China, since 1949, has been governed by the Communist Party. Part of this party’s platform has been the oppression of religion.
Today there are five government-sanctioned (and government-monitored) religions: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (a protestant branch) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
Before the Communist Party gained power in China, many denominations of Christianity had missionaries stationed across China – in 1949, when the Communist Party took over all missionaries left the country (either voluntarily or by force). Some of these missionaries were affiliated with the Church of the Brethren.
Dr. Jeff Bach, Director of the Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and associate professor of religious studies, and Dr. David Kenley, Director of the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking and associate professor of history, traveled to China during Spring Break 2016 to study the history of Brethren missionaries in the Shanxi Province.
Kenley’s research throughout his career has focused on the history of Asia, particularly modern China. His interest in the Brethren missionaries in China has been newfound though.
“I was here at the College and was talking to our college archivist about my research, and he said ‘You know, we’ve got some Chinese documents and artifacts here in the archives,’” Kenley said.
In his exploration of these documents and artifacts, Kenley came across the influence of Brethren in some areas of China. Eventually his interests crossed those of Bach.
“I started studying it and then realized that Jeff Bach was interested in the same topic and so we began collaborating,” Kenley stated.
Bach, a former Brethren pastor, had been interested in the Brethren missionary in China since his time in seminary, and the collaboration with Kenley helped him to further explore a topic about which he had limited knowledge.
“When I was a pastor I had a member of my congregation who was a missionary to China in the 1920s. She did not talk a lot about her experience, but what little she said really intrigued me,” Bach said. “I realized there wasn’t that much in denominational literature about the mission in China.”
The research from this trip and from before is going to be used toward a book discussing the religious teachings and practices that the Brethren brought to the Chinese, whether the Chinese adopted those, the religious belief of pacifism and its effects on the Chinese, as well as, the effects on the Brethren missionaries beliefs after interacting with the Chinese.
In addition to this research directly relating to the religious influence on the Chinese Kenley and Bach are also working on research in relation to the effect of gender roles on the Brethren women and Chinese women associated with the missionaries.
Since being back from China, Bach has also been able to share his research with other members of the Brethren church, who have overall been very interested in what Bach and Kenley have discovered.
“[I have experienced] very strong curiosity in a positive way,” Bach stated. “It seems to be a story they don’t know a lot about – most Brethren don’t know much about it, and they’re very curious.”