The Rushing on of the Purposes of God

A Book Review

The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876 by Andrew T. Kaiser. Studies in Chinese Christianity, Eugene, OR Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2016, 306 pages.

Having lived in Shanxi province with his family since the 1990s, Andrew Kaiser is well placed to write this book which has been long in the making. What originally started out as some pages of information on Shanxi to assist fellow workers, grew and grew. His interest in the development of missions in Shanxi finally led him to Edinburgh where he had time for further concentrated research and writing, as well as the completion a doctorate that formed the basis of this book.

The book’s title is taken from the words of Harry Wyatt in a 1925 letter as he reflected on a long train journey across Shandong. Little could he have imagined the incredible pace of change that China would see with high-speed trains crisscrossing the country and Chinese Christians spreading out in God’s purpose of mission!

Kaiser tracks consecutive waves of challenges faced by missionaries to Shanxi in the late nineteenth century and the gradual growth of the local church. He explores the trust-building of pioneer missionaries through famine relief, medical work, and education provision in a context of many mission agencies and strong personalities. He considers the terrifying period of the Boxer Uprising with Shanxi proving to be a kind of epicenter in which many missionaries lost their lives; the tumultuous period of political change and warlordism of the early 1900s; the developing tensions between the traditional evangelistic thrust of mission and the growth of the social gospel with its strongly humanitarian motivation. He notes the taking over of responsibility for the ongoing work of the church by local believers; the trying period for the church as the Communist Party established itself. He concludes with the trends of the modern church in Shanxi as it builds on the legacy of the past and moves forward.

The focus of the book is Protestant mission in particular but reference is made throughout to the Catholic church. He looks at the shift in approach of foreigners seeking to make a contribution in the early years and in the twenty-first century, as they come alongside and under Chinese Christians in a supportive role. The book is certainly an attempt to “renegotiate the tensions both between different cultures and different approaches to mission” (page xiii) as Kaiser states in his forward. It definitely contributes to an understanding of these tensions in the past between different mission agencies and individuals, as well as between expatriate and national believers.

Throughout, Kaiser intersperses more detailed biographical summaries of the lives of foreign missionaries—R. H. Schofield (late 1880s); H. R. Williamson (early 1900s); Harlan and Frances Smith, Oscar and Esther Schroeder, Peter and Valborg Torjesen, Harry and Edith Wyatt (1920s on); Gladys Aylward, Paul E Adolph (1930s). He draws on the many memoirs or biographies that were a feature of much of the “missionary age.” Numerous others receive mention too, as do the assorted agencies to which they belonged. Understandably Kaiser’s long association with Evergreen Family Friendship Service, enables him to track more recent developments built on the legacy of those who went before.

The book contains a wealth of footnotes that are well-worth reading for their rich references. They also provide more detail about what has happened to assorted mission properties in subsequent years with what may still be located today. It is here where the author’s personal knowledge of Shanxi complements his depth of study.

Personally, I find that maps are extremely helpful in locating places mentioned in any historical text and this was something I missed in the book. Even for those who are familiar with China itself and know where Shanxi is to be found, the very specific centers referred to in relation to Taiyuan are unlikely to be well-known. Maps showing the province‘s location, the province and key places, and places in Taiyuan would have been a useful addition to any reader. Similarly, a few choice photographs could have assisted in visually tracking some of the changes.

It is valuable to have such a detailed synthesizing of material focusing on a single province, spanning the years in which mission has had an impact. Shanxi was first at the receiving end and is now in a position to be sending—God’s purposes rush on as God still seeks to reach all the world with his good news, using varied, often highly flawed, people in the process. We are reminded that present-day believers are part of an ongoing movement. God is building his church.

For more on Chinese church history, watch for the 2017 autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, "The Chinese Church and its Historical Past" edited by Andrew Kaiser and scheduled for publication later this month. 

Image credit: Pingyao-16 by Morgann via Flickr.