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“For One Brief Moment: A Chinese Reformed Seminary’s Attempt To Re-establish and Prepare for ‘Liberation’, 1944-1950”

On 2 April 1944 Watson Hayes died a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp in Weihsien Shandong. Venerated by three generations of Chinese theological students as 牧师, Watson McMillan Hayes had been in China as an American Presbyterian missionary for 62 years. The founder of the North China Theological Seminary (NCTS) located in Tenghsien Shandong, China’s largest theological school in the inter-war period, the protégé of B. B. Warfield had set a high standard. Now he was gone, the foreign professors at his Seminary all scattered. Would there be anything remaining of his original vision for a culturally aware, academically rigorous and spiritually passionate education for aspiring pastors? This paper takes off where I left the story of the North China Theological Seminary in China’s Reforming Churches: Mission Polity and Ministry in the New Christendom and continues the narrative[1] through the turbulent postwar period, until it was swallowed up in 1952 by Bishop Ting (丁光訓)and his henchmen. It also describes how brave Christian believers prepared for their so-called “liberation” by the atheistic Chinese Communists.

On Monday morning, 8 December 1941, the long ordeal began. As one of the NCTS professors described it, “Between 9 and 10 a.m., right while we were in our classes, the commander of the local Japanese garrison, accompanied by interpreters and an armed guard of some thirty men, called at the school compound and took over control of all gates.” All four hundred students were sent home in the next ten days. “Our staying on through it all in face of real danger” Old Testament Professor Martin Hopkins[2] reported, “calmly dismissing the students, and providing them with travel money home when it was not certain whether we would have enough left for our own use, made a deep and lasting impression on them. Many expressed their appreciation with tears in their eyes as they said farewell to us.”[3] In April he and the other Americans on the NCTS faculty were sent to Shanghai and eventually repatriated.            A year later Martin Hopkins was the first to return.  Leaving three days after Christmas 1943, the trip took four month less a day to finally reach West or “Free” China. On the journey he completed a commentary on Proverbs.

His initial assignment was to bring humanitarian aid in a war zone working for the Church Committee for China Relief. He spent eight months under appalling conditions travelling throughout Southwest China, centered in Kweiyang. But his commitment was to theological education. On Christmas Day 1944 he arrived at the Chungking home of NCTS graduate Calvin Chao[4]. Chao had teamed up with former NCTS Vice-Principal Chia Yu-ming[5] and together they shared a vision for training pastors. After eight months on the road Hopkins was refreshed by a Christmas Day celebration with a tree and candles. The celebration was short-lived, two days later the wife of Chia Yu=ming died of cancer and Hopkins was called on to take the funeral. Chia, Hayes’ student, exemplified strength in the midst of loss.

By mid-February 1945 his Spiritual Training Seminary reopened with twenty-five students for the spring term. In addition to lecturing Hopkins became Seminary treasurer coping with student’s board costs in a time of volcanic currency fluctuations. Citing the Biblical [6]threefold chord not easily broken, Hopkins described their relationship:  “Pastor Chia, who is sixty-five years old, is really a rare spiritual genius – teacher, preacher, evangelist, pastor, theologian, writer of devotional books and hymns. We use his own hymnbook in the chapel services at the Seminary, a book of over 500 hymns which are characterized by deep spirituality and Scripturalness. They are a real tonic to the soul. Calvin is a young man under forty, a persuasive orator and evangelist, untiring in his zeal for preaching the Word. He is especially popular with college students, among whom he has done an outstanding piece of work. On the faculty there have been three of my own students at Tenghsien, and these have done excellent work, and have introduced into the Spiritual Training Seminary some of the Tenghsien spirit.”[7]

All this was preparatory to one of the great events of pre-liberation Chinese Christianity, the July 1945 conference in Chungking which 160 students from forty of China’s sixty universities attended and Chinese InterVarsity was founded. Calvin Chao was IV’s first secretary with CIM missionary David Adeney[8] working closely with him. Adeney had been sent from England by CIM Director Bishop Frank Houghton when reports of the summer had come. Adeney arrived in January 1946 just in time for the winter InterVarsity conference. “I will never forget the tremendous enthusiasm among the several hundred students who gathered.” he later wrote.[9] “There is a deep longing on the part of students for the pure Gospel as set forth in the Word of God.”[10] It has been often stated that that remarkable student awakening  prepared the Chinese church for the forthcoming fire of affliction.

Hopkins was still committed to the vision of NCTS. “The chief thing,” he wrote, “in the future will be the training of native evangelists for we can never overtake the task merely with missionaries. This is why I am so deeply interested in this Spiritual Training Seminary, and in the reestablishment of our North China Theological Seminary as soon as possible. Just the other day a Lutheran missionary, when he learned that I was connected for years with the NCTS, volunteered the remark that the three best workers in their mission were Tenghsien graduates, and generously added that the NCTS had trained men better than their own Shekow Seminary. Our men, he said, stick to the job and know how to endure hardness and shepherd the flock.“[11]

The end of the war on 14 August 1945 and the cessation of hostilities in China caught everyone by surprise with its suddenness. As Hopkins waited for a plane out of Chungking for Shanghai reports began trickling out of Tenghsien. The Communists had cut the train lines in many places and there was open warfare between the followers of Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. He arrived in Shanghai 18 November and proceeded north to Hsuchowfu, the nearest safe place to Tenghsien.  “I received a royal welcome … Being the first Protestant missionary that had returned to this whole section …It is a strange situation and they do not know how to cope with it.”[12]

The news from Tenghsien was not encouraging. “Up to December 14 the property was in reasonable shape and could easily been repaired” he reported. But then the Communist offensive swept into the city and many fled. Among those fleeing were the only foreigners who had stayed. Dr and Mrs Alexander had escaped from Nazi Germany and were hired to run the Presbyterian Hospital in Tenghsien, maintaining it throughout the war with exemplary professionalism. Their home was shelled as the city was invaded. With a weak heart, his second evacuation this time to Hsuchow, proved too much. “I was very fond of him and his wife and his death was a real personal loss and grief to me”[13] Hopkins mourned.

             Instead of retreat the capture of the city and the destruction of NCTS property brought renewed commitment. “In the midst of the uncertainties and perplexities caused by the fall of Tenghsien one thing stood out clear in my mind and that was the need to keep our faculty together as good teachers are very difficult to obtain in China now. So with the teachers and a small group of students we opened the North China Theological Seminary here on March 6, in borrowed buildings with a limited amount of borrowed furniture. The teachers and students sleep on the floor as beds are out of the question. We are thankful to have electric lights and to be able to get coal for cooking at a fairly reasonable price.” The latter part of March he attended, with the Board secretaries from New York and Nashville, a meeting of the Mission Survey Committee to consider ways and means of reopening the work in the China Field. One day was given to meetings with Chinese delegates from various parts of our field. There were some very stirring reports of how these leaders had carried on during all these hard years.”

Hopkins was now joined by a former Tenghsien missionary, Ken Kepler[14], recently returned from the United States. On 20 April they travelled to Tenghsien to make an assessment, having obtained travel passes from the Communist General. Col. Harris of General Marshall’s group took them in his special train. Hopkins was distraught as he surveyed the damage: ”the attack in Shantung and North Kiangsu is one of the severest blows that Mission work has ever received in China. It is a cunning piece of diabolical strategy directed by Satan, the arch-enemy of God and man. He has attacked sound evangelical Christianity in one of its long-established and strongest citadels. The Presbyterian Mission work and Chinese churches in Shantung and North Kiangsu were among the strongest and soundest in all China, with the North China Theological Seminary in the center of both, and for twenty-six years sending at a constant stream of well-trained Bible-believing workers into the field. And the same was true of the Mateer Memorial Institute in Tenghsien, which stood out unique as a thoroughly Christian High School.”[15]

But there was another attack on NCTS, this time from America. The Seminary had been founded in 1919 as a protest by Chinese students against Western liberal missionaries.It had a wide ranging theological influence. In 1927 when the theologically mixed Church of Christ in China (CCC) had been formed, four South Shantung presbyteries had stayed out of the union, remaining as the China Presbyterian Church[16]. Now Lloyd Stanton Ruland at the China desk of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in New York saw an opportunity to combat separatist influences and bring NCTS into the theological (i.e. liberal and ecumenical) mainstream.[17]

Ruland was not popular with theological conservatives, needless to say. But his big mistake was to underestimate the strength of NCTS’ American Council, set up on 28 December 1942 in Philadelphia, and consisting of a blue ribbon board of prominent (and powerful) Presbyterian laity[18]. The chairman of the American Council of NCTS was Clarence Edward Macartney, minister of First Church Pittsburgh, and a doughty defender of theological orthodoxy.  On 11 June 1946 former Tenghsien missionary Harry Romig and Council members T. Edward Ross[19] and Charles Shinn travelled to New York and met with Ruland. Their discussion focussed on title to the property, registered by Dr. Hayes with the American Consulate for “the American Presbyterian Church.” Ross concluded his report: “My impression is that Dr. Hopkins and the those associated with him in China should be urged to rally the forces of the conservative in the Chinese Church, the missionaries from the Southern Church and others interested in maintaining a sound testimony,”[20]

Because NCTS was sponsored by both the Northern (PCUSA) and Southern (PCUS) boards the support of the latter proved a counterweight to Ruland’s machinations. On 27 May 1947 the “Southern” Secretary C. Darby Fulton wrote: “There is no question that the NCTS is the preferred institution so far as our group is concerned. We do hope, as you do, that the NCTS may not develop in the direction of a narrow hyper-conservativism, but will continue as a strong center of orthodox Presbyterianism in which our Presbyterian missionaries, USA and US, can cooperate happily with our Chinese brethren.”[21] Two years later the Council met with Fulton and Ruland and subsequently told their supporters that “we found that we were unanimous in the conviction that N.C.T.S. must be preserved as a distinct unit in the evangelization of China, that its unique doctrinal position as the unwavering exponent of the entire Reformed Faith must be guaranteed for the future through whatever safeguards may be required, and that its prestige in China and among its American supporters would be strengthened by having it continue as an arm of the Chinese Presbyterian Church receiving some help from the established Presbyterian Mission enterprise.”[22]

Squabbling over property titles seems, in retrospect, ludicrous as by now not only was Tenghsien out of range due to Communist occupation but Hsuchowfu was also surrounded by their rapidly advancing military. Thanks to funds provided by the American Council, the Seminary bought a picturesque and large estate on Lake Tai four miles outside Wusih (无锡), a city midway between Shanghai and Nanking. The first four days of July 1948 four railway box cars moved the entire school, its students and faculty, and as many of the belongings and furniture that could be salvaged, and set up in their new location. And that autumn another former faculty member returned. On 12 November 1948 Alex MacLeod, returned to NCTS in Wusih having recovered from five years of incarceration by the Japanese. “He was welcomed by many old friends but particularly by Dr. Hopkins who has been carrying the burden without much human assistance” Horace Hill reported to American NCTS supporters. “His return will do much to raise the standard of the Seminary but we continue to hope that the former quota of four missionary professors will be granted by our two Foreign Mission Boards.”[23]

The Communist armies relentlessly pursued their seemingly unstoppable course, crossing the Yangtze River on 21 April 1949. The Eighth Army (八路军 Ba-lu Djun) entered the NCTS compound and pointed to its sign dismissing the word “theology” as “mythology.”[24] With the fall of Shanghai a month later NCTS students were coopted for a victory parade. But there was much anxiety on campus due to previous experiences. Ten students were allowed to graduate on 30 May. “We said ‘good-bye’ with strong feelings, commended one another to God’s care, and promised to pray for each other in the uncertain and troubled days to come.”[25] MacLeod left shortly thereafter for Shanghai, taking advantage of the prevailing chaos to travel anonymously with the required permit from the new authorities. “These are times in China when it requires high courage and consecration to follow the call to service in the ministry of Christ’s Church.”[26]

MacLeod’s own future at NCTS was uncertain and in August he asked the faculty whether he should return to Wusih or join his family in Hong Kong. “It is a very hard decision to make for I should love no work better than that of teaching at the Seminary, but I also love my family in Hongkong who cannot now return here.”[27] The faculty responded in a grace-filled letter written by Martin Hopkins as their secretary: “All realize the gravity of the present situation and though we plan to open on Sept. 9th as announced there is no guarantee that we can continue till the end of the fall semester, All appreciate your willingness to return to Wusih and your loyalty to the Seminary and to God’s call you to labor for the upbuildijg of His Church in China.”[28] Thus freed, MacLeod left for Hong Kong, never to return to the land of his birth and the ministry for which he felt God had prepared him.

That autumn term in 1949 proved to be, in Martin Hopkins’ words[29], “one of the quietest and best sessions of the seminary … very different from what we thought might be the case in the summer when everything was so uncertain.”  During the first week in December, Pastor Chia Yu-ming returned to conduct special services and “his messages were greatly used and blessed.” There was a fortnight’s break in January and on the 27th the Seminary reconvened for what turned out to be the final “normal” year of studies. “Before graduating, the fifteen graduates of the 1950 class of our North China Theological Seminary were concerned about where they were going to work, but there is not a single one who has not been located, and more were in demand if they could have been obtained.”[30]

Signs of renewal and revival were abundant in NCTS and among its graduates.  “A spirit of earnest prayerfulness prevails among the students” Hopkins reflected[31] at the time. At the Spring 1950 meeting of the South Shantung Synod of the Presbyterian Church in China he reported that “There are great numbers of inquirers who come up before the sessions for examination and baptism, ranging from 200 to as many as 1,000 in one remarkable instance.” In the summer of 1950 he visited his daughter in language study in Beijing: “While there” he wrote pn his return to NCTS, “a large meeting of the China student Inter-Varsity Fellowship was in progress, with Pastor Chia Yu Ming as one of the leading speakers. Meetings were held three times a day and at each session there were from 600 to 1,000 in attendance.”[32] Unlike Wang Ming Dao, Chia chose to cooperate with the Communists, working with them in the setup of a new ecumenical theological institution.

On 25 June 1950 the Korean War began and soon “volunteers” from China crossed the Yalu River, and there was a steady erosion of freedom for Christians in China. On 1 November 1952 eleven theological institutions, theologically ranging from “fundamentalist to conservative evangelical to liberal,”[33] were forced to join the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary with K. C. Ting  (丁光訓) as Principal. A Sino-Soviet Friendship Society was organized on campus and all students had to join. It was a time of testing

The next three decades would prove the mettle of the church in China. The Chinese church, instead of shrinking or disappearing, emerged from its fiery furnace more resilient than ever. It is today (as many observe) an evangelical church, its theology deeply grounded in its high view of Scripture. The theology taught in the NCTS has stood the test of time.



[1] See also 赵曰北,《历史光影中的华北神学院》(香港:中国国际文化出版社,2015年

[2] Martin Armstrong Hopkins (1889-1964) (PCUS China, 1917-1951). His aunt, Mrs J.J.Kelso, left a substantial collection of family correspondence to the Archives of the United Church of Canada (CA ON00340 F 3135).

[3] Martin A Hopkins “Dear friends”, September 1943 (UCC Archives),

[4] Calvin Chao (1906-1996) founder China InterVarsity and China Native Evangelism Crusade (C.N.E.C.)

[5] Chia Yu-ming  aka Jia Yuming (1889-1964) studied at Tsingchowfu under Hayes 1901-4, pastored, going to NCTS in 1924. In 1930 went tor Ginling Women’s Theological Seminary, Nanjing, founded in 1936 Spiritual Training Theological Seminary, Nanjing/Chongqing/Shanghai. In 1954 V-Chair, Three-self Patriotic Movement.

[6] Ecc. 4:12: “And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

[7] MAH to Dr Fulton and Betsie Hopkins, 4 January 1945, later mimeographed and circulated (UCC Archives)

[8] See Carolyn Armitage’s Reaching for the Goal. Wheaton: OMF Books, 1995. 101-2 and also my C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. 137.

[9] Adeney, David, China: Christian Students Face The Revolution. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

[10] MAH to supporters 4 January 1945, page 15. (UCC Archives)

[11] MAH to supporters 4 January 1945, page 19. (UCC Archives)

[12] MAH to supporters. 17 May 1946, page 1.

[13] MAH to supporters. 17 May 1946, page 2.

[14] Kenneth Kepler (1906-1999) 2nd son of Asher, first general secretary of the CCC; graduate Princeton University and Seminary, served under PCUSA in China and then PCUS in Taiwan retiring in 1970. His fear that NCTS would be taken over by the CCC led him to teach in Shanghai’s Kiangwan China Bible Seminary in 1947.

[15] MAH to supporters, 17 May 1946, page 6

[16] A letter of 12 Nov. 1950, written by MAH as English Secretary of the NCTS faculty, to Ruland with just a touch of irony: “There is a real live Presbyterian Church in S Shantung and N Kiangsu, though small in numbers and weak in material goods. They have passed through great trial of affliction for more than a decade, but are not discouraged. They need the prayers and financial support of the Churches in America, and are just as worthy of it as larger and more pretentious organizations.” [Author’s archive]

[17] Lloyd Stanton Ruland (1889-1952) graduate of Westminster College (DD 1932) and McCormick Seminary in 1916. Served intermittently in China to 1926, first at Ichow. Called to West PCUSA, Binghamton, NY 1927-1938 Became China secretary in 1938 as colleague to Robert Speer.”“In 1946 he led the post-war deputation to China returning a few months later, hopeful of the future of missions in China. As one of his colleagues has put it: ‘It was his tragedy that this was not to be. The situation deteriorated and the problems thickened. There were many and heady decisions to be made, involving the great work and the beloved missionary colleagues; and these were the special inescapable responsibilities of the China Secretary. He felt it all very deeply. One may well say that he himself was a China casualty.’” Obituary, Wm P Schell, Board of Foreign Missions (PCUSA).

[18] Kevin Xiyi Yao has a brief section on this postwar network in his conclusion to “The NCTS: Evangelical Theological Education in China in the Early 1900s” in Kalu, Ogbu, Ed.  Interpreting Contemporary ChristianityL Global Processes and Local Identities. Grand Raoids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.  185-6.

[19] Thomas Edward Ross (1867-1963), Ulsterman, chartered accountant, with brother established a firm in 1898 which in 1973 merged as Coopers & Lybrand; founding elder Ardmore PCUSA, 41 years.

[20] Ross, T. Edward. “NCTS memorandum of interview concerning the disposition of property in China” 14 June 1946. [Author’s archive]. Ross presented the T. Edward Ross collection of Bibles to the Univ of PA the next year.

[21] C Darby Fulton to ANM, 27 May 1947. [Author’s archive]

[22] Horace G, Hill to “friends”, 12 August 1949 [UCC Archives]. Horace G. Hill Jr. provided leadership for 30 years for the NCTS American Council. He was Secretary-Treasurer of Atlantic Oil Refining Co and lived in Berwyn, PA.

[23] Horace Hill to NCTS supporters, 16 December 1948 [Author’s archive].

[24] A. N. MacLeod. “A Letter from China” Revelation (December 1949) 506.

[25] ANM via PC(USA) service, 15 October 1949. [Author’s archive].

[26] ANM via PC(USA) service, 15 October 1949. [Author’s archive].

[27] ANM to NCTS faculty, 9 August 1949. [Author’s archive].

[28] Faculty to ANM, 14 August 1949. [Author’s archive]

[29] MAH to “friends”, 30 December 1949.[UCC Archives]

[30] MAH to friends, 28 August 1950.

[31] MAH to “friends”, 30 December 1949. [UCC Archives]

[32] MAH to friends, 28 August 1950.

[33] As described by Wickert, Philip L. Reconstructing Christianity in China: K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007. 108