This excerpt from Leslie Lyall’s inspiring account of the Bethel Bands—a significant indigenous evangelistic movement in China in the first half of the twentieth century—recounts the evangelistic work in Manchuria in 1931 by Andrew Gih, John Sung, Frank Ling, Lincoln Nieh and Philip Lee when the political tension was at breaking point.
Son of an itinerant evangelist, Leslie Lyall joined the China Inland Mission in response to D. E. Hoste’s call in 1929 for 200 new workers. He arrived in a China that was riven by civil war and worked in the increasingly unstable environment for more than twenty years, most notably training students who later became pastors and elders. Lyall left a lasting contribution to the history of CIM/OMF and the Chinese church through writing ten books, including Come Wind, Come Weather (1960), Urgent Harvest (1963), and A Passion for the Impossible (1965).
Leslie T. Lyall
With Bethel in Manchuria, 1931
Abridged from a chapter in Leslie Lyall’s biography of John Sung
Mission Round Table Vol. 11 no. 3 (Sep-Dec 2016): 36-38
In the autumn of 1931, the political tension was almost at breaking point. Japan’s designs were already clear and Manchuria was under the threat of aggression. Andrew Gih, the leader of the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band, had intended to visit Manchuria and Mongolia in the spring but open doors in other provinces had kept the Band fully busy right up to the time of the Conference. It now seemed even more urgent for the Band to go to the “Three North-eastern Provinces”, the name by which all Chinese know Manchuria.
The other original members of the Band were Frank Ling from Foochow, Lincoln Nieh and Philip Lee. The two latter were in their late teens and all three were musical, especially Philip who had a trained tenor voice and could play almost any wind or stringed instrument. After the Summer Conference, Andrew Gih invited John Sung to join them formally, even though he well knew that he himself, the leader of the Band, would henceforth be less prominent than the now famed Dr. Sung.
As a result of the Summer Conference, the Bethel Bands had agreed to emphasize in all their campaigns four important features of a healthy church life: the Watch-tower or prayer meeting; Evangelistic Bands, composed of new converts and others; Bible classes for effective follow-up work; and the institution of family worship in the home. The influence of Dr. Sung’s experience in Fukien and Central China is plain. A “Watch-Tower” was set up in the room at Bethel where every day from early morning until late at night someone was always at prayer for the work of the Evangelistic Bands.
The triennial conference of one of the Lutheran missions was in progress [at Fengfangchen in Dairen], with 200 delegates from all over Manchuria present. The invitation to the Band to speak was somewhat reluctant. Lincoln Nieh led the singing and introduced the people to some of the Bethel choruses, while Philip Lee sang. Then John Sung gave his testimony, speaking with great power. When an appeal was made, twenty-five Chinese and two missionaries went to the front. There they poured out their hearts in prayer before God, confessing their sins with many tears. But some of the missionaries objected to the “excitement” and the loud praying. The next day, they sent a Chinese deputation to say that no further invitations to preach would be given to the Band unless they lowered their voices, used no gestures and prayed quietly. How could men whose hearts were aflame accept such limiting restrictions? When it was announced that business meetings would take the place of all other planned meetings on the Monday, the Band packed up their belongings and, thanking God that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name, left on the night train.
From Fengfangchen, the Band went to Mukden, arriving a week ahead of schedule. As things turned out, their visit proved to be just on the eve of the “Mukden incident”, when the Japanese Imperial Army seized the city as a prelude to occupying the whole of Manchuria. This was the event which enraged China, shocked the world and eventually led to war with China after the League of Nations had failed to act to stop aggression. At this crisis in the city’s history and in contrast to what had happened at Fengfangchen, the Band was to be God’s instrument in bringing about the greatest revival the Church in Mukden had ever experienced. And this is not overlooking the revivals that had attended the ministry of Jonathan Goforth in Manchuria. At first, attendance at the meetings was small, but ten responded to the appeal the first evening. The next morning at 5:30 a.m. the church was full. Twenty-seven meetings were held in all and over 1,000 people confessed their sins and made profession of faith in Christ. There was increasing joy as the days went on at the great things God was doing for that city. Dr. Sung wrote to Dr. Mary Stone, Jr., and Miss Hughes:
The first trial is to change stones into bread. We thought that the Conference to which we have been invited to speak would give us an open door to Manchuria because in that Conference all the preachers and workers of that Mission throughout Manchuria can be reached… But this is not the way of our Lord. He did not allow us to change the stones into bread. The missionaries had fixed ideas and those preachers with traditional opinions are in the eyes of the Lord merely stones. The Lord can change them into bread, but they would not let Him do it. We are glad we were driven out of that place because this experience has helped the young evangelists to be humble, not to be too ambitious and try to turn the world upside down in one minute’s time . . . . Of course, after leaving there we prayed more for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Thank God, the name of the next place we came to means “Listen to the Will of Heaven”! Several great evangelists have been there. They helped create a spiritual appetite. On our part our previous experience taught us to trust more in prayer and living upon the Word of the Lord, for one day we prayed together eight or ten times, something we had never done before. Here we found the key for revival. After the shame of the Cross there was the glory of the Resurrection and for this reason we have had about 1,000 sound conversions and 279 beautiful testimonies.
The campaign over, the train carrying the Band to their destination in Heilungkiang province pulled out of Mukden on the morning of September 18th. It was the last train to leave the capital before the Japanese took over control of the city! Chaos and confusion reigned there, but in the hearts of hundreds of new believers there was nothing but the peace and joy of sin forgiven.
Everywhere the fear of widespread hostilities caused the Christians to advise the Band to go back home, but as doors opened in city after city they felt that God was leading them on. “This may be our last opportunity—and Manchuria’s!” It was—before Manchuria became a puppet Japanese State. Right up to Hailar, the last big city on the railway before it crosses the Russian frontier at Manchuli to join the Trans-Siberian line, the Band went. Fear of bombing was keeping people from travelling and the trains were almost empty. Officials were suspicious of the five young men so near the frontier and interrogations gave opportunities for many a personal testimony. At Hailar, the church was in a sad condition under an unconverted pastor and two worldly “elders”, one of whom was engaged in smuggling. At the first meeting thirty people professed faith in Christ, and there might have been many more had the Band not been forced to leave the city by news of heavy bombing of the railways and the possibility of being cut off. Harbin was therefore reached two weeks ahead of schedule.
The Bethel Band in Harbin, 1931. Back (from the left): John Sung, Philip Lee, Frank Ling. Front: Lincoln Nieh, Andrew Gih.
Prior to the arrival of the Band in Harbin, the Chinese National Council and the Synod of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mukden had raised a sum of money for a special retreat for all the Harbin Chinese churches which were in danger of isolating themselves from fellowship with the other churches of Harbin and China. They were sadly divided among themselves and torn by bitter rivalry. Three of them had driven out the missionaries in an endeavour to prove that the Church was not the “running dog of the foreigner”. The difficulties were so great that the proposed retreat seemed doomed to failure. Pastors of the larger churches where the meetings would have to be held refused to agree to the speakers suggested, and the missionaries who were behind the plan were almost in despair.
Dr. and Mrs. Deming were stationed in Harbin at the time. Just as Mrs. Deming was at her wits’ end, the pastor of the Chinese Methodist Church led in the five young men, who had arrived so unexpectedly following the curtailed Hailar campaign. Dr. Deming was away, but Mrs. Deming soon recognised in Dr. Sung the same young man whom she and her husband had befriended in New York at Union Theological Seminary and of whom they had read such glowing reports in the Bible Union for China magazine.
Would the local Christians receive these young men after rejecting other “big speakers”? They did, and all the churches except one decided to unite for meetings to be held in the large Union Church. It was Saturday when the Band arrived. The same evening, the first hastily arranged meeting was held. A Japanese plane had been circling over the city during the day and during the meeting there were two loud explosions. But no one took any notice. The cheerful singing and the happy team work of the Band held the attention of everyone. Dr. Sung preached, and at once gripped his audience with his graphic style and burning zeal. As he finished, wet with perspiration in spite of the winter temperature outside, Andrew Gih gave the appeal and conducted the after-meeting. Meetings were arranged from seven to nine every morning and from five to seven every evening, Pastor Gih preaching in the mornings and Dr. Sung in the evenings. During the hours between, the individual members of the Band were free to visit the many churches of the city—Chinese, Korean, Russian, and even German. Only one of the churches frowned on their indecorous evangelism and refused their cooperation. The campaign brought to Harbin the first real revival the Chinese churches of the city had ever experienced. Among those who found Christ personally for the first time were several leading laymen and lay preachers and a Y.M.C.A. secretary who had been creating serious trouble among the churches. Missionaries, pastors, and church workers, some of whom had not spoken to one another for months, met at the communion rail and asked forgiveness of one another. There was a great putting right of wrongs, an unreserved consecration of many young lives, hundreds of conversions and hundreds more seeking the infilling of the Holy Spirit. The people crowded to the front of the church after every appeal to pray and to receive personal help. The last meetings in the great church were packed and the people would hardly let the young evangelists go.
The main meetings over, Dr. and Mrs. Deming urged the Band to stay on for a few days, partly for a rest and partly to lead meetings in the newly erected Korean Methodist Church at which Dr. Deming interpreted from English into Korean. Twenty Koreans decided for Christ . . . . Mrs. Deming was delighted to attend to the personal needs of the Band: laundry sewing, mending and the like. A young out-of-work tailor was employed to help the men and he was surprised and deeply impressed to observe that the Band rose at 4:30 every morning for prayer and Bible study.
Describing the Mukden campaign, Dr. Sung continued in his letter to the Bethel headquarters:
Then we came to Harbin. God just prepared workers and preachers for us to work with. He wanted us to learn how to work step by step and build the revival upon the rock …We helped them realize the wonder and stability of the Bible. When this battle was won invitations came not only from the Chinese but also from the Russian, Korean and German. Churches… Now we are beginning to meet our third temptation, “Kneel down and you can have everything.” We could stay in Harbin and work with the Russian and German churches, thus opening the way for world-wide evangelism, but God wanted us to go forward and we have come to a small, cold place called Hulan. There is a hard battle ahead of us. Pray that we may be humble enough to meet this third and hardest trial.
Yours in soul-saving service, John Sung
After Harbin the Band divided into two: Dr. Sung, Frank Ling and Philip Lee went to Hulan and Suihwa, while Andrew Gih and Lincoln Nieh went to Asahur. At Hulan, the Principal of a large school run by the Y.M.C.A. and four of his teachers were converted together with most of the boys. Dr. Sung also preached on the Five Loaves and Two Fishes in a Russian church. As the Russian pastor interpreted, many were in tears and, at the invitation, fifty Russian Christians dedicated their lives for the evangelization of the Russians of Manchuria.
The two sections of the Band met again in Harbin for a few devotional meetings. Time was getting short, and it was evident that they would have to divide forces again if they were to respond to the invitations which were reaching them. But there seems to have been some disagreement about their plans and to settle the matter they drew lots. As a result, Andrew Gih went to Chaoyangchen while John Sung remained in Harbin for a day or two and then was to go to Changchun and Kirin. It is clear that the Enemy of souls was doing his best to hinder the work of the Holy Spirit by introducing differences of opinion among the five members of the Band. But they were aware of these attacks and no serious dissension was permitted to arise.
Dr. Sung gave his last message to the church leaders in Harbin on the Book of Acts, teaching them the truths about the Holy Spirit. When the time came to leave by the night train, the Christians escorted them to the station to see them off. Right to the last moment Dr. Sung, leaning out of the carriage window, was giving texts with their references to all who asked for them, while Philip Lee, lying in the upper berth of the sleeper, shone an electric torch on the open Bible. The chorus singing was so lusty that the station guards came rushing up to see what was going on!
At Changchun, where Andrew Gih had already held meetings, Dr. Sung was invited to speak in the leading Chinese church, although the pastor said, “I do not believe in appeals and do not want anything emotional! But as the Holy Spirit worked during the meetings the whole congregation rushed to the front to confess sin. Among them was their pastor who confessed especially the sin of dictating to the Holy Spirit.
At Kirin, Japanese troops were already in occupation. The Korean Christians had all been scattered or arrested and the churches were full of apprehension. But one of the pastors, himself a well-known preacher, gave Dr. Sung a welcome. His was a flourishing church which had already been behind Dr. Sung in in prayer and sympathy. From this pastor, Dr. Sung learned the Chinese phrase for “laying hold” of God and His promises and he began to expect God to “lay hold” of sinners. He prayed with new faith in the promises of God. And there was manifestly a working of the Spirit of God in this city too. One pastor of another church had forbidden his congregation to attend Dr. Sung’s meetings. But on the last night he came. God “laid hold” of him and he publicly confessed that for six years he had neither read his Bible nor had a morning “quiet time”. There was a Christian doctor in the city, too, but he was too proud to kneel when he prayed. One day, while operating in the theatre, his arm refused to respond to his brain. He fell immediately on his knees and cried to God to restore his arm and save the life of the patient. God heard his prayer.
“First the Cross, then the glory!” seemed to summarize the campaign in the “Three North-eastern Provinces”, which were henceforth to be known as Manchukuo so long as the Japanese remained in control. Over 3,000 people altogether had professed conversion in those few autumn months of 1931 and at a time when the whole area was in a state of warfare and turmoil. The Manchurian churches had begun to think in terms of an annual Bethel Conference in Manchuria, seeing that it was so difficult for Manchurian Christians to travel to Shanghai.