China at the time had at first withdrawn, but then changed their minds, wanting to remain in their posts and protect American interests: these were the instructions they received from the American State Department.

As for the issue of espionage activities (by missionaries), we can see from the September 1955 Christian Century editorial referred to above that it was the enormous pressure on missionaries from the CIA which made them do this. Thus we see that some missionaries who did engage in espionage activities had no other choice.

To sum up, in a system in which missionaries took orders from mission boards and mission boards took orders from their government, many missionaries were carrying out government policy without realizing it. They were simply acting out of a zealous desire to spread the Gospel and did not know or did not understand this situation. Some did know, but could not say, could only forget to mention it, or only speak of it behind closed doors. This was their tragedy.


The Chinese Church was being controlled by foreign mission boards that sought to make Chinese Christians comply with imperialist aggression in China through the theology spread by the missionaries. But there were some patriotic Chinese Christian leaders, patriotic Christian intellectuals in particular, who were determined to do something about it.

In the early twentieth century, Rev. Yu Guozhen and some intellectuals in the Church opposed the unequal treaties and the articles of church protection. They founded in Shanghai the Chinese Independent Church, which rejected mission board control and financial assistance and was non-denominational. This church promoted love country, love church, independence, self-support and self-propagation and drew a response from churches all over the country. An independence movement gradually took shape in the churches, developing sporadically in relation to the highs and lows of the Chinese anti-imperialist, patriotic movement itself.

Following the May Fourth Movement, along with the awakening of nationalism, and due to the effects of education and the stimulus of the 1922 anti-Christian Movement, some Christian leaders and intellectuals under the control of the foreign mission boards, advocated an indigenous church. Indigenization differed from the independence movement in that it did not seek to withdraw from the mission board, but rather hoped that the mission board would give the administration, finances and other authority over to a Chinese leadership, and on this basis, gradually eliminate denominational differences and undertake a reform of structure, liturgy and theology to adapt the Gospel to Chinese culture and people.

But the mission boards did not agree to these proposals and the indigenous church could not be realized. To deal with the situation, the mission boards changed their names from American or English thus-and-so to Chinese thus-and-so, and invited one or two Chinese whom they trusted to serve as nominal leaders. But all real power, such as administration and finance, remained in the hands of the missionaries. The names were new, but the substance of missionary control over the church had not changed. This was not the indigenous church demanded by Chinese church leaders, and we cannot call what the missionaries did indigenization.

Patriotic Christians, those in the pews and those more prominent, were active in the 1911 Revolution, the May Thirtieth Incident, the Northern Expedition, the National Salvation Movement, the War of Resistance against Japan, the War of Liberation and in every patriotic struggle against imperialism. Examples will be found in the essays in this volume. Since the anti-Japanese war, especially, we find many and increasing traces of patriotic and progressive Christians as the corps of patriotic believers grows stronger.

Since this is a volume about the historical facts of imperialist uses of religion in their aggression against China, we introduce here only the high points of (Chinese) Christian patriotic activities. The glories of Christian patriotic resistance in the War against Japan, for example, were treated in a small book titled For Justice and Peace: Christians in the National Salvation and anti-Japanese Movements published in 1995 as part of commemorative activities on victory in the War against Japan.


History must not be forgotten. Forgetting history leads to error.

We must not forget the history of imperialist uses of religion in its aggression in China; even less can we deny it, warp or alter it: such behavior would lead to error. Since the one hundred or more years of humiliation by imperialist forces such as the Opium War in old China, and our experiences in the half century since the founding of new China, we have had the following profound perceptions:

1 Imperialist forces have never ceased in manipulating religion in service to their aggression. In 1950, Chinese Christians published The Path of Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China (the Christian Manifesto) which stated: "With the victory of the Chinese revolution, the imperialists cannot countenance this unprecedented fact of Chinese history. They will certainly use all means available to them to destroy it. They will make use of Christianity to sow discord in their attempt to foment a rebellion in China." In fact, following the establishment of new China, hostile forces overseas still used religion in their infiltration and destructive activities. Even today there are those who wave various flags, and use various methods to continue such activities. Some even say that religion should be used to change the social systems of other countries. Fifty years have taught us that the wisdom and foresight of this Christian Manifesto, drafted by Y.T. Wu and other church leaders and signed by a majority of Christians in China, was entirely correct and must always be remembered.

2 Religion is not politics, but religion cannot escape certain political, economic, cultural and social relationships and influences. Historical experience tells us that only when a nation is rich and its people have well-being can the church be independent and flourish; when a nation is poor and weak and humiliated, the church will be controlled and used by aggressors, and thus transgress the benefit of its own country and people. The church itself will be damaged in such a situation.

Remembering the lessons and experiences of this period of history makes us aware that we must guard the independence and authority of the Chinese Church as we would protect our own eyes, for this is a component part of protecting the independence and authority of our nation.

We are glad that there are Christians of conscience and with a sense of justice beyond our borders who, though they felt some hesitations or were disturbed by the TSPM exposing the history of the manipulation of Christianity by imperialist forces in their aggression in China, yet when they understood the truth of that history, and saw the witness of damage done to the Gospel by the close alignment of the missionary movement with big power politics and economics, when they saw that Chinese Christianity grew strong on the path of three-self patriotism, expressed their respect for the independence and integrity of Chinese Christianity, affirmed the self-government, self-support and self- propagation of the Chinese Church and its spirit of church unity, and wanted to halt all activities that violate the independence of the Chinese Church.11 This is an expression by our foreign friends of the Chinese proverb that says remembrance of the past is a guide to the future. We have profound admiration and gratitude for this, and it is upon this foundation that we will establish and develop friendly relations with such persons.

In editing this volume, our aspiration has been to use history as a reference and face toward the future, in the hope that Christian leaders, ordinary believers and those friends who care about and study Chinese Christianity, will gain a greater understanding of this period of Chinese Christian history, and that this will aid in further understanding of the Three-Self Movement of the Chinese Church, the necessity for running the church well according to three-self principles and the need for theological reconstruction and will strengthen our ability to withstand activities from abroad aimed at infiltrating and damaging the church. Most of all we hope to win the understanding and friendship of more Christian friends overseas.

Foreword to Remembering the Past as a Lesson for the Future edited by Luo Guanzong. Beijing: Religious Culture Publishers, 2003, 1-18.

Luo Guanzong is a Director of the National CCC/TSPM Advisory Committee.

1 In his Opening Address, Conference president Cheng Jingyi said, "We must acknowledge that the church at present is still under the control of foreigners, and that Chinese today still think of Christianity as a foreign religion." (Proceedings of the National Christian Conference. )

2 Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, 1929.

3 In Missionaries and their Critics.

4 Ibid.

5 from Documents of the Three-Self Movement.

6 See p. 409 in this volume.

7 Church of Christ in China Conference, 1950.

8 Christian Century, June 2, 1943.

9 See pp. 301-302 in this volume.

10 In Remembering Y.T. Wu.

11 See pp.409 in this volume.