China Church History

January 21, 2008

The earliest record of the gospel entering China is inscribed on the Nestorian Monument in Sianfu. According to this record a man from Syria by the name of Alopen ventured forth with a gospel team in the year 635 A.D. He brought Bibles with him and presented one to Emperor Tai-tsung. The Emperor ordered the Bible to be translated into Chinese and placed in the Royal Library. Dated 641 A.D., this was the oldest Chinese translation of the Bible. By then China had a recorded history dating back more than 2,600 years. Valignani, the Italian superintendent of the Jesuit Missions to the East gazed towards China and cried, “O Rock, rock, rock! When wilt thou open to my Lord?” He died in Macao, just a few miles from Hong Kong, in 1606.

In 1805, Yong Sam-tuk arrived in London from Canton to study English. He met Robert Morrison, and found out that Morrison wanted to learn Chinese. The two became roommates and lifelong friends. Morrison studied Chinese under the tutorship of Sam-tuk for almost two years, and then was sent out to China by the London Missionary Society in January 31, 1807.

After spending three weeks in the United States, Morrison arrived in Canton, China, in the fall of 1807. There he faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It was against the law for any Chinese to teach the language to a foreigner. The penalty for doing so was death! Morrison finally persuaded two Chinese scholars to teach him, and by the year 1813 he had completely translated the New Testament into the Chinese language. That same year William Milne arrived to assist him. By 1821 they had finished the entire Bible. This Bible has ever since been known as the Morrison Bible.

Years later Milne wrote to Morrison: “By God’s help you have set on foot what all the empires, and mandarins, and priests, and literati, and people of China can never destroy or effectually stop; what will raise their temples, destroy their idols, change their lives and save the souls of many.”

Seven years after Morrison set foot on China soil he baptized his first convert, Tsae A-ko. Two years later Milne baptized Leang A-fa, his first convert. Although Morrison labored 27 years, he only realized ten converts but they all remained faithful. He is referred to by many as “the wise master builder.” He had a long-range vision, knowing that he would never see most of the fruits of his labor. He wrote, “The labors of God’s servants in the gloom of the dungeon have illumined succeeding ages.” His greatest contribution was providing God’s Word in the Chinese language.

William Carey, whose mission at Serampur, India, set the pattern for modern missionary work, was a contemporary of Morrison. Perhaps Robert was influenced by a statement Carey made, “The best missionary we can ever send to a nation is a Bible in the language of the people!”

Following Morrison to China were men like Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Goforth, Stewart McKee, Susan Bird, Lottie Moon and many others. In 1949, however, the 4,800 missionaries in China were ushered out of the country. Most of the precious Bibles were burned! Chinese pastors were imprisoned or put to death. Men like Liu Fengzhi and Sang Aiching were beheaded and their hearts ripped out. Church buildings were destroyed or converted into warehouses and factories. From 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976 not one official church was open in the entire nation.

When the missionaries were forced out of the country in 1949 they left behind about one million converts. Some former missionaries believe that number was even smaller. Those Christians were despised by their fellow Chinese. They symbolized everything the government detested.

They were products of foreign imperialism who had betrayed the basic Chinese culture, according to Chairman Mao. So they were persecuted beyond belief, imprisoned, tortured, brainwashed, and murdered. Mao killed many unbelievers as well. He confessed prior to his death that any estimate of the number of people put to death under his regime would be too small. The number has been placed at 60 million!

How could Christianity possibly survive against such odds? Can you imagine trying to have church without a building, without a pastor, and without a Bible? Then there was the necessity of meeting secretly for fear of government reprisal! There were no “Easter Bonnet” Christians left in China, if there ever had been. The church was purified beyond imagination. Everything that could fall came tumbling down. The “Rice Christians” abandoned the faith; there were no longer missionaries to feed and clothe them. What was left of the church was few in number but strong in faith and unity. All denominational barriers fell!

From this purified and holy body of people God began to build His Church. If you were a Christian in those days, you counted it an honor to meet with another believer. It didn’t matter if he were Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholics or anything else. Those labels no longer existed! What did matter was faith in Jesus Christ, and survival.

Christianity, for the first time in China’s history, had now become integrated with Chinese culture! It was no longer a foreign devil’s religion; it had become indigenous. The people themselves had caught the reality of Jesus Christ. A prairie fire at the grass-roots level was being whipped by the wind of the Holy Spirit!

To those of us looking in from the outside there was virtually no information to be obtained concerning the church in China. We surmised the worst, and could only hope and pray for the few struggling saints who were paying the price for their faith in Christ. No one even entertained the possibility of the church growing under such adverse conditions. So when Deng, the new leader, initiated his open-door policy in the late 1970’s, information once again became obtainable. The West was in for a shock.

The church in China had spurted from one million to 50 million! And not one foreign missionary had been on China soil for almost 30 years. The truth was so incredible that it seemed like fiction. If these figures were true, then the greatest revival that had ever been on the earth had come to China!

Today’s conservative estimate is that there are 110 million believers in China. At this point in time the numbers lose their meaning. All we know is that something supernaturally profound has taken place within the borders of earth’s most populous nation.

Someone has said, “If they are doing that well without us why bother them? Let’s leave them alone.” That’s a reasonable argument except for one thing. Christian leaders all across China are pleading with us to come. They want us to visit them, encourage them, pray with them, and bring them Bibles! The door has been open for us to help them since the late 1970’s.

William Carey said, “The best missionary you can send to a country is the Bible, the Word of God”. Can you imagine sharing your Bible with your whole church? Bibles are so scarce in China that this happens. In fact there are many congregations which have not one Bible. It has been reported to us that in some places a Bible is never put down. It is read, reread, and copied until it disintegrates. Bibles can be printed inside China for only one dollar. On the black market the price of a Bible in China is three months wages. Of course, we count it a privilege to give them away. So far almost 10 million Bibles have been distributed in China, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

Today there are about 7,000 State Churches open in China. Most of these churches are located in the cities, but 80% of the population lives in rural areas. So the Three-Self Church (this is what the Communist State Church is called) has not provided nearly enough churches for the 110 million believers. Vice President Wang Zhen has admitted during an internal speech that

Christianity has outgrown the Communist Party. In some rural areas the only way for the party leaders to get a voice is to attend church and make appeals from the pulpit. But, especially since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the people are very suspicious of their government leaders, and for the most part their appeals fall upon deaf ears.

No missionaries are allowed in China, even to this day. It is, after all, a Communist country. Nevertheless, hundreds of God’s people are entering China as teachers and businessmen. The Chinese government will even pay Westerners to come and teach in their schools. What an opportunity! What a challenge! Maybe we cannot go as “conventional missionaries”, but we can go!

We have another opportunity right here in America to minister to China. “How you might ask?” There are about 400,000 Mainland Chinese studying here in our country at this moment. They are some of the most brilliant minds China has produced, and they will certainly be the future leaders of China.

Some of them live near you! You can invite them to your home, feed them, love them, and eventually give them a Bible. After being locked up within the borders of their own country, these students are eager to learn of other cultures. Therefore they have an interest in the Bible, and they take the Bibles back to the Mainland when they return home. I cannot think of an easier and more economical way to get Bibles into China!

China contains one-fifth of the world’s population, so we need to approach China with a wise evangelistic zeal. A billion souls must be worth our efforts since one soul is worth more than the entire world. The church of Jesus Christ has to respond to the opportunities and challenges before us.

They need us. Let us open our eyes to this vast harvest field and make the response that will help meet this great need. If you have been wondering what to do with your life, if you are bored by this materialistic society here are some specific things you can do:

  1. Pray for China and the believers there.
  2. Befriend Chinese students in your community.
  3. Supply them with NIV Study Bibles which they can take back to China.

This is an exciting moment in history and the single greatest spiritual challenge of our generation!