On the last day of 1899, Chinese revolutionaries abducted Sidney Brooks, a 24 year old missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The Chinese tortured Sidney for hours and then murdered him. The greatest century of Christian advance ended with a vicious backlash in China.
1900, the last year of the nineteenth century, was a year of momentous upheavals and widespread murder of missionaries in China. There had always been hostility to foreigners and foreign religions in China, and in the late 1890’s, the Society of Harmonious Fists, or Boxers, began organising a systematic campaign to eradicate Christianity from China.
The Boxers cultivated a mystical aura about them. They wore red ribbons around their wrists, yellow sashes and yellow talismans. Their shamans murmured incantations and they induced a trance-like state amongst their followers. They used secret signals and passwords and propaganda to stir up hatred of all foreigners. To the Boxers, foreigners, especially missionaries, were “first-class devils”; Chinese converts to Christianity were “second-class devils” and those who worked for, or collaborated with, foreigners were “third-class devils.”
The missionaries were blamed for droughts and enraging heaven and earth by refusing obedience to Buddha. In June 1900, the Presbyterian Mission in Shantung was destroyed by a mob and two English missionaries killed. The mission station of the American Board of Missions outside Peking was burned and many Christians killed there.
Violence swept into Peking and on 24 June, an imperial decree ordered the killing of all foreigners throughout China. Missionaries and Chinese Christians were the main victims of this campaign. Fifteen missionaries and numerous Chinese Christians were killed at Paotingfu on 30 June and 1 July. At Taiku, six missionaries and eight Chinese were executed on 31 July, their heads being taken to the governor.
In Shansi province, the governor stage-managed a massacre in Taiyuan. Thirty-three Protestant and 12 Catholic missionaries were marched before the governor. A Chinese convert who survived the ordeal, described what happened: “the first to be led forth was Mr. Farthing. His wife clung to him, but he gently put her aside and going in front of the soldiers, knelt down without saying a word and his head was struck off by one blow of the executioner’s axe. He was quickly followed by Dr.s Lovitt and Wilson, each of whom was beheaded by one blow of the executioner. Then governor Yu-Hsien grew impatient and told his bodyguard, all of whom carried heavy swords with long handles, to help kill the others … when the men were finished, the women were taken. Mrs. Farthing had hold of the hands of her children who clung to her, but the soldiers parted them and with one blow, beheaded their mother … Mrs. Lovitt was wearing her spectacles, and holding the hand of her little boy even when she was killed … she spoke to the people saying: ‘we all came to China to bring you the Good News of the salvation of Jesus Christ, we have done you no harm, only good, why do you treat us so?’ A soldier took off her spectacles before beheading her, which took two blows ... All 33 Protestant and 12 Catholic missionaries were killed in this manner, along with numerous Chinese Christians. Many of their heads were placed in cages on the city gates.”
There is a letter preserved of one Protestant missionary, Lizzie Atwater, who wrote her family on 3 August, 1900: “Dear ones, I long for a sight of your dear faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth. I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and He will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling, and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and oh the sweetness of the welcome above!
“My little baby will go with me. I think God will give him to me in Heaven, and my dear mother will be so glad to see us. I cannot imagine the Saviour’s welcome. Oh, that will compensate for all these days of suspense. Dear ones, live near God and cling less closely to earth. There is no other way by which we can receive that peace from God which passeth understanding...
“... I just keep calm these hours. I do not regret coming to China, but I am sorry that I have done so little. My married life, two precious years, has been so very full of happiness. We will die together, my dear husband and I. I send my love to you all, the dear friends who remember me.” Twelve days later the Atwaters went to receive the martyrs’ crown.
During the Boxer rebellion, 188 Protestant missionaries and an estimated 50 000 Chinese Christians were murdered.
Yet, China continued to be the primary destination for Protestant missionaries. At its height, before the Chinese civil war in 1925 – 1927, the number of missionaries in China topped 8000.
The Churches they established survived the most vicious persecution ever endured, under the communist reign of terror. Today, it is estimated that there are between 110 to 120 million Christians in Red China.
At the end of the greatest century of Christian advance, missionaries everywhere had to count the cost.
In the first 20 years of the Church Missionary Society’s work in Sierra Leone (1805 – 1825) 50 missionaries had died in that field.
In 1821, 35 000 Greek and Turkish Christians were massacred by the Muslims.
A vicious persecution against Christians in Madagascar erupted in 1835. For a quarter of a century Queen Ranavola tried to eradicate all Christians and burn all Bibles. Yet by the end the number of Christians had increased by over 400%.
In 1851, an estimated 70 000 Christians were murdered by Buddhists in Vietnam.
In 1866, 25 000 believers were murdered in Korea.
In Indo-China, 100 000 Christians were murdered in 1885.
On 22 May 1885, in Uganda, 32 Christian boys were publicly executed by King Mwanga after they refused to submit to his sodomite demands.
Yet by 1900, the world was officially 34% Christian, 51% evangelised and printed Scriptures were available in 537 languages (World Christian Encyclopaedia).
Cross-cultural missionary expansion does not take place without a severe cost.
The greatest century of missions had come at tremendous cost for both the missionaries and the new believers.
As Hudson Taylor had written: “If the Spirit of God works mightily, we may be sure that the spirit of evil will also be active.” But “God’s servant is God’s responsibility” and “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply.”
The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God will not keep you. “And they overcame him by the Blood of the Lamb, and by the Word of their testimony and they did not love their lives to the death.” Revelation 12:11
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
This article was adapted from a chapter of The Greatest Century of Missions book (224 pages with 200 photographs, pictures, charts and maps), available from: Christian Liberty Books, PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450 Cape Town South Africa Tel: 021-689-7478, Fax: 086-551-7490, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.christianlibertybooks.co.za.
The Greatest Century of Reformation
Victorious Christians – Who Changed the World
How the Greatest Century of Missions was Derailed into the Worst Century of Persecution