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Listening to Voices from the Past

Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China

Andrew Kaiser has compiled Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, a collection of short quotations from China missionaries during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Although they speak of a land that is in many ways worlds apart from the China of today, these voices from the past touch on timeless themes that are as urgent in the 21st century as they were in imperial China.

An American Christian who has been serving in central China since 1997, Kaiser curated these quotes out of his own reading of Chinese history in hopes of sharing with other China workers the inspiration of those who have gone before:

[T]he words of wisdom contained in the letters and diaries of these spiritual ancestors have profoundly shaped my own sense of purpose and calling, informing my identity and my life and work in China. This booklet is an attempt to share these lessons from history with other expatriates around the world who are committed to building God’s Kingdom in China.

The book comprises 30 quotations. They are intended to be read, one per day, over the course of a month. The selections themselves are brief, but each one is powerful and will provoke serious reflection in the heart of the reader, prompting, in Kaiser’s words, “either a desire for change, a renewed commitment to persevere, or an attitude of immense gratitude.”

Several common themes emerge from the quotations. Among these are the qualities needed in order to persevere and bear fruit amidst the difficulties of China, and the call to build a truly Chinese church. The plea to send more workers is tempered by the caution that sending those who are unprepared or ill-equipped could actually do more harm than good. In a 1865 Church Missionary Society report, Henry Venn, who is credited with helping to create the “three-self” principles, put into perspective the role of foreign workers vis-à-vis the ultimate end of cultivating an indigenous movement:

What, then, is the duty of the Christian church under the present dispensation? It is, not to spread their missionaries over the whole heathen population, but to establish in each district, and especially where there are separate languages, a self-supporting, self-governing, self-extending native Church.

A number of the quotations speak of the need for a humble appreciation of Chinese culture. Included here are exhortations from Matteo Ricci on the value of friendship, Timothy Richard and William Milne on language, John Leighton Stuart on relationships, Chinese pastor Yan Yongjing on respect, and Viceroy Li Hongzhang on the importance of relating to local officials. All are as relevant now as they were when they were written more than a century ago. Those seeking to serve effectively in China today would do well to ponder these exhortations (or ignore them at their own peril).

A quote in the forward from Richard Lovett, author of The History of the London Missionary Society, sums up well both the purpose and value of the current volume:

[M]issionary history is hardly worth the telling, unless it leads the reader to bring the experience of the past to bear upon the missionary problems of to-day, and enables him to solve the problems of to-day by the insight and the instinct as it were, that reward the patient investigator into the deeds and the purposes of those who have gone before. A knowledge of the history of all the societies is of little service unless the conscience of the reader is enlightened, his love for those for whom Christ died deepened, and his zeal for the furtherance of the great missionary cause strengthened.

Correction: An earlier version of this post dated the Henry Venn quote as being from a 1965 Church Missionary Report. It is from a 1865 report. We regret the error. 

Image credit: Gaylan Yeung 

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) (Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series Book 1)has been living …View Full Bio

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