Diversifying the Operation: Southern Baptist Missions in China at the Turn of the Century 1890-1910

By Li, Li | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Diversifying the Operation: Southern Baptist Missions in China at the Turn of the Century 1890-1910


Li, Li, Baptist History and Heritage


The end of the nineteenth century and the coming of the twentieth century brought significant changes to the Southern Baptist operation in China. The overall theme was expansion. The most obvious examples were in the rising numbers of the missionaries to China as well as the creation of new mission institutions including churches and schools. More importantly, the Southern Baptist operation in China restructured its organization and mission strategy. To welcome the new century, Baptists started multiangle approaches to expand their missions. Both Baptist men and women used biblical evangelism as well as social services to bring the Chinese into the gospel. The missionaries were searching for a new miracle in China to carry into a new century.

Southern Baptist Expansion into China

The change to the Southern Baptist operation in China had its root in the revolutionary transformation of the American South after the Civil War. After winning the war, many Northern missionaries arrived in the South to conduct missions among the ex-slaves as part of the Reconstruction. They tried to spread their message by offering real help to the blacks through the public-service activities especially education. (1) The Northerners' effort thus broke the ecclesiastical authority of Southern Baptists who had always viewed themselves as "the center of gravity" in the South. (2) Angered by the "spiritual invasion" of the North, Southern Baptists accused the Northern missionaries of having "come among us to preach politics rather religion." (3) To respond to the Northern intrusion, white Southern Baptists wanted to launch a religious war to defend their supremacy.

Being eager to demonstrate their religious competence, Southern Baptists found a solution in foreign missions. Foreign countries would provide new listeners to the Baptist message at the time blacks in the South were gradually turning away from their old masters. (4) Many Baptist leaders insisted that foreign operations were vital to the Baptist leadership in the South because an international triumph would be a living testimony to the Baptist potential. As a result, between 1877 and 1917, the Southern Baptists shifted their evangelical focus to abroad. (5)

Among all the foreign mission sites, Southern Baptists had had a continued presence in China since the 1830s. The first American Baptist missionary arrived in Canton in 1836. In 1845, the Southerners organized their own Southern Baptist Convention and its Foreign Mission Board. The event also led to the separation between the Southern Baptist missions in China and those run by their Northern counterpart. (6) By the end of the nineteenth century, there were about fifty Southern Baptist missionaries in China. (7)

Despite the small number, the Southern Baptist missionaries in China produced a strong impact on their fellow Baptists in America both before and especially after the Civil War. They strengthened the force of the "China call" that had already been lingering in the minds of many American Christians. In particular, they delivered a strong message that China was a suitable place to demonstrate the Southern passion because of the local poverty and foreign invasions. The well-known Southern Baptist woman missionary Charlotte "Lottie" Moon often wrote to the Foreign Mission Board asking for more missionaries. She insisted that the most effective missions in China were those that had followed "the Southern principles and run by the people with Southern feelings." (8) Thus, the missionaries like Lottie Moon gradually made China the most favored place for the Southern Baptist foreign missions. (9)

At the end of the nineteenth century, China did seem to offer an attractive environment for the Christian missions. The rigid anti-Christian movements of the 1860s and 1870s gradually calmed down as the Chinese got used to the foreign presence in China. The Chinese government in the late nineteenth century adopted a policy of "using the barbarians to control the barbarians.

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