A New History of Christianity in China

by Daniel H. Bays

Wiley-Blackwell, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 8SQ, 256 pages, 2012, $89.95.

Reviewed by Richard R. Cook, associate professor of church history and missions, Logos Evangelical Seminary, El Monte, California.

Kenneth Scott LaTourette published his authoritative and sweeping A History of Christian Missions in China in 1929. Over eighty years later Daniel Bays has produced his long-awaited and highly-anticipated A New History of Christianity in China. The impressive breadth of the appeal of the book is hinted at by enthusiastic endorsements from eminent China scholar Paul Cohen (Harvard) and renowned church historian Mark Noll (Notre Dame). The book should be a huge success: an authoritative, readable, concise, and up-to-date compendium on Christianity in China.   

In eight compact chapters Bays moves effortlessly from the “Nestorian Age” to the “Early Twenty-first Century.” The book introduces both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary movements, as well as Chinese churches spawned by these mission efforts. As a specialist in Protestant Christianity at Calvin College, Bays covers all the material with erudition and fairness, but some readers may wish he had focused on Protestant churches. Even though both Catholics and Protestants were interacting in the same volatile environment in China, the two movements sometimes seem disconnected in the text.

Numerous statistics interspersed throughout the book help the reader comprehend the growing scope of Christianity in China, but do not interrupt the flow of the narrative. The bibliography is also concise and up to date, and Bays interacts with numerous key texts and relevant authors.

As a China historian, Bays’ strength is interacting with historiography on China. Nonetheless, he also deals with theological issues and firmly places the churches in China in the context of world Christianity. For instance, he describes some of the noteworthy aspects of the theology of Watchman Nee, and in the closing section, “China in the Arena of World Christianity,” Bays connects his history with the works of Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Philip Jenkins, and Dana Robert.

Building on current scholarship, Bays reevaluates some significant historical debates. Informed by a more contemporary understanding of how supernatural elements of Christianity are often incorporated and practiced by new converts in rural areas, for example, he challenges the thesis of historian Jacques Gernet, who in 1985 argued that the conversions of early Catholics were often not authentic because Christians remained drenched in a world of miracles, visions, and the supernatural.

Bays’ tone is irenic and often conversational, guiding readers to several key places in China (such as Robert Morrison’s gravesite), and offering thoughtful personal opinions about issues that are still not settled. Bays provides measured analysis of some of the most vexing issues in Chinese church history, such as the narrow tightrope he walks discussing the official Three-Self churches and the house churches. Of the highly-charged controversy between Three-Self leader Bishop Ding Guangxun and house church leader Wang Mingdao, for example, Bays cautiously notes, “Historians differ deeply in evaluations” of Ding and Wang, “with Ding being excoriated by some and treated sympathetically by others” (p.166).  

Daniel Bays succeeds in bringing the story of Christianity to scholars and readers interested in China and the story of China to Christians and others fascinated by global Christianity.

Check these titles:
Lozada, Eriberto P. Jr. 2001. God Aboveground: Catholic Church, Postsocialist State, and Transnational Processes in a Chinese Village. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Xi, Lian. 2010. Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Yang, Fenggang. 2012. Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. New York: Oxford University Press.


EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 246-248. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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