Turmoil and Strife
The 1920s was a distressing time not only for the Church in Guizhou, but for the population in general. The economy was in tatters due to hyper-inflation, and a severe famine struck the province in the middle part of the decade, bringing unbearable misery upon the beleaguered people.
The tense atmosphere in China at the time created a leadership vacuum, which ultimately led to a long civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Guizhou had already been plunged into years of lawlessness and chaos before the full outbreak of hostility, with groups of bandits looting and murdering the terrorized population.
Because of the dire situation, churches in Guizhou did not enjoy the same numerical growth in the 1920s as they had in the previous two decades. Times were stressful, and many Christians simply focused on surviving from one day to the next. At one location it was reported:
"The poor people have had a very trying year from swarming hordes of brigands. They had to band themselves together to fight off these invaders. Fortresses have been built all over the hills, from which they fought day and night battles. Many a time, whole villages of people spent the night, wet or dry, out on the hills for fear of attacks from robbers."
The A-Hmao churches also adopted a defensive posture as they patiently waited for better times. In 1928, missionary Vaughan Rees sent out this prayer request after touring the region: "Pray for the A-Hmao. They are amidst trial and persecution and are struggling on alone, and have done so for some years, as there is no worker to send to them."
Two A-Hmao Bible colporteurs in 1915.
Because of the difficulties in traveling around the countryside in the 1920s, missionary activity was severely restricted in Guizhou. The gospel continued to go forth, however, through the courageous efforts of Christian 'colporteurs' (a French word meaning 'book peddlers').
These men often traveled through bandit-infested territory with large trunks full of Bibles, Gospels, tracts and other Christian books. They customarily set up stalls at marketplaces and villages, selling their literature at cost price to interested people. Despite the dangers, in 1927 one team of Miao colporteurs visited 100 different villages, selling 8,000 books and 10,000 tracts.
Morris and Irma Slichter
The internal strife afflicting the people of China in the 1920s resulted in grave danger for foreign missionaries, but they faithfully continued to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Morris and Irma Slichter and their children were based at the Anshun mission station. Despite the risks, Morris frequently traveled out to visit the tribal Christians. In 1926 he visited Dengdeng village, where a great number of Hmong Shua people had placed their trust in God when James Adam visited 20 years earlier. Slichter was overjoyed to report:
"There has been steady increase and adding to the Church, for which we praise God, for we know this can only be by His power.... We reached there on a Friday evening, and as our coming had been announced, the Christians gathered all day Saturday from the country round about....
Usually we hold a baptism service at this outstation once a year. On such occasions the candidates for baptism are examined by us along with the church elders from their own villages.... This time at Dengdeng, 16 men and 14 women were accepted. The great majority of them were men with their wives, and mostly young people."
After saying goodbye to the believers at Dengdeng, Slichter travelled to other villages in western Guizhou, baptizing small groups of converts at each place and encouraging the Christians by teaching God's Word. Before long, however, Slichter and his co-workers came across a group of bandits, "armed with daggers, swords, and rifles." They managed to evade trouble on that occasion, and the very next day they were met by a group of 30 to 40 Miao believers who came to escort them through more bandit-infested territory to their village. They learned that
"Almost everybody had joined the robbers but the Christians, and the fact of their holding out made the robbers all the more incensed against them. One poor fellow had a huge scar on his upper lip where he had been slashed by the robbers. They cut his lip, they said, in order that he might not be able to give evidence against them.... Our hearts go out to these poor people, for they are living in constant dread of the robbers. They dare not stay away from home after dark, nor sleep during the night."
Despite the terrible conditions, Slichter and his men baptized another 58 new believers before commencing the next stage of their perilous journey. They survived by the providence of God, and were deeply relieved to return home to their families in Anshun.
The following May, 1927, Morris and Irma Slichter and their two small children (six-year-old John and three-year-old Ruth), accompanied by a single female missionary Mary Craig, set out on a journey to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. After crossing the provincial border, the small party was set upon by a group of three murderous thieves. They attacked the missionaries,
"and heedless of their cry for mercy, one of them took aim and fired at Mrs. Slichter, who was holding little Ruth in her arms. The bullet struck the child in the head, and passing through, it tore an ugly gash in Mrs. Slichter's left wrist, as it fell to the ground. Another robber stabbed Morris Slichter in the back with his bayonet, evidently piercing his heart and killing him instantly. He fell without a sound."
Incredibly, while the survivors lay on the ground injured and traumatized, another group of bandits came down the road and looted them of their remaining clothes and possessions, leaving them naked and destitute.
Irma Slichter, her son John, and Mary Craig somehow managed to survive, and finally made their way to Kunming. Heaven had gained two precious souls, but the gospel had suffered yet another setback in Guizhou.
The Deliverance of Little En Hui
En Hui with his father and grandfather.
Amid the chaos and violence that engulfed Guizhou in the 1920s, stories of deliverance emerged to bring cheer to the hearts of many Christians. One of the most touching stories involved a nine-year-old A-Hmao boy named En Hui, who was captured along with his grandfather in a raid by bandits on Kopu village in November 1928.
Grandfather Liu was allowed to return home with a ransom demand for little En Hui's life, but the boy was forced to march further into the mountains by the evil men, along with a group of other hostages.
For months no news emerged about the captives, and En Hui's grandfather was distraught, blaming himself for not being able to protect his grandson. There was no way the impoverished family could afford to pay the ransom price. One day a letter arrived at Kopu, signed by En Hui himself. He said he was being treated badly, had contracted a skin disease, and that he would be killed if the ransom wasn't paid soon.
En Hui's grandfather was deeply troubled, and all the Christians at Kopu cried out to the living God day and night for deliverance. One day news suddenly arrived that the villagers' prayers were answered, and En Hui had been rescued!
Because he was too thin and weak to walk home, a sedan chair was arranged to collect En Hui and carry him back to Kopu. The A-Hmao Christians rejoiced greatly, and the whole community turned out to greet his arrival. A fattened pig was slaughtered and a great many guests were invited to the feast. En Hui's mother ran down the trail to welcome her son after five months in captivity. Meanwhile,
"Grandfather Liu had not gone out to meet En Hui, but waited at home to welcome him. The meeting was touching. He put his arms around the lad and clasped him, bowing his head in thanks to God for his deliverance. Then he just sat there, clasping the boy, quite overcome for a few minutes. A great load had rolled off the old man's shoulders, and he looked younger already....
Then the rejoicing and feasting began, people brought gifts, and gladness was on every hand. The father said, 'I never thought I would be as happy as I am today. Thank God for delivering my soul.' The lad himself said he knew it was an answer to prayer that he was free. He had been praying that soldiers might come and chase the brigands and thus set him free—and his prayers were truly answered."
The Most Poorly Occupied Province in China
The internal conditions in Guizhou resulted in little progress for the gospel throughout the 1920s. Although encouraging signs were seen in some towns and among several minority groups, overall the Evangelical churches in the province had a defensive mindset, and much of their work was aimed at providing humanitarian relief for the suffering population, rather than proclaiming the gospel and planting churches.
Even the work among the A-Hmao, Gha-Mu and other Miao tribes, which had flourished in the previous two decades, entered a period of inertia where little growth occurred. Instead of evangelism, more energy was spent on establishing believers in the faith. This strategy provided a stronger foundation for the tribal churches, and the benefits were to be seen in later decades.
The 1927 Guizhou CIM preachers' conference.
Half a century after the first Evangelical missionaries arrived, the CIM had done a sterling job to the best of their God-given abilities, but Guizhou was unique among the provinces of China in that a single mission society almost completely dominated the work in an entire province, with only a handful of Methodist missionaries in northwest Guizhou adding variety to the mix.
Ironically, the tremendous revival among the A-Hmao and other tribes appears to have negatively affected the work in the rest of the province in two ways. First, other Evangelicals read the stirring accounts of thousands of baptisms and assumed the CIM were well-placed to extend their work. Second, the CIM focused most of their missionaries and resources among those tribes, to the neglect of dozens of other unreached ethnic groups and the millions of Han Chinese in the province.
The lack of workers in a territory as large and populous as Guizhou was startling, with vast areas going without any gospel witness. The eastern and southern parts of the province were particularly neglected, to the point that a nationwide survey in 1922 expressed alarm at the lack of activity:
"Guizhou averages four missionaries per 1,000,000 inhabitants, and five per 1,000 communicants. When considered, therefore, solely from the standpoint of missionary occupation, Guizhou is the most poorly occupied province in China, the average for the entire country being almost four times better, or 15 missionaries per 1,000,000 population, and 19 per 1,000 communicants.... Over one half of the province still remains unclaimed, although it is occasionally visited by colporteurs, Chinese evangelists, or missionaries."
Although the reasons for such slow progress in the Guizhou missionary endeavor remain unclear, some reports suggest disunity and frustration, even among the two groups that were laboring in the province. The same survey noted:
"The United Methodist Church reports a meeting of its representatives with representatives of the CIM, at which the question of respective fields in western Guizhou was considered. The results of this meeting have not been satisfactory, and are, therefore, not acceptable to all concerned.... Lack of funds, resulting in inadequacy of staff both foreign and native, is mentioned by all correspondents as the first and chief reason for the present inadequacy of Christian occupation."
The contrast between Guizhou and neighboring provinces was stark. To the south in Guangxi—a province that shares many similarities—the first Evangelical missionaries arrived only in 1893, 16 years later than in Guizhou. The Christian and Missionary Alliance emerged as the prominent organization serving in Guangxi, but by the 1920s a dozen other mission societies were sharing the burden and helping spread the gospel. The CIM Superintendent for Guizhou, Jack Robinson, lamented the lack of laborers in his province:
"We have in Guizhou working among the Chinese as distinct from the tribespeople, 44 foreign missionaries, and only 10 Chinese workers. That is, over four missionaries have to share one worker between them. In Guangxi, the Christian and Missionary Alliance have about 20 workers and about 140 Chinese helpers, or seven Chinese workers to each missionary.... Thus for Guizhou to have the same ratio of Chinese workers to missionaries as they have in Guangxi we need 300 trained Chinese workers."
Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries Claude and Irene Miller in A-Hmao clothes, 1920s.
The CIM were quick to oppose the Seventh-Day Adventists when they tried to gain a foothold in Guizhou. The CIM strongly opposed their doctrine and were grieved by the spiritual condition of their members. Harry Taylor wrote this scathing assessment from Guiyang:
"The Seventh-Day Adventists are few in numbers. In all places where there are members they are using money and influence to get believers to go to them, and for the last two or three years have been a disturbing influence in our district. They accept all excommunicated members and enquirers after the briefest instruction about keeping Saturday and not eating pork, and they give them status as church members. They then use their knowledge of the Christians to seek out all to entice them away. Their members smoke and deal in the soul-destroying opium, and are not rebuked for it."
Whether the CIM consciously or sub-consciously blocked other mission groups from working in Guizhou is uncertain, but the harvest in most other Chinese provinces by this time was being gathered by numerous mission groups including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Anglicans and others. In Guizhou, however, the CIM continued to almost exclusively dominate the Evangelical landscape.
The Catholics, on the other hand, had few restrictions on their work and their numbers increased sharply throughout the decade. In the early 1920s, Catholics in Guizhou outnumbered Evangelicals by almost a 4:1 ratio, and while many Evangelical churches were mired in a state of inertia, the Catholics surged ahead and nearly doubled their church membership by the end of the decade. Most of their work was concentrated in and around the capital city Guiyang, and in the southern districts of Guizhou.
© This article is an extract from Paul Hattaway's book 'Guizhou: The Precious Province'. You can order this or any of The China Chronicles books and e-books from our online bookstore.