Some wish to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell!
So wrote the famous missionary from Northamptonshire, Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931). He was from a privileged background and had played cricket for England in the 1882 match won by Australia, which was the origin of Ashes.
A year later, he heard the American evangelist D L Moody at Cambridge and was deeply convicted of God’s claim on his life. With six friends, Studd pledged his life to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him, he declared. As proof of ‘burning his boats’, he waived his right to a considerable fortune. In 1885, the “Cambridge Seven” set off for China. It was a high-profile action by some of the cream of England’s youth, and it made a great impression.
This was, at least in part, because of a movement in England at that time towards “Muscular Christianity. You can read more about it in this article: The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond. [full text here.]
It seems the term “muscular Christianity” was coined in the 1850s in a review of a novel by Anglican priest and author, Charles Kingsley. Across the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt was a keen advocate. It was an age where industry was mechanising many processes, leaving working people more time for leisure than before. There were also threats of war with several nations, and key voices of the day proclaimed the need to raise up young future leaders. These, they said, needed to combine the moral character of Christianity with physical strength and fitness.
A friend of Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, author of the much-loved novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, distinguished between “musclemen” (athletes without Christian faith) and “muscular Christians”. “The only point in common between the two is that both hold it to be a good thing to have strong and well-exercised bodies. Here all likeness ends. [The Christian belief is] “that a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, then used for the protection of the weak and the advancement of all righteous causes.”
The writers of the research paper discuss the role of Muscular Christianity thinking in, for example, the foundation of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and even the modern Olympic Games, begun by Baron de Coubertin in 1896. They also cover opposition to the concept by equally weighty figures like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who foresaw the physical emphasis outstripping morality and the aspects of the heart.
This explains why the reports of Studd’s labours resonated strongly back home – and why his writings were read with enthusiasm. For the rest of his life, Studd worked hard on the mission field in China, India, Sudan and the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). His wife Priscilla worked tirelessly to promote the missions back in Britain. It was Studd himself, however, who made the biggest noise through his writings – and one in particular: The Chocolate Soldier. It is a rallying cry to rank alongside William Booth’s Darkest England.
Heroism is the lost chord of present-day Christianity, he writes. Then, with exquisite irony, he likens Western Christians to chocolate Christians, dissolving in water and melting at the smell of fire. Sweeties they are! Lollipops! Living their lives in a cardboard box, each clad in his frilled white paper to preserve his dear, delicate constitution. He parodies the great martial hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in a “chocolate” version:
Mark time, Christian heroes, never go to war. Stop and mind the babies, playing on the floor…
Studd echoes a concern of his day, that increased leisure was feminising young men; and he points a finger of blame at self-satisfied and risk-averse Christianity. Many fine youngsters are turned into chocolates by ‘old prophets’ – preachers who have lost their fire [referring to an episode in 1 Kings 13].
By contrast, Studd made it his practice to take the costly way, so he could model it for others. To him, Christians are the true heroes: braver than the bravest, scorning the soft seductions of peace and her oft repeated warnings against hardship, disease, danger and death, whom he counts among his bosom friends. So he lived in a mud hut, refused vacations and would not be hindered by disease or disappointment. His motto (which was later expanded into a hymn) was: “Only one life,‘twill soon be past; and only what’s done for Christ will last.”
This fired the imagination of hundreds back home, who came to find him in Africa and sit at his feet. From these, Studd believed a muscular succession would come, carrying the same spirit that had always gripped him. I will blaze the trail, he wrote, though my grave may only become a stepping stone that younger men may follow.
We ought not to forget the equally brave sacrifice made by Studd’s wife, Priscilla. Unable to travel with him on account of their four daughters, she chose before God not to impede him on his course, but to stay home, pray, and fund-raise for him – and rely on letters from the ‘front’!
Maria Woodworth Etter (1844-1924) was a true pioneer in the history of “signs and wonders” in the church. A diminutive, uneducated woman from the backwoods of Ohio, she was rough-speaking and marked by suffering (five of her six children died). For more details, see this useful blog post by Shawn Stevens.
Even so, she felt a call from God at age 35 to proclaim the gospel. It was a day where women could not vote, let alone preach. So she asked God to qualify her. She records: The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and fire, with power which has never left me. [‘A Diary of Signs and Wonders’]
She began touring with a gospel tent. This was well known in America, but Maria’s meetings were different. People fell to the ground and lay there for hours. Some saw visions of heaven, which they reported to the audience. Others spoke in tongues. Angelic singing was heard, even by journalists.
God used her most strikingly, though, in healing. People travelled hundreds of miles to be prayed for by her. She believed and taught that every need was already supplied in Christ’s atonement. She got people to lift their hands and praise God from the heart; then with authority she would command the sickness to go. In her various books and in press reports of the day, there are ample testimonies of the crippled running, cancers disappearing, decayed organs restored, the deaf hearing, and the mentally ill recovering.
What makes Maria Woodworth Etter stand out is the magnitude of the healings that took place in her campaigns. Many of these read like the Book of Acts. For this alone she has been called “perhaps the greatest woman evangelist in the history of the Church”. Here are a few examples, taken from her book A Diary of Signs and Wonders (1916, reissued by Harrison House).
‘A sister had met with an accident five years before. Her hip [muscles] had wasted away and for three years she had not left her bed. I saw she was in a terrible condition, but I knew there is nothing too hard for the Lord. I told her to put her trust in Him, then I prayed and she arose, perfectly healed of all her diseases, and went shouting around the house.’
Some sickness linked to demonic oppression
‘A little girl was carried into the meeting [at Springfield, Illinois, c.1884], as helpless as a baby. She had spinal meningitis, was paralysed all over, her brain was impaired, her head dropped on to her chest, and she had no use of her back and limbs. She had been so for six months, and for four months had only eaten nothing but drunk a little milk.
‘I laid hands on her and commanded the unclean spirits to come out of her. In five minutes she could sit up straight and lift her hands above her head. Five minutes more and she could talk and stand up… The next morning she was the first one up, running from house to house telling what God had done for her.’
Miraculous healing of multiple diseases
‘[A man of 64 in Indianapolis] had had piles for 30 years. He had had them cut and burned off four times; then cancer commenced. He got so bad that he had to sit on an inflated ring, and his wife had to flush his bowels twice a day, using a long syringe and tube and 2 quarts of water. Then he would bleed and it was so offensive that she could hardly do it.
‘The bowel was all gone on the left side for ten inches up; the backbone was exposed, having no flesh on it. He also had rheumatism… God converted and healed him all at once, in less than 15 minutes. He was baptised with the Holy Ghost and is now one of God’s little ones. There is nothing too hard for our God!‘
Healing as a pointer to God’s heart
‘[In Muscatine, Iowa], a lady came to the meeting suffering greatly. Eight months before, she had fallen down a flight of steps; her arm and wrist had been broken and her fingers crushed. The arm and hand were very swollen and inflamed. Doctors gave her no hope of ever being able to use the arm or hand.
‘When we prayed for her, the people crowded around to see what would happen. When they saw her begin to move her fingers and hand, and saw the swelling going down, and saw her stretch out her arm, then clap her hands shouting “I am healed!”, they could scarcely believe their eyes. Strong men, who were not believers, wept and said “Surely God is here!”
Her work did not go unopposed. Medical practitioners sought to get her committed as insane, but the press generally defended her. The manifest healings spoke eloquently of God’s grace working through her. We sense something of the personal cost in this report from the St Louis Globe of 1890:
The meeting was one of the most disorderly that has ever been witnessed under the tent, for no sooner would someone throw up his or her hands in a religious ‘trance,’ than the crowd would stand up on the seats, push forward, and do everything but literally climb over each other to see the person. Mrs. Woodworth’s face had a harassed or troubled look, but she still possessed the same pleasant welcoming smile which she always wears; and she walked up and down the platform making the same graceful curving gestures which many claim to be her method of hypnotizing her followers.
On account of the many unusual things she had experienced, and the evident Holy Spirit power in her gatherings, Maria was welcomed by early Pentecostals as a forerunner of their own movement. She worked alongside several pioneers like F F Boswell and John G Lake, who called her “Mother Etter”.
Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Norway.
In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association. Not long after her arrival, she fell down some stairs and hit her head so hard that she was unconscious several days. The trauma left her unable to study language for two years. For six years she suffered debilitating headaches, as well as dysentery, malaria, pain, and frustration. The first 20 years of her service were God’s learning curve for her, causing her to be constantly aware of her weakness and to cast herself on Him in constant dependence. Marie learned the power of endurance. This blog post from Sarah Alexander gives more details.
Monsen’s devotional life was her mainstay. taken to a new level in the 1927 Shantung Revival. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began in Shantung in 1927 – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.
Her courage was remarkable. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. When an invading army of looters was ravaging a whole city, Monsen urged the Christians not to fear but to pray; the looters were prevented from coming near her mission compound because of angels standing sentry over it! This and many more examples can be found in her book A Present Help: Standing on the Promises of God.
She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’ She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.
Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.
When she died, Monsen was buried in at Solheim cemetery in Bergen, Norway. In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, a leader of the Chinese house church movement, Brother Yun, tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. So they made the need known and donations came in, such that in 2001 a monument was erected to one of God’s outstanding (but humble) warrior women.
Someone who influenced my life by his sanctity, humility and his amazing life of Christian service to the needy, was Christian Schreiber [the link is in German], who died in 2010 at a ripe old age. He was a Pentecostal pastor in northern Germany and had begun a work after World War 2 caring for war orphans. He was fluent in Finnish, and at his mission station in Missunde, he would tell me tales of servants of God from Scandinavia who are largely unknown to English-speakers.
One of these was Niilo Yli-Vainio (1920-81, rough pronunciation Neelo Ulli-vine-io). Christian shared a stage with him sometimes during the remarkable revival that came to Finland in the 1970s. Material on him in English is scarce, but I have listed two articles in the footnote.
Niilo was brought up in a Lutheran home. His father was a soldier, but his godly grandmother prophesied that Niilo would be a warrior for God’s kingdom. However, the Finno-Russian war of 1939 showed him such horrors that he wrote: “God does not exist.” After the war, though, he and his wife began attending Pentecostal house meetings and experienced a profound conversion. Niilo began seeing visions of lost souls in chains, and he started visiting villages and preaching the gospel. Some hearers received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spreading the gospel further.
In 1963, Niilo was diagnosed with heart disease and cancer. Ten years of treatment achieved little, so he and his wife planned to retire to the countryside to die. He did, however, attend a Pentecostal conference in Australia, and there God healed him and flooded him with holy power! The two experiences worked together in Niilo: his suffering gave him humility and empathy in his dealings with the hurting, and the Holy Spirit’s power gave him an understanding of the faith and authority that God entrusts to faithful labourers in His vineyard.
In 1977, God moved strongly at Lapua, Finland. As Niilo preached, some people fell to the ground, others spoke in tongues, while others were miraculously healed. People flocked to Lapua, where up to 200 people a week surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ. The media took note, the press publishing articles and a film being made (on YouTube but only in Finnish). It was at this time that Niilo began to be referred to as ‘God’s Warrior’, as his grandmother had foretold.
He continued to hold house meetings but visited other countries too. In the Far East, some who were lame and blind were completely healed. There are documented instances where one or two people were healed through an anointed cloth as in Acts 19:11-12, or even through a photo of Niilo. And this became a problem. His letters at times reveal an inner anguish that, try as he might to point people to Jesus alone, he continued to be contacted from far and wide as “the miraculous healer Yli-Vainio”. In his campaign meetings, if someone gave a wonderful testimony of healing, he would get the onlookers to repeat, almost as a mantra, “Jesus did it!”
After only four years in the public eye, Niilo was jogging while on a vacation in Spain and suffered a fatal heart-attack. Mourned by many, his labours left a mark on Finland through increased church attendance and respect for Christian truth. His life showed that God can use anyone He pleases (even a man dying of cancer) to work His purposes. Niilo stressed that an attitude of prayer and expectancy is indispensable to experiencing a new Pentecost, be it personal or corporate. Also that God is sovereign and will pour out His blessings whenever and wherever He chooses.
Personal reminiscences of Pastor Christian Schreiber
Harri Heino, ‘The Charismatic Movement in Finland and America’, Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association, vol. 7 (1988).
Benjamin Ranta, ‘Niilo Yli-Vainio, the Great Finnish Revivalist’, Assemblies of God Heritage, vol. 26 (2006).
I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.
These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.
An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. However, scholars quickly established that, stylistically and ideologically, the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.
These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.
What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.
What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).
Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.
The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].
A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:
I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.
Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he knew sweeps of emotion beyond his fellows, higher highs and deeper lows. His conversion experience was unusually dramatic too: in a dream, he was carried off to hell by a demon, and cried to God that he deserved it – but begged for mercy. He knew amazing peace and joy and woke up loving God.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which might not be the right size. He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it. He didn’t always wash. After his death, one obituary said: Who will forget his orangutan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.
He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Peggy wrote a journal of these times, later publicised as Vicissitudes in the Wilderness (available online here).
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitefield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, screamed, wept, begged, insulted, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound. He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it. Lorenzo himself wrote a retrospective account of his many experiences, The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil (available online here).
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time. One famous episode took place in Westminster, Maryland, and he repeated it elsewhere. Seeing a boy with a trumpet, he enlisted his help: after the start of a service in a meeting hall, the lad was to climb an adjoining tree and wait for a signal. Inside, Dow preached a “fire and brimstone” message. In a great crescendo he cried: ‘If Gabriel were to blow his trumpet announcing the day of Judgment is at hand, would you be ready?’ It was the signal. The boy blew the trumpet! People screamed and rushed to the front to seek mercy and make peace with God. The boy made a quick getaway!
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their grinding poverty, however, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand for a whole preaching but had to lean on something.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour. But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again! At Jacksonborough, Georgia, he was abused and attacked so badly that, on leaving, he “shook off the dust from his feet” [Matthew 10:14] and cursed the place. Within a few years, all that was left of Jacksonborough was the home of his hosts – the rest had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain, where he longed to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last 3 days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no considerable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labor in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitefield.”
In AD 635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in hitherto unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.