The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932

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The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932. By Lian Xi. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1997. Pp. xvi, 247. $38.50.)

This is an excellent book, which I recommend highly to all with an interest in China missions, the course of liberalism in American missions theology and American Protestantism in general, or the subtle relationships between foreign missions and theology on the home front. Lian Xi, who is professor of history at Hanover College, Indiana, has given us a thoroughly researched, well argued, and elegantly written monograph.

The author's purpose is to explore the "unraveling" of nineteenth-century missions certainties and the emergence of "liberalism" among an important sector of American missionaries in China between about 1910 and the 1930's. The "liberalism discussed throughout the book is very much in the tradition of that in several works by William Hutchison of Harvard Divinity School, by whom Lian Xi has been strongly influenced.

The book has two parts, which are quite distinct. Part I has three chapters summarizing the careers of individuals representing the loss of evangelical faith and the growth of sympathetic, even syncretistic, views among some American missionaries concerning the relationship between Christianity, native Chinese religions, and Chinese society. The three are Dr. Edward H. Hume, a pioneer of the Yale Mission in Changsha after 1905 and president of Yale-in-China until 1927; Reverend Frank J. Rawlinson, who came to China as a Southern Baptist evangelical in 1902 and later was editor of the influential Chinese Recorder from 1914 to 1937; and Pearl Buck, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author, who grew up in China in a Presbyterian missionary family and who herself was officially a Presbyterian educational missionary from 1914 to 1933. The chapters profiling these individuals are concise and clear, though ample information on all three is available in other scholarly works.

Part II of the book, more ambitious, has three chapters tracing the evolution of liberalism in China missions from the unionist institutional initiatives of the early twentieth century, through the devastating impact on missions of a newly assertive Chinese nationalism in the 1920's, to the final denouement of surrender by some liberal missionaries of any claim to Christian distinctiveness and rejection altogether of the traditional missionary program. …