The History of Christianity in Asia

Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International), may have entered China’s provinces in 1865, but the gospel got there 1500 years earlier. The missionary finds it hard to meet the eyes of the new convert. He’s been asked the question he dreaded. But if the missionary works in East Asia, he doesn’t need to feel ashamed on behalf of Christians in previous eras. He can reply with confidence, “The gospel has repeatedly come to East Asia, but it hasn’t always been received.”


Although a Syriac Breviary mentions a visit of St. Thomas to China, the first reliable witness to the Christian message having reached the “land of the silk people” is the Roman Christian historian Arnobius, writing in 303 AD. A monastery dating from the seventh century has recently been identified near Xi’an.

By the eighth century the Christian church was playing a role in the life of the Tang empire. The great Nestorian monument in Xi’an still bears witness to the faith of these early Syrian missionaries, chronicling the names of bishops across the empire. Legend also tells of a Christian physician from Syria reaching Japan during this period.

Tibetan invasion and a Buddhist revival under the Ming emperors seem to have marked the end of these churches, but by the time that the Mongols controlled China in the 13th to 15th centuries, Christians were again prominent. Minor kings, mothers and wives of emperors were Christians but, unlike in the West, no emperor ever became a believer.

Mongolia and Turkic peoples

Tribes like the Keraits and the Uyghurs were known as Christian. Kublai Khan asked Rome for 100 missionaries, but they were never sent. Journeys in the opposite direction saw Mark, a Kerait or Uyghur, become Patriarch of the whole Church of the East as Yaballahe III in 1281. His companion, Sauma, journeyed on to Rome and London, where he administered Holy Communion to King Edward I.

Indonesia, Burma and Thailand

Fascinating stories are told of Christian churches in different parts of East Asia. An Egyptian called Abu Salih reported Christians in North Sumatra in the 12th century. In 1503, a Frenchman traveling in Asia met two archbishops from Babylon on their way to churches in Java. He heard also of churches in Burma and Thailand.

Nothing further is known of these Asian churches after Western colonial powers arrived. However, we must ask how much these lost churches may have contributed to the 19th century conversion of tribal Christians, like the Karen who were waiting for messengers to return with the heavenly book they had lost.

Xavier and Ricci

The 16th-century ministries of Francis Xavier in Japan and Matteo Ricci in China are well known. Large numbers of people were Christianized. We do not know how much of the gospel they really understood, but it is certainly true that many were ready to be killed for their loyalty to Christ.

The spread of Roman Catholicism

The Japanese and Vietnamese Catholics whose martyred bones are to be seen in St. Paul’s Church, Macau are anonymous, but their devotion to Christ under severe testing should be remembered. Wherever Portuguese and Spanish conquerors went, priests went with them. Under the Spanish the Philippines became a Catholic nation.

Protestant missionaries

Politics and geography alike formed barriers for the first Protestant missionaries, which were gradually overcome. In the 17th century, ministers were sent to the East Indies. Their role was primarily to minister to the Dutch people, but some had a true missionary spirit.

A missionary training school was established in Holland, and Dutch missionaries were responsible for translating the Scriptures into Indonesian, which thus became the first non-European language since the Reformation to possess Scriptures. By 1800 Indonesia had the largest churches in East Asia, with up to 200,000 Protestant Christians.

In 1793 William Carey went to India where he was soon joined by Marshman and Ward. The Serampore Trio, as they became known, had an extensive influence on missionary work in East Asia, especially through the translation of Scripture. Adoniram Judson spent time with them before he began his pioneering work in Burma.

Those who looked further east were focused upon China rather than the other countries of East Asia; but until China opened in 1842, pioneers like Robert Morrison gave attention to the Chinese and others in Malaya and Singapore. There were converts among Chinese and Indians and even a few Malays.

The “British Interlude” (1811-1816) in the Dutch East Indies under Stamford Raffles, allowed the beginnings of missionary work in Java. William Robinson, sent by the Baptists from Serampore, had the honor of being the first missionary to the Javanese. He and his successors, from other denominations, brought about a remarkable growth of churches in East Java.

The China Inland Mission

In 1865 James Hudson Taylor caught the vision of entering the inland provinces of China, and established the China Inland Mission, now OMF International. Into each province and city went the Christian message, and churches were set up. The CIM became the largest mission working in China.

Other missions, Protestant and Catholic, were also active in seeking to evangelize the largest nation of Asia. The Chinese were also evangelized in other East Asian lands to which they had emigrated. Often they were more responsive to the gospel abroad than in their homeland. The large Brethren and Methodist churches of Malaysia and Singapore are a testimony to this work.

The Church and colonialism

Christian work during this period usually reflected the state of the church in the colonial power. In Dutch and English territory Protestant work flourished, but in French territory it was generally Catholicism that made advances. In Indo-China large Catholic churches were established which, in Vietnam in particular, have survived communism and war.

In Thailand, where no foreign power has ever held sway, both French Catholicism and Protestant missions from England, America and Holland were to be found. Despite good relations with some of Thailand’s kings, the gospel advanced chiefly among the Chinese and Lao people.


Roman Catholics in Japan went underground after the persecutions of the 17th century. When the country reopened 200 years later, a whole community who had kept the faith down the centuries was discovered around Nagasaki. Russian Orthodox Christianity entered Japan in 1861 when Nicolai became chaplain to the consulate in Hakodate. By the end of the century, about 24,000 Japanese were Orthodox Christians.

The main Protestant work from the opening of the country in 1858 was undertaken by Americans. These were the years of Japanese enchantment with all things Western, and for a while, the church grew rapidly.


Korean Christianity grew out of persecution, especially during the period of Japanese expansion. American Presbyterians were in the forefront of Protestant work. Nevius in 1890 was a major influence in establishing a church that was self-supporting rather than dependent on foreigners.

The late twentieth century

Since World War II there has been a continual expansion of missionary activity throughout Asia. Many caught a vision of gospel work while serving in the forces, and returned to Asia after the war as missionaries.

The rise of nationalism during the 20th century has had two effects on the gospel. One is the independence and dignity of national Asian churches. In countries like China, Korea and Singapore, indigenous churches are probably stronger than at any time in history. But another effect of nationalism has been the resurgence of older Asian religions and a seeking for ideologies and beliefs that owe nothing to the West.

The gospel has been proclaimed in Asia for at least 17 centuries. It could be that in the 21st century we’ll see an indigenous and culturally-Asian Christianity at last beginning to transform the whole of Asia, as many become citizens of heaven.

Ray Porter © OMF International (UK)

Learn more:

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity

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