World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

Religious Conversion Across Cultures


Missionary Institutions in China as Sites of Conversion

Sue Gronewold



     Popular images of Christian missionaries in China feature both male and female foreign missionaries and a few loyal Chinese converts valiantly but often solitarily traveling throughout China by sedan chair, preaching in town squares to puzzled peasants, as well as missionary women (who came to predominate in the 20th century) accompanied by Chinese "Bible women" visiting "zenanas" (women's quarters in private homes) and passing on their "good news" to basically disinterested audiences. The dominant view until recently was that most missionary work ultimately reaped few rewards. 1From the popular press and the extensive missionary literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it appears that Western, Christian (and largely Protestant) missionary work in China (and much of Asia for that matter, except for Korea) was largely unsuccessful in converting many people outside a small portion of westernized urban elites.. This is confirmed by the recollections of many who either spent years toiling in the field or were on the receiving end of missionary efforts. Thus, the argument goes, by the twentieth century, those delivering educational, medical, and other tangible benefits (including missionaries influenced by what came to be called the Social Gospel) reached more Chinese than gospel preachers ever did.

     Events of the latter part of the 20th century and early decades of the 21st , however, have called this conventional view into question. There has been a dramatic increase and visibility of Christianity in China since the post Mao reforms of the 1980s, with perhaps 100 million believers today in both rural and urban areas across the country.2 According to recent research on Christianity in China,3 in spite of government crackdowns on those outside government approved churches, those deemed "heterodox," and all manner of syncretic religious groups, evangelical Christianity is popular among diverse groups of people across China. Whether linked among the young to a successful West, or among the disenfranchised and disillusioned with a path to salvation, Christianity today holds out a dream and hope for the future to many seeking something to believe in.

     Two linked historical phenomena may help explain the continuing appeal of evangelical Christianity in the last 30 years: 1) the importance of earlier missionary institutions as key sites for conversion and 2) the kinds of religious experiences that took place within them. The latter vividly demonstrate the multifarious nature of conversion—sometimes expected, sometimes required, sometimes resisted. This paper argues that missionary institutions provided perhaps the best test cases for success of the 19th and 20th century Christian missionary endeavor which managed to survive underground and be resurrected in the post Mao era. Among the myriad schools, refuges, homes, and hospitals established across China by missionaries in this period, certain institutions seem particularly important to examine for their conversion record and influence, and I would argue that the most intense experiences took place in those that approximated Foucaultian total institutions.4 Those devoted to the most marginal and the most vulnerable—women and children, the ill, the disabled, and the infirm—particularly stand out.This chapter will examine one of those near total institutions and its apparent successes (and failures) with the conversion project: the Door of Hope Mission in Shanghai. Open from 1901 until 1952 after founding of the PRC, the Door of Hope Mission affords us sufficient evidence to make a strong test case.5 As became clear in both my archival work and my conversations with those connected to the mission, both western and Chinese, The Door of Hope spawned many firm believers in Christianity who were (and in some cases still are) viewed by those in the Shanghai Christian community as particularly devout. This is true of those who were brought to be "rescued" and those who were involved as staff, and also included those who stepped in to work for the home in tumultuous times such as the Japanese War or after missionaries were forced to leave China.

     The Door of Hope Mission was founded in 1901 by Western women who were shocked to see prostitutes carried around the streets of turn of-the-century treaty port Shanghai advertising the brothels that owned them. Propelled by late nineteenth century notions of urban reform, Christian faith, and a civilizing mission, they founded a rescue mission for such women. Within days of its opening, the Door of Hope attracted its first resident, and by 1905 it housed 74 women and children. By 1910 it held 325 total; even during the Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945 it managed to stay open and care for several hundred, lasting postwar until the Communist expulsion of Western missionaries in 1951 when it was converted into a public school. Home to sprung prostitutes, mistreated wives, concubines, servants, and cast-off "extra" women and children, the Mission provided shelter and services generally unavailable to such marginalized women and children, from chapels and schools to "industrial"workshops and health clinics at both their downtown Shanghai site and their Children's Refuge in the faraway safe countryside. For that reason it was generously supported throughout its history by Shanghai governments and reformers, both Western and Chinese. It reached more than 5,000 women and children directly and many thousands more through its neighborhood day schools, revivals, and prayer services.6

     The Door of Hope is familiar to scholars of both mission and Shanghai history, to Chinese Christians, and to its followers and supporters abroad. Neighborhood "grannies" remember the Door of Hope and thus could pass their stories on to me. Furthermore, it was an institution that lasted, in part for the services it provided, but even more, I was constantly told, because of the less tangible but more powerful religious dynamics that operated inside.

Three Conversion Stories From Shanghai's Door of Hope Mission

     To discuss conversion experiences at the Door of Hope, I have chosen three discreet instances across its half-century history. Each one tells us a great deal about the challenges and potential of conversion in missionary institutions.

     I came across my first set of Door of Hope conversion stories quite late, in 1998, after more than ten years of searching for archival material across three continents and interviewing everyone I could find who had any connection, no matter how brief, with the Door of Hope Mission. I was beginning to despair of locating anyone who had actually been a resident there and was becoming resigned to telling the story of the women at the Door of Hope by proxy. That spring, I traveled to China for several months of research with the goal of better understanding the many worlds of Shanghai in which the Mission had moved, using newly available records at the Shanghai Municipal Archives, among others. I did indeed find extraordinary material in those archives. But I was still predominately limited to outsider stories about those at the Door of Hope Mission, and I could get no further in my attempt to understand their interior lives and experiences of conversion.

     Finally, my careful networking within the Chinese Christian community (whose persistent persecution during the revolutionary Maoist era had loosened up a bit) led to an invitation by a local minister to meet "a few" women in his congregation who had been residents at the Door of Hope. In the upper room of an old church, around a table spread with memorabilia, he introduced me to eleven women and a few men in their 70s and 80s. It was Easter, one of two times each year when surviving Door of Hope alumnae gather in Shanghai to catch up, enjoy each other's company, reminisce about the past, and witness for their faith. They were eager to show me what they had managed to save from their years at the Mission and to enthusiastically tell me their stories.

     I spent perhaps twenty hours that first time with these women and men, collecting their life histories and listening to their individual stories.7 A few of them had been "rescued" as children from brothels as early as the 1920s; others had come or been brought to the Mission and represented the range of social problems in and around Shanghai. Most had gone on to marry; some to Christian men and a few to ministers with whom they still preached and taught.

     All were devout Christians. For the first time I had evidence of the interior life of the Mission and of the powerful Christian beliefs that they still share. This underscores the importance of the Mission, its residents, and its missionaries in their lives—and they in the missionaries' lives—both in the past and in the present. From them I learned many things about their time at the Mission and the centrality of its conversion experience. I learned about how they had found out about the Door of Hope. Many people in the diverse worlds of Shanghai knew of the Mission, as it was featured in Western and Chinese newspapers and journals nearly every week. Short news items told of courts remanding young women there, of skirmishes and arguments originating in brothels continuing there, of gifts given, donations solicited, and reforms demanded. In addition, police, rickshaw pullers, detectives, the court and counselors, and reformers of all types knew of its work, referred to it in their writings, and sent or took needy people there. Brothels all over the city were legally required to announce the work and address of the Door of Hope, and all manner of needy women and families in the city apparently knew of it by word of mouth. Lots of people chose to come—or bring women—to the Door of Hope, for a wide variety of reasons.

     Yet for all the utilitarian reasons I had accumulated for authorities and families to send "extra" women and children there, I was unprepared for the reasons those elderly people in Shanghai themselves stressed: they had come—or had been brought—to the Door of Hope to be "saved." For them, the missionaries at the Door of Hope had quite literally and without question saved them. In my interviews, they highlighted the many ways in which the missionaries at the Door of Hope had saved them.

     Christian conversion was always the most important goal for the missionaries, as stressed in their literature and their stories. The first tasks when girls and young women were brought to the Door of Hope's outpost in the heart of the brothel district involved remaking their souls: converting them to Christianity. The walls of the Receiving Room were covered with life size drawings from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the metaphor for their lives, done in Chinese style with its message that was hard to miss . At the same time the missionaries remade their outward appearance: cleaning, dressing, and giving them Christian names. Their shared Christian belief was fundamental to each and every one of the alumnae I met who had kept their faith across decades of persecution by a state now turned relatively tolerant. Yet I was struck by how they stressed all different kinds of salvation.

     The missionaries had saved these women from neglect, abuse, and even starvation. They had saved them from the grueling life of a peasant or the harsh work in textile mills. They had saved them from concubinage or marriage to a bad husband. One woman brought her hand-written life history interspersed with red-inked biblical quotes (like Jesus' quotes in her Bible), insisting that I take note of these details: at the Door of Hope the missionaries gave them three meals a day, and each meal always consisted of "three rices" plus biscuits and fruit.

     In addition, they were all terribly proud of the skills the missionaries had taught them, skills that had saved them from harsher lives to which they had seemed fated by birth. Several spoke in the English they had been taught at more advanced schools the Mission had sent them to; stories of their own teaching and preaching were common to all; one woman wore a sweater she had learned to knit there; many of them are pianists and organists at churches all over the city because of the instruments in each dormitory they had learned to play there; a man who had been there with his mother and sister could still sew the stitches he had learned there. The details were not new to me; what was new was the realization that these aspects for them meant both literal survival and an entree into skilled, semi-professional work. "No one from the Door of Hope," they stressed, "just worked in a factory."

     My second set of conversion stories at the Door of Hope was not nearly as positive. The Mission's work grew exponentially in its first decade, expanding well beyond the founders' original intent as a rescue home for prostitutes. This success of its mission and expansion of its services was regarded as mostly positive, but it had a double edge. Even in a total institution, conversion apparently was not possible for all.

     Although the words "prostitute" and "social evil" continued to be used for Mission residents into the 1910s and 1920s, the young women and female children who are highlighted in those years' annual reports (a recording of the past year's activities that served as simultaneous yearbook and newsletter from the field) in fact reflect the numbers who came to the Mission due to social and political turmoil as much as from prostitution. The tone of complaint that filled the reports of the Mission in those years was in part due to the missionaries resenting the municipal authorities' pressure on them to expand their scope and take in other needy females—particularly abandoned girl children found on the streets of Shanghai, victims of the civil wars and famines that punctuated the early Republican period.8 The more vulnerable women and children required and sought out places of refuge. as is clear from any description of Chinese society of the period.9

     The missionaries at the Door of Hope were initially reluctant to take on these new charges, and said so quite openly in their reports and letters. As the author of the Door of Hope's annual report for 1912 recorded, "at first our committee felt that we could not undertake this additional work, even though the [Shanghai Municipal] Council offered to meet all expenses, but after prayer and further consideration we consented, believing it to be a call and an opportunity from God to give these uncared for little ones a chance of knowing His love in Christ, which would result in the salvation of many. . .This is of course quite different to [sic] the Rescue work of the Door of Hope, both in its character and in its support." 10 Other reports admitted that the work with these children was very hard. They were a dirty and frequently diseased assortment of children found on the streets with no one to claim them, including "run away slave girls, cast off babies, naughty street urchins, and deserted children." Some were "mentally or physically deficient."11

     Furthermore, many of these children were quite young, less socialized and therefore not only tougher but also more intractable, more challenging to teach, and less able to help in the work of the Mission. Rather than being remanded to the Mission through elaborate court proceedings that allowed the missionaries time to both craft their arguments and accustom girls to the Mission, as had been the case with earlier prostitutes whose madams often fiercely contested their rescue, these children had instead been brought by the cartload by Settlement authorities whose only aim was to remove them from the streets.

     It was in this period of growth and change for the Mission which saw missionaries more and more concerned about the behavior of those within its walls. The 1913 report made a desperate appeal for trained Chinese Christians to come and work with the residents, especially to "help with the conflicts." That their charges' behavior was unruly was no secret, particularly in the Industrial Home with its older girls who for various reasons were not able to be married out of the Mission nor were promising enough students to be sent elsewhere for further training. There they worked all day on looms or at embroidery frames, completing the sewing projects for which the Mission was well known. That same report also openly discussed the need for a secure wall for the Industrial Home, "a fence that cannot be climbed nor seen through." This was prompted by the escape in that year of two girls, with the help of a man outside—and a woman with whom he was in cahoots—who later turned around and tried to sell them (probably to a house of prostitution). Missionaries discussed locating another home in the country for the most "difficult cases. . .girls who are by no means hopeless but are harmful to the more amenable and responsive inmates. . .unyielding in spirit and very hard in heart and who need special patience and care and a discipline suited to their peculiarities."12

     But it was not only the street children and workers at their looms who were problematic. In 1918, that year's report allowed that "as far as our eyes can see, not as many of the First Year Home girls have become the burning and shining lights for our Lord Jesus Christ as we had longed to see." Rather lamely the report continued, "Some, however, gladden our hearts and we believe they also somewhat satisfy the heart of our Redeemer. . .At the beginning of last year, the Lord gave great desire for deep spiritual blessing, it can be only due to failure on our parts that our hopes have not been more completely fulfilled."13 There are enough references to the need to "build up character" or do the "work of foundation building" to make it clear that resistance and recalcitrance were common reactions to being "rescued," for street urchins as well as for young women who had been in brothels for a long period of time. As one report described the problem: "A very different kind of girl has also found her way several times during 1918 to this Home. Well in body, wits sharpened by her previous life, eyes bright and piercing, she feels fully competent to manage her own affairs if only once she can get free of all restraint. Rules and authorities are irksome to her, and when combined with love and a gentle exterior she is apt to try and find out if she really has to obey or not. Unaccustomed to telling the truth unless convenient, such girls give their Chinese teachers much trouble and require prayer and much faith from those who have the care of their souls." 14

     Young women at the Mission disobeyed in more serious ways than in lying, however. Instances of quarrels and thefts were evidently commonplace, and by 1912 the home had been set on fire at least three times.15 Each yearly report dutifully recorded the large number of girls who "ran away" that year: eight in 1912 (three from the Receiving Home, four from the First Year Home, and one from the Home for Stray Children, out of a total of 666) and at least nineteen in 1915 (three from the Receiving Home, four from the First Year Home, and twelve from the Home for Strays).16 The percentage of runaways was perhaps only 2.5% at the highest, but one assumes that the reports included only successful runaways, with many others either attempting to run away or else strongly wishing to do so. Clearly, many residents did not want to be at the Mission and rejected its conversion/education/work model, and they demonstrated their resistance quite forcefully. Conversion was a not a goal attainable for all.

     In order to avoid too much of a focus on trials and tribulations, the missionaries kept on with their work, accepting this resistance to conversion as sore tests of their faith. And in their language and their attitudes, they minimized the problems, insisting that their challenges and tests came from mere children. Even though it is clear from the photographs and descriptions that many of the "girls" at the Mission were older adolescents or young women, the main descriptions of all residents throughout the life of the Mission were of small children, victims who needed saving, "lambs" protected by Jesus. Children, rather than rebellious adolescents or recalcitrant prostitutes, more truly fit the Biblical injunction invoked by missionaries and evangelists alike: to serve "the least of these."17

     The third set of conversion stories from the Door of Hope Mission's history is that of the mission literally turned upside down with the dramatic conversion of a number of its missionaries and charges to a syncretic Chinese-Western religious sect. In this instance, conversion was extremely successful, but it turned out not to be the conversion that had been expected.

     The late 1930s in China was a particularly turbulent time with a declaration of war against the Japanese in the north spreading quickly to central China. Shanghai and points west soon experienced wartime up close. Missionaries always noted that during times of turmoil, churches and Bible classes, Sunday schools, and services were filled to brimming with people desperate for security and succor. Shanghai in the late 1930s was no exception with crowds at services and a new sense of urgency.

     The period saw a parallel religious phenomenon, the resurgence of the kind of religiosity not of this world but deeply apocalyptic, concerned instead with the end of this world and securing one's place in the next. Those familiar with traditional Chinese religions saw a resurgence of popular millennial sects, led by charismatic mystics with large followings, that had always dotted the Chinese countryside, particularly in times of turmoil and especially in densely populated north China.18 Led by fiery evangelists who espoused doctrines "dealing as they do with the future and the other world, [there] arouse a response in the hearts of many who are discouraged about conditions in the world and in China in particular. They are set forth with great vividness and detail and are readily accepted, especially among the less educated," wrote C. Stanley Smith in the 1935 China Mission Yearbook.19 The 1930s also saw the growth of other, more syncretic sects, combining Chinese folk religion with Christianity, whose preachings were more unorthodox and whose style was even more fervent. The most popular were those which identified themselves originally with Christian Pentecostals, with trance states, faith healing, and speaking in tongues all outward manifestations of the workings of the spirit within.

     By far the largest and most seductive sect for many was the group around the man called "Watchman" Nee, with his Little Flock or Assembly Hall movement (in Chinese Di-fang hui or "local society"). Denouncing both the practice of a paid ministry and denominational differences inherited from abroad, Nee and other Little Flock leaders argued that their Christianity was indigenous to China, an argument that attracted both ordinary church members and church leaders from more mainstream denominations. He came from a long line of Christians and was always very pious, participating in the Christian evangelist Leland Wang's home worship services while in college in Fujian and becoming interested in Wang's informal, unstructured Christianity that stressed home rather than church services. About the same time, he met a missionary from the China Inland Mission who belonged to the Exclusive Brethren sect and whose informal, experiential style and emphasis on preparing for the end of the world were also appealing.

     Thoughtful and philosophical by nature, Nee questioned much of the doctrine and practice that were presented to him and thought not all of it appropriate to the Chinese context which needed its own Christian church. In 1928 Nee founded his own Assembly Hall movement, which by the mid-1930s was based in Shanghai with a growing following, both Chinese and non-Chinese.20 Nee had always had close ties with the China Inland Mission, itself a potpourri of evangelical, holiness, and even Pentecostal groups that coexisted somewhat uneasily under the CIM umbrella, and some of their members were attracted by Nee's style.21

     Nee's theology was considered doubly dangerous by many Western missionaries. Not only were his services emotional and experiential (as people imagined the imminent end of the world and the "Rapture" that was soon to come), the movement was opposed to the control of the Chinese church by Westerners. In fact, Nee was opposed to many aspects of the Western Christian church. Along with his criticism of church hierarchy, with reliance on paid ministers who were seen as closer to God, Nee also criticized the traditional disparity between the roles of men and women. As in many heterodox Chinese sects, he proclaimed all equal before God.22
A number of the newer, younger Western missionaries at the Door of Hope began going to services held by the Assembly Hall group, and they found Nee to be particularly charismatic and the group meetings especially exciting. They found appealing not only the highly charged emotions of the group and Nee's apocalyptic images of final flames and harsh judgments. They also were seduced by the language of exclusivity and sense of themselves as the elect few that the movement had inherited from the Brethren. In addition, these young women had come to China to do mission work among the Chinese but found themselves instead restricted under older, authoritarian missionaries who, in their view, were constantly compromising the original goals of the mission, particularly the religious ones. As long as their involvement with the Little Flock was separate from their work at the Door of Hope mission, the new converts experienced relatively little conflict. But gradually the inconsistencies between their new beliefs and those of the missionaries at the Door of Hope became too difficult to reconcile. As one Elizabeth Peck (Mrs. Rademacher) describes it, she and her Little Flock friends at the Door of Hope secretly began planning their "escape" from the Mission, biding their time and waiting for the most suitable—and dramatic—opportunity.

     A public ceremony in 1939, a baptism of several of the Door of Hope residents, provided just such an opportunity. After the girls had been questioned about their faith and sprinkled with water from the baptismal fountain in the center of the courtyard in front of the entire community, she and several other missionaries made their move. Interrupting the ceremony, they proclaimed it null and void and denounced it as a blasphemy of true commitment to the Lord, which only the followers of Watchman Nee could claim. In her statement, Peck criticized one Door of Hope practice after another as straying from the correct path and declared her intention to leave its service and join those more devout. Among the practices she criticized most fervently were the Mission's links to the city government, its involvement with council, court and police, and especially its receiving financial support from the authorities, while presenting itself as a "faith" mission which was not supposed to make any appeal for funds. As she spoke, she dramatically pulled out an envelope from her pocket which contained all the money from the Mission for her support over the past year and publicly and dramatically returned it. After this dramatic resignation from the Door of Hope, she and several others from the Mission lived communally with other Little Flock adherents among the Chinese of Shanghai, preaching and spreading the word for Watchman Nee. She left China along with other missionaries when the Japanese took control of Shanghai (others were interred until the end of the war). I eventually located her in 1992 in a Little Flock community in southern California, where she told me her story. I observed how she was venerated by Little Flock followers who believed her closeness to Watchman Nee granted her particular powers and legitimacy in converting others to the faith.23

     The disruption caused by this outburst and the resignation of several of its missionaries is only hinted at in the official reports of the Mission, but its effect must have been profound. The opening paragraph of the 1940 report alludes to the "trials [of that year which] have been severe."24 With the hindsight that historical distance allows, however, it appears that this dramatic event marked not only the attainment of the goal of indigenization for Western missionaries in China (although they themselves were unable to recognize it as such at the time). This startling event also marked the ironic completion of the circle, when Western missionaries who had come to China to convert others, were themselves converted in the process.

     Yet the Little Flock experience was not about westerners "going native." Elizabeth Peck did not become a Buddhist or Taoist or a follower of the sectarian Yiguan dao or Eight Trigrams, nor did she become a kung-fu or -qigong master. Instead, she joined a Chinese Christian group that had successfully combined elements from both traditions and in the process had become part of the fabric of Chinese life. It should not be too surprising to us, therefore, that in descriptions of Christian life and worship in China since the resurgence of religion in the1980s, Watchman Nee's Assembly Hall churches are consistently reported to be among the most popular—and continue to be seen as among the most dangerous by the Chinese state. Harshly repressed during the Maoist period, they have reappeared as a movement with wide appeal, that represents refuge and spiritual peace, and that is indigenous to China. 25This represents conversion of a wildly different sort.

Increasing Evangelism and Primacy of Faith in Missionary Institutions in China

     Despite their practical accomplishments in helping the disadvantaged, Christian conversion was always the most important goal for Door of Hope missionaries, as illuminated in their literature, their stories, and the neon sign announcing "Jesus Saves" outside their rescue site in the heart of the brothel district after 1929. Yet this emphasis was increasingly at odds with many other missionary institutions, especially those educational institutions staffed by mainstream denominations. As we track the history of the Door of Hope, it becomes clear that its continuing emphasis on faith mirrors a growing divide in the mission field between those who emphasized faith as paramount and those who argued there were other and better ways to attract followers, especially the best and the brightest. Many of these were beginning to focus their energies on "practical Christianity" rather than proselytizing, on educating the elite and on curing the sick, rather than on saving Chinese souls.

     The debate over this secularizing trend had first surfaced in the late nineteenth century, and it would continue to fester as an issue through the 1900s and 1910s until breaking out in bitter acrimony in the 1920s. After intense debate, missionaries at an 1877 conference finally agreed that evangelism came first. But by 1907, with reform of the Chinese educational system, the demand for Western teachers was urgent. After 1911, many Protestant missions had given up on direct evangelicalism and emphasized instead education, with% of missionaries no longer involved in conversion working as teachers.26 In 1914a missionary conference convened in Shanghai on a hot new topic, the social application of Christianity, touted in mission periodicals and from the pulpit. But this new emphasis was not universal in the mission field. In the 1910s, the more evangelical missions—including many in mainstream denominations—still stressed faith, salvation, and conversion more than the outward benefits that the growing numbers of "social gospellers" argued would indirectly lead the Chinese to Christ.

     It was precisely in the 1910s, in part as a response to the shift in large mission societies and board to this practical Christianity, that the number of missionaries in China from faith and holiness missions began to grow, a fact obscured by the attention given to the even greater number of recruits streaming into the more mainline denominations. The China Mission Year Book nearly every year included a very extensive directory of missionaries in China, divided by denomination and station, and the major all-China missionary conferences, like those in 1907 and 1922, also published an extensive list of participants by denomination. Neither of these had a separate listing of holiness missions. Instead, many were included under the rubric "other societies." Not until the 1950 Revised Directory of the Protestant Movement in China (National Council of Churches, 1950) was a "Pentecostal and Holiness" category established.

     "Faith missions" is the usual term used for the large number of independent evangelical missions that lay outside the mainline denominational mission establishment and began to arise in the late nineteenth century. They were filled with those concerned about the "end-time", meaning that the end of the world was near and consequently all should be reached as quickly as possible before the final judgment. Although eager to serve in missions, they were either unable to or unwilling to fit into the standard mission framework. To avoid the charge that they were competing with other mission societies and boards for funds, these missions followed "faith" principles—they would not directly solicit funds and their missionaries would receive no regular salary and be as self-sustaining as possible. In addition, the theology they ascribed to was generally conservative, what some have labeled "proto-fundamentalist."27

     Like the China Inland Mission and the increasing numbers of faith and holiness missions, the Door of Hope did not directly appeal for funds. It had no board in the West, no sponsoring mission society nor denominational affiliation, and it spent its budget each year as money was contributed. The belief underlying the so-called "faith" missions was that faith was sufficient; if one had enough belief and trust, the Lord would know it and somehow provide. Their reports are full of instances of this wondrous provision, like the stories in the 1913 Annual Report about the occasions during the year when the mission was short of funds:

". . . [M]any times, when brought to the end of our money in hand, God has sent sufficient to meet the immediate need. Three times during the year when we have come to the close of a month needing over $400 to pay rents and wages, with an almost empty Treasury, we have unitedly bowed before God in prayer. . .on one occasion we asked for $450. . .shortly after reaching our homes a telephone message told us that £40 had come from England and about three hours later that $50 gold had come from America. . .On another occasion. . .the Treasurer received a letter containing a cheque for £41, exactly sufficient to supply the then existing need. . .Another morning when our Committee gathered, the Treasurer was told by one of the lady workers that she was needing $20 at once for daily expenses. She was told that the Treasury was empty; but later on, two of our number, not having heard the conversation, nor knowing of the need, each handed the Treasurer $10 and she was thus able to give out God's supply at once."28

     The missionaries believed that, in the face of adversity, prayer and constancy are finally rewarded if one has enough faith. Try as hard as they might, the missionaries knew that conversion did not come quickly or easily; one girl, a "helper", was finally accepted for baptism in 1918 after having been "a subject of much prayer for more than ten years." 29The time, effort, and above all, patience meant that missionaries used all sorts of aids to conversion, from revival meetings to their own versions of religious movements currently popular in the West, like the Christian Endeavor Society established in 1918 at the Mission. Revival meetings, with their outpouring of emotion and signs of the spirit, increased after 1918. Faith, with its outward signs of "true consecration," was the primary goal missionaries had for residents of the Door of Hope, which for many of them was apparently the hardest to achieve.

     "Holiness" missions grew out of a different strain in evangelical Protestantism that emphasized ethics and morality. With a bleaker view of human nature than more liberal denominations, the holiness tradition believed more dramatic conversion experiences were necessary, and among the outward signs of that "born again" experience was a commitment to preaching to others—as well as later "Pentecostal" signs of the workings of the spirit.30 Many holiness groups established missions in China in the 1910s—the Salvation Army in 1916, and the Assemblies of God, the Nazarene Church, and the Apostolic Faith Mission in 1914.

     The missionaries working at and managing the Door of Hope Mission after 1910 shifted gradually from a mix that reflected a broad-based Protestant coalition to one that had a more evangelical salvationist approach to their work. Women from the mainline denominations, from the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Northern Baptists , who were all involved in the founding and first decade of the Mission, were gradually leaving and being replaced by women from more conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist churches and mission groups, and from independent holiness backgrounds. Most significantly, nearly all had ties to the China Inland Mission.

     Two women who were important at the Mission from the 1920s were well known for their evangelical, even Pentecostal beliefs: E. Gladys Dieterle, senior missionary in charge of the Children's Refuge, and Ethel Abercrombie, the other informal "director" of the Door of Hope homes, in charge of the homes for older girls. Both were extraordinarily hard-working and dedicated. Abercrombie was English, having come to Ningpo, China, in 1898. She made her way north in 1907 to Shanghai to help at the Door of Hope and never left, working literally around the clock for 18 years at a stretch before agreeing reluctantly to go on furlough. It was said that there was no one else who knew the regulations of the Mixed Court and International Settlement as well as she. Abercrombie was regarded as a formidable opponent in court when fighting for a young woman to be remanded to the Mission's care rather than released back to allegedly abusive family members or exploitative madams.." By the 1910s and 1920s, however, she became more fervently "moved by the spirit." Her reports of a 1910 revival celebrate this turn in affairs at the Mission: "You will rejoice with us before the Lord that over a month ago He poured out Pentecost on us. In less than a week, five of our native helpers and about ten of the girls had received their Pentecost as at the beginning with the sign of tongues. There must be more than twenty now. Others of the girls who were hard characters have yielded to the Lord." 31

     Like Abercrombie, Gladys Dieterle was also a formidable manager. She was head of the Children's Refuge in Kiangwan after 1913 and responsible for introducing the idea of a home in the countryside for the littlest children. It was her vision which helped develop it into a complex of facilities, with sanitarium, chapel, day school for area residents, dormitories for missionaries and home-like cottages for the girls and their "mothers" and "big sisters." A German, she had come to China in 1903 at age 28 to work for another mission, moving to the Door of Hope in 1908. Present at the Mission for nearly its entire history, she came to be identified with the Children's Refuge, taking only three furloughs at ten year intervals, which she used to campaign tirelessly for the Mission in the United States. She was called "a great prayer warrior" and "a saint if there ever was one." Both Dieterle and Abercrombie were indefatigable promoters of the Mission, and Dieterle, even more than Abercrombie, was responsible for the stream of reports, newsletters, prayer letters, and pamphlets published by the Mission after 1916.Always fervently evangelistic, by the 1920s she too was moving in a more Pentecostal direction, moved by the spirit at revivals and prayer meetings. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God missionary, W.W. Simpson, wrote in 1923 of a revival he attended at the Door of Hope while in Shanghai. The event lasted three days without stopping, and at one he observed "more than one hundred [Chinese as well as Westerners] crying, weeping, wailing, screaming in the agony of conviction as they confessed their sins and called on God for Mercy." Among them he counted Dieterle, who "has received the Spirit and spoken in tongues." 32


     The ascendance of evangelicals and even of Pentecostals at the Door of Hope Mission is clear if one looks at the management committee members, the preachers and revivalists, the workers, supporters and volunteers from the wider Western Shanghai community. Understanding them as coming from a newly aligned network of conservative, evangelical institutions and associations is helpful in understanding the varieties of conversion at one important missionary institution in China, as seen in the three conversion stories that are the core of this article: the still fervent belief of those elderly former residents I met in 1998; the tendency by many residents at the Door of Hope to resist the hard sell of these evangelicals; and, finally, the opting out by Elizabeth Peck and her Little Flock partners who took promises of faith at their word. Conversion was key to all three, and it was alive at the Door of Hope Mission in Shanghai.

     As was stated at the beginning of this article, conversion is also alive in China today. And it is often to a Christian church that appears to be much more influenced by those evangelical, even pentacostal and fundamentalist strains that were increasingly present and popular in the first half of the twentieth century before the 1949 Communist revolution. If you attend a Protestant Christian service (in the 1950s Protestant denominations were amalgamated into one official church, Catholics into another) in urban Shanghai or the rural Chinese countryside today, you will find a service full of emotion and religious fervor, far from the buttoned up Protestant Christianity of traditional mainline denominations. The style of conversion and religious devotion apparent today owes much to the conversion experiences and religiosity preached in mission institutions like the Door of Hope. Hope lives on in China.

Sue Gronewold is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Kean University in New Jersey where she is coordinator of the World History Program, teaches in the Holocaust and Genocide Master's Program, and offers courses in modern China, modern Japan, women's history, and the history of Asian international relations.


1Jesse Lutz in her biography, Opening China: Karl Gutzlaff and Sino-Western Relations 1827–52 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Press, 2008), recounts his pride at serving in China 40 years without making a single convert.

2 Dan Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (New York: Wiley, Blackwell, 2012): 205 fn2

3 The best brief overview of this literature is Bays, New History. See particularly Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) with his very thorough use of newly found Chinese materials. Other impressive new research is by Ryan Dunch, Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of Modern China 1817–1927 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Joseph Lee, The Bible and the Gun; Eriberto Lazado, Catholic China, Socialist State, and Transnational Processes in Chinese Villages (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Eugenio Menegon, Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).

4 Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (NY: Vintage, 1975) and in A History of Insanity in an Age of Reason (NY: Vintage, 1988), discussed total institutions, the state, and the individual in a manner incorporating history, philosophy, and advocacy that was different from the sociological approach followed by Irving Goffman in his Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (NY: Anchor Books, 1961).

5 See my unpublished 1996 Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, "Encountering Hope: The Door of Hope Mission in Shanghai and Taipei 1900–1975" and numerous published articles which incorporate later archival research and interviews such as "New Life/New Faith/New Women: Competing Images of Modernity at Shanghai's Door of Hope" in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and American Empire 1812–1938, )d. Kathryn Kish Sklar, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 195–217; "Forging a New Family at the Door of Hope Mission in Shanghai" in Divine Domesticites, ed. Margaret Jolly, (Canberra: Australia National University Press, 2014).

6 The history of the Door of Hope Mission was taken from Door of Hope Mission's Annual Reports and pamphlets, published by the mission in Shanghai, China, from 1901–1952, identified only by date with no volume numbers. Collections of these reports and pamphlets are scattered around the world (they were sent out, in part, to raise funds). The set I consulted is at the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary, now part of Columbia University Library, in both its microfilm and pamphlet collections. I also made extensive use of China Inland Mission publications such as China's Millions, published by the mission in Toronto, Canada, from 1891–1952, which is also in the holdings of the Burke Library of UTS. Added to those sources were numerous newspapers and archival materials in China, England, Australia, and the United States, plus scores of interviews.

7 Interviews with Door of Hope alumnae over several years, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2005, 2008, 2010. The Shanghai group interviews were in April, 1998, repeated with a much diminished group in 2008. A missionary to Taiwan, Kathryn Merrill, who had been mentored by E. Gladys Dieterle, the director of the Shanghai Door of Hope's Children's Refuge, was able to travel to Shanghai to meet with them for the first (and only) time, dying soon afterwards; she shared much of her documentation with me.

8 1911 witnessed famine in nearby Anhwei and in Kiangsu provinces not far from Shanghai; 1912 saw even worse famine in central China. At the same time, contests for central control after 1915 started Republican China down the path to warlord struggle whose first phase lasted until Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition of 1926–28. For discussions of economic problems and general unrest, see Marie-Claire Bergere, "'The Other China': Shanghai from 1919 to 1949," in Shanghai: Revolution and Development in an Asian Metropolis, ed. Christopher Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981): 26–29.

9 See Chinese newspapers, such as Shen pao, and the North China Herald, the major newspaper of Shanghai's International Settlement, plus missionary journals, such as the Chinese Recorder, and denominational newspapers such as China Inland Mission's China's Millions. China's Millions frequently throughout 1911 and 1912 contained articles about famine conditions with the plight of women and children underscored, for example, Jan. 1911:56–7. China's Millions, Feb. 1916: 30, described a "baby rescuing home" for infant victims of famine in Shensi; North China Daily News and Herald had many articles which linked children and famine: an article on famine conditions and families Aug. l7, 1918; discussion of girls home for girl famine victims Sept. 2, 1910; and the sale of children and girls due to famine Dec. 4, 1920.

10 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1912: 3.

11 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1913: 8; 1915: 7.

12 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1916: 7.

13 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1918: 6–7.

14 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1918: 5.

15 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1913.

16 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1912, 1915. The appendix at the back of each report always included a breakdown of number of runaways from each section of the Mission.

17 Matthew 25:34–40: For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when we saw thee hungry, and fed thee, or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When we saw thee a stranger, and took thee in, or naked, and clothed thee? Or when we saw thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these [emphasis mine] my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

18 Jonathan Chao, Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves,Christians in China Tell Their Story (Hong Kong: Chinese Church Research Center, 1988): 61.

19 Stanley Smith, "Modern Religious Movements" in China Mission Yearbook, 1935): 105.

20 History of Nee from August Kinnear, Against the Tide: The Story of Watchman Nee (London: Victory Press, 1974); James Moi Chiang, The Missiology of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee (Fort Washington, PA, 1972); Dana Robert, Understanding Watchman Nee (Plainfield, NJ: Haven

21 See the CIM correspondence files, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton, IL.

22 See Nee's own writings, especially The Normal Christian Life and "On the Suspension of Sex Disparity" in The Good Confession (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1973): 51–53, and Alvyn Austin, Saving China (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986): 232.

23 Elizabeth Peck Rademacher, interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, April, 1992. According to the interview, her life, like that of most Westerners in China, was disrupted in 1942 when she was first interned in Shanghai and then one of the first to leave and return to the US. As of 1992, she was living and witnessing in the sizeable Little Flock community in the Los Angeles area (with another equally large one in Queens, New York), having rejoined them fully after raising children and burying a husband. Apparently, they still live in groups, represent a heterogeneous mix of Westerners and Chinese, and fervently proselytize about the imminent "end time" and "Rapture." Rademacher seems to be regarded almost as a saint, given her direct experience with Nee in Shanghai.

24Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1940: 2.

25 Murray Rubinstein, in The Protestant Community on Modern Taiwan (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), calls the syncretic sects of Taiwan "bridge" groups between the Western-run missions and a fully indigenous Chinese Christian church. For more recent work on these groups, see Daniel Bays, A New History,132–34, and Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire..

26Jane Hunter, Gospel of Gentility, 9–10.

27 See Dana Robert, "'The Crisis of Missions:' Premillennial Mission Theory and the Origins of Independent Evangelical Missions" in Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions 1880–1980, ed. Joel Carpenter and Wilbert Shenk, (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans Pub, 1990): 29,39; Joel Carpenter, "Propagating the Faith Once Delivered: The Fundamentalist Missionary Enterprise, 1920–45" in Earthen Vessels, 99, 100.

28 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1912: 6–7.

29 Door of Hope, Annual Report, 1918: 7.

30 See the discussion in George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: 1991): 42–44.

31 Stanley Frodsham, With Signs Following: The Story of the Pentecostal Revival in the Twentieth Century (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1946): 125.

32 Frodsham, With Signs, 125–26.

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use