Blog Entries

Chinese Christian History 101

Darkest Before the Dawn: A Book Review

Darkest Before the Dawn: A Brief History of the Rise of Christianity in China by Richard Cook. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2021, 230 pages. ISBN-10: 1725297159, ISBN-13: 978-1725297159. Available from Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

Richard Cook has written an insightful and personal book on the history of Christianity in China titled Darkest Before the Dawn: A Brief History of the Rise of Christianity in China. The author deftly handles voluminous historical materials beginning with Christianity’s earliest appearance in China, successfully fitting them into a framework of four parts and sixteen chapters, all within 206 pages—an impressive piece of work. Since this is an introductory book targeted at evangelical readers, Cook has been selective in the materials he has chosen to include. This book is terrific, not because the author wrote a book to compete with scholars in an academic world, but as a teacher and missionary eager to learn about Christian missions in China and carefully show how today’s church can learn from the past. His book is written like a case study, and readers are invited to leap into more in-depth thinking about the future of Christianity in China.

Each chapter includes labeled boxes of the author’s brief excurses, field notes, reflection questions, and suggested further reading, which make for an engaging book. Reading a book is a lively and enjoyable experience, especially reading a history book like this. The book is a pleasant read, and at the same time shows that the author has mastered the research field very well. Readers will find all the books recommended by the author in the bibliography at the end of the book.

Turning to the contents, the author selects Alopen, Marco Polo, and Matteo Ricci as pre-Protestant missionaries in part one, showing us the achievements and failures in Christian mission history in medieval China. However, the author is not satisfied with giving readers a study of the past; he shows us how the failure of one mission gave way to the next opportunity. Cook is also an informal spiritual director who introduces Matteo Ricci’s life and achievement and leads students to experience Matteo Ricci’s spiritual secret by teaching Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises in his history class. His creative approach helps students to learn history through another discipline.

Reviewing part two and part three together, we can see the author’s effort to condense 142 years into two parts and ten chapters. The author selects Robert Morrison and J. Hudson Taylor as two prominent Western missionary figures, and Liang Fa, Hong Xiuquan, Wang Mingdao, and John Sung as the Western missionaries’ Chinese counterparts, showing us a vibrant and complex history in a kind of sketch and brush picture. Through this picture, the author sufficiently demonstrates the dynamics in history. He addresses critical aspects shaping the modern Chinese nation and culture, including the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Uprising, the May Fourth Movement, the rise of nationalism, and the impact of Western imperialism on China. The author especially draws the reader’s attention to how Chinese Christians contributed to the growth of Christianity in China, as well as the significant contribution of Western missionaries to mission history.

The author reserves his highest praise for J. Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission in chapter six. In his words, “J. Hudson Taylor proved to be an exemplary missionary. The China Inland Mission perhaps represented the very best of the missionary movement in China” (p. 62). However, the context of the late nineteenth century in the aftermath of the Second Opium War in 1860 triggered the bloody uprising of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Despite the tremendous sacrifice J. Hudson Taylor and CIM missionaries offered in the mission field, they could do nothing about the nationwide trends. Cook observed that this bloody incident came from a complicated emotion of “humiliation” at the decline of the Chinese empire. The missionaries were powerless in the chaotic situation and became the victims of the clash of East and West. As the author says, “The negative outcomes did not necessarily result from ‘bad’ missionaries or misguided mission strategies; rather, the negative outcomes resulted from the complex realities of the post-Opium Wars era” (p. 65).

In this challenging situation, the author discussed the mission innovations of J. Hudson Taylor in the history of Christian mission. This excellent contribution invites readers to think through the relevance of the past to present missions. Hudson Taylor’s strategic thinking of taking missions inland rather than remaining in coastal cities is still inspiring. He called missionaries without a long time of theological training. Still, he gave them lifelong field education. He introduced the concept of a faith mission instead of budgeting for each year’s work, significantly impacting Chinese missionaries to this day.

In part three, the author explores various issues arising from nationalism and the rise of the independent church in China: nationalism, fundamentalism, globalization, and imperialism constitute a frame of reference for understanding the independent church movement. Independent Chinese church leaders Wang Mingdao and John Sung receive considerable attention in this framework. Wang Mingdao, as a benchmark figure in the independent church movement in China, deserves our continuing study. He grew up in a family of victims of the Boxer Rebellion. Before he was nineteen, his family received financial aid and education from Western missionaries. However, he insisted on being re-baptized and cut off aid from the Western mission after reading the newly published Union Version of the Bible in 1919. The outcome was that he founded a large circulation journal named Spiritual Food Quarterly and became an influential preacher and founder of an independent Christian assembly for local Christians.

One of the author’s main points in writing the book is to explore the creative tension between Western mission work and the rise of local Chinese independent Christian ministries. I think this is an excellent examination of the leadership shift in China mission history. However, in relation to the section on John Sung, we see the author’s admiration for this character, but he does not bring much critical insight into Sung’s significance as an exemplary figure in the local independence movement. It is disappointing and puzzling that the author seems to deliberately ignore Watchman Nee, who had far-reaching influence on the local churches in China.

The relationship of the state to the church is essential to understanding the Chinese church after 1949. The Communist Party and its ruling ideology predominantly affected the shape of the Christian church in China’s development. The author concentrates on the confrontation between Wang Mingdao’s line and K. H. Ding’s line and the mixed results from this framework. Nevertheless, the author does not focus on the details and arguments of a grand narrative but presents more personal experiences of contacting and researching Chinese churches after the 1980s. His records of the testimonies of specific people in this large environment make the last chapter impressive and compelling to read.

Although the author is not a prophet, he still foresees the ascension of Xi Jinping. The testimony of martyrdom is not over as long as mainland China is under the regime of the Chinese Communist Party. The fascinating thing about history is that, on the one hand, it helps the reader to unravel the intricacies of historical events, giving us a coherent understanding of the past. On the other hand, our present and future are inseparable from the past. It is worth deliberating the present situation of the Chinese church by reading Richard Cook’s book together.

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of Darkest Before the Dawn: A Brief History of the Rise of Christianity in China by Richard Cook for this review.

Share to Social Media
Image credit: Rutger van der Maar via Flickr

Abraham Chan

Dr. Abraham Chan holds a PhD in theology from Boston College and is the dean of the Golden Lampstand Global Institute.View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.