There are thought-provoking insights to be gained from a study of why Protestant Churches entered the Communist ‘New China’ era in 1949 with only one million followers but emerged at the 1978 ‘reopening’ with 15 million. In the same period, the Catholic Church only increased from 3 million believers to 5 million.
Of course the persecution of the Catholic Church during that time, due to its close relationship with the ‘foreign’ Vatican, was more intensive but that is only part of the answer. To understand why Protestants were more effective in preserving and spreading their message, it is necessary to look at their history and methods in China.
In comparison with the Catholic Church, which entered ‘modern China’ in 1580, the first Protestant missionary did not arrive until 1807 and the Protestant effort only grew with the opening of the Treaty Ports, following the ‘Unequal Treaties’ from 1842.
Their approach was influenced by the secretaries of two of the major sending groups, Henry Vann and Rufus Anderson. They agreed that a) it was more important to preach the gospel than to educate or heal people and b) native converts should be put in charge of new churches as soon as possible. The first principle soon gave way to the undeniable effectiveness of running schools and hospitals but the second, under the influence of Anderson, gave rise to the ‘three-self’ principle of self-support, self-government and self-propagation, which the Communist government was later to adopt as its own. The Catholic approach, meanwhile, continued to depend on foreign leadership and support.
Between 1860 and 1902 the growth of Protestant churches was slow and mostly in the cities as a result of educational and medical services. The association of all Christians, but especially Protestants, with the ‘Unequal Treaties’, made many suspicious of their activities. This anti-Western mood found expression during the Boxer uprising of 1900 but, ironically, the many martyred at that time proved to be an inspiration for renewed foreign missionary efforts.
After the May Fourth Movement
Since Protestants were more involved in schools than Catholics were, they suffered more in the anti-foreign backlash of the May Fourth Movement (1919). In the early 1920s both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist parties demonized the Western presence and called for Chinese control of mission schools. Many missionaries left China at that time.
To quote Daniel Bays, “In the first half of the 20th century, the foreign missionary movement in China matured, flourished, declined and died.”
The Protestant Churches matured and increased by putting on Chinese dress and letting Chinese leadership emerge. However, when the Communists liberated the county in 1949 there were only one million Protestants in China compared with the three million, mainly rural, Catholics. It is difficult to trace what happened during the Cultural Revolution but it was probably in the 1970s that the number of Protestants began to equal that of Catholics and by 1978 there were three times more Protestants than Catholics. How did this happen?
Urban and Educated
The fact that the Protestant Churches were heavily into education meant they actively contributed to the formation of a new Chinese middle class. After Chiang Kai-shek became a Christian in 1930, their influence increased and they inspired a number of efforts towards social reform. The YMCA and YWCA in Shanghai and elsewhere, through their night schools, helped in raising awareness of social issues. However, because of the conservatism of the rural Chinese elite and the business and industrial power structures in the cities, the over-all impact was limited. Yet these initiatives gave urban Protestant churches a positive and modern image and began a tradition of Christian involvement in intellectual and national affairs.
Protestant down-playing of the clerical role also empowered lay people to act with personal initiative and take up leadership roles. This encouraged the growth of small independent churches in the ‘hidden years’ of 1949 to 1978.
Jonathan Goforth, a Canadian Presbyterian in Henan, was impressed by the ‘great Wales revival' of 1903 and on hearing of the success of revival meetings in Korea, went there to participate in 1907. Stopping off in Manchuria on his way back to Henan, he shared his enthusiasm with the Presbyterians there and was invited to hold meetings which led to the ‘Manchurian revival’ of 1908.
Big-name Western evangelists like John R. Mott and Sherwood Eddy came to China and helped organize the movement up to the 1930s. Protestants in China were already divided between fundamentalist conservatives and liberal elements who accepted the higher criticism approach to the Bible and the primacy of social action over preaching. However in the 1920s, new and small groups of missionaries began to arrive that had little institutional support and focused on regenerating themselves and Chinese Christian converts in a context of pre-millennialist expectations. Revivalism as a mission strategy soon became more popular among conservative evangelical groups.
Pentecostalism, with its egalitarianism and direct revelation from God, proved to be attractive to 20th century Chinese. It opened the way further for independent churches.
When the churches reemerged in public after 1978, most of the Protestant congregations were salvational and revivalist with an emphasis on tongues, prophecies and healing. The largest drew on the foundations of popular movements such as The True Jesus Church, The Jesus Family and Watchman Ni’s ‘Local Church’ (Difang Jiaohui). These churches were founded in the early 1900s and had spread gradually. By the mid-40s, The True Jesus Church was the second largest in China, behind the Church of Christ in China (CCC). The founders of the three groups had been imprisoned on various charges in the early days of Communist rule and died before they were released. However, their communities survived persecution and continue to flourish today.
At the time of the regime change in 1949, a number of Protestant intellectuals were openly sympathetic to Communism and some urban believers were hopeful of good relations with the new government. Y T Wu, a national secretary of the YMCA, in 1948 wrote a scathing criticism of the Protestant establishment in Marxist terms and in the Spring of 1950 went with a small group of Christian ‘progressives’ to meet the new leaders, including Zhou Enlai. This encounter eventually led to the establishment of the government-promoted Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Efforts to unite all the Protestant churches under this banner seemed to have succeed when the leaders of The True Jesus Church and The Jesus Family as well as Watchman Ni disappeared from the scene.
However, around the mid-50s, ‘house churches’ began to appear as believers started to leave the politically correct TSPM. With few ordained clergy, church elders and laymen took the opportunity to preach, teach children, evangelize and perform marriages and funerals.
The Cultural Revolution brought a temporary suspension of the TSPM and closed all churches but, instead of quenching religion, it gave small churches a chance to grow on their own. The only congregations that could meet were house churches. Talented leader emerged and within the 12 years from 1966 to 1978, Protestants increased by a factor of five or six.
When churches were allowed to reopen during Christmas, 1978, Protestants began to enthusiastically build new houses of worship. By the early 21st century there were over 20,000 churches registered with the resurrected TSPM. However, hundreds of thousands of ‘house churches’ continue. They are not approved by the government but to a large degree they are tolerated unless they are labeled as ‘evil cults’ for being too extreme.
From Rural to Urban
During the 80s and 90s, the revival of both Protestantism and Catholicism was rural rather than urban. As the situation of farmers improved under Deng Xiaoping, evangelization increased. In the ‘new modern age’ ordinary people could find equivalents to traditional beliefs and practices in the Christian churches such as a millennial vision in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and a savior figure like the Buddhist Guanyin.
Ways of petitioning the divine for healing and material blessing became available that seemed more modern and socially acceptable. Christianity was often judged for its effectiveness rather than its truths. Pentecostalism, in its Chinese version, tended to dominate in the countryside with its belief in miracles, divine intervention in people’s lives for healing, direct communications from God, speaking in tongues, dreams and visions. Gradually those practices spread to the cities.
Early in the 1990s, church growth slowed in the countryside and began to grow in the cities. This was partly due to the migration from farms to urban industries and the accompanying need for community in the new environment. However, congregations in central city churches soon began to take on a more polished image with professionals and white collar workers evident. This resulted in a move away from the forms of popular religiosity that were common in the countryside as membership became more educated and sophisticated. Today, most of the new city believers are more inclined to go to the registered churches as the intellectual level of the underground churches is lower.
By the 1990s, Christianity was becoming the subject of serious study in top universities and research institutes in China. Originally this was due to the government’s desire to understand better the increasing popularity of religion and the role of Christianity in Western culture. In particular there was academic curiosity in Weber’s thesis that the growth of capitalism was closely linked to reformed Christianity. Could the Protestant message assist China in developing a successful form of capitalism and dealing with new moral issues? At present there are at least 20 university-based centers for religious studies.
The spectacular growth of the Protestant churches in China has attracted world-wide attention. It is due in large part to the freedom the churches had, during a period of persecution, to adapt to the local situation.
Lay people were able to take over unfettered leadership in the absence of trained clergy and during the Cultural Revolution even the government-controlled TSPM was disbanded and unable to supervise their activities.
At present the Protestant churches are the most dynamic religious groups in China. Their main concern must be that too much freedom and individual initiative can lead to what the government would call ‘evil cults’and mainstream Christians regard as heretical sects. In the future, the main challenge will come from Buddhism as Chinese culture settles down and nationalistic considerations reemerge as a prime motivator.