Book Review

The Church in Henan


Henan: The Galilee of China (Volume 2 of the "Fire & Blood" series) by Paul Hattaway, Piquant, 2009, 356 pages, 162 pictures. ISBN-10: 1903689570; ISBN-13: 978-1903689578. Paperback, US$26 includes postage. Order from www.asiaharvest.org, bulk rates available.

Reviewed by Tony Lambert

A detailed book on the history of the Christian church in Henan province is long overdue. For some three decades, Henan has been regarded as the crucible of the house-church movement in China with the largest number of unregistered Christians. Yet, over the years, the province has only received spasmodic attention in various articles, mainly in the Christian press. Those written by the late Rev. Jonathan Chao were particularly valuable. Last year, I reviewed a short book which was published in Hong Kong by the Alliance Bible Seminary in Chinese (Zheng Ye Henan, Xie Ye Henan? or Why is Henan a Christian Province, but Full of Vicious Sects? by Cheng Hiu-chun.) This was an important beginning of serious study of modern Christianity in Henan.

Hattaway's book is much more ambitious. It claims to be a comprehensive and balanced portrayal of Christianity in Henan right from the arrival of the Nestorians in the Tang dynasty through the Catholic mission of the 17th and 18th centuries right up to the present day. The book is divided into five sections: 1. The Catholic Church in Henan; 2. Protestant Missions; 3. The Refiner's Fire; 4. The Three-Self Church in Henan; and 5. Henan's House Churches. Finally, there are 22 pages of statistics on the church in China and in Henan province.

The book is a mine of useful and inspiring information. It is illustrated with a large number of rare black-and-white photographs culled from rare missionary magazines and books of the 19th and 20th centuries and much more recent ones of house-church leaders.

The book is very uneven in its coverage. The Catholic Church's long history in Henan of around four hundred years is dealt with in just 20 pages. The 80 pages on Protestant missions provide vital and exciting background information to the present explosion of church growth in the province with much moving detail on the work of such giants of the faith as Jonathan Goforth and Mary Monsen. The work of various missions such as the China Inland Mission, the Mennonites and the Lutherans is sketched, but the author is happier telling exciting stories centered around charismatic personalities than giving a detailed, factual account of mission history. This makes for stirring reading, but a comprehensive overview is sometimes lacking.

More surprisingly, the section specifically dealing with the Three-Self (state-controlled Protestant) church in Henan covers only 18 pagesin a book totaling 350 pages. Rather unfairly, the author bulks out this section by adding ten pages on cults which would be better dealt with separately or possibly as a fringe element of the house churches. TSPM leaders have claimed some five million Christians in Henan related to TSPM churches and meeting points on Hattaway's own admission. A balanced account of Christianity in Henan would surely give much more spacesome 50 pages at leastto the 6,000 or more registered churches and meeting points in the province. Hattaway does touch on some of the medical work now being undertaken by TSPM churches, but there is no mention whatever of the huge Gospel Hospital in Zhoukou City which employs over 100 people in the central hospital and is responsible for 742 local clinics in the villages. Nor is there any mention of the more than 100 county-level Bible training schools run nominally under the China Christian Council throughout Henan which I know use thoroughly evangelical training material. These are serious omissions and reflect the author's unashamedly pro-house church bias. His jaundiced view of the TSPM may be true of some of the quasi-political leaders of the movement but is certainly not true of the vast majority of pastors, church workers and Christians at the local level.

By far the largest section is Part 5, which takes up half the book and is devoted to the house churches. This is where the author's heart lies, and he presents much moving material on the long ordeal of the Henan house churches over the last 40 years. Much of this material will be unfamiliar to many readers. It will make salutary reading to those in the West who have been lulled by one-sided reports of religious freedom emanating from Communist Party and TSPM sources in recent years. Hattaway shows that Henan's house-church believers have suffered constant harassment and persecution over a long period. Henan's police are notoriously corrupt and often seem to have a free hand to fine and beat up rural Christians. The book is worth buying just to obtain the accounts of suffering and triumph taken straight from the testimonies of local believers.

Hattaway believes there are specifically 5,226,714 TSPM Christians, and 8,856,228 (!!) house-church Christians, making a total of 14,082,942 Protestant Christians in Henan. Out of a total population of over 100 million this is not impossible although some may think his figures on the high side. He gives detailed Christian statistics for every county (there are 159) in the province. It is here that the reader's credibility is stretched very thin. How can anyone possibly know in such exact detail the number of Catholics, house-church Christians or TSPM believers in each county? The author claims to have interviewed many house-church leaders, but one scours the footnotes in vain for any really reliable statistical evidence for these exact claims. However, short of visiting every single one of the thousands of meetings in the provincethere are many which are unaffiliated to any of the large networksChristian statistics cannot be an exact science. Thus the statistical appendix is very misleading. The author should probably have stated "possibly over 350,000 house-church Christians" or "c.300-400,000" rather than giving, as he does, "376,333" for Fangcheng County, for example.

It is difficult to cross-check the author's statistics. However, in the case of Zhoukou Prefecture, statistics in a detailed printed report from a local Christian working at the Gospel Hospital mentioned above, stated that by February 2007 there were 251,643 TSPM-related Christians and some 350,000 house-church believers making a total of "about 600,000" Protestant Christians in the entire Prefecture. Yet Hathaway's figures give over 530,000 for TSPM believers and more than 750,000 house-church believersa total of more than 1,250,000, which is more than double the local believer's report. Even allowing for growth over the last two or three years, this is a massive discrepancy. Which data is more reliablethe Chinese believer's in the area, or the outside researcher's? We simply do not know. My point is that, as with most Chinese statistics, this is very far from being an exact science, and we should take most exact claims of this kind with the proverbial pinch of salt.

Despite these imperfections, Henan: The Galilee of China, should be read by all those seriously interested in the history of the revival and growth of the house churches in China. The house-church Christians of Henan have experienced revival and blessing, and they have sent out many evangelists all over China. Although many more educated young people and intellectuals in the cities are turning to Christ, the many millions of Christian farmers in China's vast hinterland are a vital component of the Chinese church. Their robust testimony to the truth of the gospel is a precious legacy to the universal church.

Image credit: [Church Kaifeng] by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, UofT, on Flickr

Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide. View Full Bio