Waldenström Goes to China

by Norman Dwight

In 1907 Peter Waldenström made a trip to China and wrote about his experiences in Till Kina. I don’t read Swedish but pictures can tell a story. In that way I found the book interesting. As a missionary kid growing up in China, I saw pictures and names I knew from my childhood.

I’m sure that Waldenström’s main purpose was to see what was going on in the missionary endeavor. The Covenant from Sweden and the Covenant from America (made up of Swedes from America) were in adjacent mission fields but in the same province. The Swedes had their center in Wuhan, a large city on the Yangtze River. The Americans, under the leadership of Peter Matson, went up the Han River to Shiangyang and Fancheng. (now combined into one city, Xiangfan.)

Interestingly, the word, Covenant, was not used in the Chinese name. Perhaps the first missionaries were afraid it would be confused with other groups that used the word “Alliance” in their names. It was decided to use the phrase from James “Be doers of the Word.” So we became Doers of the Word Church. In Chinese this has a nice sound to it and this is still its name in Taiwan today.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of Waldenström’s visit was his vision of a seminary operated jointly by the two Doers of the Word churches. Pastor Wang Kui-cheng,who headed up the seminary, wrote his report in a book commemorating forty years of work by the Covenant in China. These are his words.

When the Covenant first started its ministry in Hupei Province, its first priority was to preach the Gospel and start churches. All planning had this in mind. A high priority was to train Chinese leaders. However the opportunity to start a seminary had not yet come about. We had the desire but not the means to carry it out. In the spring of 1907 the President of the Swedish Covenant, Pastor Wong Tien-chang (Peter Waldenström’s Chinese name), came for an inspection tour. After leaving, he reported to the Covenant Churches in America and Sweden about the conditions and prospects of the Chinese church. He said that if we didn’t start a seminary to train pastors we would have failed in our mission. The churches were moved by his appeal and gave generously to the cause. Then, even without waiting for reaction from the Chinese churches, the two mission groups decided to go ahead and start the project. A central location between the two fields was selected, land was purchased, and a school building was constructed. It was completed in the winter of 1909 and, after the Chinese New Years celebrations, classes were started.

Pastor Wang goes on to explain how a formal seminary training helped raise standards, quality, and commitment to the ministry. However, these were difficult revolutionary times in China. The Imperial government was overthrown in 1911 and there were many factions vying for power. There were warlords with armies of their own. The Nationalist government was struggling to get control. Much of this was happening in central China where the Covenant and other mission groups were working. Pastor Wang continues to describe some of this.

It started in the winter of 1926 and lasted until 1928. Our school was commandeered by many different groups. First the army headquarters was set up there, then the Women’s League, then the Labor Department, and then the government elementary school. In addition, the army came and occupied 32 times. Our school was under the heel of all these groups. Our library, equipment, furniture, and everything was used indiscriminately. This thing was removed by somebody and someone else would bring it back. Almost everything took wings and disappeared. After awhile those who occupied it couldn’t find anything else to take so they tore up anything that could be used for firewood. To this day each room still shows marks where warming bonfires had burned. It’s a wonder that they didn’t burn down the whole building.

The question could be asked, “Was Waldenström’s vision and the zeal and effort he put into raising money for the seminary justified? I am sure that the missionaries and Chinese leaders knew that these were perilous times. Pastor Wang’s report continues with some important statistics.

From 1914 to 1931 there were 106 graduates. There were 40 serving as ministers in the Swedish Covenant field and 66 were serving as ministers in the American Covenant field. Over 100 ministers of the Gospel were evangelizing and teaching the Word of God.

The seed of the Gospel was being planted for times much more difficult than during the years from 1926 to 1928 and that is why we are seeing the great Christian movement in China today. The Covenant was not the only one proclaiming the Gospel. Many other mission groups and indigenous groups were doing the same. But Waldenström was right. We needed that seminary.