The Death of Chairman Mao – History for September 9

Photo by manos koutras on Unsplash

On this date in 1976, Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, founder of the communist People’s Republic of China, died at the age of 82.  Some look at Mao’s death as a positive turning point for Christianity in China, since under Mao China had expelled all Western Christian missionaries between 1949 and 1953.  However, while it is impossible to come up with precise numbers across a 3.7 million square mile country, Christians probably were about 1 percent of China’s population when Western missionaries were kicked out, but by the 1980s about 5 percent of the population went by Christ’s name.  The Christian population grew by ten times, while the overall population doubled.  How did this happen?

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, authors of the book “Clouds of Witnesses” say the key to this growth was “the resilience of the Chinese believers themselves…securely rooted in Chinese life before Mao.” [1]  In expelling missionaries, Mao was in part responding to “treaty ports” created at the end of the 1839-42 Opium War.  Through these ports foreign powers had extra territorial rights, allowing influences including missionaries to come in, but these ports also allowed opium to flow freely into China from Western countries.  Therefore, in the mind of many Chinese, Christianity became linked with both Western imperialism and opium addiction.  When Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses” he may have been thinking of this connection.  But native Chinese believers, sometimes planted by Europe-based evangelizing organizations like China Inland Mission, remained behind and spread resilient forms of Christianity that were attractive to the Chinese population.

John Sung
Several of these Chinese Christians are profiled by Noll and Nystrom, including John Sung who lived from 1901 to 1944, before Mao’s communist revolution.  Around Christmas 1926, Sung heard child evangelist Uldine Utley preach a sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in New York, near where he was attending Union Theological Seminary.  This sermon, along with other influences, countered the liberal Christianity he was being taught where the Bible was just “a collection of myths.”  He returned to China, determined to spread the gospel in the land of his birth with frenetic energy.  In a one-year period in 1931-2, Sung and a small group of missionaries “traveled over 50,000 miles, held 1,200 meetings, preached to more than 400,000 people in thirteen provinces, registered more than 18,000 ‘decisions’” for Christ.  Many of these new Christians formed traveling bands themselves.  Sung is considered the last great evangelist in China and Southeast Asia before Mao’s reign. 

Dora Yu
Even earlier, another driver of this resilient, Chinese Christianity was Dora Yu (1873-1931).  Dora’s ministry benefitted tremendously from a 1905 decision by Dowager Empress Cixi to replace China’s traditional Confucian civil service examinations with general public schools.  Under this system, mission-run schools became a valued option, and one of Dora’s early ministries was to train “Bible women” to not only educate women generally, but also to teach them the Bible, pray with them, and teach them to live by faith.  Mostly traveling by foot, in “1903, Dora Yu visited with 925 women and 211 children.”  Later, her ministry grew and she became famous for itinerant preaching, reaching many others who would carry on the Lord’s work.

Because of our proneness to look at
the bucket and forget the fountain,
God has frequently to change His
means of supply to keep
our eyes fixed on the source

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee
In 1920, Nee Shu-Tsu would hear Dora Yu preach.  Later known as Watchman Nee, he “planted at least four hundred Christian churches over a thirty-year period of active ministry.”  He died in 1972 in a Communist prison after spending 20 years there.  Watchman Nee wrote that “Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source.”

Whether it is a European missionary, a child preacher in New York City, a Chinese man temporarily studying in New York City, or a Chinese woman walking miles through the countryside:

How beautiful upon the mountains
            are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
            who publishes salvation,
            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” – Isaiah 52:7

As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This rock is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and not even a brutal regime like that of Chairman Mao could prevail against it.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapters 12 and 14.

A Great Festival in Zimbabwe – History Bit for June 18

Each June 18 in in the African nation of Zimbabwe, a festival is held to remember the service of Bernard Mizeki and his martyrdom on this date in 1896.  As recently as 2005, almost twenty thousand attended the festival at a time when Zimbabwe had massive food shortages and an unemployment rate of 80 percent!

As profiled in the book “Clouds of Witnesses” by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom[1], Mizeki found Christ, was baptized, and became a missionary under the influence of an Anglican order in Cape Town, South Africa.  He planted[2] a one-man mission among the Shona people in an area then known as Theydon, now part of Zimbabwe.  The Shona worshiped a creator-deity they called Mwari and sometimes practiced the killing of twin babies and the murder of those identified as sorcerers by their leaders.

Mizeki befriended Shona Chief Mangwende, learned their language in one year, translated key Biblical texts and Christian creeds, held Anglican services, and sought to reform the practices mentioned above.  He also identified with and invested in the Shona by marrying a Shona woman, teaching children and others to sing, and providing medical care.  His work prospered, and many came to believe.

However, opposition to his work began to grow, especially from those who saw his work as an assault on their culture and authority.  On the night of June 17th, 1896 he was assaulted in front of his home and had a spear driven into his side.  It seems Mizeki’s removal of some “sacred trees” was the last straw.  Then the account gets truly interesting.

Multiple accounts by Africans and Europeans attest to a “great and brilliant white light” and “a noise ‘like many wings of great birds’” around the hut where Mizeki was laid while his friends cared for him, seemingly near death.  There was a “strange red glow” around Mizeki’s hut and afterward his body was gone, never to be seen again. Jean Farrant, who documented witness accounts in her book on Mizeki, says each person must decide what to make of this, but that “something happened that night which to the Africans was beyond explanation, which frightened them very much, and left a deep impression”[3]  This event is still celebrated today, and others have taken up Mizeki’s work.

Soli Deo Gloria!


[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapter 1.
[2] John 12:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
[3] Farrant, Jean.  Mashonaland Martyr: Bernard Mizeki and the Pioneer Church (1966).  P. 216-22.  Cited in Clouds of Witnesses P. 30.

“No reserve, No retreat, No regrets” – History Bit for April 9

At the young age of 25, American millionaire and philanthropist William Borden died in Egypt on April 9, 1913.  Despite never making it to the mission field in China, Christianity Today once called him “the most influential missionary of the early 20th century.”  Borden’s story has inspired Christians and missionaries ever since.

As an heir to his family’s fortune from silver mining, William Borden had many opportunities in life, yet shortly after high school he became interested in missionary work.  Some said he was “throwing himself away,” but while a student at Yale, he quickly gained a reputation for his sense of purpose and dedication to Jesus.  He established a Bible study and prayer group that eventually included about 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students.  Off campus, he funded the Yale Hope Mission in New Haven with his own money and was often seen with widows, orphans, homeless people, and drunks, providing for their needs, and telling them about Jesus.  It looked like God was preparing him for a fruitful future as a missionary.

After graduating Yale, Borden turned down attractive job offers, choosing instead to study at Princeton Seminary, intending to minister to Uighur Muslims in China.  He finalized his plans and set sail, stopping in Egypt to study Islam and Arabic in preparation.  However, he contracted cerebral meningitis in March 1913 and died a few weeks later on April 9.  Did God take him too soon, before his work was done?  Borden didn’t seem to think so.

After his death, family reported that in his Bible were written the words “no reserve”, referring to his willingness to put everything aside for Christ, then later “no retreat”, after turning down job offers upon graduating Yale, and finally “no regrets”, apparently written shortly before his death.

Skeptics deny this note exists, citing “no evidence.”  However, friends and family claim to have found the note, and testimony is evidence.  Even if the note doesn’t exist, he still made the choices he made, living a life which declared that the salvation given through Jesus Christ was worth more than all the earthly benefits a young millionaire could have.

Skeptics may also say Borden, and God, failed because Borden’s life didn’t go according to his plans.  What was the point?  But as they say, the LORD works in mysterious ways and His plans are not always our plans.  Borden impacted many during his days at Yale before leaving for Egypt, and by events he couldn’t control, he may have become a better witness for Christ by death than from living as a missionary.  In his will, he left his fortune to several Christian agencies, including China Inland Mission, which named Borden Memorial Hospital in Lanzhou, China, in his memory.  Seized by the government in 1951, the hospital is now the Lanzhou Second People’s Hospital, but locals know its history.

During his short life, William Borden lived with a dedication to Christ that continues to inspire believers over a century later.  Even though he never made it to China, his testimony made it there and provides hope for persecuted groups and those who Christ calls to serve them.

Having all this world could offer, he chose to live for the next world.  Engraved on his gravestone in Egypt are the words “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”   Even if the note is just a legend, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets” summarizes the life of William Borden well. 

Interested in more History? Select “History Bits” from the “Blog” drop down menu at the top of the page.


Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Whiting_Borden
https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2017/february/forgotten-final-resting-place-of-william-borden.html
http://home.snu.edu/~HCULBERT/regret.htm

Missionaries Saved By Mysterious Army: History Bit for March 28

Even people who believe in angels and demons may not see how they are relevant.  The Bible contains a lot of hints about a spiritual world we can’t see, but not a lot of detail about what it all means to us.  One of these hints is in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings during a war between Israel and Syria.  Trying to kill the prophet Elisha, the Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan where he was staying.  Elisha’s servant saw the army, was worried and asked Elisha what they should do.  Elisha (and the LORD) responded:

“He said, ‘Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” – 2 Kings 6:16-17

On today’s date, March 28th, in 1953 something happened in Kijabe, Kenya which may be eerily similar to the events of 2 Kings.  I know several solid, Christian, professional people not known for sensationalism who were at the site of this event a handful of years later, and who spoke to people who witnessed it.  For this post, my primary source is the book “School in the Clouds: The Rift Valley Academy Story” by Phil Dow[1], but I could have written it entirely from second-hand accounts from people I know.  So, what happened?

In the decade of the 1950’s, Kenya was a British colony, but was embroiled in what is known as the Mau Mau, an extremely violent uprising against British rule.  Colonialism had added a new facet to tribal animosity in Kenya that existed long before the “Scramble for Africa”[2], where some Africans embraced and defended British efforts, while others strongly resented it and endorsed any means to repel the British and restore the “pure” African culture that existed before.

As part of a broader pattern of atrocities designed to scare the British into leaving, the Mau Mau planned an attack on Rift Valley Academy (RVA), a boarding school for children of missionaries.  Not only was the school symbolic of unwelcome outside influence in the eyes of the Mau Mau, but the school had also opened its doors as a refuge for Africans fleeing Mau Mau threats elsewhere.  On March 26th, Mau Mau fighters attacked a Christian group of Kikuyu (one of the Kenyan tribes) a few miles from RVA, killing 97 villagers and wounding 32 others, largely with machetes.  The Kikiyu tribe, historically a lower socioeconomic group, was divided between those who joined the Mau Mau for independence and those who backed British involvement because they saw Christianity and other Western influences as a positive.

RVA was on high alert, knowing the campus of schoolchildren and their caregivers were the Mau Mau’s next target.  Phil Dow wrote in his book:

“The sun rose Saturday morning accompanied by a host of rumors that confirmed an impending Mau Mau raid on RVA. Convinced that they would be attacked, several high school girls took time in the afternoon to write letters they hoped would be read by their parents if they were to be killed. That night the students went to bed under a star-filled sky fully clothed and expecting to be awakened by the sounds of gunfire and angry voices.”

They were awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of an alarm, some distant gunfire, but soon followed by an “all clear” bell.


Weeks later, some Mau Mau were caught hiding near the school and questioned about what happened on the night of March 28th.  They confirmed that an attack on RVA was attempted with the intention of burning the school to the ground and killing anyone they found there, but the attack was repelled by lines of British soldiers encircling the campus.  Later, other witnesses claimed the same.  However, “in March of 1953 there were no British soldiers at Kijabe.”  Multiple sources on RVA’s campus and among British authorities attest that the campus was vulnerable and mostly undefended, but something happened that spared the community and the lives of everyone in it so that the missionary work could continue.  The attempted attack raised the awareness of the British and provided time for them to install “protection of the very worldly kind” for RVA, including limited troops stationed there, along with defensive walls, barbed wire, and guard posts with mounted machine guns.

Dow concludes: “Whatever did happen that night, the Christian community at RVA was convinced that they had been kept safe by supernatural intervention. Indeed, the night’s events continue to be remembered as an example of God’s provision for the devoutly Christian community.”

What Elisha said in the Old Testament as:
Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them”

Paul echoes in the New as:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” – Romans 8:31-32

Amen.


Interested in more History? Select “History Bits” from the “Blog” drop down menu at the top of the page.


[1] Dow, Phil. School in the Clouds: The Rift Valley Academy Story.  (2003).  P. 130-132
[2] See summary at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scramble_for_Africa