In ‘Still Wrestling,’ minister whose wife, son were slain explores faith, doubt
A double murder. A destroyed family. A shattered faith. After…
When historians capture these narratives, they bless the church. They present us with stories that not only inform and entertain, but they also convict and inspire. That’s exactly what Stephen V. Crowder does in “The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929-1949) of the Churches of Christ.”
Crowder tells the story of the Canton Mission in four episodes. The 1920s was a time for dreaming and preparing. College students George Benson and Lewis Oldham learned that China, the world’s most populous nation, had no missionaries dedicated to “the restoration of New Testament Christianity,” according to their early reports.
The students determined to change that.
By the summer of 1925, George and Sallie Hockaday Benson, just weeks after their wedding, sailed for China. Oldham and his wife, the former Grace Narron, followed in 1927.
The years 1929 through 1937 marked a high point for the mission. The team decided to conduct their work in a major city and settled on Canton (also called Guangzhou). The missionaries and a few early converts followed a strategy of Bible teaching, high-quality literature and public evangelism — even street preaching.
The missionaries struggled to become fluent in Cantonese. Anti-missionary feelings sometimes came to the surface. In one village, a sermon was “drowned out by a noisy group of young people banging on pots and pans.” Still, by the mid-1930s, the Canton Bible School had a two-story building, and the mission was conducting “a total of 12 evangelistic meetings each Sunday, with a combined attendance of around 450 people,” Crowder writes.
The Japanese military occupation of China, which began in 1937, ended the momentum. Bombing forced nationals out of Canton and into the villages. Reluctantly, the missionaries returned to the U.S.
After World War II, Lowell and Odessa Davis, who had served in Canton prior to war, returned with a new emphasis on humanitarian aid. The Chinese, they discovered, were more willing than before to accept the Gospel. Lowell Davis reported that 210 were baptized in 1947. But the Communist takeover of China in 1949 resulted in the deportation of missionaries and the sometimes-violent suppression of Christianity.
According to a recent estimate, China is now home to more than 60 million believers of Protestant persuasion. Observing that growth, George Benson in 1987 said, “What seemed for a long time to be years of wasted effort may prove yet to have been more productive than we ever imagined possible.”
“The Field is the World” chronicles the story of a handful of North American missionaries and their Chinese coworkers who proclaimed the message of salvation.
The text, accompanied by dozens of illustrations, is a welcome addition to the missions historiography of the Churches of Christ.
Frank Bellizzi, a longtime minister, is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Texas Tech University. He and his wife, Michele, worship with the Church of Christ at The Colonies in Amarillo, Texas. Seminary.
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