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The Global and Local Forces behind Adventism in China


Review of Adventist Mission in China in Historical Perspective, by David J. B. Trim.

Adventist Mission in China in Historical Perspective is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Chinese Christianity. The nine concise chapters offer a chronological and thematic account of how American missionaries enrooted Adventism into China from the early days of proselytism, and how the spread of Adventism occurred in an environment different from that in the United States and Europe, where most people self-identified as Christians for generations. David J. B. Trim skillfully sorts out the institutional changes to which the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and China’s frontline missionaries reacted. Though Trim’s explanation focuses on the General Conference’s continuous interest in China, his account is a balanced presentation of relevant archival sources and scholarly literature. This affords a macro-level analysis that oscillates between broader historical changes and individual missionaries’ experiences. Furthermore, the bulk of the missionary correspondence permits an investigation of what information Adventist missionaries presented to the General Conference and what was being discussed and censored in the internal reports. These documents offer insights into what Adventism meant to Chinese believers, what creative strategies were used to sustain the missionizing efforts, and how missionaries engaged with the Nationalists and Communists during chaotic times. The inclusion of 28 tables, charts, and graphs illustrates the changing contours of church membership and growth quantitatively. Trim shows us a feasible template to write the institutional history of Adventism in other continents and countries.

This 100-page monograph enriches our understanding of Chinese Adventism in several meaningful ways. First, it moves beyond conventional Eurocentric approaches that celebrate the global-turned-local Christianity in the light of Western modernity and the China-centered view that juxtaposes international missionary enterprises with native church leaders. Latecomers to the China mission field, Adventist missionaries arrived at a time when both Catholics and Protestants had survived the Boxer War (1900–1901) and advanced their ministry during what late China historian Daniel H. Bays calls the “golden age” of Christian missions (1902–1927).[1] The intermingling of Christianity and Western civilization provided a convenient context for the transmission and reception of Adventism at the turn of the 20th century. The presence of Adventism in post-1901 China intensified the competition for converts as the young religious movement was armed with a fervorous zeal to spread Seventh-day Sabbatarianism in every corner of China where both Catholicism and Protestantism had already touched upon decades ago. Lilian Galloway, an American Baptist missionary in Macao, considered the Adventist mission to be a formidable competitor and criticized Adventists for “bringing only a false gospel” and stealing her sheep.[2] While other denominations frowned upon the Adventists’ success, many Chinese found in Adventism an assurance of salvation that they lacked. Thus, the synergy between global religious resources and local conditions highlights the indigenization of international Adventist ecclesial currents in China, as well as the enduring pattern of American-Chinese church relationships.

Second, Trim throws light on the appropriation of Adventism as a powerful tool for institution-building in the China mission field. Elsewhere, Trim and his colleagues have already written a macro-account to illuminate this institutional approach to the Adventist worldwide mission.[3] In Adventist Mission in China, Trim takes the readers up close to scrutinize how the institutional mission tool shape Chinese Christianity. At the turn of the 20th century, the Qing imperial order collapsed and a modern successor state had not yet been established. Filling a vacuum left by decades of revolutionary upheavals, authority was to be reinstated while achieving international standards of modernity through the use of Christian resources. The Adventists aspired to build new institutions in the public sphere ceded by a sequence of weak governments. Believing that people were concerned about their corporeal as much as their spiritual well-being, the Adventists, by 1940, had built “19 secondary or tertiary educational institutions, three publishing houses, seven sanitariums-hospitals, and nine clinics and dispensaries” (35). These organizations elevated Adventism’s social status and reflected the denomination’s priority given to evangelistic methods of education, medicine, and literature distribution. Adventist boarding schools were popular among parents in pursuit of upward mobility for their children. The use of modern medicine showed the practical benefits of Adventism among the poor. These faith-based initiatives not only laid the basis for a cohesive ecclesial authority beneath a fragmented state structure but also offered valuable spiritual, material, and social resources to people seeking to make sense of a dangerous world. Nonetheless, these efforts to provide spiritual support and community services aimed at evangelizing the Chinese hearts and minds led to negotiations, and sometimes conflicts, with government authorities in the mid-1920s and after 1949.

Third, this book underlines the value of a commonsense approach to archival research and historical reflection. At a time when public institutions are coming to grips with cases of workplace sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, Trim revisits Adventist medical missionary Harry Willis Miller (1879–1977)’s “adulterous affairs with Chinese nurses, the facts of which came into the open early in 1939” (35). Historian Ruth Crocombe wrote the first scholarly investigation on Miller’s adultery.[4] Trim builds on Crocombe’s research and devotes a two-page explanatory footnote to argue that rumors about Miller’s misconduct became known as early as 1935–1936 and the China Division’s new president, William H. Branson (1887–1961), investigated Miller’s indiscretions and reported the problem to the General Conference in 1939 (92–93). Trim should be credited for his careful and delicate way of recounting the allegations of Miller’s sexual misconduct with nursing staff. Readers might wonder about the level of institutional power Miller, a widely revered medical missionary “hero” in the denomination’s memory, had garnered during his long career in the China mission. Gu Changsheng (1919–1991),[5] a former staff of the China Division in Shanghai and a keen supporter of the Chinese Communists’ religious patriotic movement, was a teenager when his father worked as a porter and night watchman in the Shanghai Adventist Sanitarium and Hospital. Gu mentioned, in an unpublished memoir, that Miller would prevent the nurses with whom he had sexual relations from giving away their secret by offering hush money, arranging for them to study in the United States, or introducing them to be mistresses to Chinese politicians. In 1937, Gu worked as a clerk and delivery boy at Miller’s newly established soya milk factory in Shanghai, and he claimed to have heard Willis Miller, the doctor’s son, bringing Russian prostitutes to his premises inside the factory.[6] Evidently, Gu portrayed Miller’s misconduct as having a negative impact on his own family. Gu did not mention the basis of his allegations, and given his complicated relationship with Adventism,[7] what he remembered with the Millers has to be verified with other sources.    

In fact, the frequent occurrences of the church’s sex scandals point to the moral failure of the religious leadership to discipline sexual predators (clergy and non-clergy), who abused their pastoral authority in a patriarchal setting. The cover-up of sex scandals usually backfired. For example, in the Norwegian Lutheran mission in Hunan province, these scandals provided the Chinese Communists with useful ammunition to launch the anti-Christian accusation campaign in the early 1950s.[8] In this light, one of the lessons that Trim draws from the history of Adventist mission in China is particularly insightful, where he urges the world church, in the conclusion, to articulate holistic people-centered mission strategies that “prioritize pastoral and frontline workers over institutions” and avoid being obsessed with fame and gains (72).

To conclude, what emerges from Trim’s statistical and analytical findings is an accurate interpretation of how the Adventists’ China Mission was produced by a variety of actors, both American and Chinese, according to the specific circumstances, relational dynamics, and societal needs that they encountered. This monograph paves the way for future scholars to debate and reflect about the approaches to the study of Adventism within Chinese Christianity. While the dominant academic discourse has favored the visibility of native Christians, there is a need to take into account nuanced analyses that situate the local expressions of Adventism in a global institutional context. By displaying the relationships constructed between the General Conference, missionaries, Chinese staff, and the local populace, this study convincingly shows how these global-local evangelistic forces coproduced a vibrant and sustainable faith that met, and continues to meet, modern China’s needs.


Notes & References:

[1] Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[2] R. Lawrence Ballew, Like a Tree Planted by Streams of Water: The Baptist Church Takes Root in Macao (John and Lilian Galloway 1904–1968) (Macao: University of Saint Joseph, 2019), 238.

[3] Christie Chui-Shan Chow, review of “We Aim at Nothing Less than the Whole World”: The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Missionary Enterprise and the General Conference Secretariat, 1863–2019, by A. L. Chism, D. J. B. Trim & M. F. Younker, Church History (forthcoming).

[4] Ruth Crocombe, “The Missionaries and the Guomindang: An Exploration of the Seventh-day Adventist Experience in Republican China,” Master’s thesis, University of Queensland, Australia, 2015. See also Alita Byrd’s interview with Ruth Crocombe, “Looking Back at Adventist Connections with the Political Elite in China,” Spectrum, published online on August 1, 2016.

[5] A self-taught historian, Gu wrote three Chinese books on early missionary activities in China: Missionaries and Modern China (1981), From Morrison to John Stuart Leiden: Commentary on Protestant Missionaries in China (1985), and A Biographical Commentary on Morrison (2006). Though cultural imperialism remains the basic interpretative framework in these books, Gu was the first historian arguing for the positive impact foreign missionaries had brought to China. His books thus move beyond the Chinese Marxist view against Christianity. 

[6] Gu Changsheng, Yesu kuliao: Gu changsheng huiyiiu, 1945–1984 (Jesus wept: memoir of Gu Changsheng, 1945–1984). Yale Divinity School Library, China Records Project Miscellaneous Personal Papers Collections, Record Group Number 8, Box 244. A shorter English version of the memoir titled Awaken: Memoirs of a Chinese Historian (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009) does not include these scandals.

[7] Gu grew up impoverished. His father received the Adventist faith through the woman missionary Bothilde Miller in 1925. Gu himself was baptized into the Adventist Church in 1931. The Gu family was able to live a financially stable life, thanks to the jobs the parents got in the Adventist schools and the hospital. The missionaries also arranged Gu to receive education at the Adventist schools. Yet, his unpublished Chinese memoir has many negative comments on the missionaries. He toned down his critique in his English memoir but one can still read between the lines to get a sense of his resentment toward the work-study program at the Adventist schools and the wage system of the publishing house; both to him were “exploitative.” Gu was one of the Adventist members the Chinese Communist Party coopted to denounce the missionary-appointed church leadership in 1951. Gu, Awaken, 17–33, 52–58.

[8] Silje Dragsund Aase, Negotiating Church in Hunan’s Red Province: A Lutheran Church in Hunan 1902-1951. PhD dissertation (Stavanger, Norway: VID Specialized University, 2022), 207.


Christie Chui-Shan Chow received her doctoral degree in the Program of Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary. She published Schism: Seventh-day Adventism in Post-Denominational China with the University of Notre Dame Press in 2021 and is the first Asian woman scholar in the field of Chinese Seventh-day Adventist studies. Her most recent works include: “From Persecution to Exile: The Church of Almighty God from China,” in Global Visions of Violence: Agency and Persecution in World Christianity (Rutgers University Press, 2022) and “Seventh-day Adventists and Self-Strengthening,” in Chinese Theologies Volume One–Heritage and Prospect (Fortress Press, 2023.) She has taught Chinese church history, Chinese Seventh-day Adventist history, and Seventh-day Adventist history in the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

Title image credit: General Conference Archives Monographs.

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