Christianity in Asia
- Barbara Watson AndayaBarbara Watson AndayaAsian Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa
The 21st century has often been touted as the “Asian century,” largely because of the remarkable resurgence of China as an economic power. There are nonetheless other developments afoot, foremost among which is the rising numbers of individuals who identify as Christians. Apart from the Philippines, Timor Leste, Asian Russia, Cyprus, Armenia, and Georgia, Christians are still a minority in the forty-eight countries that the United Nations classifies as “Asia,” a vast region that stretches from the Urals and the Caspian Sea to Papua New Guinea. However, over the past two decades, a marked increase in Asian Christians, especially in Korea, India, and China, has led to predictions that by 2025 their numbers, now estimated at 350 million, will escalate to 460 million. Yet for many Asians, Christianity is still tainted by a “foreign” past because it is associated with the European arrival in the late 15th century and with the imposition of colonialism and the influence of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. A historical approach, however, shows that such perceptions are countered by centuries of local adaptations of Christianity to specific cultural contexts. Although the processes of “accommodation” and “adaptation” have a complex history, a long-term view reveals the multiple ways through which millions of Asian men and women have incorporated “being Christian” into their own identities.
The Greek use of the term Asia to differentiate Anatolia and the Persian Empire from Greece and Egypt is thought to have gained currency in the 5th century BCE. During this period the division of the world into three “continents”—Asia, Africa, and Europe—established a framework for cartographic thinking that continued into early modern times, even after the discovery of the Americas. European perceptions of the area that comprised Asia progressively expanded so that by the late 1700s two-thirds of the world’s population could be considered Asian (see figure 1).1 Although there was no obvious geographical division between Asia and Europe, in the 18th century the Ural Mountains in Russia were selected as the most acceptable dividing line. Among Asians themselves there was no sense of a common identity, but in Europe these highly diverse cultures were viewed collectively because they were all distinguished from Europeans by racial and religious differences. The idea that Asia was both separate and different from Europe was reinforced through the 19th and early 20th centuries when much of the region fell under Western control.
Despite the persistence of stereotypes about Asians, studies of specific areas have highlighted the difficulty of generalizing across so many cultures with different historical experiences. The problem of generalization was accentuated after the Second World War when academic literature began to divide Asia into six areas, each including several countries (North Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia). Even today the borders of Asia are ambiguous and the terminology unclear; for instance, the designation “Middle East” is more common than “West Asia.” Furthermore, a historian of Christianity faces the added complication of the variety of “Christianities” that have taken root in Asia. In appreciating the process that brought this situation about, however, the similarities and differences that comparison uncovers can be both instructive and enlightening.
Early Christianity in Asia
Because the missionary enterprise was directly linked to the expansion of Europe’s trading networks to India and beyond, the beginnings of Christianity in Asia are typically located in the 16th century. However, the widening of the designation Asia to include the Middle East provides a much earlier history that traces the spread of Christianity into Sassanid Persia and Mesopotamia, covering much of what is now Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. In the 5th century, expanding Christian influences were reshaped by theological and cultural differences between the Greco-Roman hierarchy in Alexandria and the Syriac-speaking church centered at Antioch (now Antakya in eastern Turkey). These disagreements led to the formation of the “Nestorian” Church, named for Nestorius (381–451 CE), then patriarch of Constantinople, who made a distinction between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Many followers of Nestorius (the “Church of the East”) subsequently moved into Mesopotamia and Persia, apparently interacting with Buddhist, Muslim, and Zoroastrian communities without tension.
The trade routes that connected these regions to central Asia and to markets further east became a major conduit for religious dissemination, including Christianity (see figure 2). Merchants (often acting as missionaries) also carried the Church of the East to China, where a stele describes the 635 CE reception of a delegation who represented what was characterized as a “luminous religion.” A number of manuscripts composed in Chinese indicate the ease with which aspects of Buddhism and Daoism were incorporated into Christian teachings. Nevertheless, by the 10th century, membership of the Church of the East had declined markedly in China, apparently as a result of hostility toward “foreign religions.”2 Meanwhile, doctrinal disagreements among Christian communities in West Asia contributed to deep divisions that were exacerbated after the Crusades of the 11th century introduced Latin Christianity whose strategies were developed from its center in Rome. In 1054, the “Eastern Schism” marked the rupture between what are now the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Though some eastern churches managed to overcome their differences and establish closer relations with the Church of Rome, tensions continued even as some Christian leaders advocated greater unity to confront the advance of Islam.
Further eastward, a more promising context developed because the Mongol conquest of China in the 13th century and their control over much of Eurasia led to a relative stability that allowed for increased travel and commerce with eastern Europe across the Silk Road. Several Franciscan missionaries and some Dominicans traveled to China as Papal envoys to recruit allies to oppose Islam and attract converts, especially among the Nestorians, whom they regarded as heretics. Despite initial imperial attention, these efforts came to naught, in part because the increased influence of Islam under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) coincided with rising anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe. Christian communities can still be identified in the 14th century, but Christianity had not succeeded in establishing a permanent basis in Chinese society.3 In West and Central Asia the Nestorian Church and Syrian Christians also faced a period of steady decline following the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, Turkic-Mongol raids, and the conquest of Arabic areas by the Ottoman Turks in the early 16th century. Along the once tolerant Silk Road, Christianity was virtually eliminated.
The situation was very different in India. The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, dating to the early 3rd century and written in Syriac, describe how Christ himself sent the apostle Thomas eastward to spread the gospel. The communities of Christian traders from Syria and Persia that developed in southern India traced their origins to this apostolic mission. According to their traditions, Thomas reached Kerala around 52 CE, where he founded India’s first Christian church. He then traveled across south India to Mylapore (near modern Chennai), but was eventually killed, purportedly by Brahmins jealous of his success. By the time of Marco Polo’s visit in 1293, the story of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas was well established, and his tomb had become an important pilgrimage site.4
Though the sources point to the presence of the Church of the East in western India and Sri Lanka at least from the 6th century and mention the appointment of bishops, the relationship with Saint Thomas Christians is unclear. It was presumably from India that Christian influences spread to Southeast Asia, for in the 12th century an Armenian trader visited “Fansur,” which has traditionally been identified as Barus, northwest Sumatra, since he records that “it is from this place that camphor comes.” He also reported seeing several churches, noting that “the Christians were all Nestorians” and that there was one church “named after our Lady, the pure Virgin Mary.”5 Although the Portuguese who landed in Cochin in 1502 viewed Nestorian Christians as deviants, they accepted the Saint Thomas Christians as fellow believers. The display of the cross, infant baptism, communion, and black-robed priests and nuns were sufficient reassurance, despite the retention of Syriac as the liturgical language and the adoption of some Hindu and Muslim practices.6
The fragmentary documentation for this early period means that many questions remain unanswered, particularly in regard to the significance of “conversion” and the shaping of Christian beliefs as they adjusted to different Asian environments. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that the contextualization of Christian teachings was not difficult, and that ordinary people could easily incorporate the new faith into their existing lifestyle. This very adaptability, however, raised contentious questions about the extent to which Christianity could proceed along the localizing path and still retain its credentials as a universal faith.
The Iberian Arrival
The expansion of European maritime trade initiated a new chapter in the history of Asian Christianity. The rivalry between the foremost Catholic powers, Spain and Portugal, led to the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which divided the world into two spiritual jurisdictions (figure 3).
In return for a commitment to missionize, the Portuguese Crown was allotted all newly encountered realms east of a line drawn through the Atlantic; the western half was given to Spain. Most of Asia thus fell to the Portuguese, and the capture of the key ports of Goa in India (1507) and Melaka on the Malay Peninsula (1511) established beachheads for the missionary project. In India, the Portuguese initially saw the Saint Thomas Christians as allies, but soon embarked on an aggressive campaign of Latinization in conformity with “the Law of Saint Peter.” Meanwhile, the theological mandates issued by the Council of Trent (1545–1563) that were intended to answer the challenge of Protestantism also strengthened opposition to local adaptations, both in Europe and in the mission field. To correct their perceived errors, Saint Thomas Christians in Portuguese-controlled territory were required to acknowledge the pope’s authority and to accept Catholic practices and teachings such as the doctrine of purgatory. Introduced to Goa in 1560, the Inquisition became a feared mechanism for rooting out alleged heresy and for marking the boundaries between Portuguese-controlled areas and “the lands of the Moors” (i.e., Muslims).7
Across the Bay of Bengal this mood of intolerance was patently evident in 1511 when the Portuguese attacked the great entrepôt of Melaka. The Iberian Peninsula had been occupied by Muslims for several hundred years and in Spain the last Muslim bastion of Granada had only fallen in 1492. In both Portugal and Spain reprisals were harsh, and this antagonism toward Islam was carried to Asia. In Melaka, for instance, the Portuguese evicted all Muslims and destroyed the great mosque. The Spanish, who claimed Filipinos as subjects on the basis of baptisms made by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, were infused with the same implacable hatred of Islam as a “false religion.” After capturing the Philippine settlement of Manila in 1571, they mounted a succession of wars against the “Moros” of the islands to the south (see figure 4).8
This insistence of the “rightness” of Roman Catholic belief was tempered by the mission methods promoted by the Jesuit order, founded in 1540 with the express aim of global missionizing. The mood in Asia was set by Francis Xavier (1506–1552), who understood the importance of mastering language as a means of proselytization. During his time in Melaka and eastern Indonesia from 1546 to 1547, he therefore learned Malay and endeavored to shape his teaching to appeal to indigenous cultures. Yet despite some successes in India, notably among low-caste fishermen along the Parava coast, he was disappointed in local responses. In 1549, he reached Japan, which he and other Jesuits viewed as a mission field of great promise. Missionaries soon realized how little they knew of Japanese culture, and the obstacles to linguistic facility meant they were heavily reliant on local informants. After 1557, when the Jesuits were able to establish a base in Macao, similar patterns emerged in China, where the literati class often acted as intermediaries. A major proponent of the Jesuit strategy of accommodation was Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606), who arrived in China in 1573 as Visitor, charged with the task of examining mission structures and strategies. However, although the need for cultural adaptation and the acquisition of Chinese was obvious, the use of Buddhist terms to translate Christian concepts also raised concerns that “localizing” would blur the missionary message.9 The lessons were not lost on other missionaries. By the 1580s, five Catholic orders had been established in the Philippines, but in developing linguistic skills they took care to introduce terms such as Dios, Espiritu Santo, and Virgen rather than attempting to find local equivalents.
At the end of the 16th century, hopes for the future of the Catholic missions in Asia were high. In Japan, the court of the effective Japanese ruler, Hideyoshi (1537–1598), included a number of Christians and their supporters; India’s “Great Mogul,” Akbar (1542–1605), asked for priests to explain the scriptures; and in China Mateo Ricci (1552–1610), dressed in red silk robes and carefully tutored on appropriate protocol, was finally permitted to enter the imperial palace and make obeisance, albeit to an empty throne. While he was never granted an audience with the emperor, collaboration with the eminent Ming scholar and official, Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), baptized in 1603, enabled Ricci to link Christianity with science and technology as evidence of the high level of European civilization. In the Philippines, the religious orders boasted of hundreds of baptisms, while the Dominicans and Franciscans were using Manila’s Chinese quarters as a training ground for entry to China. From bases in Goa and Melaka, Portuguese Dominicans reached eastern Indonesia, and in 1627, Alexandre de Rhodes (1593–1660) arrived in Vietnam as the first Jesuit missionary.10
As the 17th century advanced, earlier hopes that Christianizing Asia was an achievable goal began to fade. Several reasons came into play. In the first instance, Christians themselves were divided as national rivalries heightened theological divisions. Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) directed its attention toward eliminating its Iberian competitors, taking Melaka in 1641, mounting a series of attacks on Spanish Manila, and capturing Colombo in 1656. Like their English counterparts, the Dutch were primarily interested in trade and had little interest in evangelism. However, the northern Protestant provinces of the Netherlands had only thrown off Hapbsurg control in 1570, and the VOC was vehemently opposed to “papism” and its Portuguese and Spanish connections. Catholic priests were expelled from areas under VOC control and any involvement with Catholicism could be severely punished. Though ultimately ineffective, the draconian Dutch measures, especially in Ceylon, attest to the extent to which Asia had become a Christian battleground. In eastern Indonesia, the VOC thus condoned Protestant missionizing among “heathens” and baptized Catholics in order to generate support and counter the Muslim presence. The island of Ambon became a center for Dutch Reformed Church teaching, but it was surrounded by Muslim strongholds and by communities of “black Portuguese,” mestizo descendants of intermarriages who remained fiercely loyal to the Catholicism of their forbears.11
Nor could the Catholic Church in Asia speak as one. While there was already competition between the Jesuits and the mendicant orders, especially the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans, a more serious development was the pope’s creation of a new agency, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide), in 1622. Intended to combat the religious domination of the Portuguese in Asia, it was to be under direct Papal control and would be particularly concerned with educating, training, and ordaining native clergy. Evidence of this new determination was the papal appointment of an Indian Brahman, Bishop Mateus de Castro (c. 1594–1677), but his efforts to establish an Indian priesthood were constantly frustrated by the Jesuits and the Portuguese hierarchy, convinced that no Indian was spiritually equal to the task.12 Divisions within the Catholic Church were intensified from 1658 when the Propaganda Fide sponsored a French organization, the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), an organization of secular priests and lay people whose missionary work focused on China and mainland Southeast Asia. Predictably, MEP priests encountered extreme hostility from Portuguese and Spanish authorities, both clerical and secular, and there were even cases of arrest and incarceration. Nonetheless, though strikingly unsuccessful in the Buddhist countries of mainland Southeast Asia, the MEP was able to put a French stamp on Catholicism in Vietnam despite implacable opposition from the Jesuits. The bewilderment among Vietnam’s small but dedicated Catholic community was deepened by the papal suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 and their displacement by Spanish Franciscans from Manila, who introduced a new liturgical vocabulary and an unfamiliar worship style.13
A second issue was the marked rise in Asian hostility toward Christian missionizing, especially after Spain’s colonizing goals in the Philippines became clear. In both China and Vietnam, the suspicion that Christianity was involved in a conspiracy to overturn the state led to periodic eviction of missionaries, but the greatest blow came with their expulsion from Japan. From 1587 there had been recurring episodes of simmering anti-Christian feeling, but the full force of official denunciation came a generation later when churches were closed, missionaries deported, and Christians denounced and persecuted. By 1639, the country had been barred to Europeans, apart from representatives of the VOC. The martyrdom of Japanese Catholics (perhaps as many as 6,000) entered Church chronicles as an example of spiritual commitment and exemplary Christianity. It is remarkable that the Kakure Kirishitan, the “hidden Christian” communities around Nagasaki and Kyushu, were able to transmit their beliefs and maintain their faith until Japan opened again in the mid-19th century.
The Challenge to Localization
Arguably the greatest issue facing the Christianization project was the controversy swirling around the acceptability of localization and adjustments to Asian cultures. Should missionaries live like local people, or should their dress and appearance distinguish them as Christians? Among the Catholics the Jesuits were the most accommodating, but debates became heated when some priests were thought to overstep the line. In India, even fellow Jesuits criticized the Italian Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656), who mastered Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu and emulated the austere lifestyle of a Hindu mendicant because he believed this would attract high-caste converts. More contentious than priestly lifestyle, however, was the extent to which local converts should be permitted to retain pre-Christian practices. De Nobili, for instance, argued that the clothing and wearing of the Brahmanical sacred thread were social customs that should be permitted, but his critics contended that such “pagan” practices were unacceptable. Although a papal bull in 1623 appeared to settle the argument in favor of conversion through “accommodation”, debates resurfaced with greater intensity in the late 17th century. The “Rites Controversy” in China focused on the extent to which indigenous terms should be used to convey Christian ideas and whether Christians should be permitted to participate in ceremonies that venerated ancestors or non-Christian deities. The Jesuits generally supported accommodation, but the mendicant orders and the MEP priests, while recognizing the need to acquire language skills, doubted the wisdom of allowing Chinese culture to shape the presentation of Christian beliefs. Missionaries certainly acknowledged that compromise could be effective, and despite disapproval of Jesuit practices, Franciscans and Dominicans followed their example in adopting Chinese dress, while MEP missionaries in Siam wore Buddhist robes. Nonetheless, the door to the policy of accommodation was eventually closed. By 1742, after years of debate, the pope prohibited Chinese Catholics from participating in Confucian rites, while in Vietnam all clergy, “even the Jesuits,” were told that they could no longer dress like literati and grow their hair long. They should now cut their hair in accordance with guidelines outlined by the Council of Trent and wear a black cassock and overcoat of common locally produced silk.14 In 1744, a similar ruling explicitly forbade Indian Christians to follow customs long tolerated by the Jesuits, such as the use of Hindu names. In order to avoid defiling higher castes, some missionaries were assigned to minister only to low-status converts, effectively creating a two-tier church. It is hardly surprising that an unknown number of Christians returned to Hinduism.15
By the 1800s, Catholic missionizing in Asia could look back on a history of 300 years, but one of the papacy’s touted goals—the training of a local clergy and lay leadership—had shown only mediocre results. Certainly one can identify a number of prominent converts, such as the first Chinese bishop, Luo Wenzao (c. 1616–1691), who was ordained by the Dominicans in Manila in 1656, and the Goan priest, Joseph Vaz (1651–1711), born a Brahman, who braved the anti-Catholic environment of Dutch Ceylon to preach in disguise.16 High-ranking women were also supportive converts, such as Naito Julia (d. 1627), a former Buddhist nun who founded a Japanese society of pious Kirishitan women, and Lady Catarina (sister to the effective ruler of Tonkin in northern Vietnam), who was a chief sponsor of Alexandre de Rhodes.17 In Korea, a number of young men from the aristocratic yangban class began to study Jesuit teachings from Chinese sources, and in 1785, one of their number, Yi Sunghan (1756–1801), went to Beijing where he was baptised. After he returned to Korea, he and his colleagues embarked on a campaign of proselytizing. By the end of the 18th century, there were an estimated 4,000 Korean converts who, in the absence of an ordained priest, often baptized themselves. However, the government’s fury at their refusal to participate in Confucian ancestral rituals (chesa) brought heavy retribution. Catholicism was banned, and punishment for defiance was extreme. In 1801, several hundred individuals, including Yi Sunghan, were ritually executed, but darker days still lay ahead.
The Korean experience is instructive because of the missionizing role of local leaders and the refusal of converts to abandon their faith, even in the face of relentless persecution. Historical sources for this period, however, tell us little about motivations or the nature of Christian belief, especially among ordinary people. This lacuna in documentation is probably the most frustrating issue for historians of Christianity in Asia because it was at lower socioeconomic levels that the localization process was most pronounced, despite the efforts by clerics to secure the boundaries of acceptable practice. Whether it concerned the power associated with specific images of the Madonna, the popularity of certain saints, or the belief that dust swept up from the steps of a Protestant pulpit would have curative powers, believers infused Christian praxis with meanings that resonated with their own cultures. As one might expect, localization was most noticeable in isolated areas where regular missionary contact was limited or absent, such as the pockets of local Christians in Myanmar who were descended from Portuguese prisoners.
Against this background, the Philippines provides a telling commentary on the successes and failures of the Christianizing project. On the one hand, Spanish control, clerical oversight, and church-run schools had helped to spread Catholicism over the entire archipelago except for the mountainous interior of northern Luzon and the Muslim south. On the other, Filipinos had themselves translated Christianity into their own cultural idiom. For example, devotion to the Santo Niño of Cebu (an image of the Christ child that Magellan had presented to a raja’s wife in 1521) was so great that Rome approved special liturgical texts for use during the annual celebration, which was placed on the official Church calendar. More particularly, Filipinos were themselves able to make a distinction between Christian teachings and Church practices, increasingly marked by clerical abuses such as the usurpation of common land and onerous demands for gifts and labor. Christianity’s very appeal to Filipinos generated contention because the friars generally refused to accept native Christians into the regular orders, although a growing number were ordained as parish priests. Communities of devout lay Filipino women were founded but these beatas (blessed women) were similarly excluded from full ordination as nuns. Ironically, the education that the Church provided was a significant element in feeding this resentment.18
Christianity in the Shadow of European Imperialism
The 19th century witnessed major changes in the configuration of global power as European imperialism advanced across Asia. The Spanish were well established in the Philippines, and the Portuguese claimed Goa, Macao, and the eastern half of Timor, but from the 1750s the involvement of other Western powers in South and Southeast Asia progressively deepened. By 1900, the British directly or indirectly controlled Sri Lanka, India, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, and Hong Kong; the French had established control over Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); in 1898, the United States assumed control of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. In China, the Qing government had no jurisdiction over the foreign concessions, which were a constant reminder of its humiliating defeat in the Opium War of 1839–1842 and the imposition of the “unequal treaties.” In 1853, Japan too was forced to open its doors to Western trade. In West Asia, British concern to protect the Suez Canal led to the occupation of Egypt and contributed to increased rivalry with Tsarist Russia, which was attempting to extend its influence into Afghanistan and Central Asia (see figure 1).
In justifying their colonial regimes, Western governments frequently spoke in terms of a “civilizing mission,” with Christian values as an essential element. The 19th century therefore saw the proliferation of new missionary initiatives, including those sponsored by the Protestant London Missionary Society (1795), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), the Dutch Nederlands Zendelinggenootschap (1797), and the American Baptists, which in turn stimulated missionary efforts by the Catholic orders. But perceptions of prospective converts differed; in Southeast Asia, for instance, the British and Dutch forbade proselytization among Muslims, whereas in West Asia Western missionaries initially targeted Islamic communities. A distinct lack of success meant they eventually turned their attention to reforming the eastern churches, often seen as practicing a degenerate form of Christianity. The Russian Orthodox Church shared this view and evangelizing efforts in Persia specifically sought out members of the Church of the East, thousands of whom entered the Orthodox fold. Yet for most missionaries, the great Asian prize was still China, and until the opening of the treaty ports in 1843, the overseas Chinese populations of Batavia, Melaka, and Singapore became the training ground for prospective Protestant missionaries. Here they hoped to acquire linguistic expertise while converting young Chinese, who would translate religious material and themselves become clergy, teachers, and social reformers.
Because it proceeded in tandem with an aggressive Western pursuit of economic goals, this reenergized missionary effort injected new tensions into long-standing debates about cultural accommodation. Some Asian communities could claim a Christian heritage that stretched back for several generations, and during the 19th century, there are numerous examples of local resistance to the racial discrimination that asserted the superiority of European-style belief. For instance, Ambon, a center of Dutch Protestantism in eastern Indonesia, was essentially without ministers following the collapse of the VOC in 1799. It was native schoolteachers who maintained the traditions attached to baptism and church membership, staking out their own claim as guardians of a certain style of Christian practice. In supporting an anti-Dutch rebellion in 1817, they found justification in the psalms of David and his prayer for protection against the “deadly enemies, who encompass me about.”19 In the Philippines, the Tagalog Pasyon, a local rendering of the life of Christ, proved highly effective in inspiring peasant anticolonialism, as charismatic leaders appropriated Christian symbols and compared Filipino sufferings to those of the persecuted Christ. One such figure, Apolinario de la Cruz (1814–1841) had been refused entry into the Franciscan order because he was an Indio, but his leadership expanded the Cofradia [confraternity] of Saint Joseph into an independent Catholic community. Excluding Spaniards and mestizos and deeply rooted in Filipino Christian culture, it incorporated rituals deemed heretical by the Church. Reprisals were swift and merciless; over 500 members of the Cofradia were killed by government forces and Apolinario’s dismembered body was put on public display.20
Nor was it only European powers that saw the dangers of local expressions of Christianity. Such attitudes were most obvious in East Asia, where Christianity had been prohibited in Japan in 1639, in China in 1724, and where Christians in Korea were punished by death. During the 1820s, the implication of Vietnamese Christians and priests in several insurrections resulted in similar retribution. All missionary work was banned, and although congregations were still maintained and some mandarins were devout Catholics, Christians were under constant suspicion of fomenting rebellion and of involvement in the black arts.21 Persecution, imprisonment, exile, and death of Christians took place on an unprecedented scale, and in France protection of missionaries and their Vietnamese flock became a justification for the military intervention of 1858. In Korea, long-standing hostility toward Christians reached an unprecedented level as Russian pressure for commercial privileges intensified, and it has been estimated that around 8,000 Christians died in the “Great Persecution” of 1866.22
Probably the most dramatic expression of state opposition to localized Christianity occurred in China, where the leader of the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), tapped biblical scriptures to justify opposition to the Qing dynasty, validate his new Heavenly Kingdom on earth, and inspire a formidable army of dedicated believers intent on cleansing China from false beliefs. For Western missionaries, however, the boundaries of localization were clearly crossed when Hong claimed to be a younger brother of Jesus, and with the assistance of foreign forces, the Qing government finally suppressed the uprising. Nonetheless, Hong’s teaching that a second coming was imminent (an idea cultivated by some missionaries) quickly spread among overseas Chinese communities. In Singapore, as secret societies competed with churches for membership, Christian Chinese carried banners with the characters “Jesus is coming” in their clashes with armed society bands.23
Continuing Debates among Christians
Within Christian communities, the divisive debates about Christianity’s relationship with existing religions remained unresolved. The Hindu reformist, Raja Rammohan Roy (1772–1833), appreciated the New Testament as an ethical guide and Jesus Christ as a moral teacher, but he did not believe in Christ’s divinity and could not accept the theology of the Trinity. This position inevitably brought him into conflict with men such as the Baptist William Carey (1761–1834), with their insistence on a distinctive Christian identity. Missionary rejection of caste was a major stumbling block to conversion and led to irreconcilable differences with prominent Indian Christians, notably the Tamil scholar and poet Vedanayakam Shastri (1774–1864). His role in bridging cultural gaps through the use of Tamil literary genres to compose hymns and impart biblical teachings were no compensation for his resistance to caste integration, and he was eventually expelled from his congregation.24
Given the complex histories of localization and indigenization, it is not surprising that controversies over the boundaries of accommodation continue as a dominant theme. Despite his success in attracting followers, most Dutch Protestants regarded the teachings of the “Apostle of Java,” Kiai Sadrach (c. 1835–1924), as heretical because they were presented as a form of Javanese esoteric wisdom. Dutch Jesuits were appalled when they returned to Larantuka (eastern Flores) in 1859 to see the extent to which local Catholics, bereft of priests, had reconstituted their own form of Christianity based on their Portuguese heritage and a veneration for Bunda (Mother) Maria, represented by an image said to have floated in from Melaka.25 For some Christians, the compromises Westerners demanded were simply too great. Despite the new religious freedoms after 1853, Japan’s “hidden Christians” opted to remain within their own communities where they could maintain their own forms of worship rather than join the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. In 1890, Uchimura Kanzô registered this feeling by forming the indigenous Mukyo Kai or No Church movement. “I cannot accept any faith,” he said, “which comes in the name of foreigners . . . I love two Js . . . one is Jesus and the other is Japan.”26 By contrast, missionaries working among Southeast Asia’s interior Animist groups generally accepted that compromise was necessary if Christianity was to attract a local following. This mode of thinking meant, for instance, that while Christians were forbidden to sacrifice buffalos or pigs to feed the spirits of deceased relatives, a communal meal serving meat from such animals could be acceptable. Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether converts understood the theological reasoning that forbade veneration of effigies of the dead while permitting the erection of gravestones and memorials.
Among such isolated and marginalized communities, Christian missionaries could relate a story of modest success, even as they adamantly rejected the Animist polytheistic spirit world. By 1900, the number of Christians in India had risen to more than five million, most of whom were dalit (outcastes) or tribal peoples. Access to mission education and Western tutelage gave groups like the non-Buddhist Chin of Myanmar an enhanced sense of ethnic identity.27 In the Dutch East Indies, a particularly effective method was adopted by Ludwig Nonmensen (1834–1918) of the German-based Rhenish Missionary Society, who began working among the Toba Batak of north Sumatra in 1863. By developing congregations based on existing clan structures, by appointing rajas as church leaders, and by retaining the Toba language for liturgy, Nonmensen laid the foundation for a Toba Batak identity that placed a high value on education as a path to hamajuon or progress.28
As the 19th century drew to a close, colonial control had extended over most of South and Southeast Asia, and in East Asia, the penetration of Western influence was a forceful challenge to established traditions. In the Korean peninsula, the social dislocation following the Sino-Japanese war opened a doorway for new religious movements, and Protestant missionaries spoke of a “wildfire” of church growth, especially in the north. Nonetheless, although the numbers of Asian Christians had increased, especially in urban centers, the population percentages in most countries (most obviously China and India) were hardly impressive. The very schooling that Christianity stressed exposed students to the racial hierarchies colonialism had created and that Christian churches tended to perpetuate. In the Philippines, the anti-Spanish Revolution of 1896 was thus led by ilustrados (“enlightened ones”) men who were products of Catholic education but who were bitterly opposed to the stranglehold of the “friarocracy” and its alliance with the Spanish administration. Meanwhile, the controversy over the role of native priests continued to fester, with advocates of clerical equality viewed as the enemies of both the Church and Spain. Following the 1876 execution of three priests accused of assisting a mutiny among Filipino soldiers, native clergy became increasingly politicized. Catholics themselves were divided in their support for the anti-Spanish Revolution that broke out twenty years later, but opposition to Spanish-dominated Catholicism led to the formation of a new independent church, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. Often called the Aglipayan church after one of its two founders, an activist Ilokano priest named Gregorio Aglipay, its followers seized Catholic Church property, rejected the authority of Rome, and allowed priests to marry. With a strong base among rural Ilokano peasants, the Aglipayans foreshadowed increasing efforts to assert local leadership in the Christian domain even as the Philippines came under a new colonial power, the United States.
Christianity and Asian Nationalism
From the beginning of the 20th century, the Western imperialism that had appeared virtually invincible faced new challenges. Whereas in the 1870s Chinese animosity toward Christians had been locally based, often headed by district officials and lower gentry, the Boxer Uprising (1899–1901) was rather different because it involved much wider support, especially from students and intellectuals. Fueled by intense antiforeign and anti-Christian animosities, the Boxers specifically targeted churches, missionaries, and Chinese converts, thousands of whom were killed. The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the establishment of a Chinese republic, and intensified nationalism simply increased anti-Christian hostility toward Westerners and the Christianity they represented. Simultaneously, the emergence of Japan as an Asian power, dramatically demonstrated in its defeat of Russia in 1904, strengthened movements that were pressing for independence, especially in Southeast Asia. By the 1930s, the elevation of Japanese Shinto into a state ideology required the compliance of all religious groupings, and both Catholics and Protestants moved from a position of opposition to acceptance of the militaristic ethos. Perhaps the greatest challenge came from Communism, with its outright rejection of all religions, a creed that could attract Asian Christians chafing under the paternalism of Western missionaries and hoping for a more egalitarian world. Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu scholars mounted their own critiques of Western-based Christianity, and in India groups such as the Hindu social reform movement, the Arya Samaj, launched “reconversion” campaigns aimed at both new lower-caste Christian converts and older Catholic communities. Access to Western education also encouraged alternative readings of sacred texts. For example, the scholarly J. C. Kumarappa (1892–1960) interpreted the Bible message as supportive of Indian aspirations and implicitly critical of British colonialism.
The new challenges to Western authority were reflected in the surge of indigenous Christian movements. In the Philippines, the Aglipayan church was an early expression of localism, but the Iglesia ni Cristo, founded in 1914 by Felix Manalo (1886–1993), was even more insistent on a national base in which preaching and publications should be in Tagalog or other Filipino languages. The florescence of Pentecostalism in the United States, characterized by emotional repentance, altar calls, and “gifts of the spirit” (prophecy, divine healing, and speaking in tongues), spread to Asia through the missionary network. The greatest influences, however, came from local leaders, as in various parts of India, where revivalist movements among existing Christian communities had already laid the groundwork, with women often assuming a prominent role. The Sanskrit scholar Sarasvita Ramabai (1858–1922) maintained a mission devoted to the welfare and protection of young Hindu widows, and it was here that an Indian “Holy Spirit” revival erupted in 1905. Indigenous leadership by women as well as men was evident in similar movements that swept through tribal areas of northeast India in 1906 and 1907. Nonetheless, throughout Christian Asia male dominance was the norm. In Korea, the “great revival” of 1907 owed much to the inspiration of Gil Sunjoo (1869–1935), the first ordained Presbyterian minister, who provided leadership to hundreds of Korean preachers. In China, despite the hopes of European and American Pentecostals for their own “faith mission,” the renewal movement that gripped parts of the country during the 1920s was largely Chinese led. Independent congregations such as the True Jesus Church attracted hundreds of followers to emotional prayer meetings led by charismatic preachers, often female. Perhaps the most famous minister of this period, Watchman Nee Duo Sheng (1903–1972), founded the “Little Flock” church in Shanghai, and his writings marked an important stage in the indigenization of Christian theology. Another contemporary was the influential evangelist John Sung Shang Chieh (1901–1944), whose campaigns in Southeast Asia not only converted many overseas Chinese but also infused them with a new sense of shared “Chineseness.”29
Fully cognizant of these developments, colonial governments and Western church leaders began to bow to pressure for greater local direction of church policies. In 1923, after twenty years of petitioning, Saint Thomas Christians came under the direction of Indian bishops who had been reared in the same tradition as their congregation rather than by clerics who followed the Latin rule. In the Philippines, the Catholic Church similarly recognized the need to increase the numbers of native clergy and raise their status; the new American archbishop, who arrived in 1903, was also concerned to counter the appeal of Protestant missionaries, and the first Filipino bishop was appointed three years later. Nonetheless, changes came slowly, and in the Philippines English only displaced Spanish as the language of instruction in Jesuit seminaries in 1932. Nor was there any sense of urgency in other areas of Catholic Asia, even after Pope Pius XI ordained six Chinese bishops in 1926. Despite a commitment to the training of local leadership, older prejudices were hard to eradicate, and foreign missionaries, regardless of denomination or affiliation, were often wary of handing over clerical authority, frequently repeating old arguments about a lack of spiritual maturity.
However, it would be unfair to ignore the positive contribution of Western missionaries all across Asia, especially in regard to medical care. The mission hospitals that developed in urban centers became a major training ground for nurses and an increasing number of local doctors, notably in China. By 1897, about 300 doctors had graduated from missionary medical schools, and a generation later, 55 percent of the doctors in mission hospitals were Chinese compared to 45 percent Western.30 Even more important was the influence of Western mission education because of the opportunities it provided for social advancement. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, hundreds of largely Protestant mission schools and Christian colleges were established in China, some of which were able to weather the antiforeign attitudes associated with the Boxer Rebellion. A notable development was female education, and in Korea the now famous Ewha Women’s University, established in 1886, became the first modern private institution for higher education. However, the future of Christian-based education in Korea became more uncertain after Japan’s imposition of colonialism in 1910. Although the mission schools survived, they were regarded with suspicion by the Japanese authorities as potentiate seedbeds for nationalist feeling. For their part, some Korean nationalists were alienated by what they saw as missionary indifference to anticolonial groups and the cause of independence.31
Far removed from urban areas, Asia mission influence was also evident in isolated areas that lay beyond the reach of government officials. As bearers of gifts of modernity—soap, needles, medicines, steel axes—Catholic and Protestant missionaries, often representing newly formed orders and organizations, became allies of the state by encouraging converts to adopt a more settled lifestyle. In India, for instance, the Salvation Army overcame government opposition to methods such as street preaching, and by 1908 it had become formally involved in reforming vagrants and “criminal tribes” and relocating them in controlled settlements.32 Missionary schools also laid the basis for future leadership. In 1927, the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) was inaugurated in Melbourne, Australia, and the evangelists who arrived in Sarawak (East Malaysia) two years later decided to concentrate on the interior peoples, notably the Murut. From the outset a goal was the training of indigenous leadership through education, and the idea that missionary work was best conducted by a partnership of husband and wife proved highly effective. One must be careful, however, of generalization, for most Animist peoples who took advantage of a mission clinic did not see Christianity as supplanting traditional religions or offering persuasive models for a spiritual life relevant to their own experience. One authority has thus noted that mission stations in the Myanmar interior, regardless of their denominations, typically ministered to congregations of a hundred or less.33
The Second World War, Independence and Local Control
In the history of Christianity in Asia, the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 marked a watershed. In the countries under Japanese control, Western clergy were imprisoned or expelled and church buildings appropriated, but in other respects there were distinct advances. Because the Japanese demanded clerical indigenization, local leaders were catapulted into prominence as defenders of their congregations. In most cases they were able to ensure that Christians could continue to worship, despite suspicions of sympathy toward the former colonial powers. New wartime opportunities were especially evident in the Philippines, where Japanese Christians were placed in charge of a special religious section. A strong push was made for the appointment of more Filipino priests and religious courses were maintained in public schools. It is not surprising that some high-level clergy cooperated with the Japanese, which later raised awkward questions of collaboration, but was a major step toward the Filipinization of the Catholic leadership.34 In 1946, Reverend Gabriel Reyes became the first native Filipino to be appointed Archbishop of Manila. Another example came from Borneo, for when missionaries returned in 1947, they found that the prewar Murut church was thriving and that Christianity was well established among highland communities. In 1959, with Indonesian support, the “Sidang Injil Borneo” (SIB, Borneo Evangelical Assembly) was established as an intertribal conference, and since that time the SIB has established itself as a local led and indigenous Borneo religion.35
In religious terms, the far-reaching changes in the existing political and social order after the surrender were most obvious in Japan itself. The American occupation, which only ended in 1952, abolished state support for Shinto and enshrined the principle of religious freedom in the redrafted constitution. Nonetheless, although membership of Christian churches showed a modest growth, the religious landscape was dominated by the expansion of new Japanese movements such as the Buddhist Soka Gakkai. Despite the high hopes of missionaries in the late 17th century and the devotion of the underground Kirishitans, Christianity has never become “Japanese,” notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which Christian festivals, notably Christmas, are celebrated.36
Korea presents a very different story, for although Christians had lived under Japanese colonialism since 1910, the limits on Western missionizing had allowed preachers like Gil Sunjoo to assume a prominent place on the national stage. In the reshaped political environment of the postwar era, Christians emerged as influential players in both academics and politics. As various scholars have emphasized, Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, was able to put down roots in Korea even though there were already well-established belief systems, including shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. One reason, it has been suggested, was that belief in the power of prayer facilitated approaches to a divinity who, like traditional deities, would bestow protection and prosperity and respond to calls for help in times of need.37
Local leadership of Korean Christianity became most pronounced in the postwar revitalization of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity. In 1958, a young convert, David Yonggi Cho, founded the Yoido Full Gospel Church; with over 800,000 members, it is now the largest single congregation in the world. Internationally, Cho is among the most well-known Pentecostal ministers, and certainly the most influential in Asia, where he has sponsored numerous young pastors and helped to finance church growth. The appeal of Pentecostal worship style is evident in the megachurches that are springing up in much of Asia, especially in Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore. As in Africa and Latin America, this rapid growth reflects the Pentecostal capacity to adapt to local contexts, to appeal to different audiences, and to draw in people of very different backgrounds.38
Similar renewal movements within mainstream congregations have been subsumed under the rubric of “Charismatic Christianity” because they stress the gifts (charisms) bestowed by the Holy Spirit, such as the ability to heal and to see revelations revealed in scripture. Since they have so much in common and since there is so much interaction, it is impossible to draw boundaries between these movements, which have been jointly termed Pentecostal-Charismatic (P/C). Though criticized by some for promoting a “gospel of prosperity,” the appeal of these churches and their pastors is a major reason for the dramatic expansion of Asian Christianity. In the Philippines, for example, the Church has officially recognized El Shaddai, with its theological emphasis on healing, prosperity, and “virtuous acts” such as monetary donations, as a legitimate lay Catholic movement. Founded by Mike Velarde in 1984, El Shaddai has built up a very large following both at home and among overseas Filipinos through huge public gatherings, the use of electronic mass media, and the message that God will provide. Protestant P/C organizations in the Philippines are more fragmented, but the most visible is Jesus Is Lord Church, founded in 1978 by Eddie Villaneuva, a former Communist. In 2006, it was estimated that membership of P/C churches may include 44 percent of the total Philippine population, now estimated at around 106 million. Unlike Africa and Latin America, P/C followers in Asia are increasingly drawn from the middle class, and as Asia becomes increasingly more urban, these congregations are predicted to become the dominant expression of Asian Christianity.39
Christianity and the State
Perhaps the most striking example of P/C penetration is found in contemporary China and among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.40 The appeal of charismatic Christianity in China is especially noteworthy, given the often antagonistic attitude of the state and the prewar dominance of foreign leadership. In 1946, for instance, less than 20 percent of Catholic dioceses were under Chinese bishops. When the Communists took power in 1949, foreign missionaries were expelled and Christian antagonism toward the regime of Mao Zedong did nothing to ease the situation. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), all churches were closed, any open practice of religion was forbidden, and thousands of Chinese Christians were sent to labor camps. Though Mao’s death saw the formation of a less oppressive government, it remained critical for churches to stress their patriotism and their Chinese identification.41 Their consequent success in negotiating government restrictions is confirmed by the statistics. In 1949, there were probably only one million Christians in all China; today this number is estimated to be somewhere between 67 and 100 million. The total Christian population, Protestants and Catholics, is estimated to reach 247 million in 2030, which will make China the world’s largest Christian nation.42 Recently, however, there are indications of government concern at Christianity’s expansion and claims of penetration into the ranks of the Communist Party. In response, local authorities are now exercising more control over unregistered house churches and the display of crosses, while the previous toleration for evangelism by Korean missionaries appears to have ended.43
In part, Chinese suspicion of Christianity is a result of church opposition to non-Christian governments, as in Vietnam, where the Catholic Church had been a vehement opponent of Communism during the colonial period. Although Vietnamese priests did express support for the fledging republic when Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1945, the legacy of the past was difficult to overcome. Pope Pius XIII’s anti-Communist encyclical of 1951, supported by a pastoral letter from the Vietnamese bishops, left no doubt about where the Church stood.44 In northern Vietnam, many thousands of Catholics and their priests streamed southward only to find that the way they practiced their faith in the north was rather different from that in the region controlled by the Republic of Vietnam. Since the Communist victory in 1975, the relationship between the state and Christian churches has often been tense, and accusations of outright persecution are common. The government is particularly concerned about evangelism in the highlands, for ethnic minorities are seen as targets for missionaries, and locally led congregations in unregistered or house churches are regarded as breeding grounds for antigovernment dissent. Comparable attitudes are found in neighboring Laos, where the Communist government is wary of Christianity’s association with Hmong hill tribes, many of whom were once used by the French and Americans against Communist armies.45
Given the historical connections between Christianity and the West, these uncertainties raise once more the problematic relationship to the society at large, especially in countries where Christians are a minority and are associated with a particular ethnicity or social class. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Central Asian republics have allowed religion more visibility, but this has resulted in increased pressure for Islam to be accorded a special place as the majority religion. Although governments have been quick to cauterize any move to politicize Islam or to assert more extremist interpretations, discrimination against “nonnative” nationalities has contributed to the exodus of more than four million “European” Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox.
By contrast, Indonesians have traditionally accepted Christianity as one of the six approved religions, although over 87 percent of its population of 266.7 million are Muslims. When independence was declared in 1945, Christian communities were apprehensive about a centralized government dominated by Javanese Muslims, and their loyalty to the new state was often called into question. However, the Christian population increased dramatically after the 1965 army coup, especially among Chinese, because accusations of Communist sympathies could be deflected by avowing one of Indonesia’s five recognized religions. Yet Christian churches have also harbored antigovernment and anti-Muslim animosities, and in Papua New Guinea, militant separatists have adopted the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” as they call for a united movement. Over the past twenty years, rising Islamic fundamentalism and resentment toward aggressive Christian proselytizing have led to clashes and physical attacks that have undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance. Muslim–Christian conflicts in Ambon, bombings in Bali and Jakarta, and the burning of churches in East Java all point to deep-seated suspicions and resentments that can all too easily erupt into violence.46
Malaysia’s 1957 constitution affirmed religious freedom in a multiethnic state, but Islam is a core element in Malay identity. In Peninsular Malaysia, Christians are mostly of Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian descent, while virtually all Malays are Muslim, for whom apostasy is forbidden. The tendency to see Christianity as an imported faith whose adherents are descendants of non-Malay migrants has been intensified by a process of government-supported Islamization intended to solidify Muslim electoral support. The role of the state in shaping public attitudes is also evident in contemporary India, where Christians, currently numbered at around 29 million, make up less than 3 percent of the population. Apart from certain areas, notably the northeast and Kerala, converts have been largely drawn from low-caste Dalit and tribal communities and are less able to influence government policies, as leading Christians have been able to do in Singapore, Korea, and Indonesia. The very penetration of Christianity has encouraged the belief that Christians are actively seeking to convert Hindus. As a result, hostile attitudes among supporters of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party have been exacerbated and anti-Christian attacks are said to be on the rise.47
As one might expect, the most dramatic displays of Christian political influence in Asia have occurred in the majority Catholic countries of the Philippines and Timor Leste. By the 1960s, the Catholic Church was in Filipino hands, and the ramifications of localization were soon felt among ordinary clergy, many of whom were influenced by the liberation theology imported from South America. In the face of persistent Filipino poverty and economic inequity, a significant number joined the Communist Party. The Catholic hierarchy, however, maintained its support for the anti-Communist policies of President Ferdinand Marcos, even after his declaration of martial law in 1972. By 1986, pressure from below led to Church condemnation of the Marcos government, and the involvement of priests and nuns played a central role in the “people power movement” that toppled the regime.48 In 2017, the Catholic Church has again taken a stand in the political domain, denouncing President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs for creating a “reign of terror” among the poor.
The political role of the Catholic Church, once regarded as an arm of the Portuguese colonial government, has been equally significant in Timor Leste. The Indonesian invasion of 1975, launched following fears of a Communist takeover, meant that all East Timorese were required to follow the Indonesian precedent and declare affiliation with a recognized religion. The numbers of declared Catholics soared, and the Church itself emerged as the focus of Timorese resistance, benefiting by the Vatican’s endorsement of the concept of inculturation (adaptations of Christian teachings to be more compatible with a local context) and the use of the vernacular (in this case Tetum) as the liturgical language. Since 97 percent of the population is Catholic, the Church has continued to exercise considerable influence in the formulation of government policies and in shaping public opinion after independence was attained in 2002.49
Yet in neither of the two Asian countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion has the influence of the Church gone unquestioned, especially concerning the application of religious teachings in family life. In the Philippines, the Catholic hierarchy fiercely opposed the successful passage of the Reproductive Rights bill, which has allowed women access to contraception and which was widely supported by civil rights groups. In East Timor, secular and left-wing political leaders have often been at odds with the Church, but they have found that Catholic leaders are well able to mobilize support. For example, following mass demonstrations in 2005, the government agreed to reinstate religious education as part of the core curriculum in schools. Issues of gender equality have also been high on the agenda of activist organizations, but although this may conflict with the Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion and divorce, there is a general feeling that partnership with the Catholic hierarchy is necessary for successful government.
Given this history, it is not difficult to understand why there is no unified Christian community in Asia, either nationally or regionally, and why collaboration is generally weak, despite organizations like the Asian Bishops Conference and the Christian Conference of Asia. At the same time, the processes of indigenization, while contributing to fragmentation, have brought about changes that may explain the current rise in Christian followers. The increasing visibility of women not merely in congregations but as preachers and church leaders may reflect global demands for gender equality, but it also points to long-standing desires for religious involvement among Asian women themselves. Although debates about the limits to localization continue, the growing acceptance of inculturation (which Protestants render as “contextual theology”) has allowed for significant adaptations that resonate with the local environment and have allowed for the rearticulation of many pre-Christian beliefs and practices, especially in regard to architecture, music, and ritual. The presentation of the Christian message via technologically sophisticated techniques that emphasize international links, while drawing on underlying beliefs in divine healing and the power of prayer, has been particularly appealing to Asian youth. Finally, while differences in Christian observances across Asia undoubtedly represent a challenge to any overview, they also provide an opportunity to examine the ways in which a religion initially brought by Westerners has become deeply embedded in notions of self and community among millions of people. The processes conveyed in words such as “accommodation,” “localization,” “domestication,” and “indigenization” have a long and complex history, and the adaptations involved have by no means gone unchallenged. Against this background, comparative research will become increasingly important in tracking how Asia’s Christians have helped to reshape global understandings of the multiple paths by which Christianity became a world religion.
Discussion of the Literature
Any attempt to provide an overview of Christianity in Asia faces three dominant problems. In the first instance, the territorial extent of Asia, a term coined by the Greeks over 2,000 years ago, is vast. Generalizing across such a culturally and geographically diverse region is further complicated because scholarly specialization and geopolitical pragmatics have established other divisions—“West Asia, “Central” Asia, “South” Asia, “Southeast” Asia, and “East” Asia that are not particularly helpful for comparative thinking.50 It should be remembered that each of these regions contains hundreds of different linguistic groups, and that mastery of the relevant indigenous languages, including those necessary for the study of Christianity in Asia (notably Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, and English) would be simply impossible for a single individual, even working within a single world area. Cross-cultural comparisons are further complicated because of the multiple ways in which Christian teachings have adjusted to the local environment. Indeed, the proliferation of churches and the ecclesiastical diversity they represent have led some theologians to suggest that it is helpful to think of “Christianities” in Asia.51
A second issue concerns scholarly approaches in dealing with this diversity and the problematic issue of regional overviews. The literature on Asian Christianity has expanded substantially over the past thirty years, and there has been a marked increase in quality books that focus on individual countries and on new developments, such as the growing visibility of women, the rise of Pentecostalism, Asia-wide overviews of Christianity, and Christianity’s relationship to Asian religions more broadly. Publications dealing with Asia typically comprise a collection of essays by specialists, each devoted to a particular region, and introduced through an editorial introduction.52 While this approach highlights scholarly expertise, separation into world areas means it is often difficult for readers to appreciate the similarities and differences that close comparison reveals between and within countries, even within the same world area. A rare example of a single-authored work is Samuel Moffat’s two-volume History of Christianity in Asia, but he has dealt with the overview issue by dividing his book into country-focused chapters. The same pattern is evident in many one-country studies, which are frequently divided into regions, as Aritonang and Steenbrink have done in their A History of Christianity in Indonesia or as evident in Bishop Stephen Neill’s detailed two-volume work on Christianity in India up to 1858.
A third factor concerns the researchers themselves. Prior to the past thirty years or so, the bulk of the historical literature on Christianity in Asia was produced by missionaries and church members. While modern scholarship has definitely shifted gear, any investigation of Asian Christianities must be acutely aware of the context, authorship, and intended audience of any evidence, since the conviction that Christian belief is superior to any other has long shaped the ways in which relations with local cultures were described. Historians are also faced with specific problems because available documentation is unequally distributed. The recent resurgence of studies of Jesuit activities, for instance, is a telling reminder of the degree to which the Society of Jesus maintained records and promoted its own activities. By contrast, because of limited circulation material and issues of access to indigenous languages, local publications that can provide intriguing accounts of indigenous attitudes are almost inevitably overlooked in larger studies. Above all, because the bulk of historical material has been left by missionaries and Western observers, the historian concerned to study reactions of Asians themselves must cultivate the art of reaching beyond the written sources. By the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, there was a significant corrective as Asian Christians themselves compiled their own autobiographies and memoirs, many of which have been translated into Western languages.
Greater understanding of the complexity underlying identification as “Christian” has been substantially increased because research has become interdisciplinary and the development of ideas of participant observations have helped develop a more sympathetic understanding of the motivations behind conversion. A shift in thinking has been especially influential among anthropologists, where there was a historical tendency to regard the work of missionaries as fundamentally damaging to the authenticity of pre-Christian cultures. There is no doubt that many rites and practices deemed unacceptable by missionaries have disappeared, but anthropologists are now more interested in the complexities of syncretism and inculturation, as evidenced in Fenella Cannell’s edited volume, The Anthropology of Christianity.53 Locally produced Christian art is also attracting attention and has produced a number of illustrated volumes and scholarly analyses. An early book is by Masao Takenaka, Christian Art in Asia, but see more recently, Patricia Pongracz, The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, the catalogue of an important exhibition, and Jeremy Clarke, SJ, The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History.54 It has thus become very clear that even the most vehement proponents of secularization theory would probably accept that the 21st century is witnessing a global resurgence of religion.55 In this context, the place of Christianity in global conversations provides a fruitful domain in which to examine the continuities and discontinuities and the agreements and contestations that have contributed to the formulations of what Asia means.
The primary material for the study of Asian Christianity is daunting, not only because of language access but because the sources are scattered in so many different libraries and archives. However, from the 15th century, researchers are fortunate because there are numerous published guides to collections, and most secondary works also provide details of the primary material the authors tapped, including accounts by missionaries themselves. The literature is too extensive to list here, but a useful overview is by Klau Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa and Latin America 1550–1990: A Documentary Sourcebook.56 The most extensive bibliography on Catholic missions is the multivolume Bibliotheca Missionum.57 For sources on Japan, see Johannes Laures’ Kirishitan Bunko: A Manual of Books and Documents on the Early Christian Missions in Japan, with Special Reference to the Principal Libraries in Japan, and More Particularly to the Collection at Sophia University.58 A guide to the Propaganda Fide Archives is by Nikolaus Kowalsky, OMI, and Josef Metzler, OMI, Inventory of the Historical Archives of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples or “De Propaganda Fide.”59 An introduction to the Vatican archives is by Serio Pagano and Francesca Di Giovanni, Guida delle Fonti per la storia dell’Africa del Nord, Asia e Oceania nell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano.60
For China, see the magisterial study edited by Nicholas Standaert, Handbook of Christianity in China, covering the period from 631 to 1800, and the second volume, Reference Guide to Christian Missionary Societies in China: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by R. G. Tiedemann.61 For pre-19th century Asia more generally, Jesuit sources are the most illuminating; an overview is in Thomas M. McCoog, A Guide to Jesuit Archives.62 For printed documents, see Hubert Jacobs, SJ, editor, Documenta Malucensia (1542–1577), and Hubert Jacobs, SJ, editor, The Jesuit Makassar Documents (1615–1682).63 The Monumenta series of the Jesuits includes documents on India, Japan, and China. For a partial list of the Monumenta, see the website.
Documents from the archives of the mendicant orders are less available, but see Fidel Villarroel (OP), The Dominicans and the Philippines Revolution (1896–1903), a collection of fifty-nine documents that present the Dominican viewpoint.64 There are several documentary collections for the Chinese missions published in the journal Missionalia Hispanica. Successive volumes in the series Sinica Franciscana supply letters in Latin from the Franciscan archives.65 Other sources have been incorporated into specific studies, such as Achilles Meersman, The Franciscans in the Indonesian Archipelago, and Olivinho J. F. Gomes, The Religious Orders in Goa (Sixteenth–Seventeenth Century).66
A selection of relevant sources dealing with Christian attitudes to Islam can be found in Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 11: South and East Asia, Africa and the Americas (1600–1700).67 The Dutch Protestant efforts in Asia from the 17th century and into the colonial period are well covered in most general books, but most of the primary material is still in Dutch. For the VOC period, see the citations in G. J. Schutte, Het Indisch Sion: De Gereformeerde Kerk onder de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie.68 For the colonial period, see W. Ph. Coolhaas, A Critical Survey of Studies on Dutch Colonial History, which provides an overview of primary sources. The Workgroup for the History of Dutch Missions and Overseas Churches has sponsored several books of documents, such as Chr. G. F. de Jong’s two-volume work, De Protestantse Kerk in de Midden-Molukken: Een Bronnen Publicatie.69 19th-century documents for the history of the British-based missionary societies and other influential groups, such as the American Baptists, are voluminous; see, for example, Robert Philip, The Life and Opinions of the Rev. William Milne, D.D., Missionary to China: Illustrated by Biographical Annals of Asiatic Missions from Primitive to Protestant Times. Stephen Neill’s History of Christianity in India includes an excellent guide to the relevant literature. Perspectives from female missionaries can be found in Dana Lee Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice and in Rosemary Seton, Western Daughters in Eastern Lands: British Missionary Women in Asia. Indigenous viewpoints are provided in Richard Fox Young and Jonathan A. Seitz, Asia in the Making of Christianity: Conversion, Agency, and Indigeneity, 1600s to the Present.70 The most comprehensive source for researchers is John C. England et al., Asian Christian Theologies: A Research Guide to Authors, Movements, Sources.71
The primary sources for the past 200 years of Christianity in Asia cover a vast range of information that includes far more material from Asians themselves—official reports, government documents, missionary journals, newspapers, private letters, memoirs, biographies, published documents, photographs, paintings, and films. A number of printed guides are available; for China, see Wu Xiaoxin and Daniel Bays, Christianity in China: A Scholars’ Guide to Resources in the Libraries and Archives of the United States and Leslie Marchant, A Guide to the Archives and Records of Protestant Christian Missions from the British Isles to China, 1796–1914.72
The digitization of previously unavailable archival material has opened up new doors for researchers, and the internet provides an extraordinary and ever-growing resource. Nonetheless, social media, while illuminating, should be treated with caution because Christianity as a topic can generate heated debates where unsupported claims can hide behind anonymity.
Links to Digital Materials
The Chinese Christian Texts Database (CCT-Database) is a research database of primary and secondary sources concerning the cultural contacts between China and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries (from 1582 to c. 1840). The cultural contacts comprise documents in the various fields of cultural interaction: religion, philosophy, science, art, etc.
The Boston College Jesuit Bibliography. The New Sommervogel Online (NSO), edited by Robert A. Maryks, covers books, book chapters, journal articles, and nook reviews related to the growing field of Jesuit Studies. Entries include abstracts in English, subject headings, and links to items available in electronic format.
The Yale Divinity Library also holds approximately 25,000 missionary postcards. More than 5,000 postcards have been digitized and are accessible via the following two websites:
International Mission Photography Archive: 4700+ postcards (Restrict search Yale and search for “postcard”).
The most important items of the exhibit, “Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour,” mounted by the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, in 2016.
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity is an academic research center that monitors worldwide demographic trends in Christianity, including outreach and mission. It provides a comprehensive collection of information on the past, present, and future of Christianity in every country of the world.
- Andaya, Barbara Watson. “Christianity in Modern Southeast Asia,” In The Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian History. Edited by Norman Owen, 235–245. London: Routledge, 2014.
- Anderson, Allan, and Edmond Tang, eds. Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Baguio City: Regnum Studies in Mission, 2005.
- Aritonang, Jan Sihar, and Karel Steenbrink, eds. A History of Christianity in Indonesia. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
- Baum, Wilhelm, and Dietmar W. Winkler. The Church of the East: A Concise History. London: Routledge, 2003.
- Bays, Daniel H. A New History of Christianity in China. New York: Wiley, 2012.
- Boxer, C. R. The Christian Century in Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1951.
- Buswell, Robert, and Timothy S. Lee. Christianity in Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.
- Frykenberg, Robert Eric. Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Gilman, Ian, and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Christians in Asia before 1500. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Higashibaba, Ikuo. Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Kirishitan Belief and Practice. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
- Keane, Webb. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.
- Kim, Sebastian C. H., and Kirsteen Kim. A History of Korean Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Moffat, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia. Vol. I, San Francisco: San Francisco, Harper, 1992; Vol. II, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005.
- Mullins, Mark, ed. Handbook of Christianity in Japan. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.
- Neill, Stephen. A History of Christianity in India. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- Phan, Peter C., ed. Christianities in Asia. London: Wiley Blackwell, 2011.
- Rafael, Vicente. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Conversion in Tagalog Society under Spanish Rule. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988.
- Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1, 635–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
- Tiedemann, R. G., ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 2, 1800 to the Present. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
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- Young, Richard Fox, and Jonathan A. Seitz, Asia in the Making of Christianity: Conversion, Agency, and Indigeneity, 1600s to the Present. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.
2. Ian Gilman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Christians in Asia before 1500 (London: Routledge, 1999), 14–16, 267–282.
3. Nicholas Standaert, Handbook of Christianity in China, vol. I, 631–1800 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 109–111; Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler. The Church of the East: A Concise History (London: Routledge, 2003), 101–103.
4. Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, vol. 1, The Beginnings to AD 1707 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 26–34.
5. B. T. A. Evetts, ed. and trans. The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries Attributed to Abu Salih, the Armenian (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 300.
6. Pius Malekandathil, “The Portuguese and the St. Thomas Christians,” in The Portuguese and the Socio-Cultural Changes in India, 1500–1800, ed. K. S. Matthew, Teotonio R. de Souza, and Pius Malekandathil (Kerala: Meshar, 2001), 122–130.
7. Neill, Christianity in India, 208–219, 228–231.
8. Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya, A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 130–146.
9. Liam Matthew Brockey, Journey to the East; The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 43–86.
10. See contributions in Peter C. Phan, ed., Christianities in Asia (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2011).
11. Samuel Hugh Moffat, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. II, 1500–1900 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 213–235.
12. Ângela Barreto Zavier and Ines G. Županov, Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th–18th Centuries) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 252–259.
13. George Dutton, A Vietnamese Moses: Philippe Binh and the Geographies of Early Modern Catholicism (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).
14. Pierre-François Favre, Lettres édifiantes et curieuses sur la visite apostolique de M. de La Baume, . . . à la Cochinchine en l’année 1740 (Barzotti: Lyons, 1746), 187.
15. Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, 1707–1858 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 75–79
16. Eugenio Menegon, Ancestors Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 127; Moffat, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. II, 226–227.
17. Haruko Nawata Ward, Women Religious Leaders in Japan’s Christian Century, 1549–1650 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 61–82; Peter C. Phan, Mission and Catechesis: Alexandre de Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 52–53.
18. John N. Schumacher, Growth and Decline: Essays on Philippine Church History (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009).
19. J. B. J. van Doren, Thomas Matulesia: het hoofd der opstandelingen op het eiland Honimoa, na de overname van het bestuur der Molukken door den Landvoogt Jacobus Albertus van Middelkoop in 1817 (Amsterdam: J. D. Sijbrandi, 1857), 106–119.
20. Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979), 29–56.
21. Jacob Ramsay, Martyrs and Mandarins: The Church and the Nguyen Dynasty in Early Nineteenth-Century Vietnam (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).
22. Moffat, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. II, 285–321.
23. Leon Comber, Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Survey of the Triad Society (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin for the Association of Asian Studies, 1959), 77; Alan Chong, ed. Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour (Singapore: Asian Civilizations Museum, 2016), 260–261.
24. D. Dennis Hudson, Protestant Origins in India: Tamil Evangelical Christians, 1706–1835 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 129.
25. Karel Steenbrink, Catholics in Indonesia: A Documented History, vol. I, A Modest Recovery 1808–1900 (Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV Press, 2003), 78–79, 91.
26. Cited in Hiroshi Miura, The Life and Thought of Uchimura Kanzô (1861–1930) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 52.
27. Lian H. Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2003), 140–142.
28. Jan Sihar Aritonang and Karel Steenbrink, eds., A History of Christianity in Indonesia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 533–547.
29. Allan Anderson and Edmond Tang, eds. Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia (Baguio City: Regnum Studies in Mission, 2005).
30. Glen Peterson, Ruth Hayhoe, and Yongling Lu, eds. Education, Culture, and Identity in Twentieth-Century China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 250.
31. William Yoo, American Missionaries, Korean Protestants and the Changing Shape of World Christianity 1884–1965 (London: Routledge, 2017).
32. Rachel J. Tolen, “Colonizing and Transforming the Criminal Tribesman: The Salvation Army in British India,” American Ethnologist 18, no. 1 (February 1991): 106–125.
33. Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2013), 369–370
34. Terada Takefumi, “Christianity and the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines,” The Journal of Sophia Asian Studies, 19 (December 2010): 123–148.
35. Matthew H. Amster, “Community, Ethnicity and Modes of Association among the Kelabit of Sarawak, East Malaysia” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 1998).
36. Mark R. Mullins, “Japan,” in Christianities in Asia, ed. Peter C. Phan (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2011), 210.
37. Andrew Kim, “Christianity, Shamanism, and Modernization in South Korea,” Cross Currents 50, no. 1–2 (2000): 112–119.
38. Allan Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 224–233; Eun Young Lee Easley, “Taking Jesus Public: The Neoliberal Transformation of Korean Megachurches,” in Encountering Modernity: Christianity in East Asia and Asian America, ed. Albert L. Park and David K. Yoo (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), 47–70.
39. Christl Kessler and Jürgen Rüland, Give Jesus a Hand: Charismatic Christians: Populists Religion and Politics in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2008).
40. Fenggang Yang, Joy K. C. Tong, and Allan H. Anderson, eds. Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017).
41. For the situation in the mid-1990s, see Richard Marsden, China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).
42. Tom Phillips, “China on Course to Become ‘World’s Most Christian Nation’ within 15 Years,” The Telegraph, April 19, 2014.
43. Jie Kang, House Church Christianity in China: From Rural Preachers to City Pastors (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 115.
44. Charles Keith, Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), 237.
45. Peter C. Phan, “Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand,” in Christianities in Asia, ed. P. C. Phan, 129–148.
46. Charles E. Farhadian, Christianity, Islam and Nationalism in Indonesia (London: Routledge, 2005); Christopher R. Duncan, Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).
47. Bhagwan Josh, “Conversions, Complicity and the State in Post-Independence India,” in Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict, ed. Julius Bautista and Francis Khek Gee Lim (New York: Routledge, 2009), 97–114; Paul M. Collins, Christian Inculturation in India (New York: Routledge, 2016).
48. Henry Wooster, “Faith at the Ramparts: The Philippine Catholic Church and the 1986 Revolution,” in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, ed. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (New York: Routledge, 1994), 153–176.
49. Frédéric Durand, Catholicisme et protestantisme dans l’île de Timor 1556–2003: Construction d’une identité chrétienne et engagement politique contemporain (Toulouse: Arkuiris, 2004); Geoffrey Robinson, “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die”: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
50. Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 24–28.
51. Peter C. Phan, “Introduction: Asian Christianity/Christianities,” in ed. Phan, Christianities in Asia.
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