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Looking Back at Adventist Connections with the Political Elite in China


Historian Ruth Crocombe talks about her research into the relationships Adventist missionaries had with Chiang Kai-shek and his family in the early 1900s, the sex scandal that sent Harry Miller home, and how history was framed.

You wrote your master's thesis last year about the political connections of the Adventist missionaries in China during the early to mid 1900s, including their relationships with Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his family members. What inspired you to write about this subject?

I spent a year working in China as an English teacher during the mid-1990s and when I returned to Australia I began reading the biographies of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries to China that I found in my local church library. The Adventist missionaries’ portrayals of Chiang Kai-shek and his regime were at odds with the history I had studied and I became interested in the topic. Further research revealed that no one had really investigated these relationships, so I decided it would make a good research topic.

You noted in your paper that there were more Adventist employees of the China Division before World War II (1937) than any other division of the church, except the North America Division. China was a major focus of the Adventist church, with many missionaries sent, and various schools and hospitals opened. Why was it so important? Why were the connections with the political elite so important?

China was the most important mission field for most of the Protestant churches during the mid-to-late 18th and early 19th century. Part of this had to do with ease of access; China was more hospitable (climate-wise) to early missionaries than Africa was, for example. The Seventh-day Adventists were very late entrants to China, not arriving until 1902, but the work there grew very rapidly, particularly after the building of the Shanghai Publishing House and the Shanghai Sanitarium and Hospital. 

The connections to the political elite were important because they brought both monetary donations and prestige. The Guomindang (Nationalist) government cultivated connections with missionaries from all denominations, using them as public relation tools for the American people, particularly after the invasion of China by Japan in the 1930s. However, my research showed that Seventh-day Adventists were receiving much larger donations from Chiang Kai-shek, his wife Soong Meiling and Zhang Xueliang, for example, than other missionary groups. 

Within the church, missionaries who reported contacts with the political elite were much more likely to be featured in denominational biographies than those who were not.

Harry Miller, the "China Doctor" was well known to generations of Adventists, and served as president of the China Division for a while. But you mention a sex scandal that resulted in his recall from China, and his credentials being revoked. What happened there? Why don't we seem to know anything about that?

In early 1939 Harry W. Miller was placed on permanent return and had his ministerial and missionary credentials removed by the General Conference. There were multiple and credible complaints about Miller’s behavior with the nurses that he worked with. The trigger for his dismissal was a letter from a young nursing student who wrote to her fiancé to break off their engagement as she was “not a pure, clean girl any longer.” She was very clear in her letter that she attempted to avoid Miller by hiding in patients’ rooms, but one night while she was on night duty “he did something bad to me…” Her fiancé agitated for Miller’s dismissal.

Miller, when confronted with her letter by Elder William Henry Branson [who was president of the China Division at the time], admitted that “he could not deny any thing that was contained in the letter.”

Her fiancé told the church administrators in China that he had a signed complaint from another nurse who was also willing to come forward. Additionally Branson, in his letter to the General Conference about the matter noted that a few months previously another letter had come to the Division office “written by a nurse in Hankow which also charged the Doctor with the same offense.

In 1942 Branson (who was then vice president of the General Conference) turned down a request from the Ohio Conference (Miller had relocated to Ohio) to reinstate Miller’s ministerial credentials. However, by around 1950 attitudes towards Miller seem to have mellowed. According to his biographer, Raymond S. Moore, Miller was on a buisness trip to Hong Kong when he was asked to go to China to investigate the situation. This appears to have been an unofficial request and appears to have been a result of Miller’s connections on both sides of the political divide. (I have received funding from the McAdams Research Grant to return to the USA later this year in order to do further research into the process of Miller’s rehabilitaion.) Miller is said to have treated both the Guomindang (Nationalist) and Communist elite during his time in China. At this stage the church was concerned for the safety of their missionaries, the future of the work in China and retaining control of their institutions.

In 1953 Miller was called to Taiwan to help establish a hospital there. The Adventist church had followed the Guomindang regime into exile on Taiwan. Milller was quickly able to re-establish his political connections and cut through the red tape in order to get the hospital up and running. I argue that Miller was rehabilitated specifically to do this. Of concern is that Miller was called to this position by Ezra Longway who had been a missionary in China at the time of Miller’s dismissal. There is no way that Longway could not have been aware of the reasons behind the dismissal and yet Miller was placed in a very similar role that he was in when the incidents” occurred.

We don’t know about this because Miller was an excellent manager of his legacy.

Also traditionally Seventh-day Adventists have not discussed unpleasant aspects of our history. Moore’s work China Doctor: The Life Story of Harry Willis Miller was very influential in establishing Miller as an SDA hero. Also Miller did a lot of volunteer work around the world following his time in Taiwan.

This photo is significant because it is evidence of the close relationship Adventist missionaries (in particular Harry W. Miller) had with Zhang Xueliang (The Young Marshall). In 1936 C.C. Crisler died in a remote area in China. Zhang Xueliang's plane was borrowed to take Crisler's wife, daughter and other members of the funeral party to the funeral. This photo is documentary proof of Miller's claims that he had regular use of the plane.

From your research, would you say that the official church reporting about the China missionaries has been fair? Or more of an exercise in public relations?

I think it has been fair for the most part. There are some missionaries who I really admire such as Elizabeth Redelstein and Paul Quimby. It has been claimed that Seventh-day Adventist missionaries had closer connections with the political elite than missionaries from other denominations. This is not entirely accurate; certainly the church was highly valued for its hospitals and educational institutions, and the church did receive substantial donations for that aspect of its work. But I am yet to find records of SDA missionaries being invited to minister to the Guomindang political elite, unlike Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries who regularly gave sermons at the church services and daily worships held by Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. (Chiang Kai-shek was a baptized Methodist and his wife was from a prominent Christian family.)

Interestingly, as new documents have come to light in the last few years there has been a sympathetic re-evaluation of the Chiangs and several historians now paint a picture of Chiang Kai-shek that is closer to Adventist representations than has been the case in the past.

Surely the missionaries' connections with the political elite was a huge help to them as they labored to convert Chinese people and baptize them into the Adventist church. Would you be critical of those connections? Did the missionaries cultivate relationships with the Communist government as well?

I think the church needs to be careful of aligning itself too closely with one political regime and not be over-awed that those in power value what we do. I think this has relevance in today’s political climate as well.

There are reports that Miller did treat Communist leaders — especially Zhou En-lai — during the 1920s and 1930s but this claim is much harder to substantiate. All foreign missionaries from all denominations were expelled from China by 1952, so it was not possible for the church to cultivate relationships with the Communist government after 1949.

What is apparent is that the Seventh-day Adventist church was seen by the Communists as being an American church and as being closely aligned with the Guomindang regime. This did make life more difficult for the average member after the regime change in China. Joseph Tse-Hei Lee at Pace University has done some interesting work on the Adventist experience following the success of the Communist Revolution.

How would you characterize the state of the Adventist church currently in China? Have you visited? How has it been impacted by the missionary work carried out before Communism?

I am an historian and my area of expertise is the past. I have not visited mainland China since 1994 though I hope to visit again one day. I have had limited contact with SDA church members in China and am not really qualified to talk about the state of the church today.

I believe the church is all decentralized in China. What does that mean in practice? Why are the pastors women?

Protestant churches in China operate under the umbrella of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The congregations are self-governing within the structure of the TSPM. The principles of the TSPM are self-governance, self-support and self-propagation. Under Chinese law a denomination cannot have ties financial or otherwise with an organisation outside of the country or receive foreign missionaries. This means that while the members call themselves SDA, the General Conference has no administrative or financial control or connection to these churches.

Under Communism in China women have done many jobs traditionally held by men. Women are pastors in China because they feel the call to minister. There are actually more male than female pastors; however, the fact that the Chinese church is ordaining women has caused a focus on female pastors in China.

Has there been much other scholarly research on Adventist missionaries anywhere?

Traditionally Adventist writing about missionaries has taken the form of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. However, this is changing. Ron Lawson has done some interesting work on SDA missionary practice elsewhere. There are also a number of scholars who are researching the SDA church in China and a group of us presented as a panel at the 2016 Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church history in Atlanta, Georgia.

You are part of a research network called Adventism in China. What is that group all about?

The network brings together scholars who are researching Adventism in China. It’s a place to share ideas and get feedback and promote the study of Adventism in China. There is a website here.

You are a lecturer at Pacific Adventist University in Papua New Guinea. What is it like there? What classes do you teach? Who are your students?

It’s hot year round. I miss having a winter. It’s interesting and challenging and also humbling. The PAU campus is beautiful; my friends from town who live in compounds are very envious of the green space that we have at PAU. The campus is a bird sanctuary and we receive lots of bird-watching tourists. Port Moresby is a rapidly growing city, since our arrival in 2012 we’ve seen the growth of shopping malls and new supermarkets. Of course this rapid growth brings problems of rural-urban migration and social dislocation.

I teach history classes for the School of Arts and Humanities and also for the School of Theology. My students are Arts students, Education students (studying to be high school teachers) and Theology students. Most of the students come from Papua New Guinea but we also have students from around the Pacific. Last semester I taught students from Nauru, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga.

It’s an exciting place to work. Pacific Adventist University currently has approximately 1100 students. Some of my students are the first in their family or village to attend university and it is an honor to help provide an education to them.

Scenery at Pacific Adventist University

Do you have other big topics you are interested in?

I’m planning to begin my PhD next year. My proposed thesis topic is “Seventh-day Adventist use of Indigenous Australian and Pacific Island missionaries in Papua New Guinea during the first half of the 20th century.”

You and your husband Jeff are originally from Australia. You were at Helderberg in South Africa for a while, and now in PNG. Where do you think your future plans will take you?

I have no idea where we will go next, I’ve learned to be open to change. We have a little while left on my husband’s contract here. However, we do need to start considering our daughter’s education. Right now she’s in an excellent international school, but we will need to be in a country with good secondary schools soon as she is starting to get closer to high school age. I’d like to be somewhere that has four seasons. We are open to offers. 

Ruth Crocombe teaches history at Pacific Adventist University in Papua New Guinea. She earned her master's degree from the University of Queensland in Australia.

Interviewer's Note: On this day 100 years ago my great-grandparents, Lyman and Ella Mae Bowers, sailed for China on their first mission appointment. – Alita Byrd

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