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Church grew in China from seeds planted by Mennonites


Dec 7, 2004
-by Melodie Davis

Harrisonburg, Va.— For nearly 40 years, North American Mennonites worshipped with Chinese at a church in the Shangdong Province. In 1947, they were asked to leave the country. Until October of this year, Mennonites had not been back.

“We have been waiting a very long time for Mennonites to return and visit,” said one Christian woman in the very rural area of Dongming, China, where Mennonites first made contact in the early 1900s.

“More than 50 years qualifies as a very long time,” said Myrrl Byler, director of China Educational Exchange (CEE), although he noted that this particular woman wouldn’t have been old enough to actually remember missionaries. CEE is a partner to Mennonite Church Canada Witness ministries in China.


Jeanette Hanson, representing Mennonite Church Canada Witness in China, greets a group of Christians from Dongming, China, who had been out of contact with Mennonites since mission workers were asked to leave China in 1947. A group of mission representatives traveled to Dongming in October.

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Byler, with Rod and Kathi Suderman, Jeanette Hanson, and Gordon Janzen all from Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Sheldon and Marietta Sawatzky of Mennonite Mission Network, and Diane Gehman of Mennonite Central Committee, revisited Dongming and again participated in worship. Zhu Qingchun, a pastor from Henan Province who works with the provincial Christian Council, accompanied the group.

In the summer of 2003, Christians in Dongming wrote to Roland Brown, whose parents, Henry and Maria Brown, had been the first missionaries in China from the former General Conference Mennonite Church. The Dongming group invited Brown to visit their congregation, recalled the work of Roland’s parents and noted that due to changing situations in China they now could extend an invitation, something they had been unable to do when Brown and family members previously had asked about returning for a visit.

Henry and Maria Brown had arrived in China in 1909, lived in Puyang and established mission stations in a very rural six-county area located south of Beijing and northwest of Shanghai. August and Martha Ewert were two workers in Dongming and Changyuan during the 1930s, spending a lot of time in Dongming. They made their last visit to Dongming in 1947; Mennonite Central Committee workers delivered relief goods to the region as late as 1950.

Roland Brown, who worked as a Mennonite mission doctor in Taiwan for most of his career, was a teenager when his parents sent him back to the U.S. He now is retired in Newton, Kan., but was unable to respond to the invitation because of a family health situation. He passed the invitation to Mennonites currently working in China.

The government officials and church leaders were very aware of the history of the church and its beginnings with the Browns and the Mennonites. They proudly showed an enlarged photo of church workers that had been taken during the 1920s.

When the group arrived in Dongming they were told that there were Christians at the church waiting for them. “What we didn’t realize is that the believers had been at the church already for five days, taking part in a five-day, all day, revival meeting. When we arrived, 3:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the church was completely packed with about 5-600 persons,” said Byler.

The visitors greeted the congregation. “Every short blessing and remark which I made was greeted with enthusiastic applause,” said Byler. “Afterwards the courtyard outside the church was filled with excitement as the people streamed out to take pictures with us and see the foreign visitors.”

Several church leaders and the local government officials who oversee religion hosted the visit. Dongming County now has a population of more than 700,000 people. Where there were only several hundred Christians when Mennonite missionaries left in 1947, there are now 30,000 believers in Dongming County, the largest Christian population of any of the six counties where Mennonite missionaries worked. Many churches and meeting points are scattered throughout the county, with the main church located in the city of Dongming.

There is only one ordained pastor in the entire county – he is a graduate of the Nanjing Biblical Seminary. As is the case all over China, the work of the church is carried on by elders, evangelists and other lay workers. Almost all of the believers gathered at the church were obviously farmers but were of all ages: young and old, men and women. They are not Mennonite in name – the church in China has attempted to do away with denominational distinctions – but they are fruit of the seed planted through efforts of Mennonite missionaries and their dedicated Chinese co-workers.

“We hope to maintain contact with the church in Dongming, to learn more of their story, to be inspired by their example,” Byler said the group decided. “There may also be ways in which we can offer them assistance as this is a very poor area. We were told that six churches in the county had been damaged the previous year because of floods.”

In Dongming, the missionaries had purchased property in several locations, one inside the city where a church was built with living quarters for the Chinese workers. Outside of the city there was a larger property with living quarters and buildings for a school. Even though Mennonite missionaries did not establish a permanent presence in Dongming, Henry and Maria Brown and other missionaries would visit Dongming frequently, often spending several months during which they would preach, train workers for the church and do basic health care work.

The grounds where the church is located is where Henry Brown had originally purchased land in the city, although the church has been given back only a small part of the original amount of land.

“This is the case throughout China. While many churches and much land has been returned, it is usually only a fraction of the original,” said Byler. “The old buildings were apparently torn down in the 1950s and there was considerable bombing and fighting in Dongming in the 1940s. The buildings may have been damaged during that time, and during the Cultural Revolution, when all churches in China were closed, it appears that other buildings were erected on the property, perhaps some type of factory.”


Rod Suderman (right), Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in China, joins about 600 Christians in the Dongming church for worship. It was the first time this congregation had received visiting Mennonites in over 50 years.

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The church building is narrow and long, “and one of the older and poorer-looking church buildings I have seen in China,” said Byler.

In 1937 the Japanese occupied much of the area where Mennonite missionaries were working, including Dongming. World War II made it impossible for American missionaries to continue working. After 1945 Henry Brown was able to visit Dongming several times, the last time coming in 1947. Heavy fighting between the Nationalist and Communist forces hindered any further visits. Brown reported after his last visit that Christians were still meeting and continuing their work despite hardships.

It was difficult in the early 1900s for the Browns to travel to Dongming, even though it was only 34 miles south of their home in Puyang. Dongming was the only county south of the Yellow River in the mission area. Flooding and the shifting waters made the crossing difficult – it often took several hours to just cross the river.

Roland Brown recalls crossing the Yellow River on a small flat ferry boat. “Sometimes it was pretty tricky, we almost got dumped in the river. One time, probably about 1933, there was an airplane flying overhead that dropped a bomb on a city.”

He said that his parents altogether spent about 40 years in China, and they were almost ready to retire in 1947 when they were asked to leave. In reflecting on God at work in China and the church’s doggedly steady growth there under less than favorable circumstances, Roland says, “This says that the church grows under persecution, as in Africa and elsewhere; people find hope and strength in the gospel and in Jesus Christ.”

Sidebar: The Million Dollar Bible

- by Todd Hanson

Nanchong, Sichuan — Well, okay, it's not quite a million dollars, and it's Hong Kong dollars, but a Bible was auctioned off in Hong Kong this summer for HK $850,000 (about $140,000) by the organizers of an exhibition entitled, "A Lamp to my feet, A Light to my path".

The exhibition included Bibles and Christian artifacts found and produced on the mainland of China since the 17th century. Performances of sacred music and dance were also included, along with displays of Christian art.


Students at a book sale. A ‘deluxe’ bilingual Bible and two sizes of Chinese Bibles are displayed on the bottom corner of the table.

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It was a high-profile event, held at the Hong Kong Convention Center, the magnificent harbour-side edifice constructed especially for the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. The opening ceremony was attended by Hong Kong and mainland church leaders, as well as Hong Kong's chief executive. More than 20,000 people attended the six-day exhibition.

Some visitors brought along their own Bibles. They wanted to check the accuracy of the mainland versions and make sure that nothing had been left out.

There have long been claims that the Chinese Bible has been edited in unacceptable ways, like replacing "God" with "Communist Party", leaving out the book of Revelation, or dropping any mention of the resurrection, for example. None of these claims have ever been proven, and no one at the Hong Kong exhibition discovered any problems, either.

Such accusations persist, though. A Christian website described a "China-Only Use Bible" that "leaves out parts of the Old Testament, Jesus' second coming, and other parts that are deemed 'not appropriate' for use in China". Last month, the organization removed the accusation from its website at the urging of a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker.

Witness workers in China have easy access to Chinese (and Chinese-English) Bibles, not only through churches but also on their campuses and in their markets, as Bibles are often included among the back-issue magazines and remaindered books sold on the sidewalk by itinerant booksellers.

While the magazines and books are all sold at substantial discounts, Bible prices are marked up so much that customers are charged double or triple the price they would pay at the church. The inflated prices do not seem exorbitant because the Bibles are heavily subsidized by the United Bible Societies. At churches, the cheapest Chinese Bible costs $1.25. Paperback Chinese-English New Testaments are available for $1.65, while a leatherette-bound, gilt-edged bilingual Bible with thumb index sells for $4.60.

The "imperial" Bible auctioned off in Hong Kong, incidentally, was a Chinese New Testament presented to the Empress Dowager Cixi on her 60th birthday. The proceeds of the auction were donated to the Chinese University of Hong Kong for SARS research.

Todd Hanson is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Nanchong, China. He and his wide Jeanette teach English, work with local churches on social welfare projects, and help support rural pastors. They have two children, Claire (7) and Kate (2).