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Science and Evangelism in the Protestant Missionary Effort in China, 1890-1925

Tyson Tobias Jue

The use of science to spread Christianity in China during the 19th century was a sound and rational strategy. Protestant missionaries hoped that a successful mission educational system would effectively supplant Confucianism as the national ideology, thereby allowing Christian dogma to guide the decisions of the future leaders of China. They recognized that a mission school curriculum promoting exclusively Christian morality and ethics would not convince many Chinese to forego the traditional Confucian education at a Chinese school. But by offering Western science, missionary educators hoped to tap into the nascent Chinese appetite for learning Western science and thereby bolster mission school enrollment. Despite science's role in repudiating Christianity in the West, most missionaries were convinced that only by including science in the mission school curriculum could the mission school system ever be successful in China. Once enrolled, missionaries believed they could convert the students to Christianity and eventually supplant Confucianism as the national ideology. The modern-style education in mission schools, with an emphasis on science to develop critical reasoning and independent thought, successfully attracted many Chinese students to mission schools. Still, some missionary educators argued that a policy to use science in evangelistic effort was potentially detrimental to the overall evangelistic effort in China, in light of the growing agnosticism in the West. Most missionary educators, however, believed that the inclusion of science in the mission school curriculum was critical in sustaining the mission educational system. Moreover, they were convinced that the teaching of science in Chinese mission schools could demonstrate that science and Christianity were indeed compatible. Thus, science was moved to the forefront of the mission educational effort.

The missionary policy to include science was predicated on controlling the influx of "heretical" information such as evolution and maintaining theit monopoly on providing a modern education. The period between 1905 and 1925 is critical in examining the missionary response to th e rapidly changing forces in China during the 20th century. First, Chinese students, returning from their studies in Japan and the West, were openly discussing ideas of Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism and Charles Darwin's Evolution. Many were avidly reading Yen Fu's translations of Western works such as Thomas Huxley's "Evolution and Ethics" and Darwin's "The Origin of Species." Missionaries observed that the Chinese appetite for Western knowledge was steadily growing. No longer content with studying only the practical and applicable areas of mathematics and chemistry, students were increasingly interested in the more theoretical and abstract areas of philosophy and evolution. Second, the abolition of the imperial examinations in 1905 and the emergence of a modern government school system marked the end of the missionaries' near monopoly on providing a Western-style education. The influx of agnostic ideas from Japan and the threat of government schools in China convinced missionaries to undertake what amounted to a "last stand" against the influx of subversive ideas into China in a desperate attempt to counter its negative impact on the missionary effort.

Missionaries concurred that despite their greatest efforts to suppress and to control the information, students were continuing to discuss openly agnostic concepts such as Social Darwinism. Mission school students, reading articles on astronomy, geology, and natural science, which contained ideas contrary to their educational instruction, were even questioning missionaries on interpretations of the Bible. Suppressing the knowledge of evolution from the Chinese, as attempted in mission schools, was obviously no longer feasible. Hence, missionaries proceeded to develop an appropriate strategy to counter or at least limit the influence of evolution on the Chinese. Some missionaries advocated acknowledging the tenets of evolution and formulating a reconciliatory synthesis with the agnostic theory. Other missionaries, however, vigorously opposed the recommendation, arguing that any concessions to agnosticism would compromise Christian dogma. The ensuing arguments on evolution and Christianity, published in the "Chinese Recorder," illustrated the inability of missionaries to adequately confront the growing agnosticism in China. Using missionary journals, published in the "Chinese Recorder," my research examines the implementation of the Protestant missionary policy to use science in the educational effort and their attempts to counteract the subsequent detrimental effects on the overall evangelistic effort in China.


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