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Fast growing church in Japan . . . in the 1800s

Today, with the Christians in Japan making up less 1% of the population, consider this astonishing statement by one of Japan’s first Protestant missionaries, Dutchman Guido Verbeck:

It is my confident belief that if the missionary societies are faithful to their charge up to the end of this century you need not after 1890 send any more missionaries to Japan. You will need to support the men already there and the institutions for a while, but no new men will need to go. The finishing up of the work can be safely left to the foreign force which will by that time be there, working in conjunction with the ever increasing number of native pastors and evangelists. Some put 1890 as the date, some 1895, but no one puts it later than 1900. (Guido Verbeck, The Gospel In All Lands, 1889, p. 411)

If you consider that Christianity was only made legal 16 years earlier (1873), this is even more amazing. Of course it makes us ask—what was going on in the 1880s that lead missionaries to have such an optimistic view? 

The nineteenth century feudal Japan that Verbeck wrote from was a country filled with inequality, corruption, political intrigue, and economic mismanagement. When Japan opened its borders in 1853 after 250 years of self-isolation, the country discovered how technologically backward it was in comparison to European and North American nations. In such a climate as this, the average samurai (i.e. the literate ruling class) was not content with the political and social system, and many were open to seeking answers from abroad.

Verbeck came to Japan in 1859 as a teacher of English, politics, and science. He built a reputation for producing exemplary students, which made him highly sought after by the feudal Japanese lords. His students included future prime ministers of Japan. Later he served as the principal of a college which would become one of the founding schools for Tokyo University (today considered to be Japan’s most elite university). He was truly one of the cornerstones in the making of modern Japan and was later honoured with the Order Of The Rising Sun by the Japanese emperor for his services to the country.

For Japanese thought leaders of the time (almost entirely from the samurai class) to meet a man like Verbeck—winsome, highly educated, deeply spiritual, and moral—would have been a transforming experience. Such was the influence of missionaries like Verbeck, that, by the 1880s, the mood had shifted so Christianity was no longer understood merely as a foreign religious idea, but a call to a disciplined ethical and spiritual life which would be of value to society as a whole. Even non-Christian leaders saw the value of adopting Christianity for the betterment of Japan. 

Missionaries noted that it became easy to gather audiences of five hundred or more to hear teaching from the Bible. One wrote, “A little preparation with public notice would fill a hall or theatre with a congregation that for four or five hours would listen to one speaker after another. Christianity seemed to have the power of self-propagation. In every three years the membership of the church doubled” (D.S. Spencer, General Conference of Protestant Missionaries in Japan, 1900, p. 917).

But what happened? 

While the 1880s represented a period of remarkable growth in Christianity in Japan, it also saw the emergence of a national consciousness. In place of the old, divisive loyalties to feudal lords, for the first time the nation developed a unifying patriotism focused on the emperor. The ideals of this thinking are perhaps instilled in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education and the 1889 Meiji Constitution. These documents formed the nucleus of nationalism which led to a confrontation with the transcendent claims of Christianity. They were also representative of an authoritarian, expansionist nationalism that would largely characterise Japanese national policy until the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Pacific War.  

Perhaps Verbeck’s writing in 1889 may be considered a high point for public enthusiasm for Christianity in this era. For, contrary to Verbeck’s predictions, in the decades to follow there were significant declines in church numbers, apostasy from leaders, and growing pressure to strip Christianity of its more dogmatic, exclusive teaching on salvation. There were rays of hope as the church produced some courageous, faithful Christian leaders, and theologians who worked in an increasingly hostile environment, but Christianity would never again find itself with such high standing in the public consciousness.

By Andrew, an OMF missionary

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