Book Review ~ The Fundamentalist Movement among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937

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Kevin Xiyi Yao, The Fundamentalist Movement among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2003.

reviewed by Karl Dahlfred


Cover "The Fundamentalist Movement Among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937"Fundamentalism among missionaries in China has been lightly touched upon by scholars of Chinese history, Chinese Christianity, and fundamentalism more broadly but there has been little focused attention dedicated to fundamentalist missionaries in China.  In this published version of his doctoral research, Kevin Xiyi Yao has aimed to fill in this gap with an historical study of the events, people, and institutions associated with fundamentalist Protestant missionaries in China during the years 1920-1937.  As Yao points out in his introductory chapter, such a study is needed because previous scholarship on missionaries in China has almost exclusively focused on the social, cultural, and political impact of missionary activity while neglecting questions of the theological dynamics of missionary motivations and activities.  However, the story of change in China during the first half of the twentieth century is multi-faceted and the role of missionaries in those changes cannot be explained with socio-cultural approaches alone.

The primary goal of Yao’s book is largely historical and explanatory, intended to be a preliminary work upon which other scholars may build in order to investigate fundamentalism in China more precisely.  A secondary goal of the book is to show that fundamentalism in China during the period in question was neither a mere importation of foreign doctrinal disputes onto Chinese soil, nor simply a continuation of the conservative Protestant missionary consensus of the nineteenth century, namely a belief in an inerrant Bible and the necessity of believing in Christ for salvation.

In order to accomplish these goals, Yao sets out a largely chronological account of fundamentalist activity in China over the course of nearly twenty years.  After an introductory chapter explaining his study’s raison d'être and another chapter giving brief summaries of Chinese history, Protestant missions, and rising modernist trends and their reception by theological conservatives, Yao presents the substance of his study in five chapters. 

Chapter three narrates the origin and course of the Bible Union of China, a loose coalition of fundamentalists and other theologically conservative missionaries formed in response to concerns about the influence of theological modernism among missionaries in China and Chinese churches.   Missionaries sympathetic towards modernism regarded the Bible Union members as divisive troublemakers even while Bible Union participants themselves did not always agree upon the best approach to modernism:  a positive and constructive emphasis upon the traditional Gospel message and evangelism or a verbal assault upon modernist errors?  In this chapter, Yao begins to draw out a theme that will appear throughout the rest of the book, namely the tension between fundamentalists who prefered direct, public confrontation with modernism and moderates who shared the same theological beliefs as fundamentalists but prefered a less combative, more conciliatory approach to differences among professing Christians.

In chapters four and five, Yao provides two related case studies about the priority that the fundamentalists put upon maintaining the theological educational institutions that taught orthodox doctrine.  Chapter four recalls the conflict between the North Jiangsu mission of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States and the leadership of Nanjing Theological Seminary, an interdenominational institution.  The conservative members of the North Jiangsu mission wanted assurance that all the faculty and textbooks were theologically sound, and they conducted investigations to that end.  Ultimately, the board of the seminary were not able to satisfy the members of the North Jiangsu mission who withdrew their support for the school.  Chapter five provides the account of another group of theological conservatives, both missionary and Chinese, who similarly withdrew from an interdenominational union institution, Shandong Christian University, and went on to form North China Theological Seminary (NCTS).  This new institution bore the distinction of being not only a bastion for theologically orthodox pastoral training in the subsequent pre-war years, but also an example of Chinese leadership and investment in a theological school for their own people. 

In chapter six, Yao chronicles the efforts of Protestants in China to unite their various mission and church bodies into the National Christian Council and the Church of Christ in China.  The responses of various liberal and conservative parties to the union movement reveals the complex relationships between them.  In principle, all interested parties wanted Christian unity and to have a unified witness to Christ in the midst of a non-Christian Chinese society.  The question that introduced tension and division was the basis upon which that unity was to be had.  Liberal-minded missionaries and Chinese believers were content with no more than a broad and vague commitment by member parties to Christ and doing good in His name.  On the other end of the spectrum, fundamentalists desired church and organizational unity only upon a firm doctrinal basis of core orthodox Christian teaching.  In practice, this meant an emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and the supernatural nature of the Gospel and the miracles of Christ.  Contrary to some who have erroneously concluded that fundamentalists were opposed to all church union, Yao specifies that fundamentalists did in fact promote and practice church and mission unity and co-operation between denominations, often setting aside differences in eschatology, polity, and other secondary issues.  That notwithstanding, fundamentalists came into conflict with not only modernists, but also with theological conservatives who had a higher tolerance level for doctrinal ambiguity in union institutions than did their fundamentalist brethren.  The question of whether theological conservatives could be part of the same organization or church denomination alongside modernists became a flashpoint for conflict between fundamentalists and moderates, the former accusing the later of facilitating modernist compromise by failing to confront and separate from modernist error.

Chapter seven provides a collection of brief overviews of additional fundamentalist-modernist conflicts in the 1930s prior to the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.   The first major fundamentalist controversy of the 1930s was the World Sunday School Association’s disassociation of the China Sunday School Union after the later organization refused to change its working policy to allow more room for modernistic teaching and emphases.  The other major controversies recounted in this chapter are closely related to each other: the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry which criticized traditional missionary activity in favor of modernist-minded social services and inter-faith dialogue, Presbyterian missionary and renowned novelist Pearl Buck’s condemnation of the traditional missionary enterprise, and the formation of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions by J. Gresham Machen.  These later three controversies brought the fundamentalist warnings about encroaching modernism into the public view, whereas previous to this time evidence of alleged modernism on the mission field often came via the reports of fundamentalists rather than from the mouths of modernists themselves.

The final concluding chapter summarizes Yao’s previous points under three headings: the nature, character, and diversity of fundamentalist movement, the missionary fundamentalist movement’s Chinese roots and North American connections, and the missionary fundamentalist movements connection with indigenous conservative Protestants.

Throughout the book, Yao demonstrates familiarity with the fundamentalist missionaries’ own writing and self-understanding, as well as that of their critics and other theological conservatives, both in China and the United States.  Through careful documentation, he avoids fundamentalist stereotypes and allows diverse viewpoints among theologically conservative missionaries and denominational representatives to be heard.   These are significant strengths of his research and make a positive contribution to scholarship on a movement that is often characterized negatively and one-dimensionally.   Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find people both inside and outside the church and the academy who use the terms fundamentalist, evangelical, and (theological) conservative somewhat interchangeably to denote a vague monolithic group somewhere on the far right of the religious spectrum.  Attentive readers of Yao’s research will discover, however, that although theological conservatives have often shared similar theological beliefs, their approach to promote their beliefs can vary greatly.  Relying upon previous work by Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, Yao regularly reminds readers that it was militancy, not theology, that set fundamentalists apart from other conservatives. 

The main contribution of Yao’s work consists primarily in providing a broad overview of the theological aspect of a significant movement in Chinese missions history that has not received attention from other scholars.  This primary task he has done well and hopefully other scholars will look deeper into the various aspects of the movement that he has surveyed.

Although the nature of Yao’s research is that of an overview, there are some areas that the author could have expanded upon or given more attention.  Yao seeks to make the point that the fundamentalist movement in China was not only the result of foreign theological conflict invading Chinese shores, but also arose from the convictions and cultural context of China itself.  To this end, the author describes the ascendant popularity of scientific and rationalistic ideas, and Communist ideology, among the Chinese intelligentsia as a backdrop for understanding conservative response.  Some attention is also given to the Chinese church leaders who stood alongside their conservative missionary counterparts, or even asserted independence from them while maintaining similar theology.  But the reader rarely hears the voices of these Chinese Christians amidst the missionary narrative.  One wonders whether these Chinese leaders did not leave sufficient written records to cite or if the author made an intentional decision to devote the majority of ink to the writings of foreign missionaries.  The title of the work would favor the later explanation.  That notwithstanding, the reader wishes that Yao had better developed the narrative from the standpoint of Chinese Christians, allowing one to understand the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts through their eyes.  Similarly, there were few direct citations from the modernists whom the fundamentalists critiqued.  This later absence might be due to the book’s focus upon the fundamentalist side of the controversies but it still remains that more liberal voices would serve to broaden the understanding of the conflict in the minds of readers.

Although Yao’s work focuses upon the fundamentalist movement among Protestant missionaries in China, his findings may also prove relevant for the study of fundamentalist and modernist movements among Protestant missionaries in other countries during the same time period.  To that end, several pertinent points stand out to this reviewer. 

Citing the work of William Hutchison in Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions, Yao highlights the marks of theological modernism as they manifested themselves on the mission field, namely 1) an indirect denial of the exclusivity of Christ and a desire for inter-religious dialogue, 2) lack of attention to the Second Coming of Christ and direct evangelism, and 3) a focus on building of the Kingdom of God on earth and commitment to social service ministries.  In addition to these above marks, modernists also displayed a proclivity for large scale projects and building institutions like schools and hospitals.  In contrast, conservatives were more cautious in building institutions and bureaucracies.  Modernists also generally favored union institutions whereas conservatives were more cautious, or even hostile to such endeavors because they tended to downplay doctrine by their very nature. 

In terms of tracking modernist and fundamentalists’ influence, it might be important to note that fundamentalist missionaries in Yao’s study pointed their finger at newer missionaries from the West who had imbibed modernist ideas at colleges and universities they attended.   Examining a missionary’s educational background could in some instances give indication of their likely theological leanings towards conservative or liberal theology.

A final point of relevance for the study of fundamentalism and modernism in non-Western mission fields is worthy of mention.  In the midst of his discussion of conflict among missionaries, Yao observes that Chinese Christians were not always concerned about the same theological issues as those dividing foreign missionaries and their Western church denominations.  While there was certainly much overlap between the theological beliefs of Chinese and foreign Christians, the concerns of these two groups were not identical.  One example Yao specifically cites is the greater value Chinese Christians placed on unity over Western denominational differences, or questions of eschatology or church polity.  This is an important factor to keep in mind for any study of theological movements across cultural and linguistic contexts.  The categories and divisions that describe one group well may have less direct applicability to groups in other contexts.

In sum, Yao has written an eminently helpful overview of the fundamentalist movement among Protestant missionaries in China prior to the Second World War.  His prose is accessible for both scholars and general readers, and the historical groundwork that he has laid should prove fertile ground for subsequent inquirers to delve deeper into a fascinating and colorful period of church and mission history in China.

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