In the smothering heat of a Wuhan summer, she was garbed in the full black robes of an ordained minister and preached as hundreds of worshippers sat, squatted, and stood in the multi-story, Three-Self church building. As the reverend led the service, she paused as if on impulse and called to the audience, “Come up, friends. I know many of you have been brought here by your family or friends for the first time to church. Come up to the front, I want to talk to you!” At her unrelenting prompting, between twenty and thirty people made their way to the pulpit. There, the minister proceeded to present the gospel in no uncertain terms: “You must believe in Jesus!” This woman steered the thriving Three-Self church in one of China’s largest cities for many years. She illustrates the powerful leadership women have given to the development of China’s Protestant faith.
Today on mission fields where mainland Chinese missionaries are active, more than sixty percent of those workers are female, and on some fields the number may exceed ninety percent. Thus, while most senior leaders are men, women make up the majority of workers both in home churches and on the field. Their contributions and circumstances can sometimes be overlooked. Dana Robert edited a collection of essays on women in modern missions and observed that while “…women missionaries have represented the cutting edge of much of Western Christian involvement in non-Western cultures… Probably the most significant ambiguity in the work of 20th century missionary women has been their lack of recognition.”
Writings, both academic and popular, do exist which uncover some of the legacy of women in missions and the Chinese church prior to 1950. Perhaps, with the exception of the section below about Mrs. Wang Mingdao, other sources in English give valuable information about the women we look at here; thus, this article is an attempt to share what has touched me personally in learning how God used women of bygone days to build his church in China.
Hudson Taylor scandalized Victorian Christendom by accepting, even encouraging, single women to join the China Inland Mission. Just as their male counterparts did, eventually CIM women travelled into remote provinces as pioneers in their own right. Thirteen years after the mission’s founding, Hudson Taylor’s second wife, Jennie Faulding, in 1878, led the first group of female CIM missionaries to an inland area—famine-stricken Shanxi. Her expedition made it acceptable for single women to penetrate into hitherto unreached areas.
Under Jennie’s leadership, two single women and a married one, joined later by four more women, devised strategies to rebuild lives after a ghastly famine. Men from various agencies were already in Shanxi, but the female team reached swathes of the population that men could not. They expanded the orphanage that was already there and hundreds of orphans were taken in. A similar number of widows and aged were cared for. Thanks to Jennie’s practical wisdom, young and old were taught work skills (plaiting straw, spinning cotton, embroidery, and so on) while also being taught to “gossip the gospel” using the five-color “wordless book.”
This ground-breaking effort came at no small personal cost; Jennie had to leave her husband, at his request, with their young children while she spent over a year in Shanxi. Married to Hudson Taylor for three decades, Jennie Faulding’s name nevertheless is not widely recognized. Her better-known predecessor, Maria Dyer Taylor, was Hudson’s first love and is celebrated in Taylor biographies. Research remains to be done to uncover the contributions of both these women toward the developing of the Taylor dynasty.
Christians, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, usually recognize the name of Watchman Nee, but how many know of the woman whose preaching led Nee to Christ? The name of Dora Yu (Yu Cidu) is barely remembered, even among Chinese believers just a generation younger than her. Born to a doctor who had been pressed into service with the armies of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom but who later found true Christianity and served as a pastor in Hangzhou, Dora followed in her father’s footsteps and was one of the first two female graduates of Suzhou Medical College in 1896. At age 19, her parents both deceased, Dora declined a marriage offer for the sake of ministry. Within a year after qualifying, Dora was asked to accompany her mentor, Mrs. Josephine Campbell of the American Southern Methodist Episcopal Mission, to Korea; thus Dora became one of the earliest Chinese to go cross-culturally. The two women practiced medicine and preached very effectively to the Koreans and founded Baewha Girls’ School, forerunner of Baewha Women’s University in Seoul. Dora threw herself into ministry and her health collapsed; she left the mission field permanently in 1903, yet sure of God’s leading for a new phase of service to him.
Initially Dora worked as a doctor while continuing evangelistic preaching around Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Revival was stirring, and in 1907 Dora felt led to trust God wholly, retiring her medical practice and eschewing defined support to become the first “faith mission” worker of the modern Chinese church. For the next two decades, Dora’s prominence as a revivalist, teacher, and mentor to younger preachers left a lasting legacy for the newly indigenizing church. Jiangwan Bible School in Shanghai resulted from Dora’s faith and fund-raising; many female Bible teachers were sent out from there. Silas Wu notes Dora’s impact on younger revivalists such as Peace Wang (Wang Peizhen) who gave herself to full-time ministry under Dora’s preaching, and likewise, in the Shanghai Revival of 1925, Andrew Gih (Ji Zhiwen) was profoundly influenced. The 1927 Keswick Convention invited Dora as a keynote speaker, the only Chinese person to receive such an invitation.
Against the backdrop of China slowly being reunited by the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalists, the late 1920s saw a turning away from women leaders in the church. Dora died in 1931, and the next decades of church development fell to men. It is interesting to compare what happened then with what has been taking place in the church in China over the past few years—from the times of trial and repression under Mao, when “house churches” were born and commonly led by women, to the period of openness (1980s through the early 2000s) when women served equally with men, to an increasingly influential Reformed perspective today that once again discourages women from leadership and public ministry.
In the 1920s, a unique threesome of doughty female explorers and fearless evangelists—the French sisters, Eva and Francesca, and Mildred Cable—put missions and the importance of neglected frontiers before the world’s eyes as never before. Beginning in 1923 and through the 1930s, they ventured deep into the vastness of western China and Central Asia with quantities of Christian literature, their sleeping bags, a tent, and pots and pans but with no arms nor male escorts. Their contemporaries, Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, and Albert von Le Coq, were explorers with well-provisioned caravans, financed by the colonial powers of the day, commissioned to seek treasure along the old Silk Road. Mildred Cable’s records (along with those of her co-author Francesca French) of their encounters with local peoples, their travels, and the landscape earned them international acclaim and awards from prestigious societies—and also an invitation to tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Beyond the physical courage of “the Trio,” their unconventionality also jolted theological and missiological norms of the day. They were criticized for serving communion to a small congregation in Xinjiang, and their strong views on female leadership in missions were ahead of their time. Linda Benson has delved into the lives and significance of “the Trio” and speculates that differences with leaders of the CIM may have contributed to their leaving the relative ease of the established mission station in Huozhou, Shanxi and striking out for the unknown.
Benson also notes that, though CIM records are silent, nevertheless it took a year before permission was granted for the women to go west. Actually, the French sisters and Mildred Cable had invested nearly two decades of ministry in Shanxi, teaching in a girls’ school and working in a dispensary (Mildred had studied pharmacy in London), while seeing the church grow and eventually be led by Chinese pastors. In their desire to move on, they adhered both to Hudson Taylor’s spirit of wanting to preach the gospel where it had never been proclaimed, and also to today’s church-planting mantra of “model, assist, watch, leave.”
It is harder to trace the legacy of “the trio” regarding converts in China’s Muslim areas. Their calling was to scatter gospel seed as widely as possible. Undoubtedly, they touched many lives, especially those of Muslim women sequestered from contact with male missionaries, and among the general populace the three women were known as “the Teachers of Righteousness.” Their Shanxi sojourn may have been more significant from the standpoint of women and Chinese church development. In 1904, Eva and Mildred opened a girls’ school in Huozhou, and for over twenty years prayed in funds to open other schools to train women as Bible teachers and church leaders. The thousand or more graduates of the school ministered in different parts of China; 130 of them went on to train thousands of other women. Cable and her cohorts may not have been unique among missionaries to spot the need to raise up local church leaders, especially females to minister to other women, but by gifting, personality and persistence they carved a singular niche in the annals of China’s church.
Mrs. Wang Mingdao
If Mr. Wang Mingdao was the “man of iron,” then Liu Jingwen, his wife, surely could be known as the “woman of silk.” Silk complements the hardness of iron with beauty, fluidity, and a gentleness interwoven with steely strength. Mrs. Wang, like Dora Yu, was a pastor’s daughter from Hangzhou, possessing the refinement attributed to women of that region. Mr. Wang (he never used the title “pastor,” much less “reverend”) is renowned for his uncompromising stand against theological liberalism. The new Communist powers saw Mr. Wang as both the embarrassing embodiment of “Three Self” principles and particularly as a threat to their ultimate control of the church. From the 1930s until the end of their public ministry, the Wangs saw God grow mightily their household fellowship into the largest, independent, evangelical church in the capital.
Mrs. Wang was a self-effacing part of her husband’s success. Her tact and attention to detail offset her husband’s bluntness. Her pastoral heart expressed itself in practical care for members of the congregation. She noted individuals’ needs and sought ways to supply them, often passing on presents intended for the Wangs themselves. Mrs. Wang’s own gifts of encouragement and discernment would identify a person’s abilities or gift, and she always warmly affirmed that person in developing those gifts in the body of Christ. Besides the role of pastor’s wife, at home Mrs. Wang overcame the sadness of seeing their only child, son Tianduo, reject Christ, while leading her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to the Lord.
It was not just Mr. Wang whose theological convictions cost a grim price. Indeed, after their first arrest in 1955, the authorities cannily released Mr. Wang first, knowing that Mrs. Wang would exert a strong, steadying influence on him if they were together. They kept her in detention, and having manipulated him into accepting the Three-Self position, upon his release he obediently attended some of their meetings. But after Mrs. Wang rejoined her husband, and he regained his mental and spiritual equilibrium, he went back to the authorities, recanted his “confession” of being wrong in opposing the Three-Self Church, and was of course promptly re-imprisoned, the second time for 22 years. When asked before she also was re-imprisoned, Mrs. Wang averred that she never had anything to recant or repent of, for subjected to pressures which had defeated the man, this slender woman had stood resilient and unyielding as iron.
It is impossible to speculate what Mr. Wang’s life and ministry might have been without Liu Jingwen. But as someone who had the privilege of observing them together in their final years, free in Shanghai after decades of harsh treatment and separation, it was clear that the bond between husband and wife was one of shared call, commitment, and love of Christ. With her own health also fragile after prison, Mrs. Wang continued to supervise the household and care for Mr. Wang who continually received a parade of visitors who had come to admire the hero. She devoted time and care each day to writing to the many former church members with whom she diligently sought to follow up. Nearly blind, she used a cardboard stencil to frame each line so she could write characters in the space between. Her memory for names and personal concern for each one spoke vividly of the value she placed on each brother and sister. Thus, in talking with those who were close to the Wangs, clearly it was she who left the imprint of “body life” indelibly in the lives of those she knew.
Bibliography of Resources
- Benson, Linda. Across China's Gobi: The Lives of Evangeline French, Mildred Cable, and Francesca French of the China Inland Mission. EastBridge, 2008.
- Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.Online at www.bdcconline.net.
- Gewurtz, Margo S. “Looking for Jean Dow: Narratives of Women and Missionary Medicine in Modern China.” In Figuring it Out: Science, Gender, and Visual Culture, edited by Ann B. Shteir and Bernard Lightman, 267 – 288. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006.
- Griffiths, Valerie. Not Less than Everything: The Courageous Women Who Carried the Christian Gospel to China. Oxford: Monarch Books & OMF, 2004.
- Grypma, Sonya. Canadian Nurses at the North China Mission, 1888-1947. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008.
- Robert, Dana, ed. Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers. NY: Orbis, 2002.
- Thompson, Phyllis. Each to Her Post: The Inspiring Lives of Six Great Women in China. Hodder & Stoughton and OMF, 1982.