Public Failures and Hidden Successes: a Comparative History of Protestant Missions Five Centuries After the Reformation

by Prof Alec Ryrie

Date added: 13/06/2017

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Public Failures and Hidden Successes: A Comparative History of Protestant Missions Five Centuries After the Reformation

Professor Alec Ryrie, Durham University

Five hundred years ago, in a small town in central Europe, an academic spat over church fundraising began; that spat led directly to the emergence of what we now call Protestant Christianity, which within a few years had begun to establish itself across Europe. But it also, very quickly, began to spread beyond Europe’s borders. If we had been telling the story of how that happened half a century ago, we’d have told a story about missionaries and empires. It would have been a story that began with a few heroic pioneers in the seventeenth century, as a prelude to the first formal Protestant missions in the eighteenth, and a real surge of global effort in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. And we’d have understood that the accelerating tempo and success of Protestant mission was part of the story of European imperialism, in which imperial success in imposing European norms onto societies across the world meant that European religion could piggy-back on the process. And, from the perspective of half a century ago, we’d have sensibly concluded that this process was probably over. As the European empires were collapsing, or dissolving themselves, as nationalist movements across what was then called the Third World were marginalising or expelling missionaries and proclaiming secular states, the likeliest future seemed that Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, would be shrugged off as colonial rule itself had been.

            Instead, we have had one of the most surprising and important stories in the global history of religion in the our times. As you all know, over the past half-century Protestant Christianity has embedded itself across the planet and racked up unprecedented numerical growth, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and, maybe the most dramatic religious shift anywhere in the world in modern times, in Latin America, where the Protestant population has doubled to some 20% in one generation. And none of this is in any straightforward sense a colonial imposition. My theme this evening is that this global expansion of Protestantism is a double story. One is a story of missionaries and their churches: a story of great efforts and uncertain rewards and of promising beginnings cut short. The other is a largely hidden story of quiet indigenisation and growth which is difficult for us to trace. The two stories are obviously connected, and we will be meeting some European and American missionaries in what follows, but my focus will instead be on the ability of indigenous peoples all over the world to pick up Protestant Christianity and run with it.

            Christianity has of course been a global religion since its very beginnings, but the modern history of its globalisation begins with the European maritime empires of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. To begin with this was of course an exclusively Catholic story. By the end of the sixteenth century, when huge swathes of the Americas had been formally although very superficially converted; when there were substantial Catholic inroads into central Africa; when the Jesuit missions in India, China and especially Japan were becoming established – Protestantism had scarcely looked beyond Europe. There had been several French Protestant attempts to participate in attempted American settlements during the 1550s and 1560s: the colony of Antarctic France, in Guanabara Bay, the site of modern Rio de Janeiro, acquired a couple of Genevan pastors in 1557, and is almost certainly the site of the first ever Protestant worship in the New World. But it was hardly a missionary project: the Calvinists assumed that the indigenous people were cannibals, and their main concern was that the colony’s Catholic priests, by teaching the doctrine of transubstantiation, were pretty much the same thing. When the Calvinists were thrown out of the colony, they were surprised to find that the local peoples welcomed them rather than ate them, but in 1560 the Portuguese seized the colony and the venture was over. Two more shortlived French Protestant settlements in North America in the 1560s failed, one due to hunger and disease, one due to Spanish attack. The first English settlement in Virginia in the 1580s also failed. All of these enterprises aspired to good relations with the surrounding peoples – that was mere prudence – but missionary effort was not really on the agenda. The more successful, or at least more enduring, English colony founded in Virginia in 1607, was set about with some rhetoric about saving the indigenous people’s souls, but very little was actually done about it. The same is true of the more self-consciously Protestant project of the New England colonies from 1620 onwards. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony, adopted in 1630, featured an idealised Native American appealing ‘Come over and help us’, like the man of Macedonia in Paul’s dream who called Christian missionaries to Europe for the first time; but the New England settlers did very little missionary work. Or rather, a few individuals did – most famously John Eliot, but also Thomas Mayhew, a settler on the island of Martha’s Vineyard – but they had very little institutional backing and were working within an ecclesiastical framework that made missionary work very difficult. At least they had a steady source of finance, after a publicity drive in 1650s England established a fund to support missionary preachers in New England. And that is more of less the wider story of early Protestant mission. A handful of individually committed missionaries: men like Philip Baldaeus in Dutch-occupied Jaffna, Johann Campanius in the colony of New Sweden in modern Delaware, maybe most remarkably George Candidius and Robert Junius in Dutch-occupied Formosa: but with very little institutional backup, no theological resourcing, and no continuity. Some had no successes at all; others, as in Formosa, found that their apparent success vanished as soon as the imperial power stopped applying pressure.

            Take, for example, southern Africa, where the Dutch colonists at the Cape of Good Hope quickly concluded that the Khoikhoi people, whom one Protestant minister called ‘the most savage, stupid, and filthy heathens I had ever met’, could not be converted: ‘because,’ as another minister put it, ‘they are so used to running about wild, that they can’t live in subjection to us’. Notice how conversion and subjection are assumed to go together. There were a handful of early conversions, which ended badly in one way or another: and so the Dutch settlers concluded, not exactly happily but certainly very comfortably, that the Khoikhoi could not be converted, and therefore there was no need to try.

            And then the Moravians arrived. The Moravian church, founded in its modern form in 1727, picked up on the early missionary projects of Lutheran Pietism and turbocharged them: they sent a wave of missionaries to places including Greenland, Labrador, Suriname, Guinea and several Caribbean islands – there are some remarkable stories there I don’t have time to cover today. Unlike any of their Protestant predecessors, they were collectively, institutionally and financially committed to mission; it formed part of their self-image, as the famous and much-copied painting of the kingdom of Heaven shows: by the 1760s over two hundred Moravian missionaries had been sent across the world, enough to sustain missions in the face of the inevitably and dreadfully high casualty rates. The South African mission was something of a sideshow: a single missionary, Georg Schmidt, arrived in 1737, and bought a farm some eighty miles east of Cape Town, which he named Genadendal. He established a commune there, gathering a group of Khoikhoi who eventually numbered 28. In 1741, he baptised five of them in a nearby river, which scandalised the Dutch church authorities. In 1743, isolated and worn down, Schmidt returned to Europe, and no-one was allowed to replace him. . Another failed mission. As a parting gift, he left his Dutch New Testament with a girl whom he had baptised Magdalena.

            In 1792, Moravian missionaries were able to return to Genadendal. When they arrived on Christmas Eve, they were greeted by the now elderly Magdalena, who unwrapped her treasured Bible from its sheepskin case. Her failing eyesight meant she could no longer read herself, but she had a young woman read the story of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem for the newcomers. The community had endured in isolation for half a century, meeting to pray under the pear tree Schmidt had planted, teaching their children to read Dutch. The visitors’ appearance did not surprise them. God had told them in dreams to expect their return soon.

            Now maybe that story has grown in the telling. But this is what I mean by the difference between public failure and hidden success: the real story of the spread of Protestantism is what happens when the missionaries aren’t there, and when – as was the case at Genadendal – indigenous peoples had a genuine opportunity to make it their own. It certainly sets the tone for the South African story. From the 1790s, missionaries poured in, establishing farmsteads modelled on Genadendal and then fanning out across and beyond the Cape Colony’s rapidly expanding territory. From the beginning, these missionaries reported intense and dramatic conversions. Their preaching resonated with existing African spiritual practices in unexpected ways. Baptism and the Eucharist made self-evident sense to peoples for whom water and blood had longstanding religious significance. African Christians were swiftly interpreting dreams, singing, and displaying vivid emotion in prayer, their cries sometimes drowning out preachers’ voices. In 1816 a German missionary reported that ‘my hearers were drowned in tears, others were unable to sit or stand’, and that once his service was over, they would withdraw together into a field to pray. Their unconverted neighbours tended to despise these displays, seeing it as shameful for adults to weep. One of the striking features of these conversions, and it is a story we will see again, is that the missionaries themselves were taken aback, not truly expecting to have been able to succeed. Robert Moffatt, a Scottish missionary with the Tswana, wrote that when a revival struck in 1829:

We were taken by surprise ... Although it was impossible to keep either order or silence, a deep impression of the Divine presence was felt. They sang till late hour and before morning dawned, they would assemble again at some house for worship, before going to labour.

For Moffatt, this was authentic but a little alarming. He wanted to channel it into what he saw a mature, that is, a more Scottish faith, and he remained with the Tswana for a total of forty-nine years. But another Scot, the age’s best-known explorer-missionary, David Livingstone, disagreed. He argued that as soon as a ‘native Church’ was formed, it should be left to its own devices rather than being infantilised by continued missionary support.

We have great confidence in the essential vigour of Christianity. It blooms in imperishable youth wherever it is untrammelled by the wisdom of men. Sow the seed, and it never dies. The Divine Spirit will see to it.

That was of course a statement of faith, not of empirical missiology. But there was evidence for it. Take, for example, a pioneering preaching tour to the Xhosa of the eastern Cape which one early missionary undertook in 1800-1, with no apparent results at all. It was only in around 1815 that Ntsikana, a highborn but outcast Xhosa singer who had heard one of the sermons, experienced a conversion. Following a vision in which he saw a single bright sunray strike the side of his prize ox, he found himself inspired to begin humming and then chanting early versions of what would become the first Xhosa-language Christian hymns. He also set himself against a millenarian Xhosa prophet, who was attempting to mobilise his people for war against the encroaching Europeans with promises of magical assistance. Ntsikana accused him of self-aggrandisement and of lying to the people, and preached repentance and reconciliation instead, attracting a substantial multi-ethnic following.

            The standard narrative of church history in South Africa focuses on the European denominations, and traces the origins of so-called African Independent Churches only to the late nineteenth century, but Ntsikana’s and indeed Magdalena’s groupings suggest that the phenomenon of Africans forming their own Protestant groups was almost as old as southern African Protestantism itself. What distinguishes the first classic Independent Church, Nehemiah Tile’s Thembu Church, founded in 1884, is that it deliberately broke off from an existing denomination. Tile was a Methodist evangelist amongst his own Thembu people on the Cape’s eastern frontier, but broke with his white superiors over what they saw as his unacceptable meddling in politics. He hoped to help the Thembu’s paramount chief to negotiate an independent British protectorate.  And in order to cement that chief’s authority, boost his credibility with the British and also save his people’s souls, he proposed to establish a state church in Thembuland, headed by that paramount chief much as the Church of England was headed by Queen Victoria.

            It did not last: the British colonial establishment swiftly decided that this church was seditious, and after Tile himself died in 1891, the chief admitted defeat and returned to orthodox Methodism. But it did help to inspire a series of other breakaway, African-led churches, some of them remaining fully independent, some of them negotiating links with the black churches of the United States – not that that was always a happy experience. This man, James M. Dwane, was consecrated as a bishop in America’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, but he felt almost the same level of colonial hauteur from his black American superiors at he had from his white British ones. He ended up being ordained as an Anglican, and became head of a new, automous ‘Order of Ethiopia’ within South Africa’s Anglican church. This endured until 1999, when it was refounded as the fully independent Ethiopian Episcopal Church, with Dwane’s grandson as its first bishop.

            The missionary establishment generally disliked independent start-ups: not least because when disgruntled black ministers left to set up shop on their own, they usually took their congregations with them, leaving missionaries sore, on the hook for maintaining empty churches, and often accusing their former brethren of pride or greed. Alongside these mere jealousies were more substative worries. Independent churches might veer into unorthodoxy, whether by incorporating aspects of traditional African religions or by forming personality cults around messianic leaders. More alarmingly still, given that independent churches originated in a rejection of white religious authority, they might be vehicles for political radicalism. From the perspective of a century later, things look a little different. In South Africa as across much of the rest of the continent, it has been independent churches which have been the most powerful engines of Christian growth. Heterodoxy and personality-cults, well, yes, there has certainly been some of that, although it is liable to be exaggerated. And as for being politically subversive ... well, we’ll come back to that, but for now let’s just say it hasn’t worked out exactly how those fretting missionaries feared.

            First, I want to turn to look at more length at two rather different examples: the sometimes parallel but also interestingly contrasting cases of Protestantism’s two main East Asian mission fields, Korea and China. One of the things that makes Korea an interesting case is that it is the only significant example of Christianity being the anti-colonial religion, since Korea was at this point coming under Japanese dominance and many Koreans hoped – vainly, as it turned out – that America might defend their independence. There had been a small Korean Catholic population since the eighteenth century: the first Korean convert to Protestantism was not baptised until 1879, but the Protestant missions established in the 1880s attracted a decent trickle of converts. The Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries were, however, distinctly uneasy about this, worring that their converts were mere ‘rice-Christians’, attracted by charitable work or hopes for money. One exasperated missionary claimed that he could baptize three-quarters of the entire population if he offered them $5 apiece. During the early years of the twentieth century, as news circulated of revivals in Australia, in India, in Estonia, and above all in Wales, Korean missionaries were yearning and praying for a share of the same Spirit. This led eventually to a ten-day-long church conference in Pyongyang in early 1907. A meeting on 6 January, where 1500 Korean Christians were present, turned into an extraordinary evening of public penance. One astonished missionary wrote:

Man after man would rise, confess his sin, break down and weep, and then throw himself on the floor and beat the floor with his fists in a perfect agony of conviction.... They would break out into uncontrollable weeping and we would all weep together. We couldn’t help it.

The following night matters were the same, only more so:

Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, in agony of mind and body, guilty souls, standing in the white light of their judgment, saw themselves as God saw them. … The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequences if only God forgave.

When the conference finally broke up, the revival rippled out across the country, not least in the mission schools. Thirty thousand Koreans applied for baptism that year.

            Now what I want you to notice is the comment that one missionary, J. Z. Moore, made about these events:

Until this year [1907] I was more or less bound by that contemptible notion that the East is East and West, West and that there can be no real affinity or common meeting ground between them. With others I had said the Korean would never have a religious experience such as the West has. These revivals have taught me … that … the Korean is at heart, and in all fundamental things, at one with his brother of the West.

To remove the spectacles of subtle, pervasive racism with which Westerners of this generation viewed the world was remarkably difficult, but Moore’s eyes had been opened. Indeed, he was so impressed by the piety he had seen that he now thought ‘the East not only has many things, but profound things, to teach the West, and until we learn these things we will not know the full-orbed Gospel of Christ’.

            This is so striking in part because the Korean mission had already gone out of its way to adopt principles of indigenisation: the so-called Nevius method insisted that indigenous evangelists were central. But as convinced as they might be of the theory, this man, at least, realised that he had not truly believed it before. Now, the picture changed rapidly. Control of the Korean church now transferred rapidly. The last non-Korean moderator of the Presbyterian church stepped down in 1919.

            1907 was also the year when the first self-styled sunbogeum, Full Gospel or Pure Gospel church was founded in Korea, with a Pentecostal-style emphasis on healing and God’s love made real in this life. Many churches have taken on that label, but it’s associated above all with this one, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, the largest single congregation in the world with around 700,000 members: this is only the central hall, there are dozens of others joined in by CCTV. It was founded in a tent by a pair of penniless seminarians in 1958. By their account, it was based on their highly distinctive practises of prayer. Choe Ja-Sil, the older of the pair, developed a practice she called ‘triple prayer’, combining prayer in tongues, prayer while fasting, and nightlong prayer vigils, and trained the church’s cell-groups in the practice. She died in 1989, but to this day, more than 80% of the church’s cellgroup leaders are women, and women outnumber men amongst its formal ministers – even as the church restricts formal preaching and pastoring to men. Meanwhile, her younger disciple Cho Yonggi, who at 80 is still leader of the church, had a slightly different practice: ‘specific prayer’, being led by God to pray for very particular outcomes. For example, early in his ministry (so the story goes) he prayed for a bicycle, and a desk and chair for his office. God, however, told him to be more specific. So he prayed for ‘a desk out of Philippine mahogany, a chair with a steel frame and little wheels on the bottom, and a bicycle made in the USA’. The following day, although troubled by doubt, he preached that he had actually received those things – which, as of that moment, he had not. His congregation, knowing that he was as near-destitute as they were, were incredulous. Yet by the time he was challenged to produce the objects, donors had provided them.

            A preacher’s tale, of course. But Cho extended this principle far beyond bicycles. He would spend whole nights in prayer, such that by the morning he was too hoarse to speak: passengers at the bus station near the tent church complained about his loud praying. He prayed for healing, fully expecting miracles, but also, crucially and notoriously, for worldly prosperity. God, on this view, does not want his people to be poor, but to enjoy what this world has to offer. If they pray in faith for wealth, they will receive it.

            This so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ has been much derided, not least by other Korean Protestants. But for all its theological problems, it is worth observing why it has succeeded, and comparing it to its main theological rival of the 1960s and 1970s, so-called minjung theology: minjung meaning the poor and oppressed. This movement sparked excitement amongst liberal theologians around the world. Its aspiration to build ‘a church for and of the minjung’ made it a Protestant counterpart to Catholic liberation theology. As the Korean Christian Declaration of 1973 put it, minjung theology aimed to ‘follow the footsteps of our Lord, living among our oppressed and poor people, standing against political oppression, and participating in the transformation of history, for this is the only way to the Messianic Kingdom’. Under the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, these were not cheap sentiments. Christian dissidents influenced by minjung theology were prominent in opposing the regime, and many of them suffered lengthy terms of imprisonment.

During the height of this movement from 1971-7, the kijang church, the small Presbyterian church which embraced minjung theology, saw its membership rise by some 11%. During the same years, however, the membership of Korea’s main Presbyterian denominations, which actively distanced themselves from politics, rose by 70% or more, and the Full Gospel Church was booming. The minjung theologians, it seems, who were a fairly patrician and overwhelmingly male bunch, did not attract much interest from the minjung themselves.

            There are political and sociological reasons for this, but what I want you to notice is the economic context. Never before in human history had any mass human society lifted more people out of poverty as fast as in South Korea in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Full Gospel Church was founded amongst the urban destitute, dislocated people who did not know that they stood on the cusp of an extraordinary economic boom. The prosperity for which these uprooted urban workers prayed poured down on them. How could they not thank God for the blessings they were receiving? Amidst an economic boom which even secular economists called a miracle, all the minjung theologians could offer the poor was dignity. The ‘prosperity gospel’ not only offered but, apparently, delivered a chance to stop being poor.

            The story in Korea’s giant neighbour is very different. During the nineteenth century China attracted more attention from both Protestant and Catholic missionaries than any other single country, but my contrast between the public and the hidden stories is there from the start. The big missionary news of the 1840s was the Chinese Union, founded in 1844, after the Opium War forced China to accept a missionary presence, by the buccaneering freelance missionary Karl Gützlaff.  Gützlaff planned to flood China with newly printed Bibles and tracts. Starting with twenty converts in 1844, by 1848 the Chinese Union boasted a thousand members, including a hundred travelling preachers. His tour of Europe in 1849–50 made the China mission front-page news, securing donations from no less a sponsor than the king of Prussia. But while he was away, jealous missionary rivals discovered that many of Gützlaff’s preachers had never left Hong Kong. Others sold their Bibles as scrap paper or, in one case, sold them to a book dealer who then sold them back to the Chinese Union. The scandal not only discredited Gützlaff, but left an enduring suspicion amongst missionaries that Chinese converts were neither sincere nor reliable.

            Yet at exactly the same time, a much more dramatic set of events was unfolding that had been triggered by the gift of an early Chinese Protestant tract to a troubled young man in 1836. Hong Xiuquan combined his reading of that tract with a powerful vision he experienced, and became convinced that he was Jesus’ younger brother and had been called to establish a heavenly kingdom in which only God was emperor, not some blasphemous human. By the time Gutzlaff’s boast of a thousand converts was exposed as empty, Hong’s so-called God-Worshipping Society numbered some twenty thousand. He met an American Baptist missionary in Canton, who tried to bring him into line with orthodox Christianity, but failed. In 1851, Hong was crowned Heavenly King, and set up a theocratic regime which for a time looked like it might actually succeed in toppling the Qing dynasty and taking over rule of China as a whole. This so-called Taiping regime imposed a quasi-Christian quasi-modernisation across a swathe of central China, basically the Yangtze river basin, for much of the 1850s, enforcing it with apocalyptic severity, in which, for example, any soldier who could not recite the Ten Commandments correctly was summarily beheaded. It was eventually suppressed by the Qing, with reprisals on a genocidal scale: the total death toll is normally estimated at around twenty million. It left China’s rulers from then to now with a conviction that religion in general and Christianity in particular are mortally dangerous.

            Taiping religion was of course not orthodox Christianity, and the modern Communist state’s attempts to use it to discredit modern Christians make this a highly sensitive subject. But this was at least a highly Protestant-influenced religion. The Taiping had a version of the Bible, they made the Ten Commandments central, they practiced baptism, they sang Christian hymns to western tunes, they observed a Sabbath. There is not much direct evidence that the Taiping helped to seed the spread of more orthodox Christianity in later years, but it is, at least, a striking coincidence that the areas of Christian strength in modern China map closely, though not perfectly, onto the regions once held by the Taiping regime. More importantly, it shows that while the missionaries worried that the Chinese might prove impervious to Christianity, they should perhaps have been more worried about China’s potential to adopt and radically adapt it.

            As missionaries flooded in after the fall of the Taiping, they began to win some real converts, although still a tiny share of the vast population, and despite a great deal of hostility towards them as agents of Western imperial humiliation. So, naturally, in the early twentieth century a number of independent Chinese-led churches emerged, from one-man revivalist outfits to more structured denominations like the True Jesus Church with its messianic leader, or the Jesus Family, a group which embraced strict communal living in its own villages in the 1930s, or the Little Flock, a group with some debts to the Brethren which embraced radical egalitarianism and opposition to structures, forms or hierarchies of any kind. The official missionary-led denominations were working towards indigenous leadership, helped by an electrifying contribution made by one young Chinese minister at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, but there was still a long way to go.

            So by 1949, when China fell under Communist rule, Chinese Christianity was highly visible but also precarious. It was tainted with western influence, and also by its association with the defeated Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists also distrusted it as a matter of Marxist principle. To begin with their approach was to fence off Christianity so it could die a natural death in peace. As the new premier Zhou Enlai explained to Christian leaders in 1950:

We think your beliefs untrue and false, therefore if we are right, the people will reject them, and your church will decay. If you are right, then the people will believe you, but as we are sure that you are wrong, we are prepared for that risk.

That might sound like a fair and bracing challenge, but in practice during the 1950s and early 1960s pressure steadily ratcheted up. After the missionaries were expelled all contact with foreign Protestants was banned. Baptisms of children were forbidden, churches were closed, ordinations were capped, believers were compelled to work on Sundays and to attend political study sessions on the evils of religion. Known Christians had their careers blocked and were barred from the Communist Party. Any noncompliance was met with lengthy prison sentences. Congregations shrank fast. In 1963 there was not a single baptism in Shanghai, and only four over the following two years. And all this, it turned out, was prelude: with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, all Chinese churches and temples of any kind were closed, and would remain so for thirteen years. It looked as if China had successfully suppressed Christianity.

And yet, one of the foremost historians of Chinese Christianity reckons that during that thirteen-year period of blackout, Protestant numbers increased five- or six-fold. It seems that even before the total suppression of the public churches in 1966, some believers moved from the public track  to the hidden one, meeting for worship and fellowship illegally, in private, in their homes, instead. And during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, these so-called ‘house churches’ had the stage to themselves. It is not unusual for Protestants in modern China to point out, proudly, the woods or mountainsides where their predecessors gathered by night for worship during the Cultural Revolution, legends which are doubtless true but which do not perhaps tell us very much. Strikingly, though, there is very little evidence that this was happening in the cities, the old heartland of Chinese Protestantism. There may have been some house groups in Nanjing, but oral history work undertaken in Shanghai has so far uncovered no evidence at all of underground Protestant groups meeting in that city, merely, at best, two or three members of a single family sometimes meeting in near-silence to pray or to recite memorised portions of their now-illegal Bibles.

            Urban believers could do no more than hunker down and wait for the world to change. But their rural brethren needed less patience. Communities of the supposedly suppressed True Jesus Church and Jesus Family swam back into being. A formidable network of underground congregations emerged in the early 1970s in Henan province, an old stronghold of the Little Flock. In the 1980s Protestant growth in the province would spark official alarm about ‘Christianity fever’.

            How was all this possible? Well, the Communist Party itself must take a good deal of the credit. All the purges and denunciations achieved their aim: they broke the association between Christianity and foreign imperialism. Kicking away the Chinese churches’ missionary crutches was not kindly meant, but some at least of them discovered that they could still stand, and those who had already left missionaries behind them were no longer tainted by association. The rural Protestant who, in 1996, told a researcher she was surprised to learn there were any Protestants outside China may have been an outlier. But when the Party forced Protestants to stop being imperialist running dogs, they did them a favour.

            The Cultural Revolution itself brought Protestants three blessings in, it must be said, a very convincing disguise. First, the movement’s brutality was counterproductive, as Maoism slowly lost credibility and the victims gained it. For the first time in its Chinese history, Protestantism was unambiguously the religion of the oppressed rather than of aggressors or collaborators. Second, the sheer chaos of the Cultural Revolution created new freedoms in practice even as they were being denied in theory, especially in rural areas. The Red Guards’ onslaught was terrifying, but hardly systematic. A movement which targets the educated is unlikely to have a well-running bureaucracy. By 1968, different Red Guard factions were close to civil war and the state’s administrative control was faltering. In rural areas especially, discreet believers could suddenly get away with quite a lot.

And third, in one critical sense, the Cultural Revolution actively helped the Protestant cause. Its attempt to build a new, Communist culture self-evidently failed, but its effort at destroying existing Chinese cultural patterns was another matter. A cultural scorched-earth policy makes it easy for invasive species to take root, especially if their seeds have already been widely distributed. As one disapproving Chinese academic put it in the 1980s, the Cultural Revolution ‘caused a vacuum to form in the minds of many people, giving an opportunity for religion.’ Here Protestantism’s unique advantage came into play: its weightlessness. Unlike all of its religious rivals, even Catholicism, Protestantism had no material requirements at all. It cost no money, needed no professionals and left no evidence. It did not even need Bibles (which was as well, since the Red Guards had ensured that there were none), as long as there were people who could remember the stories, or short-wave radios which could pick up transmissions from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. It needed prayers, and songs, and faith, and the name Jesus. One travelling exorcist and storyteller of the time, interviewed thirty years later, sounded almost wistful for those heroic days. The miracles which had once flowed so plentifully, she observed, had become far fewer, but that was only to be expected:

Now we don’t need those works anymore, for now we have the Bible, the hymnbook, and pastors who preach. At that time, we didn’t have any of these. The only thing was that God spoke to you directly.

The talk of miracles is important: plenty of testimonies suggest that miracles, both the promise of them and their actual experience, were critical in attracting converts and convincing sceptics. The prominence of women evangelists, again, is also important: this rural Protestant resurgence was overwhelmingly female, over 70% on most accounts, and although that number has come down, the Chinese church remains one of the most female-dominated in the world. I should say that my personal view is that this is a strength, not a weakness.

Two other spiritual themes stand out from these accounts. One is the ability of Protestant Christianity to find meaning in and draw strength from suffering and persecution, a trait which has always made Protestantism stubbornly hard to eradicate by force, which was particularly valuable during the Cultural Revolution, and which remains significant in China down to the present. The other is the way that Protestantism in China came to be associated with outstanding moral rectitude. But, for example, one 1987 study of rural Protestant growth by a non-Christian Chinese sociologist commented on converts’ moral transformation, from healing ancient quarrels, through abandoning alcohol and tobacco, to returning money to shopkeepers who had given them too much change. ‘People from all walks of life, including numerous cadres (despite the fact that they are nonbelievers), all speak well of these people.’ Christians in many ages have aspired to this reputation. Few have succeeded.

            One feature of that reputation is a strict ethic of non-resistance to their oppressors. Chinese churches have – at least until recently, there are different stories emerging in the face of the most recent crackdowns – Chinese churches have tended to be punctilious in refusing to confront the regime, in cooperating with the police as far as they can, in avoiding conflict of any kind. And this brings me to the last observation of the difference between the public and the hidden faces of Protestant globalisation that I want to make.

            Public, missionary-led Protestantism has often been politically activist. Of course sometimes it has worked uncomfortably closely with imperial powers, but especially in modern times it has often aspired to a more radical role. In the eighteenth century most Protestant missionaries accepted the slave trade, some reluctantly, some almost enthusiastically, but by the nineteenth century this had changed: missionaries were decisive in precipitating Britain’s final abolition of slavery in the 1830s. The World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 saw global mission in the context both of ecumenism and of the ‘social gospel’. During the era of decolonisation, global missionary networks were important points of mobilisation for anti-imperial and anti-racist movements, above all of course the church-led campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. The reason there was so much worldwide interest in Korean minjung theology, as in Latin American liberation theology, was that it fitted so well into this wider narrative.

            Now I should say that as a good liberal Westerner of the early twenty-first century, I am in favour of all of those causes, but I nevertheless have to point out that the hidden face of Protestant globalisation – which, as I’ve been suggesting, is what has actually led the global growth of Protestantism – has generally avoided these agendas. The World Missionary Conference neither invited nor in any of its documents even noticed the existence of the new revivalist movement which has crystallised in Los Angeles a few years earlier and which we now call Pentecostalism, and which has been assiduously apolitical for most of its existence. Likewise, the Kairos Declaration of 1985, the key theological critique of apartheid produced by the main English-speaking churches of South Africa, neither included nor even mentioned the huge and rapidly growing African Independent churches, most of which had refused to be drawn into anti-apartheid activism and some of which had actually collaborated with the regime. These supposedly apolitical churches have often been accused of giving comfort to authoritarian rulers, which is sometimes fair and sometimes not; and more broadly of abandoning their social responsibilities, which depends on an assumption that a church has social responsibilities beyond bringing the power of God into people’s lives.

            Like it or not, it seems clear to me that the very hiddenness of the Protestantism I’m describing – its determination to avoid political entanglements and to focus on spiritual and salvific concerns narrowly defined – has been crucial to its success. It’s I think clearly the case in China and in the very different circumstances of South Korea; in much of Africa; and also in Latin America, which the ecumenical and politically sensitive Protestants of the World Missionary Conference did not regard as a mission field at all, since they were not in the business of poaching Catholics.

            I want to close, though, by comparing this sort of hidden Protestantism to its two main global rivals of modern times: not public, missionary Protestantism, which is not exactly a rival and is any case not important enough to be one: but two alternative, militant ideologies, Marxism and jihadist Islam. What sets the hidden Protestantism I’ve been describing, whether in its explicitly Pentecostal form or otherwise, apart from those rivals is that it values the personal and the private over the political and the public. Both Marxism and jihadism call the people to struggle for a revolution that is defined by public and political events. They have tended to spread among men and to be highly male-dominated in their leadership. By contrast salvific Protestantism does not offer a chance to sacrifice yourself for a future revolution, and indeed increasingly focuses less on distant future hopes, the proverbial pie in the sky, than on the power of God in believers’ lives today. It tends to spread in the private sphere, through households and families, and very often through women’s agency. It also tends to offer solutions to the actual troubles that dominate most human lives: health, the security of families, drug or alcohol dependence, money worries. In practice, it does not provide all of those things all of the time, but it comes close enough: because underpinning all of these other blessings, and giving them their value, it offers a direct encounter with God. This does more than challenge our conventional division between worldly and spiritual, a division which for an incarnational religion ought to be problematic anyway. It reminds us that, at the risk of stating the obvious, hidden things are not easy to see; and that the future of global Christianity which is quietly taking shape, including in the new emergent mission field of Europe, will be a future which we will not be able to predict until it has already arrived.



Professor Alec Ryrie is a Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. His field is the history of the Reformation era, and his specialism is the emergence and development of Protestant beliefs, identities and spiritualities in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England and Scotland. His wider interests are in the history of Christianity in the modern era, and he is one of the co-editors of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. His recent book is Protestants: the Faith that made the Modern World.



Prof Alec Ryrie

Prof Alec Ryrie



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