Many people today know and support the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), but few may know its past–a past dedicated specifically to China. A. Wetherell Johnson’s great autobiography, Created for Commitment, sparked my interest in the China Inland Mission (CIM)–of which she was a part, before the organization was forced to leave the nation amidst increasingly violent antipathy towards Christians and foreigners. But while the CIM worked in China, it led thousands to Christ under near-constant persecution resulting in internment, torture, and death for many of the missionaries as they faced the Boxer Rebellion, the Xinhai revolution, decades-long conflict between nationalists and communists, the communist revolution, and the Japanese occupation over the course of CIM’s presence in China for nearly 100 years.
A Yorkshire man and son of a Methodist preacher, Hudson Taylor as a teenager fully rejected Christianity. But at seventeen, he decided to dedicate his life to Christ after reading an evangelistic pamphlet. Seemingly random as it was, at that moment China became the sole focus of what would turn out to be Taylor’s life-long mission work.
Two years later in 1851, China found itself in the throes of the “Taiping Rebellion” between the reigning Qing dynasty and the proclaimed state of “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom,” led by a man who believed himself the second son of God and whose goal was to institute his own form of rule and religion.
German missionary Karl Gützlaff saw the rebellion as an opportunity for mission work in China. Thus, he founded the Chinese Evangelist Society and Taylor eagerly became its first missionary in 1853. Taylor faced tough crowds as he preached around Shanghai, while also offering free medical services as Taylor had studied medicine in the UK for several years before leaving for China.
Given his initial lack of results, he decided to adopt Chinese dress and hair style, in the hopes that people would listen to him less as a foreigner, and more so as someone who respected and accepted their way of life. In addition, it would allow a greater focus on the messages he gave, and thus Christ, rather than his odd foreign appearance–which had earned him the nickname “black devil” because of his long overcoat. The organization he later founded (CIM) stressed the importance of assimilating to Chinese culture (with the exception of non-Christian religious aspects) while working there.
Unfortunately, Gutzlaff’s society developed a fraudulent reputation, as many missionaries used the money given them to do anything but spread the Word of God–including facilitation of developed opium addictions. Many also took the Bibles and New Testament books they received and sold them back to the publisher, who then sold them again to Gutzlaff’s administration. George Müller, a German-born evangelist and founder of Christian orphanages and schools, encouraged Taylor to break ties with the society and sent him financial support.
So Taylor and a fellow English missionary left the society, but stayed in China where they founded what they called the “Ningbo Mission,” along with four Chinese men. Taylor met his wife, Maria, in Ningbo, where she taught in a girls school founded by one of the first female missionaries in China. In 1859, the Taylors took over operations of Ningbo’s hospital, while continuing their faith work.
One short but arduous year later, Hudson Taylor’s health suffered, and so his family, as well as a close Chinese missionary friend, Wang Laijun, sailed back to England. Over the next five years, Taylor stayed busy translating the New Testament into Ningbo with the help of Wang Laijun, while he also published his first book on mission work in China and finished his medical studies.
Five years later, after much deliberation, Taylor founded a mission specifically dedicated to Chinese mission work, called the China Inland Mission. His love for China was so great, he once stated in a letter to his sister: “If I had a thousand pounds China should have it—if I had a thousand lives, China should have them. No! Not China, but Christ. Can we do too much for Him? Can we do enough for such a precious Saviour?” Christians of all denominations could serve as missionaries. The mission and its missionaries relied solely upon faith for the provision of funds; solicitation for financial support was not allowed, and the mission itself did not generally provide missionaries with any funds. The first group, including Taylor and his family, set sail in May of 1866 aboard the Lammermuir, and thus called themselves the Lammermuir Party. The ship survived two typhoons, and docked in Shanghai.
The Lammermuir Party suffered many setbacks as they worked to found this fledgling mission. A secondary headquarters in Yangzhou was attacked, looted, and burned with children still inside, due to the city’s hostile attitude towards Christians following a series of non-CIM related Chinese infant deaths of natural causes at a local Roman Catholic mission. This served as an excuse to attack the completely separate CIM building by the thousands. None of the Lammermuir party lost their lives, but many were severely injured. When they ran to the city’s “judgement hall” for protection, the presiding official asked, “So what do you do with the babies?” The British took this opportunity to criticize the CIM, as well, for supposedly “almost starting a war,” and even called for the removal of all British missionaries from China. But the Taylors, not to be defeated, stayed in the nation, and eventually returned to Yangzhou where many gave their lives to Christ.
In 1870, Taylor’s wife, Maria, died of cholera. He remarried a few years later to another fellow missionary. Together, he and his new wife continued to grow the mission, and by 1881, CIM had 100 missionaries, and seven years later, the first group of Americans joined the mission. In 1899, the Boxer rebellion broke out–a rebellion centered on anti-Christian and anti-foreign sentiments. The Empress Dowager even called for the death of all “foreign devils.” 79 CIM individuals were slain, including 21 children. This was nearly a third of their presence in China. In all, “30,000 Chinese Roman Catholics, 2,000 Chinese Protestants, 47 Roman Catholic priests and nuns, 135 Protestant missionaries and 53 children…perished at the hands of the blood-crazed Boxers” (Gary Clayton for OMF). Shortly thereafter, Taylor retired and then passed away in 1905.
Contrary to what many would expect, the CIM and other missions experienced great expansion and growth following this senseless loss of life. It inspired many Christians to reach this country in such great need of God’s peace. They continued to live among near continuous turmoil, as the Qing Dynasty fell and gave way to warring factions under the new Republic of China (not to be confused with the present-day “People’s Republic of China”). The situation grew steadily worse in the late 1920s, as the Chinese civil war between the nationalists, under General Chiang Kai-shek, and the communists began.
The nationalists largely tolerated the presence of missionaries in China; General Chiang Kai-shek, himself, became a Christian in 1927 at the urging of his wife (sister of Sun Yat-sen’s then widow) who sometimes met with female CIM missionaries like A. Wetherell Johnson. The Communist Party of China, however, set anti-Christian and anti-foreign ideas at the heart of their doctrine. Thus, many communist army units would attack foreigners and Christians. One famous example of violence against CIM during this time was the execution of John and Betty Stam in 1934.
The two had married only one year prior and gave birth to a baby girl three months before their deaths. They were serving as missionaries in Jingde, when they received word too late that the Communist army was fast approaching the city. Just as they started to leave, the unit fell upon them and took John, Betty, and their baby, Helen, prisoner. They first intended to ransom them, but ultimately executed John and Betty the following morning, with Helen only surviving because another prisoner sacrificed himself, suffering a gruesome death in front of the Stams’ eyes. The Stams tucked a letter in Helen’s clothes prior to their execution, in which they stated, full of faith: “Philippians 1:20: ‘May Christ be glorified whether by life or death.'” As they walked 12 miles to their deaths, a Christian Chinese shopkeeper tried to intercede for them, pleading that they be spared. The Communist forces seized him, and beheaded him alongside the Stams.
Their deaths, like those of the Boxer Rebellion, inspired other Christians to serve in China, even unto death, which happened for some as China came under Japanese occupation during World War II. Many missionaries left, but a large portion of CIM’s population remained with their Chinese brothers and sisters. Those that did stay were placed in “civilian assembly centres,” which were internment camps. One example was Lunghua, famously detailed by internee J.G. Ballard in Empire of the Sun. Thousands of European and American non-combatants suffered serious illness, starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, beatings, psychological trauma, and death; those interned included civilian children.
When American forces liberated Lunghua, the internees read passages from the Old Testament together and sang each other’s national anthems amongst a display of makeshift flags representing all the nations represented (Johnson, 1982, p. 161). During this difficult time, amazing relationships flourished between CIM missionaries from countries at war with one another. Germans helped British, and so on. Such is the power of great faith (Johnson, p. 146).
As soon as World War II ended, the Chinese civil war gained greater intensity until its culmination in 1949. The Republic of China came to an end, replaced by the generally anti-Christian People’s Republic of China. The CIM stayed on for only a few more years before its foreign mission presence finally came to an end. Many had died, but thousands had given their lives to Christ, and now it was solely up to Chinese Christian leaders trained by CIM to see CIM’s great work to completion. British CIM leaders stayed as long as they could before reluctantly deciding to leave the land they held so dear.
But CIM’s work did not end; it changed into the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, which now serves across Southeast Asia, and no longer in China. They sowed the seed amidst great difficulties, and now many other missions are able to have a greater foothold in the country where OMF got its start. The mission’s model in China has also inspired many others around the world, especially its emphasis on training local individuals to lead new congregations, rather than foreign missionaries, as well as its significance on reaching the “unreached.” God used the CIM to great success–a success not contingent on its continued presence in China.