Thriving in an atheist culture
The 20th century was a tumultuous period in China. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 sought to rid China of all foreign interests, and saw the massacre of countless missionaries and Christian converts. In 1921, the Communist Party was founded and periods of civil war ravaged the country, followed by war with Japan. Finally, in 1949, the country fell under Communist rule and officially became an atheist state. Due to religious intolerance and persecution, the Christian church was forced underground. Thousands of church buildings were destroyed or turned into civil facilities such as schools, warehouses, and factories.
Despite these facts, the Christian church has continued to grow and even thrive in China! And readers may be surprised to learn of MB missionary influence in the country since the early part of the century.—Ed.
Most Mennonite Brethren today are not aware of the rich history of the MB church in China. As we celebrate 150 years of history, it’s incumbent on us to refresh our memories and look forward to the possibility that God will bring about a renewed contact and resurgence of the church in China.
Various North American Mennonite denominations began missionary endeavours in China shortly before 1900. Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (who amalgamated with the Mennonite Brethren in 1960) established mission stations in four widely separated geographical regions of China. The KMB were the first, beginning in 1901, with MBs following 10 years later in 1911.
In 1901, Henry and Nellie Bartel, who were members of the Gnadenau Krimmer MB congregation in Hillsboro, Kan., left for China under an agency called “China Band.” In 1913, Bartel incorporated the China Mennonite Mission Society, an inter-denominational Mennonite work in Caoxian in Shandong province. Board members included Mennonite Brethren.
Various institutions were soon opened, including a Bible school, orphanage, and publishing house. Civil unrest forced all the schools to be closed for a time. Nevertheless, a conference in 1940 hosted delegates from 56 congregations. During World War II, the church continued under Chinese leadership. Six Chinese leaders were ordained at a conference in 1944.
Henry Bartel was able to visit the churches in 1947 and 1950 and found that they were remarkably healthy and had a strong vision for mission. The membership of the church was estimated at about 5,000. Loyal Bartel, the son of Henry, was determined to remain in China. He had obtained Chinese citizenship because he had purchased land. He died in Caoxian in 1971.
The church in Caoxian and surrounding areas has survived through the decades despite severe hardship. Jonathan Bartel, a brother to Henry, visited in 1987 and reported that attendance at some churches was at least 1,000 and in one case more than 2,000. The total membership was more than 20,000 in over 40 congregations.
MB representatives made a visit to the area in 1999, including a stop at the old Bartel mission. The church had built a new sanctuary seating 1,000 people and more than 1,000 new converts had been baptized the previous year. It wasn’t called MB anymore, but the church was alive!
In 1909, Frank J. Wiens and his wife Agnes applied to the board of foreign missions to begin work in China, but the board declined. Frank and Agnes decided to go independently and left in 1910, first travelling to Russia to garner support there. In 1911, they boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad and eventually arrived in south China. They began work in Shanghang in Fujian Province. Wiens employed a translator, Mr. Liu, who soon preached the gospel on his own and became a key leader.
In due course, a broad program was functioning, including a boys’ and a girls’ school, a Bible school, and a sanctuary equipped with an organ, capable of seating 600. The first baptism was conducted in 1913 and a church was also organized.
In 1919, the MB conference accepted the work. In 1920, the Hakka MB Conference was organized. By 1920, there were 450 members in the church, and 15 schools with 30 teachers.
Civil war created serious difficulties for the missionaries and the church. Wiens was convinced that the health of the church depended on developing Chinese leadership. He also had a strong commitment to the Anabaptist/Mennonite peace position, which proved effective in difficult situations.
In 1929, all the missionaries left and subsequently most of the buildings on the missionary compound were destroyed. In 1934, Wiens returned and worked with the Chinese leadership. Many schools were re-established and, in 1939, the MB conference decided to resume full responsibility for the work. With the outbreak of World War II the doors closed again. When Wiens left in 1940, there were an estimated 400 baptized Christians in Shanghang.
In 1948, Roland (son to Frank and Agnes) and Anna Wiens returned to Shanhang and continued until 1951. But the area was taken over by the Communists in 1950. The Korean War in 1951 further complicated the situation. Foreigners, especially Americans, were disliked and identified with imperialism. Roland and Anna were forced to leave and began working in Japan in 1951.
During the next 30 years, there was virtually no contact with the MB church in Shanghang. In 1980, Roland and Anna were able to make a short visit to Shanghai and one of their friends, Ling San Sheu, was able to meet them. It was a glorious reunion and they received some information about the Christians at the former mission station in Shanghang.
This visit was followed by brief stays at Canton in 1981 and Fuzhou in 1982, where they were also able to make contact with members of the church. Their strong desire to visit the former mission station was finally realized in 1988. Thirty-seven years had elapsed since they had been forced to leave, and their excitement about returning can hardly be imagined. When they arrived, it soon became evident that much had changed, but they were gratified that the church was still alive. Chinese Christians were anxious to meet them.
According to reports, the number of Christian congregations in Fujian has grown significantly in recent decades. In the early 1980s, there were five congregations, 20 chapels, and 40 meeting places among the Hakka people. Fujian Province as a whole had an estimated 400,000 Christians in 1985. It’s impossible to know how many of these had roots in the MB mission effort or how many there are today. But it can be stated with confidence that the work of the early 20th century continued to yield fruit in the difficult times that followed.
The KMB sent Frank and Agnes Wiebe to China in 1921. They contacted Henry Bartel who travelled with Wiebe to Inner Mongolia. They decided to recommend Zhuozi (Chotzeshan) as the KMB field. Soon chapels, schools, and a clinic were built. The work focused on evangelism, with much of the work done by Chinese converts. The first group of 10 was baptized in 1924.
Two years later, civil war forced the Wiebes and other missionaries to leave for a brief period. When the Wiebes reported to their American constituency in 1931, they indicated that about 150 people attended their Sunday services.
In the mid-1930s, the Japanese invaded and destroyed much of the church property. The churches continued functioning under national leadership. All the missionaries left in 1941.
Many years later, in 1981, reports indicated that the churches had grown and that many young people were involved. One church reported a membership of 1,700, many of whom were young people.
In 1941, Henry and Nellie Bartel moved to West China because it was no longer possible for them to work in the Shandong area. The area was mountainous, making travel difficult, and Bartel walked long distances on mountain trails. The Bartels began their mission in Baishui in Sichuan, working alone until Paulina Foote arrived, after leaving her work in Fujian Province.
Foote had an adopted Chinese daughter and also brought a Chinese Bible woman with her. Later she moved to Guangyuan and opened a Bible school for women.
The North American mission agencies renegotiated responsibility for various areas and as a result most of West China came under the direct responsibility of the MB and KMB mission boards. Both boards sent missionaries to the area, but because of political turmoil the missionaries left in 1948 and 1949. Groups of Chinese Christians formed in various scattered regions. No reliable data exists regarding the number of Christians or churches in the area.
Mennonite Brethren and the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren clearly had a significant presence in various regions of China in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, in the period until 1950, there were probably more North American MB and KMB missionaries based in China than in any other country.
More recently, in the 1980s and 90s, the work of MBMS International focused on sending short term teams to China to teach English in university settings. MBMSI’s work today continues in this country with one of the fastest-growing church planting movements in the world. Security issues limit the degree of reporting on this story, as well as the freedom of MB churches to connect to the global MB family.
It seems unlikely that any congregations in China retain an identity as MB churches today. The memory of MB mission in China has undoubtedly faded significantly. But there is little doubt that many Christians in China can trace their roots to the work of MB and KMB missionaries and to the Chinese leaders who had a very important role in the development of the church from the very beginning.
As China becomes a more open society, it may be that new connections will develop and that MBs, along with other Christians, will once again be able to work together in a global effort to bring the good news to the multitudes in China. Chinese Christians undoubtedly have much to contribute to the rest of the world because of their unique pilgrimage.