The Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley isn’t the sort of place that one would think would shake the world. That said, to many older readers it will have an association with revolution and radicalism, being the home town of Mr Arthur Scargill, socialist firebrand and former head of the National Union of Mineworkers. Back in the 1970s and 80s he personified a deeply threatening trade union militancy with the power to bully or even bring down elected governments: a power Scargill himself exercised on more than one occasion. A charismatic figure and formidable orator, Scargill inspired fear and loathing in conservatives, many of who suspected that beyond the industrial militancy lay sympathy with Soviet communism.
However, Barnsley may one day be remembered as the birthplace of a man who launched a far more profound and benign revolution: James Hudson Taylor, an evangelical missionary who in 1865 launched the China Inland Mission, one of the largest Christian movements in the world. Although Christianity has had a presence in the Middle Kingdom since the 8th century AD, many Chinese regard Hudson Taylor as the father of the modern Chinese Church. That said, by all accounts Hudson Taylor’s early forays in spreading the Good News did not go well: he was even known as a ‘black devil’ because of his alien European clothing. However despite many set-backs he persevered and eventually succeeded in setting up hundreds of Christian missions and schools throughout China.
Today there are perhaps around 100 million Christians in China, predominantly Protestants, and the Protestant Church is growing at a remarkable rate. Almost unbelievably for a officially atheist country, the Chinese authorities have in recent years encouraged the growth of the religion, after Chinese academics concurred with Max Weber’s famous analysis that Protestant culture – with it’s flinty morality and ferocious work ethic – was responsible for Western industrialisation.
All of which raises fascinating cultural questions for the future. In encouraging Protestantism, the Chinese authorities may well have created their own nemesis, because the culture of the religion isn’t just associated with work and enterprise but with individualism, belief in personal freedom and the growth of democracy. How can that possibly sit well with the ancient Chinese traditions of conformity, which one would have thought were much more amenable to the communist party? Chauvinistic Protestants have always maintained that the necessity of personally interpreting the Bible was responsible for creating the enquiring minds from which technical innovation flowed. Are they right, and therefore will Chinese society become more inventive as it becomes more evangelical, allowing the country to escape the ‘middle income trap’ that other Asian societies have fallen into? Will Chinese Christians one day lead rebellion against communist party rule, and even be prepared to sacrifice their lives for their faith? Or will the faith instead morph into something quite different and uniquely Chinese? Will the world be dominated by yet another Protestant power, as it has been for the last two centuries?
Whatever the answers, the story of the rise of Chinese Christianity is immensely encouraging for all Christians here is the West, so used to depressing stories of the remorseless decline of the religion in the face of militant secularism: we tend to forget that worldwide the future for Christianity is a very bright one, and it is atheism that is in decline. It also reminds us just what a few brave individual human beings can achieve, however hopeless the cause may seem, if they are prepared to stick their beliefs. That, thanks to an obscure 19th Century cleric, instead of being associated with a revolutionary who wanted to bring communism to a Christian country, Barnsley will be associated with a missionary who succeeded in bringing Christianity to a communist one.