Volume 36 - Issue 3

A New History of Christianity in China

by Daniel H. Bays

Daniel H. Bays is a specialist in Chinese Christianity, serving as professor of history at Calvin College and director of their Asian studies program. In this present study, Bays has done for this generation what Kenneth Scott Latourette, in his History of Christian Missions in China, did for his—provide an invaluable treatment of China and Christianity. Bays, though, provides a concise, accessible account of indigenous Chinese Christianity, whereas Latourette, in 1929, highlighted the growth and influence of the various Western Christian Missions. So if one is looking for the major Chinese contributors to their own Christian history, which was sometimes in cooperation but often in conflict with Western missions, as Mark Noll endorses on the back cover, “This is the book.”

Bays treats three distinct periods in Chinese Christian history: “the early modern (pre-1800, with two chapters), modern (1800-1950, with four chapters), and recent history (1950-present, with two chapters)” (p. 2). The first two chapters present the briefest division of the book, dealing with the Nestorians, Mongols, and Jesuits leading to the prohibition of Christianity following the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century. What stands out in this section is Bays's history of “grassroots” Christianity in the rural villages with the absence of foreign bishops. In the middle section of the book, Bays treats, with like excellence, the era of Chinese Christianity with which the majority of his scholarly writings have dealt. In the final section, Bays adds an important chapter on Christianity following the founding of the People's Republic of China. He gives a sometimes generous picture of the Three Self Patriotic Movement and makes excellent observations on the growth of Christianity following the seemingly devastating Cultural Revolution. Bays intentionally leaves his work without a formal conclusion, finishing with a brief analysis entitled “China in the Arena of World Christianity” (pp. 202-5). In addition to these eight chapters, he includes a helpful introduction, an informative and important appendix on the Russian Orthodox Mission to China, a meaty bibliography, and an index. At only 256 pages, this book is well-suited as an introductory textbook on Chinese Christianity, serving alongside other more detailed histories.

One of the book's central themes is that “when it is separated from its bonding with Western culture in a package we may call 'Christendom,' [Christianity] is perfectly capable of adapting to function in different cultural settings” (p. 2). Throughout the book, Bays does well to feature the indigenous leaders and movements during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though as he argues well, the height of the missionary era was “not [the high point] of the overall Christian movement” (p. 92). Rather, the presence of a vibrant Christianity just as China began to emerge from its Maoist shell provides the greatest evidence of the vitality of non-“Christendom” Christianity. In these and other instances, Bays demonstrates this important central theme well.

Bays's concluding chapter is significant for his positive treatment of registered churches and because the missionary reengagement with China is mostly ignored. As he demonstrates in earlier chapters, the West has been fixated upon China as a missionary object, and this is as true today as ever. While he rightly includes and critiques the missionary encounter with China in the chapters covering up to 1949 and he rightly leaves it out of his chapter covering up to the Cultural Revolution, the missionary reengagement with China is conspicuously absent from his final chapter. Bays provides only a short critique of the false understanding by foreign agencies of official churches as pro-government persecutors of the perceived “pure” unregistered churches. Through a negative portrayal of efforts to smuggle Bibles into the mainland, Bays claims that Western agencies feed off this inaccurate persecution narrative because they believe in the impending transformation of China into a Christian nation. Is this example a veiled criticism of all contemporary foreign missionary presence in China? One wonders if other missionaries in China have learned from the mistakes of the past and whether contemporary Chinese Christianity is benefitting or being harmed by them. His treatment gives a glimpse into to the growing tension between missiology and the justified interest in global Christianity. For instance, is this is an example where studies in global Christianity may need to learn to respect Andrew F. Walls's pilgrim principle as much as they respect his indigenizing principle ( The Missionary Movement in Christian History [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996], 7-9)? This criticism aside, Bays's point concerning the respect of indigenous structures should be heeded by all. Self-government is arguably the most vital ingredient for indigeneity, and any missionary presence in China would do well to respect this fact. A history of the spread of Christianity, like this one, where missionaries are not the protagonists of missionary propaganda, is both timely and refreshing.

Given the scholarly quality and historical timeliness of Bays's work, A New History of Christianity in China is an invaluable resource for any student of Chinese Christianity or any missionary desiring to serve the church there.

Wesley L. Handy

Wesley L. Handy
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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