William Carey and Hudson Taylor are among the many household names connected with Christian missions in Asia. Before them, Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, and others left indelible marks on world-wide Christian history. However, such colorful figures are only part of the picture of missions in Asia. An adequate overview requires focusing on the central character involved — God Himself. We also need to expand our time frame for God’s dealings with the vast array of people throughout Asia.
The Bible reports God’s special redemptive acts that took place long ago in western Asia. After calling Abram from Ur (present-day Iraq) and leading him to Haran (southeast Turkey), God covenanted that He would multiply Abram’s descendants and accordingly bless all nations. If one follows the conventional inclusion of Israel-Palestine (and surrounding areas) within western Asia, then every redemptive act of God recorded in the Old Testament (except those that occurred in Egypt), as well as those recorded in the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament, took place in Asia. Special mention should be made of the various Asians present at the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost (“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia…and Asia,” Acts 2:9), many of whom no doubt spread the Christian gospel into their parts of Asia upon returning home from Jerusalem. The book of Revelation, Jesus’ special revelation of Himself through the apostle John to the seven churches in Asia (present-day western Turkey), augments the specifically Asian theater of God’s redemptive initiatives in His world. Subsequent missions in Asia are thus seamlessly connected to how God has been dealing with His world all along.
As Christian missions have spread into different parts of Asia, the people to whom Jesus Christ has sent His emissaries have been wrestling with and hiding from their rightful Creator-King in various ways. When Jesus’ disciple Thomas arrived in India, as most scholars and ongoing traditions believe in fact happened, he found many people longing for union with ultimate reality while immersed in epic accounts of myriad deities — a religiosity later termed Hinduism. God graciously used Thomas’ witness about the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth to bring Christian communities into existence, some of which continue to this day in various parts of India.
The early Christian centuries also saw the faith spread out of Edessa (in Mesopotamia) by Syrian Christians into parts of the Persian Empire, which lay between India and the Roman Empire. God’s dealings with peoples in Armenia, who were ever fending off Roman and Persian influences, included bringing the gospel through the apostles Thaddaeus and Bartholomew. It was in the late third century that Gregory the Illuminator arrived in Armenia, leading to the conversion of King Tiridates and the formation of the first Christian state in AD 301.
These early west Asian Christian missions are largely absent from Western Christian consciousness due to the AD 431 Council of Ephesus declaring Nestorius — and by association all of Christianity politically, geographically, and culturally east of Greco-Roman boundaries — heretical. (Furthermore, a millennium later the breakup of the Mongol Empire — which at its thirteenth-century, Pacific-to-Europe zenith had enabled East-West commercial, cultural, and religious interaction — squelched any European awareness of Asian Christianity.) Even so, apart from Western connections or knowledge, Asian missionaries continued to spread eastward, reaching the capital of T’ang Dynasty China by the seventh century. Spreading the gospel in such various languages as Syriac, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese, Christians grew in numbers that, surprising to many of us today, at times surpassed the number of Christians in the West.
The spread of Islam beginning in the seventh century contributed to Christianity never gaining socio-political ascendancy in most of Asia. Some Mongol imperial rulers, notably Genghis Khan (who reigned 1206–27), were tolerant of Christianity and other religions such as Buddhism. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the recently established Franciscans sent missionaries eastward along the well-worn silk route to China. However, the late fourteenth-century rise of the savage Mongol ruler Tamerlane brought a scourge to Christians and Muslims alike throughout the reunited empire.
As European expansion throughout the world commenced in the late 1400s, Christianity in Asia resembled its presence in the late first century: small and fragile pockets existed in south Asia and in Syria. However, over the next several centuries peoples throughout Asia began to hear of Jesus Christ through new, Western avenues. For the most part, Western missionaries arrived together with Western commercial, political, and military advances. Early on that meant Portuguese-protected Jesuits such as Francis Xavier (1506–52) preaching along the coasts of India, southeast Asia, Japan, and China. Many of these Jesuits were of Italian heritage and daringly accommodated Christian teaching to indigenous thought, most notably Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) in China and Robert De Nobili (1577–1656) in India. Spanish-protected Franciscans and other Catholic missionary orders preached in the newly conquered and renamed Philippines. Protestant Christianity of questionable degrees of faithfulness and fervency arrived with English and Dutch trading companies. In certain areas Christian conversions were widespread; for example, by 1614 there were approximately 300,000 Christians in Japan out of a total population of twenty million. Understandably, however, many Asians receiving newly arrived Europeans were most interested in whatever economic and military benefits there were to be gained.
Another strand of Christianity spreading together with imperial advance into Asia was Russian Orthodoxy from the seventeenth century onward. As well, such spiritually focused German Pietists as Bartholemäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) and Heinrich Plütschau (1677–1752) entered India in 1706 under Danish patronage. Even with the dawn of Protestant missionary societies — marked by the formation of the English Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 to support William Carey’s (1761–1834) mission to India, the London Missionary Society in 1795 that sent the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison (1782–1834), and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812, which sent out the first Protestant missionary from North America, Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), to Burma — Western missionaries went where their own nations economically and militarily enabled them to go.
European encroachments into China’s interior in the aftermath of the Opium Wars of the early 1840s and 1860s provided the backdrop for the formation by the English missionary Hudson Taylor (1832–1905) of the China Inland Mission in 1865. French Catholic missionary orders became increasingly active in China, Indochina, Japan, Korea, Siam, and elsewhere. Dutch missionaries worked in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Formosa, Ceylon, and other areas of Dutch influence. The nineteenth-century expansion of the United States thrust American missionaries toward economically lucrative China, Japan, and the Pacific Islands.
Japan’s early Christian growth had been stamped out by the late 1630s through brutal persecution. Some growth occurred together with westernization following Japan’s forced end of over two centuries of self-imposed seclusion in the 1850s, as well as immediately following World War II. In Korea, Catholics suffered nearly a century of persecution from its introduction in the 1780s. The opening of the “Hermit Kingdom” enabled Protestant missionaries to enter in the 1880s. Per the requested advice of the American Presbyterian missionary John Nevius (1829–1893), missionaries employed “three-self” principles of church-planting (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating). Korean church growth accelerated through the combined efforts of expatriate and Korean preachers, furthered by a deep revival in 1907 that bore fruit into the 1910–1945 Japanese occupation. Concentrated in South Korea since the 1950–1953 Korean War, Christianity has grown to the point of sending Korean missionaries throughout the rest of Asia and around the world.
Why did the gospel put down wider and deeper roots in Korea than in Japan? Among several factors is the crucial one of pre-Christian indigenous sensibilities of deity. The supreme god of ancient Korea was Hananim, ruler of the universe and judge of all men. In Japan, there was no such supreme deity beyond the mythical creators of the Japanese islands, the mysterious forces governing nature, and the ancestors of the imperial household — all termed kami. Only God’s unfathomable providence explains why this Korean-Japanese religious difference exists.
Both in centuries past and more recently, God has used both expatriate and indigenous gospel messengers to quicken the hearts of many throughout Asia. Besides Korea, within the past century Nagaland in northeast India is one area well known for its significant Christian growth. Even more recently, China has seen an almost astronomical increase in Christians, with estimates close to one hundred million. Domestic and international Asian missionaries originate in all parts of Asia, including India, Singapore, and China. Now more than ever, “missions in Asia” include Asian missionaries bearing their part in the worldwide spread of Christ’s gospel.