Earthen Vessels and Transcendent Power: American Presbyterians in China, 1837-1952 by G. Thompson Brown (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997; xxiii+428; $40.00).
The twenty-fifth volume in the American Society of Missiology Series, Earthen Vessels and Transcendent Power was written by a veteran Presbyterian missionary who was himself born in China of missionary parents. It is a well-written, beautifully-produced, and close-to-exhaustive account of American Presbyterians from their first landing in China until their forced departure from the mainland during the Korean War.
"Tommy" Brown deals with a multitude of subjects which confronted these Presbyterian pioneer missionaries, and with which missionaries wrestle today. Among them are: contextualization; culture and Christianity; the extent to which a missionary's national and ethnic background affect his ministry in another land; the recruitment of native leadership; the relationship between the indigenous church and the home denomination; the relationship among various denominations in their mission work; efforts by missionaries to effect societal reform; organizational challenges; and persecution and martyrdom.
Brown concludes that the Presbyterian contributions primarily revolved around the unity of the church ("Presbyterians took the lead in most of the ecumenical institutions and programs"), leadership training ("Higher education, the training of ministers, short-term institutes for laypeople, and schools for women were areas of substantial achievement"), and health ministries (including "medical institutions but also ministry to marginalized peoples neglected by Chinese society such as the blind, the deaf and the insane").
He also mentions what he considers "flaws and failures of the missionary movement": foreignness (the church remaining too western); life-styles (property being foreign owned and controlled; use of high-walled compounds); control (missionaries keeping control for too long, rather than allowing indigenous leadership to take over); and denominationalism.
One of Brown's more fascinating observations is that, for the Southern Presbyterian Church, "the China mission had as much impact on the home church as it did on China." After the South had been isolated by the War and by slavery, "China was the bridge that led to a broader commitment to worldwide mission, social service and the ecumenical movement."
However, one must also mention that Brown's work fails to distinguish between a consistent gospel and a message inconsistent with the Westminster Standards. At one point, he writes: "Sensitive missionary observers would detect points of contact between Christianity and 'The Three Teachings.' They could agree with many of the ethical principles taught by Confucius. The Buddhist emphasis on mercy and compassion would strike a resonant chord in Christian ears. The Taoist awe and humility before the mysteries of the universe did not seem far from the kingdom of God." Although Brown notes "fundamental differences that the early missionaries felt could not be compromised" (such as Confucian ancestral sacrifices, Buddhist images and idols, and Taoist incantations and magic), he also rhetorically writes: "Could the Christianity the missionaries brought be adapted to Eastern thought-forms without losing its own soul? And yet without some adaptation how could its gospel become relevant? There would be no easy answers."
Brown also mentions W. A. P. Martin's position paper, "The Worship of Ancestors-A Plea for Toleration," without any apparent thought that such a view was outside the bounds of Presbyterian orthodoxy.
Despite some deficiencies, Earthen Vessels
would be a good addition to a church or personal library. Names
familiar to conservative Presbyterians which one can find in the
book include Drs. L. Nelson Bell, Darby Fulton, and Lalla Iverson.
An unusual gift for your pastor who has everything, this book
would be welcomed by missionaries as well as those with a special
interest in the most populous nation on earth.