G. Wright Doyle, editor. Pickwick Publications, 2015.
—Reviewed by P. Mary Ho, executive director, All Nations Family, Kansas City, Missouri.
Mission history proves again that there are not too many new lessons under the sun, even in a country as diametrically confounding as China. This biographical compilation of nine pioneers chronicles what historian Kenneth Latourette calls the ‘Great Century’ of mission expansion in China from Robert Morrison in 1807 to Jonathan Goforth in the 1920s.
These biographies represent the critical turning points of Christian expansion against the turbulent backdrop of the two Opium Wars which opened China’s doors to the West, the quasi-Christian Taiping Rebellion, the great famine of 1876-1881, and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, during which many missionaries and Chinese Christians were martyred. In this tempestuous century, these seven missionaries and two Chinese evangelists faced issues similar to—and often the same as—the dilemmas confronting missions in China today. Mission leaders today would gain deep insight into the Chinese soul and foresight into mission strategies through the collective hindsight of Robert Morrison, Liang Fa, James Legge, Griffith John, Hudson Taylor, William Martin, Xi Shengmo, Timothy Richard, and Jonathan Goforth.
The hindsight is collective because none of these pioneers alone defined the issues nor the solution. Instead, they represent the dichotomous and complementary ying and yang that still confront missions in China today. They attempted to reach China either from ‘below’ by evangelizing the masses or from ‘above’ through educational reform of the elite. They were polarized in their theological orientation, between a more ‘fundamentalist’ focus on reaching the soul or a more ‘modernist’ focus on the body. The conservatives favored pre-millennial eschatology, while the social reformists preferred post-millennial eschatology.
During the Opium Wars, some assumed the murky salaried role of negotiating unequal trade treaties for foreign governments, while others relied on
divine provision through faith. These earliest pioneers disagreed over calling God Shang Di (Supreme Being) or Shen (Common Deity). Confucianism further polarized them between those like Legge, Richard, and Martin, who championed ancestral rites as honorific, and those like Taylor, who denounced them as idolatrous. While some used deliverance from opium as an evangelistic platform, others used relief as access ministry during the famine.
In his final analysis, while Doyle acknowledges that the reformists like Martin and Richard were builders of Chinese Christianity, he concludes that it was the evangelists like Taylor, John, Goforth, and Pastor Xi who “laid the foundation for the…churches that account for at least ninety-five percent of today’s Chinese believers” (p. 27). However, given the wave of pioneer women missionaries who also poured into China and the preponderant number of women leaders in the Chinese church movement today, this book could have been better served with additional representation by some of the influential women missionaries of that age—such as Lottie Moon—who define the Chinese Church today.
These nine pioneers are sensitively depicted by their strengths and weaknesses, victories and failures. As such, Builders of the Chinese Church contains not only timeless insights still pertinent today, but also sacrificial lives to be considered and modeled today.