TEAM History: China

The cradle of Chinese civilization incubated the largest mission effort in northern Asia.

Written by Megan Darreth

The fertile lands of the flood plain surrounding Xi'an

have attracted people for thousands of years. Known as a cradle of Chinese civilization, Xi’an is one of the country’s four great ancient capitals and was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It was here, in 1892, that the first TEAM missionaries settled in China. Not long after Peter Holmen arrived in Xi’an, a crowd of Chinese men came to confront the missionary at his home. They wanted him to leave. J.F. Swanson, in Three Score Years ... and Then, described how Holmen invited the men in for tea: “Then he reached for his guitar and asked his ‘company’ if they would wish to hear a few gospel songs. He sang one song after the other — in the Chinese, Norwegian and English languages — until gradually his visitors forgot their errand and accepted his hospitality.”

At the time of Holmen’s arrival, Western hegemony and involvement in the opium trade had left the Chinese people with justified resentment and suspicion of foreigners. It was a tension that would continue throughout this era of missions in China. Holmen was part of the initial wave of missionaries sent by TEAM, engaged to work in China with the China Inland Mission (CIM). J. Hudson Taylor founded CIM in 1865, and it became the largest Protestant mission organization in China by the end of the century. At the 1890 General Missionary Conference in Shanghai, Taylor made an emotional appeal for 1,000 new missionaries for China. This appeal was printed as a leaflet and sent around the world. In response, hundreds of young adults journeyed to the country from Europe and America over the next decade.

Evangelist Fredrik Franson was traveling through Europe, preaching to young adults, when he learned of Taylor’s appeal. It changed the course of his ministry. Biographer O.C. Grauer wrote, “It gripped his heart and drove him to his knees in prayer to God that He would make him an instrument to secure a part of this thousand for China.” Franson, a Swedish-American, was determined to rally Scandinavians to Taylor’s call, both in Scandinavian countries and in America. He returned to America and began teaching the Bible and his first missionary training courses at Pilgrim Church in Brooklyn, New York, on Oct. 14, 1890. Approximately 50 young people attended these courses, and 20 of them committed to becoming missionaries in China. Over the next few months, Franson held Bible and training courses in Chicago, Minneapolis and Omaha, gathering more missionary candidates. Of them, 35 were selected to be the first missionaries sent to China, followed by a group of 15 three weeks later.

"we have seen one new church building after the other erected.”

Needing helpers who could administer money and act as advisors for these missionaries, Franson formed the Scandinavian Alliance Mission of North America (the name was changed to The Evangelical Alliance Mission in 1949). Franson decided to headquarter his new mission in Chicago, a city with many supporters of their missionary efforts. The first 50 missionaries arrived in Shanghai in February and March 1891. Taylor and CIM staff, who received them, called it the largest missionary party ever known to arrive in China. TEAM became an associate mission of CIM, and on Taylor’s advice the missionaries adopted the provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu as TEAM’s field. Many settled in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province. Franson departed in January 1894 for his first missionary observation and evaluation tour. In China, he had several conferences with Taylor and visited TEAM’s 55 missionaries. Franson visited seven of the eight stations they already had opened in Shaanxi and Gansu. By 1900, there were approximately 100,000 Chinese Protestant Christians — a tiny fraction of the population.

In addition to being a strange and foreign religion, most Chinese associated Christianity with Western imperialism, the Taiping Rebellion (a deadly civil war in southern China led by a revolutionary who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus) and the invasive and destructive opium trade and Opium Wars. Prior to the Opium Wars, foreigners were not allowed to live and work in China, though they could trade with Chinese merchants on the coast. Great Britain had a profitable trade selling opium from their colony in India. However, the Chinese imperial government worried about increasing numbers of opium addicts in their country and tried to end the trade. Britain declared war on China and won. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking forced China to open five port cities to foreign residents (including missionaries), exempt Westerners from Chinese law and give Britain the island of Hong Kong. A decade later, Britain again declared war against China. Treaties signed at the Convention of Peking in 1860 forced China to allow foreign diplomats in Beijing, allow foreign residents to live in inland China and legalize the opium trade. By the end of the 19th century, nearly one-third of Chinese men were addicted to opium.

In spite of their good intentions, good works or even their (eventually successful) campaign to end the opium trade, the presence of Christian missionaries in China was inexorably linked to opium, the wars and the humiliation wrought by Western powers. Frustration with foreign interference in China, combined with drought and poverty in the northern provinces, culminated in a peasant uprising from 1899 to 1900. TEAM missionary William Hagquist lived in Xi’an when the Boxer Rebellion began. He wrote, “A terrible anti-foreign and anti-Christian persecution was spreading over China, by the so-called Boxers — ‘Ta Tao-Huei.’ This persecution was organized by high Manchurian officials with Imperial sanction. The persecution began in the northeastern provinces and although it had not reached our provinces of Shensi [Shaanxi] and Kansu [Gansu], we heard rumors of the killing of missionaries and native Christians in the provinces of Chili (Hopeh) [Hebei] and Shansi [Shanxi].” The Boxer Rebellion dealt a serious blow to missions in northern China. Amidst the violence, 189 missionaries were murdered, including 52 children, as well as 40 Roman Catholic priests and nuns and thousands of Chinese Christians. Five of TEAM’s six Mongolia field missionaries were killed (they opened a station in Inner Mongolia, which neighbors Shanxi province, just weeks before their deaths).

Most missionaries were murdered in Shanxi province, where the Manchurian governor personally oversaw the execution of dozens of missionaries in the provincial capital of Taiyuan. Many missionaries in the north fled to Xi’an, where the governor of Shaanxi offered protection and a military escort to the coast. Soon after Hagquist and the missionaries left Xi’an, Empress Dowager Cixi and her court arrived in the city, fleeing a combined force of Western nations that invaded Beijing and defeated the Boxers. The Boxer Rebellion led to several changes within China. The Qing dynasty was greatly weakened. Western powers changed the way they interacted with China. It also led to a surprising growth in Protestant missions and conversions.

The first missionary to return to Xi’an arrived in late 1901. Thousands more came to China in a wave of new missionaries over the next two decades. Among them were Peter and Valborg Torjesen, who settled in the town of Hequ in Shanxi. Franson returned to China at the end of 1903. He spent nine months in China in what would be his final visit. In Fifty Wonderful Years, Grauer wrote, “Having visited the various stations of our Mission in China, he expressed his great joy and marveled at the splendid work done by our missionaries. It seemed to him like a miracle that with the meager support received from home our workers could have built dwellings, chapels, schools, places for the treatment of the sick and opium addicts, and compounds surrounded by walls of solid masonry.”

At the time of Franson’s visit, TEAM had 16 stations in Shaanxi, three in Shanxi, four in Gansu, one in Hebei, and one in Mongolia. They also built a school for their children in Xi’an. But it was not long before the missionaries faced another tragedy. As the Qing dynasty weakened, China was filled with many revolts and rebellions. The Guangxu Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908, leaving a 2-year-old boy as emperor. The child emperor was forced to abdicate in 1912, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule. China was to become a republic. Hatred toward foreigners roused again during this conflict, and on Oct. 23, 1911, a mob attacked TEAM’s missionary children’s school in Xi’an. They killed the teacher, along with two missionaries and six children, and destroyed the buildings. All of TEAM’s missionaries gathered in Xi’an and decided to evacuate for a time.

When the new government was formed, peace returned, though it did not last long. Communist influence in China began to grow, reaching a peak in the 1926-1927 uprising. Many missionaries were forced to evacuate once again. Kari Torjesen Malcolm, in We Signed Away Our Lives, wrote, “Foreigners in general were blamed, rightly and wrongly, for the problems of China. Hence most missionaries were forced to leave their posts. Five thousand missionaries were evacuated, some never to return.” In the early 1930s, there began to be revival in China. Also during this time, TEAM’s missionaries had to reduce their financial contribution to the Chinese churches due to financial pressures from the Great Depression. Chinese churches eventually realized they needed to support themselves. Julius W. Bergstrom was TEAM’s China field secretary during this time. He wrote, “It has made our hearts rejoice to see the enthusiasm of the believers in enlarging and rebuilding church edifices which were too small, or in selling the old property and buying something more appropriate for their purpose. The Mission’s contribution to such efforts has been less than ten per cent. The Christians themselves have donated land, lumber, fuel, grain, and labor to make their dreams come true, and "we have seen one new church building after the other erected.” 

Then, in July 1937, the Japanese invaded. They conquered territory in north China, and by 1939, were moving down the coast. “The missionaries from England had been forced to leave because of the anti-English stance of the Japanese,” Malcolm wrote. “But this only added to the sense of urgency among the Scandinavians to remain in their posts. None of the Scandinavian countries were yet involved in World War 2.” Peter and Valborg Torjesen sheltered hundreds of Chinese in their mission in Hequ, and laid a Norwegian flag on the ground to indicate their neutrality. The Japanese began to associate missionaries with the Chinese resistance, and Peter was killed in a Japanese bombing raid on Hequ in December 1939. In 1944, the Japanese discovered an American air base at Xi’an and the city became too dangerous, so TEAM’s missionaries decided to evacuate before they could be captured.

  • Children attend an event in China, 2011

China is on track to become the world’s most populous Protestant Christian nation in the next 20 years.

Throughout China, approximately 1,000 Protestant missionaries were taken captive and interned by the Japanese. Valborg Torjesen escaped Hequ after Peter’s death, but she and her children were interned in a camp for foreigners in Shandong province. After the end of the war in 1945, TEAM missionaries returned quickly, such that by 1947, the mission’s presence in China was the largest it had been in years. They welcomed the end of fighting. “However,” wrote Bergstrom, “these hopes were soon to be dashed rudely to the ground. The fires of hatred and suspicion which had burned between the Nationalists and the Communists broke into open conflict. … The news from other parts of China continued to become worse and worse, until, by October we realized it was only a matter of time until Shensi [Shaanxi] and Kansu [Gansu] would also be liberated. After much deliberation and careful thought, it was felt that the wisest thing we could do, not only for our own sakes but also for the Chinese churches, was to evacuate.”

Though a few TEAM missionaries stayed in China, most moved on to Japan and other East Asian nations. After the Communist victory in 1949, all Christian missionaries left or were expelled by the government. China Inland Mission was the last mission organization to leave. In 1950, TEAM estimated that it left 100 churches and around 15,000 church members in China. In the country as a whole, there were around 700,000 Chinese Protestant Christians (a fraction of 1 percent of the population). For the next few decades, there was no contact with these churches. Religious restrictions loosened in the late 1970s, and since then, the church in China has grown significantly as an indigenous movement. In 2014, the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Church estimated there to be 23 to 40 million Protestants in the country (2-3 percent of the population). Some religion scholars believe the number of Christians is somewhere between 40 and 60 million, and that China is on track to become the world’s most populous Protestant Christian nation in the next 20 years. 

When China opened up again in the 1980s, former TEAM missionaries were surprised to learn that their churches not only survived but actually grew during the intervening years. Several hospitals and schools started by the missions also continue today. Though these organizations are now run by Chinese nationals, they are a legacy of those early Christian workers. In Hequ, Shanxi, Peter Torjesen’s legacy is found in an organization dedicated to helping people in the spirit of his work. Hakon Torjesen and Kari Torjesen Malcolm were given permission in 1988 to visit their childhood home in Hequ. During their visit, they were told that their father was remembered as a martyr of the people and local officials wanted to erect a monument in honor of Peter, known as Ye Yongqing or “Leaf Evergreen,” on the 50th anniversary of his death. Peter’s children and grandchildren attended the unveiling. At that time, the vice governor of the province met with the family and told them they must return to Shanxi to continue working in the same spirit as Peter. He pointed specifically at Peter’s grandson Finn Torjesen, who grew up in Taiwan. Torjesen says, “When the meeting with the vice governor’s office happened, we were sitting there, pretty stunned by his positive attitude and his understanding of our family history. Then he pointed at us and said, ‘You must continue this work. Your family must come.’ He pointed at me and said, ‘Since you speak Mandarin, you need to come back and represent your family here.’”

The Torjesens founded a nonprofit organization in 1993 named Evergreen. It is based in Taiyuan — today, an industrial city with over 4 million residents. Evergreen runs a variety of projects to serve the people of Shanxi, including medical care and training, orphan care, educational youth camps, business consultation, family counseling, premarital counseling and parenting workshops. Education, aged care and counseling are big needs in China. While many of Evergreen’s staff are North Americans and Australians, Torjesen is most excited about their Chinese staff and what they mean for the future of the organization. He says, “Within Evergreen we have over 30 Chinese staff, and some of them have been with Evergreen for as long as 18 or 19 years. They are dreaming, brilliant, highly skilled. If Evergreen had to close down tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me because we have amazing Chinese staff that would find a way to do what we are doing. They are the ones pushing the edge in Evergreen right now — the Chinese themselves.”

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