Passages like the Great Commission in Matthew and the Macedonian Call in Acts have long compelled members of the Churches of Christ to conduct missions. Taking the gospel to places where few if any have heard it always generates a series of victories and defeats, hardships and joys.
When historians capture these narratives, they bless the church. They present us with stories that not only inform and entertain, but also convict and inspire. That’s exactly what Stephen V. Crowder does in his new book, The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929-1949) of the Churches of Christ.
Crowder tells the story of the Canton Mission as a series of four episodes. The 1920s was a time for dreaming and preparing. Two college students, George Benson and Lewis Oldham, learned that China, the most populous nation in the world, had no missionaries dedicated to “the restoration of New Testament Christianity.” They determined to change that. By the summer of 1925, George and Sallie Hockaday Benson, just weeks after their wedding, sailed for China. Oldham and his wife, the former Grace Narron, followed in 1927.
The years 1929 through 1937 marked a high point for the mission. The team decided to conduct their work in a major city, and settled on Canton (also called Guangzhou), in the south. Soon, newly-arrived missionaries and a few of the early converts joined the leadership. Together, they followed a strategy centered on Bible teaching, high-quality literature, and public evangelism--even street preaching.
Their work was never easy. The missionaries struggled to become fluent in Cantonese. Anti-missionary feelings sometimes came to the surface. In one village, a sermon was “drowned out by a noisy group of young people banging on pots and pans.” Still, by the mid-1930s, the Canton Bible School had a new two-story building, and the mission was conducting “a total of twelve evangelistic meetings each Sunday, with a combined attendance of around 450 people.” Beginning in 1937, the Japanese military occupation of China ended the momentum. Bombing raids forced nationals out of Canton and into villages. Reluctantly, the missionaries fled the city and eventually returned to the U.S.
The end of World War II signaled new opportunities. Lowell and Odessa Davis, who had served in Canton prior to war, returned to resume the work with a new emphasis on humanitarian aid. They discovered that the Chinese were more willing than before to accept the gospel. In December 1947, Lowell reported that 210 were baptized that year. But the Communist takeover of China in 1949 resulted in the deportation of missionaries and the sometimes-violent suppression of Christianity.
According to a recent estimate, China is now home to more than 60 million believers of Protestant persuasion. Observing that growth, George Benson in 1987 remarked, “What seemed for a long time to be years of wasted effort may prove yet to have been more productive than we ever imagined possible.”
The Field is the World chronicles the story of a handful of North American missionaries and their Chinese co-workers who proclaimed the message of salvation. The text, accompanied by dozens of illustrations, is a welcome addition to the missions historiography of the Churches of Christ.
Notes: The foregoing is a longer, unedited version of a brief review published in the May 2018 issue of The Christian Chronicle. The following are the publication facts for the book:
Stephen V. Crowder, The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929-1949) of the Churches of Christ. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018. 127 pages. $21.00.
The publisher's website for the book is as follows: https://wipfandstock.com/the-field-is-the-world.html