One Pillar to Five Solas: A Brief History of Christianity in China

There are many ways to explore the significance of the Protestant Reformation in China. Many more capable writers and pastors will reflect on this topic in the coming months, but I would like to tell the story of Christianity in China – more specifically of Protestantism in China – through places I have visited and experiences I have had.

Christianity entered China almost a millennium before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Near the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, a group of Nestorian missionaries arrived at the capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). Nestorians were followers of Nestorius, a bishop who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. for believing that the human and divine natures of Christ were not united in one person. Many of his followers traveled east and settled in Persia, from which a number of them traveled to China in 635 A.D. Although they were condemned as heretics by the church, the Nestorians are credited as the first Christian missionaries to reach China, a fact recorded in detail on a 7th century stone pillar just outside of Xi’an. A replica of this stone pillar can be found in the Bunn Intercultural Center at Georgetown University, my alma mater. That is how I learned about the beginning of Christianity in China.

Georgetown University was the first Roman Catholic University in the United States, founded in 1789 by the Bishop John Carroll, a member of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits). Ironically, it was due to work of the Jesuits that the Protestant Reformation was first able to impact the history of China. In 1540, Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus in part as a response to the Reformation. The Jesuits not only took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they also promised, “…a special obedience to the sovereign pontiff in regard to the missions.” It was this zeal for missions that sparked a renewed European effort to bring Christianity to China.

One of Ignatius’ protégés was Francis Xavier, a highly educated priest who spent the latter part of his life traveling, preaching, baptizing, and evangelizing in India, Malaysia, and Japan. In 1552, he died on the island of Shangchuan off the coast of modern Guangzhou, waiting in vain for permission to enter China. However, his ardent desire to bring the gospel to China was taken up by other Jesuits. In 1582, another gifted Jesuit priest by the name of Matteo Ricci was granted access to China and eventually found his way to the imperial court in 1601. Following Ricci, other educated Jesuit priests arrived in China, bringing with them not only the gospel, but also knowledge in math, astronomy, and clock-making. My earliest memories about missionaries in China were television dramas depicting how the Jesuit priests Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest served as officials under the Qing Emperor Kangxi. (Now half a millennium later, in God’s providential full circle, I find that I, a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou, a graduate of a Jesuit university, am working as a reformed Protestant pastor less than half a mile from Xavier University, a Jesuit university named after Francis Xavier, the priest who died off the coast of Guangzhou.)

Protestantism did not arrive in China until 1807, almost three centuries after the Protestant Reformation and the Jesuits’ missions to China. On September 4, 1807, a twenty-five year old British man named Robert Morrison stepped off an American steamer in the port of Guangzhou. Although Morrison only baptized ten Chinese converts before his death in 1834 – conversion to Christianity was outlawed at the time – he translated the entire Bible into Chinese and his translation is still widely used by Chinese Christians today.

For the rest of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century, Protestant missionaries from Europe and America poured into China, sometimes arriving on the same ships that carried opium from India and Afghanistan. Similar to their Jesuit counter-parts, many of these Protestant missionaries learned Chinese, dressed as Chinese citizens, and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to commoners in cities and villages. Like their Lord Jesus, they came and died. Some, like Hudson Taylor, died in remote villages. Others, like Olympic champion Eric Liddell – the same Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire – died in prison camps during World War II.

More than the Nestorian and Jesuit missionaries before them, these Protestant missionaries planted the seeds that grew into house churches all across China. Even after the expulsion of foreign missionaries and during the heavy persecution between 1949-1980, these house churches grew and multiplied. It is difficult to estimate the number of Christians in China, but many surveys indicate that the number of Protestants in China today lies somewhere between 30 to 80 million, while the number of Chinese Catholics has remained steady at 12 million through the last three decades.

How did the number of Protestant Christians grow so quickly in China, while the number of Catholics remained steady despite a three-century head start? We may trace the reasons according to the five solas of the Protestant Reformation:

· The doctrine of sola scriptura teaches that the Bible alone has the highest authority; it places the utmost importance upon the word of God as missionaries spread the gospel of Jesus. With this conviction, is not surprising that Robert Morrison was able to learn and translate the Bible into Chinese fewer than 20 years after arriving in China, a feat neither the Nestorians or the Jesuits had accomplished.

· The doctrine of sola fide teaches that we are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ, releasing the Chinese people from the burden of earning their path to heaven through good works or enlightenment as taught in Daoism and Buddhism. It also freed believers from the institutional bonds of the Catholic church. Christianity survived the darkness of Communism precisely because believers were able to gather in groups of 10-50 for private Bible studies and worship. Christ taught his disciples, “For where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”


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· In Christ alone (solus christus), we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are not saved by rituals or acts of righteousness, but faith in Christ alone. All who have heard the gospel and believe in Christ will be saved.

· This salvation through faith is entirely by the grace of God alone (sola gratia). Contrary to traditional Chinese teachings, we are not born innocent and good, and we are not saved by cultivating our innate goodness. No one can be saved except by God’s grace; yet this also means anyone can be saved. Not only the learned, but the unlearned; not only the powerful, but also the powerless. It is not surprising that the majority of Chinese believers have come from rural areas. It is only in the last decade that Christianity has begun to impact Chinese urban centers.

· Lastly, soli deo gloria teaches that we live for the glory of God alone, not for the emperor, or our family, or our country. In a culture which celebrates those who bring glory to their nation and family, family expectations and academic pressure can crush even the brightest and hardest-working people. But in the gospel, our glory comes from God and returns to God. To the praise of his glory, Christianity continues to grow exponentially in China due to the sacrifices of millions of believers, who are giving up their ambitions, wealth, and sometimes even family ties, for the sake of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors.


Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm. It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music. In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

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Further Reading

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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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