Methodist Church

Christine Gidden and Hanna Wilbourn

Abstract

When learning about Chinese religion, a traditional Methodist church service might not be something one expects to see. However, this video clip begins by showing a Christian church in China, and the words seen on the building’s gate declare the name of the church, revealing its Methodist denomination. Next, there are people entering and leaving the church carrying two books under their arms, and many of the people seem to be wearing some sort of school uniform. At one minute thirty seconds, the clip changes, and there is a man who seems to be better dressed than the people around him handing out baby chicks to the people who appear to be poor. The last shot of that segment shows everyone holding their new baby chicks. At three minutes thirty seconds, the last segment of the clip shows people leaving the church, and many of the people are carrying flags and banners proclaiming their Christian faith.   

It is clear from the building and the sign over the entrance that this is a Christian church, and the church service being witnessed is a Methodist Episcopal service. There are people of all ages coming towards the church, from a child making faces at the camera to an elderly woman with shoes so small it is clear her feet were bound when she was young. While the primary religion visible in this clip is Protestant Christianity, it is clear that several aspects of Chinese culture have been incorporated into it. Chicks are handed out to be raised and used as tithe, and many women carry church posters and white flags with crosses on them as they exit the church, mimicking processionals common to many other Chinese religions.

Extended Explanation

This clip shows many aspects of Christianity within China during the 1930s and sheds light on the mission of Harry Caldwell. Caldwell took the footage for the clip around ninety years ago to show his work and the religious practices of the Chinese to people in the United States. These clips will give present-day people the ability to look into the past and gain a better understanding of Chinese religious practices. From this clip, one can gain an understanding of how Christianity was practiced, the perception of Chinese Christians, the impact of Christianity on everyday life in China, and Caldwell’s mission.

It is clear from the building and the sign over the entrance that this is a Christian church, and the church service being witnessed is a Methodist Episcopal service. There are people of all ages coming towards the church, from a child making faces at the camera to an elderly woman with shoes so small it is clear her feet were bound when she was young. While the primary religion visible in this clip is Protestant Christianity, it is clear that several aspects of Chinese culture have been incorporated into it.

The religion practiced within this clip is Methodist Christianity. Some missionaries used the Social Gospel to meet the needs of the religion and the people.[1] An example of the Social Gospel would be the use of chicks. In the Christian faith, the practice of tithing, where people are supposed to give back a certain percent of their income, was a hard task for some people. The missionaries continued this practice, but some of the people were unable to give money. Poor people were given chicks to raise and when they were grown, the chicken were used as tithe. In the Social Gospel, education was used as a means to teach the Chinese about Christianity. The importance of body and mind was at the forefront of some missionaries efforts.[2] In the clip, many of the people were wearing uniforms which might have been from the church school. Some were also carrying books which could illustrate the importance of education to both the people and the missionaries. Also, the custom of carrying the Bible to church is a very traditional Protestant practice from the West. Spreading Christianity was the work of every member of the family, who often brought in other relatives.[3] In the clip, many women carry church posters, white flags with crosses on them, or banners proclaiming “wo bi kuai lai, shang fa zai wo 我必快來,賞罰在我 (I come quickly, and my reward is with me, Revelations 22:12) as they exit the church, mimicking processionals common to many other Chinese religions and spreading the Gospel at the same time.

Religion in China has been very fluid, varying by region and mixing elements from different religions. Christian missionaries were not always welcome in China, so Christianity struggled to establish itself in the early years. Anti-foreign sentiments, changes in power, government obstructions, and cultural differences made it difficult for Christian missionaries to safely spread their religion. [4] However, in the 1920s-30s, Christian missionaries experienced a boom in success. China had 344,888 Christian constituents in 1918, but that number had climbed to 512,873 by 1935. Fujian, where Caldwell served, rose to a place in the top five largest Christian populations by 1949. [5] This film clip shows bustling Methodist church members coming and going to services, and it helps to show a shift in missionary tactic as well as a shift in Chinese tolerance of foreign ideas.

Even in the 1930s, most people do not picture Christianity as a popular religion in China, so this clip helps to show that Christian missionaries were successful in establishing churches. The church itself is also important as it mimics the architecture of Western Christian churches with its tall roof and neo-gothic stonework instead of traditional Chinese temples, which were typically open air with no seats and low roofs.[6] It also helps to demonstrate that not everyone in China had a negative reaction to Christianity. Some people were even able to incorporate Confucian principles into Christian values, so that Christianity did not seem very different than other religions that had been in China for centuries. [7] In this film clip, one can even see many young people attending church in their school uniform, connecting to the goal of the Methodist Episcopal Church to improve education and reach out to scholars and young professionals.[8] This clip shows Christian religion as a part of daily life in China for children, young adults, and the elderly in a way makes the people seen seem less foreign and distant.

This clip shows a Methodist Episcopal church service in China, a huge step forward in Caldwell’s mission to introduce Christianity to the people of China in a way that would not be rejected so that a foothold for the religion could be established. [9] The sheer number of people featured in this film going to church, waiting for their tithe chicks, or carrying posters, speak to how Caldwell’s unique method of earning people’s trust was effective. By befriending his Chinese neighbors and hunting tigers with locals, as well as working with the government and bandits alike, Caldwell created bonds and allowed conversations to occur naturally. [10] The variety of ages and backgrounds also points to Caldwell’s willingness to work with all people: pirates and elites, poor people and scholars, children and elders.Caldwell’s clips illustrate many aspects of Chinese religion. From this clip, one gains an understanding of the ways in which Chinese people came to understand and practice Christinaity in Fujian. Furthermore, this clip provides insight into Caldwell’s method of sharing the gospel and spreading Christianity, as one can see the meshing of typical Christian practices with Chinese culture, as well as recognition of the needs of the people. While this clip may appear to just be an example of a Methodist church service, it demonstrates the growth of Christianity in China in the 1930s and the success of Christian missionaries like Caldwell.


[1]Yick, “Methodist Missionary Contributions to Intercultural Understanding and Diplomacy,”  238-248.

[2]Caldwell. “A Rifle as a Calling Card,” 13-24.

[3] Lee. “Chinese Church Memberships,” 81-84.

[4] Ibid, 84-86.

[5] Ying. “The Regional Development of Protestant Christianity in China,” 63-97.

[6] Chambon. “The Action of Christian Buildings on their Chinese Environment,” 114-116.

[7] Mungello. “Chinese Responses To Early Christian Contacts,” 142-54.

[8] Wickeri. Christian Encounters with Chinese Culture, 25-46.

[9] Caldwell,“A Rifle as a Calling Card,” 13-17.

[10]  Yick,“Methodist Missionary Contributions to Intercultural Understanding and Diplomacy,” 238-248.

Bibliography

Caldwell, Harry R. “A Rifle as a Calling Card.” In Harry R. Caldwell, Blue Tiger, 13-24. New York and Cincinnati: The Abingdon Press, 1924.

Chambon, Michel.  “The Action of Christian Buildings on their Chinese Environment.” Studies in World Christianity 23, no. 2 (2017): 100-121.

Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei. “Chinese Church Memberships” In Bible and Guns: Christianity in South China, 1986-1990, 81-86. London: Taylor and Francis, 2014.

Mungello, David. “Chinese Responses to Early Christian Contacts.” In Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 2: From 1600 through the Twentieth Century, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 142-154. Second edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Wickeri, Philip L. Christian Encounters with Chinese Culture : Essays on Anglican and Episcopal History in China, edited by Sheng Kung Hui. Pok Fu Lam, 25-46. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.

Yick, Joseph. “Methodist Missionary Contributions to Intercultural Understanding and Diplomacy: The Caldwell Family in Foochow and Central Fukien, 1912-1949”. Methodist History  33,  no. 4 (1995): 238-248.

Ying, Fuk-Tsang. “The Regional Development of Protestant Christianity in China: 1918, 1949 and 2004.” China Review 9, no. 2 (2009): 63-97.

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