Building the Protestant Church in Shandong, China

By Cliff, Norman H. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Building the Protestant Church in Shandong, China


Cliff, Norman H., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The Chinese have a saying, "He who holds Shandong grips China by the throat."(1) The story of the growth of a virile Protestant church in this province includes periods of political struggle between Chinese, Germans, and Japanese for control of Shandong's economic resources, and ultimately between Kuomintang and Communist forces. More important, in the religious sphere there were fervent evangelistic efforts by Catholics, mainline Protestants, and sect-type revivalist movements striving to recover the pristine simplicity of the early church.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries moved south from Peking to evangelize Shandong. Half a century later they handed over the work in the province to Franciscans. In the 1880s an order from Germany - the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) - took over an area in southeast Shandong. When the early Protestant pioneers arrived in 1860, there were some 20,000 Catholic Christians.

Protestant work in China had been carried on for two decades when the first missionaries came to Chefoo (Yantai), taking advantage of the concessions wrung from the Chinese in the Treaties of Tientsin and Peking in 1858 and 1860. Some of these Protestant missionaries had already worked in Shanghai and, after experiencing ill health, had been advised to go to the invigorating climate on the coast of Shandong. Within a few years some died in a widespread cholera epidemic.

The missionaries came into Shandong via three routes (see map). In the early 1860s three missions, which later had the largest work in the province, came via the treaty port of Chefoo - the Southern Baptists (1860), the American Presbyterians (1861), and the British Baptists (1862). In the late 1860s and early 1870s three missions came via the northwest border from Tientsin and Peking in response to invitations by Chinese peasants to bring the Gospel to their villages - the British Methodists (1866), the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1867), and the (American) Methodist Episcopal Church (1874). Then, three more missions entered via Chefoo: the (Anglican) Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1874), the China Inland Mission (1880), and the Christian (Plymouth) Brethren (1888). Lastly, in the 1890s, three Continental societies entered via Qingdao and Jiaozhou Bay, where the German influence was strong - the Swedish Baptists (1892), the Berlin Mission (1898), and the Weimar Mission (1898). Other groups came later, so that by 1920 there were eighteen societies at work in the province, as well as some indigenous independent groups. All these represented the whole spectrum of Western denominations and sects.

Shandong was the "sacred province" in which Confucius and Mencius had left a strong influence, and the pioneers had to take account of this in their evangelistic efforts. While they opposed footbinding, concubinage, and the selling of daughters and were critical of many aspects of Chinese culture, these early arrivals learned to have a deep respect for the teachings of the great Sage. John Nevius of the Presbyterian mission said of Confucius, "The system of ethics and morality which he taught is the purest which has ever originated in the history of the world, independent of the divine revelation in the Bible, and he has exerted a greater influence for good upon our race than any other uninspired sage of antiquity."(2) The strategy of John Nevius and Hunter Corbett, both of the Presbyterian mission, and British Baptist Timothy Richard was to quote from Confucius as a springboard from which to lead the hearers on to the deeper teachings of Christ and the dynamics of his power.

Early Opposition

The gentry and populace, however, opposed the teachings of the new religion. Open-air services and the distribution of tracts, methods used in young mission fields throughout the world, brought little response here. Thus, in order to gain a basic hearing for the Gospel, many missionaries turned to the running of primary schools and small hospitals and clinics, much to the dismay of the home boards, who charged that donations for evangelism were being misused. …

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