In From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950 the historian Albert Wu tells the story of how German Protestant and Catholic missionaries to China underwent a radical reversal in their thinking about Confucianism. “Why”, ask Wu, “did German Catholic and Protestant missionaries argue in 1900 that Christianity’s success depended on Confucianism’s demise, and how, by the 1930s, did they come to view the fates of Christianity and Confucianism as inseparable?” According to Wu, as a consequence of War World I, German missionaries began to move away from their dogmatic association of Christianisation with Europeanisation. Moreover, by the 1920s the threat of fascist and communist ideologies compelled these Christian missionaries to adapt to local concerns and cultures in the hope of finding allies in China. In the process Christianity became more Chinese.
Slowly the ecclesiastic structures of these missionary efforts to China were indigenized allowing for an allying with Confucian ideas and practices that were previously held in contempt. By the time these missionaries left China in the 1950s, they had become Confucianism/s ardent defenders. “Through their encounter with China,” says Wu, “missionaries began to reconsider Christianity’s relationship to other religions, and ultimately began to re-examine central tenets of Christianity, such as the exclusivity of Christian salvation. German missionaries, the book argues, were agents of both globalization and secularization.”
The book, therefore, puts forward an alterative understanding of why the Protestant and Catholic churches experienced high levels of secularization in the 1960s. It was not Vatican II or the loosening of traditional norms that led to decreasing numbers in the pews. Rather European missionaries positive views of rival religions and cultures “sowed the seeds for Christians in the 1960s to reject Christianity’s exclusive salvationist claims.” One can assume here that Wu’s argument also applies to mainline liberal Protestant missionaries who equally sowed the seeds of secularization in the United States. Wu’s alternative secularization thesis is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. Moreover, scholars will glean much from the copious archive research he has carried out in both Germany and China.
For this Syndicate Theology forum we have invited five excellent scholars to comment on Wu’s fascinating book. Brian Stanley, Professor of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, praises Wu’s valuable the erudition of Wu’s attempt to chart the evolution of the missionary’s thinking about Confucianism. He wonders though if Wu has provided compelling evidence that their change of outlook had anything at all to do with the secularization of the German churches in the 1960s.
Justin Youngchan Choi, who studies the influence of Protestant political thought in Korea at the University of London, raises the question of how Wu’s argument might apply to Protestant missionary efforts in Korea which were far more successful there than in China. As he intriguingly puts it: “Given the nearly identical set of cultural, intellectual, and institutional challenges faced by the Christian missionaries – not to mention tremendous overlap in the personnel circulation between the two countries – the arguments of Wu appear to invite us to explain the diverging growth trend of Korean Christianity dating back to 1910, particularly given that conservative Presbyterians rose vertically while more liberal Methodists stagnated?”
Jonathan Bonk, who is research Professor of Missions at Boston University, praises From Christ to Confucius for being one of the clearest, most succinct overviews of the 19th century missionary impulse that he has ever come across. His comment refreshingly draws from his own personal experiences with Chinese missionaries and students in the attempt to illustrate the finer points of Wu’s argument.
Steven Pieragastini, who teaches history at Boston College, agrees with Wu’s thesis on the indigenization of Christianity while defending Wu’s attempt to oppose a longstanding tradition that reduces European missions to a mere extension of empire. He does wonder if the missionaries new found respect for Confucianism was simply a larger trend of a growing appreciation for Sinology in Europe.
Finally, the historian John Chen of Columbia University, lauds Wu’s research findings. In doing so he wonders if China’s constrained “political atmosphere played as large a role in Chinese Christians’ calls to make the church more Chinese as did their relations with the German missionaries.” Most interestingly, he raises a series of questions involving the role of Islam in China in order to bear light on Wu’s thinking on Christian missionaries there.
Wu responds to each of his critics in depth. And in all it is an enriching forum that is sure to profit Syndicate Theology’s readership.