History and Context: Shaping Mission and Church

This paper paints a backdrop that highlights the influence various evangelical groups in nineteenth century England had upon the young Hudson Taylor. It looks at how his Methodist heritage, revivalism, and his association with significant members of the growing Open Brethren movement shaped his thinking and practice as he founded the China Inland Mission and have impacted many of the organization’s ecclesiastical practices to this day.

Rose Dowsett joined OMF in 1969, serving in the Philippines until 1977. Since then she has taught missiology and global church history in Glasgow, and exercised leadership and advisory roles in the WEA Missions Commission, Lausanne, Interserve, UCCF, and other mission agencies. Retired since 2008, she continues to research and write books and articles for OMF.

History and Context: Shaping Mission and Church

Mission Round TableVol. 13 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 10-14

Some broad brushstrokes

The late eighteenth century and the whole of the nineteenth century were marked by tumultuous changes in Europe and in North America. At the time, these were still the heartlands of Protestant Christianity, and the countries within which the so-called modern missionary movement was birthed. As evangelicals, we like to think we are shaped by the Lord and the Bible above all else; but sometimes, more than we easily recognize, both as individuals and as institutions, we are also shaped by where we are in history, our culture, and social and political factors.

This brief paper sketches some of the ways in which Hudson Taylor and the members of the China Inland Mission (CIM) in its early years were shaped by culture—religious and general—of the mid-nineteenth century. In particular, how did this influence the kind of churches that the CIM established? The paper also highlights some of the inevitable tensions between church and interdenominational mission structures.

The shaping of Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor grew up in a devout Methodist home, surrounded by prayer, reading of the Bible within the family, and with parents already fascinated by China—a fascination fed by books and pamphlets that were mass produced and widely available. A small town shopkeeper and pharmacist, Hudson Taylor’s father was typical of those with roots in a centuries-old agricultural way of life; but the industrial revolution drew huge numbers to the towns and cities of Britain, and to a radically different way of living, a changing social order, and wider horizons. The Napoleonic Wars were recent—emotionally still present—history, and on the European continent Italy, Germany, France, and Scandinavia were all in structural flux. The steam engine, the railways, new factories and goods, and much more, provided a cultural and intellectual climate of constant change. The old and the new, the stable and the unpredictable, rubbed shoulders. Invention, new ventures, new possibilities, innovation, and experiment were in the air Taylor breathed.

While Hudson Taylor was still in his teens, the Methodist church to which the family belonged, split. Since the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had divided over and over again. Without the centralized iron grip of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants found themselves in the maelstrom of different understandings of Scripture and all the consequences of fiercely held differing convictions. Taylor came face to face with the reality of denominational pluralism. Undoubtedly though, from Methodism he imbibed some life-long convictions: nominal faith is not enough; conversion is essential; churches can be birthed through itinerant preaching; women have active roles to play in the church; small discipling groups are key; lay people have been entrusted with ministry by God; and more besides.

The wider evangelical scene

Alongside the depressing pattern of splits and divisions, gospel men and women were also discovering that believers from across denominations could work together in many ways. The many revivals of recent decades were not contained within denominational boundaries. Sometimes they gave rise to new denominations, especially when the older churches were hostile to the “enthusiasm” of the revivals. Methodism was not the only consequence of revival.

In 1843, the Church of Scotland had suffered a difficult split, with a mass exodus to form the Free Church of Scotland. Some of those who left were, nonetheless, deeply troubled by the disunity in the church when the Lord had prayed so clearly “that they might be one” (John 17:21). Others in England were similarly exercised and this led in 1846 to the formation of the Evangelical Alliance. Initially, it was hoped that this might be an international movement, linked by shared commitment to a common statement of faith and practice but, sadly, the American delegation could not accept a clause against slave-holding. In Britain, it was still too close to the long battle, spearheaded by William Wilberforce, to abolish slavery, but in America there were evangelicals who still had slave labor as well as those who opposed it; it was too divisive an issue for them to sign up to.

All the same, the forming of the Alliance provided (in several nations) an increasingly active mechanism for Bible Christians to work together, whether they were Episcopalian, Baptist, Congregational, Quaker, Presbyterian, or Open Brethren (or, on the European Continent, Lutheran and Mennonite too). It was a new era. It signaled on a nation-wide canvas that inter-denominationalism could work, provided there was a shared commitment to the heart of the gospel and specific goals in focus. It also showed that there were some areas where evangelicals could not work together. It was also in and of itself not claiming to be yet another new denomination. It was possible to establish unity without uniformity.

There had always been some structures outside the normal church organization(s), for instance, the pre-Reformation monastic orders which were independent of the bishops and parish priests. Now numerous voluntary societies sprang to life, in some ways modeled on the old trade guilds, or the more recent trading companies, enabling those with shared purpose to act together. A growing number of trans-denominational voluntary agencies emerged to enable believers of different churches to act together in some cause or other in which they jointly believed: Bible Societies, social amelioration societies, and a host of others. These were an outworking of the profound social conscience of evangelicals (and others too). Alongside a passionate commitment to evangelism was an assumption that authentic Christian discipleship must be holistic. Taylor was to carry this into the life of the CIM, so that medical care, helping opium addicts be delivered, care for orphans, or help in famine relief, and many other initiatives were part and parcel of his understanding of the fullness of gospel ministry. Lord Shaftesbury’s high profile work to bring about legislation to promote social justice, as well as the example of Wilberforce in fighting slavery, set a pattern for Taylor when he became a leader in the fight against Britain’s involvement in the ignominious opium trade, and enabled him to work with others of different agencies and different ecclesiastical persuasions to bring about a shared vision.

Revivals, with all their surges of intense spiritual vitality, and deep visitations of the Holy Spirit were key to it all. For Taylor and the early CIM, the revivals of the 1830s and then the widespread visitation by the Holy Spirit in 1859–60, were especially significant, impacting the spirituality of many of the first generation of both members and supporters. (Later, the Moody and Sankey campaigns in Britain were to inspire another generation of candidates, most famously the Cambridge Seven in 1885.) Thousands were brought to repentance and faith, and convicted of the need to commit to holiness of life, emphases which were to mark CIM’s message.

Moreover, revivals were not in any way controlled or directed by the normal ecclesiastical structures. Taylor could not help seeing the freedom and potential of these voluntary groups, and when in the early 1860s he could not get any of the main denominations to include China in their sphere for mission, he had a ready-made template for action. If the denominational bodies would not do it, a dedicated voluntary society must be formed—what has often (unfortunately) been called “para-church”. This had inevitable inbuilt tensions when the work of that voluntary society began to produce churches. How would they fit into the traditional beliefs about church discipline and order?

The link with the Open Brethren

As a young man, first in his hometown of Barnsley, then in Hull while doing some preliminary medical training, and then in London during his surgical training, Hudson Taylor had been much attracted to the Open Brethren. At the time, this was a comparatively new group of independent congregations, comprising often small gatherings of believers committed to very simple forms of worship, a strong emphasis on the Bible and prayer, and with all ministry in the hands of laymen. Answerable to no one but the Lord and his word, they could gather a handful of believers and operate as a church, though they mostly used the term “meeting”. The simplicity of Acts 2:42—“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”—was their guideline.

Taylor learned from them that no approval from an ecclesiastical superstructure was needed to start a church, that it was not necessary to have an ordained minister to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that (especially from the example of George Mueller in Bristol) God could supply all needs in response to believing prayer. They also introduced him to their deep interest in biblical prophecy and its interpretation for their own times. This was to lead many in the CIM to adopt pre-millennialism, in contrast with the post-millennialism that had been most common in Britain up to this time. As they interpreted current events as being signs of the Lord’s imminent return, Taylor and the new missionary community saw their role as taking the gospel throughout the vast land of China as widely and speedily as God made possible.

The Brethren were especially supportive of Hudson Taylor in the painful period between his return from China in late 1860 and the formation of the China Inland Mission in 1865. Further, in the early years of the Mission, Brethren were crucial in providing financial and other practical support, as well as a disproportionate number of those eager to serve with the CIM. CIM ethos fit well with Brethren convictions and practice.

Beyond the evangelical community

While revivals, in particular, mostly brought those affected into evangelical faith, this was not the only current in British church life. The Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement, first under John Keble and then led by Edward Pusey, attempted to move the Church of England back into many Roman Catholic practices and beliefs. This appealed to many who sought more ritual and greater beauty in church life; sadly, much Protestantism was aesthetically barren, with boring, lengthy sermons. If the “enthusiasm” of the evangelicals was distasteful to you, beautiful music, oratory, color, and restraint could be very attractive. It could, of course, lead to the outright conversion to Roman Catholicism, as in the case of John Henry Newman in 1845.

As the century wore on, this Anglo-Catholic partial re-alignment of the state church unsettled some evangelicals. It also increased the distance for groups such as the CIM from some of the mainstream of British church life. High Church practice elevated the role of the ordained priest, undermined lay leadership in the life of the church (though not in society), and taught that the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper not only could only be celebrated by the priest for legitimacy, but also that those sacraments rather than conversion were the means of salvation.

All of this was the polar opposite of Hudson Taylor’s convictions. It helped define the boundaries for those who were welcome to join the CIM, both explicitly and implicitly.

In the same period, the churches were being increasingly rocked by the emergence of evolutionary ideas. The most famous, of course, lay in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species published in 1859, but there had been several books published before that with similar themes. For evangelicals, this seemed to be incompatible with the historic, traditional, and entirely literal understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis. It was easy to write off everything about evolutionism without addressing the unsettling task of reviewing hermeneutical traditions. No, many evangelicals said, the Bible should be taken completely literally. The gospel is simple, and nothing should be allowed to complicate it. We don’t need priests or scholars to explain it; it is accessible to all who read or hear it directly.

This belief would have been shared by all in the early CIM, the more so precisely because few had any formal theological training since Hudson Taylor was recruiting lay people, often those from humble backgrounds and with little formal schooling of any kind. It lay behind the teaching given in China, and affected the emerging churches. As in Britain, so in China, the failure to grapple seriously with the relationship between biblical faith and revelation on the one hand, and science on the other, would lead in time to the rise of liberalism in the churches. It also, for a while, made it harder to persuade more educated people to take the gospel seriously, and the church suffered.

World mission on the radar

William Carey’s extended pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, was first published in 1792, and was widely read. David Livingstone’s remarkable travels across Africa, recorded in the 1857 book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, made him a celebrity far beyond the churches. A growing number of journals of explorers and travellers were constantly being printed. It was impossible to ignore the world and its needs, and the opportunity—and the obligation—to take the gospel to those who had had no opportunity to hear about Jesus.

At the same time, the developments that were to lead to the establishment of the British Empire made many British Christians see it as their special responsibility to take not just the Christian message but also a culture and “civilization” shaped by many centuries of Christian tradition to what were assumed to be primitive or benighted cultures (and sometimes they were indeed primitive, sometimes they were not). The Indian Mutiny of 1857–58 seemed to justify this attitude, as the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China did later. With hindsight, we can see that there were many flaws in British and Western activity, and the assumptions behind it, that led to deep and legitimate grievance, but at the time these events fed the myths, while also encouraging ambivalence in the churches back home towards mission work.

By the time Hudson Taylor was praying about starting the CIM, several British denominations already had their own missionary societies, though mostly these had few serving missionaries, and were mostly focused on Africa, the West Indies, and the Middle East. The largest of these societies was the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the society of the Church of England. From 1841, the policy of CMS was largely shaped by Henry Venn, an evangelical, ordained man. He did not question that the churches planted by CMS should be Anglican, which included establishing an episcopate, but he did believe that African churches must be led by Africans at the earliest possible moment.

  John Nevius (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Venn was a deep thinker, and his ideas became well known far beyond Anglican circles, and were certainly influential on Hudson Taylor as he thought about the church he longed to see established in China. Venn, along with the American Rufus Anderson, energetically propagated the conviction that mission structures should be temporary, and that native churches needed to become fully indigenous, self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating as soon as possible. In the Anglican world, this must include appointing African bishops from early days. It would be Africans who won Africans.

Taylor was also influenced by his earlier work in China, and his learning from both John Nevius (who suggested similar principles to Venn’s) and from Charles Gutzlaff (who was passionate about indigenization).

There was more discussion going on about the why and how of world mission than we sometimes recognize. Particularly in the years Taylor was back in London recuperating, leading up to 1865, it is clear that he was well aware of what was going on through other agencies, and also of the different pressures on British evangelicals. He was constantly meeting Christian leaders, travelled constantly up and down the British Isles, read widely, and corresponded voluminously.

How did all this work out for the CIM?

Taylor recognized that since the Chinese had no background knowledge of the Bible, it would be necessary to spend some time in a given place to instruct those who might come to faith before they would be able to lead others or take responsibility for a church. However, he modified this plan when, by 1865, there were some 2,000 professing converts, mostly clustered around the Treaty Ports, where evangelism had been taking place for some time.

So, the plan was for two missionaries to team up with two native converts, who would then itinerate through a province, preaching, leaving gospel tracts, and looking out for those who might seem receptive of the message. This had been the pattern of the early Methodists, including that of John Wesley himself. They must work strategically, going to the capital city of the province, then from there out to the whole province, working to gather together any converts for more extended teaching. In this way, both itinerant and settled work was needed, but settled work should not precede the itinerant work. It would be the itinerant work that familiarized communities with the preachers, and lead, it was hoped, to acceptance for settled work, which could be based where the response was. And all work must be bathed in prayer, in dependence on the Lord, and in looking to the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds and bring about new birth.

In 1873, Taylor could write:

the work is steadily growing, especially in that most important department, native help. The helpers themselves need much help, much care and instruction; but they are becoming more efficient as well as more numerous, and the future hope for China lies, doubtless, in them. I look on foreign missionaries as the scaffolding round a rising building, the sooner it can be dispensed with the better—or rather, the sooner it can be transferred to other places to serve the same temporary purpose.[1]

What about the issue of being interdenominational? Hudson Taylor recognized that members came from different church backgrounds and would often have distinct convictions about church order. So he worked to put like-minded members together wherever possible, leaving them the freedom to organize emerging churches as they wished. If another person went to that place, he might not change the church order already set up, but when the church appointed its own Chinese pastor or group of elders and the missionary stepped back, the church would then be free to choose if it wanted to stay as it was or adopt another form of order.

In practice, most churches became Baptist in relation to baptism, but could be closer to Brethren or Congregational or some other pattern in general church order. Converts were encouraged to read or learn Scripture, to pray, and to find specific roles of service. Taylor did not wish CIM to form its own denomination, but in the event many congregations self-defined as CIM churches. Others joined together to form their own Chinese denominations, or, as other missions moved inland as well, it was policy not to hinder any convert who wished to join one of those churches. When later the Mission drew a number of Anglicans, some of them ordained, Szechuan became an Anglican field, and would later provide a General Director in the person of Bishop Frank Houghton. The same pattern came to be adopted for non-English speakers, especially when associate missions (such as the Scandinavian societies) linked up with the CIM. In other words, there was a level of practicality in reducing potential friction, and always to ensure that the primary task of sharing the gospel widely might not be hindered.


   Bishop Frank Houghton

Did the churches become self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating? Some found that easier to achieve than others, just as some missionaries proved to be more paternalistic than others and perhaps too unwilling to hand over leadership to the Chinese. The CIM leadership had one advantage: if they believed that a member was hanging on too long in charge, they could insist that he go to another place instead. In practice, many, especially in the early years, were more than committed to constant pushing of geographical frontiers and pioneering beyond where the established congregations were in place.

And today?

It is interesting that today throughout East Asia there are flourishing Chinese Brethren and Methodist churches, and many small gatherings which reflect Brethren roots. The simplicity of the Brethren order has been especially helpful in times and places of opposition, whether or not believers self-define as Brethren. In most of Asia, in the context of other faiths and ideologies, the emphases inherited from both Methodist and Brethren strands of the church have encouraged personal conversion, lay ministry, the value of small groups for discipling, the importance of not being dependent on external funds, and the need for faithfulness and trust in God whatever the circumstances. That’s a precious heritage.

Perhaps we should acknowledge more readily the sovereignty of God in shaping Hudson Taylor and the CIM through so many elements of their context and generation, and the way that this laid foundations for patterns of the gospel in much of China and beyond. And maybe we need to ponder how the shaping of our own contemporary world is impacting the cause of the gospel and the life of the churches today. But that’s a topic for another paper!

[1] Howard Taylor and Geraldine Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: Growth of a Work of God (London: China Inland Mission, 1913), 232. (Italics original.)

Suggested further reading:

David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Leicester: IVP, 2005).

A. J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, Vols. 1–7 (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1981–9).

Bertil Ekstrom, ed., The Church in Mission (Pasadena: William Carey, 2016).

Klaus Fiedler, The Story of Faith Missions (Oxford: Regnum, 1994).

Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (New York: Orbis, 1996).

Tim Grass, Gathering in His Name: The Story of Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006).

Christopher Wigram, The Bible and Mission in Faith Perspective (Netherlands: Boekencentrum, 2007)

C. Peter Williams, The Ideal of the Self-governing Church: A Study in Victorian Missionary Strategy (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990).

John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney (Leicester: IVP, 2006).

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