A Brief History of Mennonite Engagement with China

The first persons from Mennonite background who went to China as missionaries arrived there in the late 19th century. William Schantz of Ontario was sent by the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church and served under the Christian and Missionary Alliance for many years. Sarah Alice Troyer, born in Elkhart and raised in Milford, Nebraska, served with Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission for several years before marrying a Scotsman. Eighteen months after their marriage, Alice, her husband and unborn child were martyred by rebels in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

The Boxer Rebellion was pivotal as established China missionaries returned to North America and Europe to ask for more workers as a response to the violent attack against Christianity. Henry and Nellie (Schmidt) Bartel, of Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren background, arrived in Shanghai in 1901 with fifty dollars and without the support of a mission agency, but they soon established the independent China Mennonite Mission Society. The Society was supported by various Mennonite Brethren groups who sent more than 50 missionaries between 1905 and 1951. Churches, schools, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, nursing schools, printing house—it was a significant engagement that saw the establishing of dozens of churches, meeting points and counted more than 5,000 believers. After Japanese occupation in the late 1930s, the Bartels shifted their efforts to western China, but periodically they were able to connect with their work in Shandong province.

Henry and Maria (Miller) Brown arrived in China in 1909, also without the support of their General Conference churches. The Bartels invited the Browns to work with them in Shandong, but the Browns were determined to have their own work under the auspices of the General Conference, which they accomplished in 1914 in a neighboring province. The next 25 years saw 35 missionaries create institutions and outreach in a six-county area with a population of more than four million largely impoverished people. A strong contingent of local believers were engaged in the work, including several young men who were some of the first international students at a Mennonite college in the U.S.

Frank J. and Agnes (Harder) Wiens asked the Mennonite Brethren churches to support their call to China but were told to wait until work in India was more established. Just like the Bartels and Browns, the Wienses didn’t wait. After a year of preaching in MB congregations in Russia, they were given enough financial support to begin a work among the Hakka people in China’s Fujian province. This church grew rapidly with local believers taking much of the responsibility and providing the majority of the funding. The MB mission board sent several more workers, but the foreign team was quite small compared to other mission fields. Wiens found himself constantly negotiating and playing the mediator between different armies, and then treating the wounded of both sides. Wiens left China in the last 1920s because he felt that local believers needed to be in control and as long as he was there, they would depend on him. They did return later in the 1930s at the invitation of the churches, but only to work alongside their brothers and sisters.

Although Henry Bartel was Krimmer MB, his work in Shandong was independent of any mission board. The Krimmer MBs hoped that this work would come under their auspices, but mode of baptism was a tension that could not be overcome. So the Krimmer MBs decided to begin their own work at a location in distant Inner Mongolia with little mission presence. Frank and Agnes Wiebe began work in Inner Mongolia in 1922. Compared to the millions that the other missionaries had in their designated fields, their area iquite large but with a population of only 60,000. A focus on evangelism, education and health care led to the founding of a number of churches in the region. The climate and geography were harsh, and the area was occupied by the Japanese much earlier than central China. These churches were required to conform to all of the Krimmer MB doctrine and practice—it was more of a denominational church than those in other areas. As in Fujian, the work of the church was largely carried out by local believers, especially since missionaries were often forced from the area or stymied by the Japanese. Although the churches attempted to evangelize among the Mongolian population, this was unsuccessful.

The China of these early Mennonite missionaries was a daily reality of poverty, drought, famine, flooding, bandits, warlords, superstition, oppression, disease, refugees, epidemics, too little money and too few co-workers. The Bartels and Browns arrived during the dying days of the Qing Dynasty and saw the revolution that brought a new republic and government. They knew the disappointment of the Chinese in the treaties after WWI which did not give the country autonomy, keeping it weak and at the mercy of colonial powers. They lived through violence as warlords battled each other and the Nationalists battled the warlords and then the Nationalists and Communists battled—repeatedly forcing them from their mission work, but they were always ready to return and continue because the need was so large, and if not them, then who? In 1937 the Japanese moved down from the northeast and occupied the mission fields, effectively ending the work of the Mennonites, passing what ministry could be salvaged into the hands of local believers. With the declaration of war between Japan and the U.S., Westerners left China, were interned, or attempted to move to western or “Free China.”

                With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the way seemed open for missionaries to return to their churches and former work. However, nearly ten years of absence led to many changes as local believers took responsibility for whatever aspects of the church’s work that were possible. It was also apparent that the battle between Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government and the rebel forces of Mao Zedong would soon push the country back into warfare.

                Despite this, the missionaries attempted to connect with their former churches, and the by now elderly Bartels were engaged in a new work in the mountains of western China. Several of the General Conference missionaries also moved to western China together with some of their Chinese co-workers to explore new areas. The Mennonite Board of Missions sought different ways to send missionaries to China, finally succeeding in 1947 when three workers arrived in Sichuan province to begin language study. In 1948 they took over the work in a former Methodist area but by 1949 Communist forces liberated their city and their work ended before it ever really had a chance to begin.

In 1943 the Mennonite Central Committee voted to begin a relief and rehabilitation work in China. After exploration, they decided to begin a MCC unit in the famine plagued areas of northern Henan, near the General Conference mission area. Because the Chinese forces had destroyed the dikes along the Yellow River to stop the Japanese advance, the area was ravaged by floods. A population of many millions created a mass of refugees in desperate need of food and basic health care. By 1947 there were 36 MCCers in China, distributing tons of food, clothing, milk, wheat seed, cotton cloth and providing supplies for hospitals and clinics. However, by the fall of 1947 the fighting in the area was so severe that most of the projects came to an end. By the end of the year the unit was forced to move to Shanghai where they operated food stations and tried to support an orphanage in southern China. Most North American missionaries and service workers left China in 1949-50 because they could no longer effectively do their work and were a danger to their Chinese colleagues.

                The country came under control of the Chinese Communist Party who moved quickly to take over hospitals, schools, churches and all mission property. After decades of incredible commitment and dedication to a ministry that saw the establishing of hundreds of churches and the improvement in life for many thousands, suddenly it was over. There were no more visits, no letters, no communication of any kind. The missionaries returned to North America, some began new work in Japan, Taiwan or other areas of the world. China was not forgotten, but as the years passed and news of political campaigns, violence and religious repression made its way to outside ears, there was deep concern over what was happening to Chinese believers and the church.

                Several times in the 1960s and 70s Mennonite agencies discussed whether they could send a delegation to China and reconnect in some way, but politically it was not possible. Former Mennonite and Church World Service China worker J. Lawrence Burkholder was the first to have the opportunity to return to China. As Goshen College president, Burkholder joined a delegation of American college presidents on a carefully prescribed visit to China in 1975, the year before Mao Zedong died. Burkholder visited China several more times and in 1979 signed the first agreement between an American undergraduate college and a Chinese university. In 1980 more than 23 Goshen students spent the fall semester in China, and a group of nine university teachers from Sichuan province spent the academic year in Goshen.

                The success of this exchange quickly led to an invitation by the Sichuan Bureau of Education to Goshen to provide university English teachers. Goshen turned to the Council of International Ministries and in the fall of 1981 three experienced teachers began a two-year assignment under the newly created China Educational Exchange. A group of Mennonite educators and agency leaders promoted the vision of engaging China in a manner quite different from the first half of the century. In addition to Burkholder, there was John Lapp, provost at Goshen and then Executive Secretary of MCC, Taiwan and Hong Kong missionary Hugh Sprunger, missiologist Wilbert Shenk, former Bluffton and long-time China watcher Robert Kreider, Japan missionaries Alice Ruth and Robert Ramseyer, and the first Goshen College SST leaders in China, Atlee and Winifred Beechy. Together with Bert Lobe, who became director of CEE in 1982, this group shaped a program that brought together five church agencies, Mennonite colleges, physicians, mental health specialists and agriculturalists. China Educational Exchange (CEE) was a unique program among Mennonites in the level of cooperation and the manner in which it responded to invitations from China.

                The following tenets shaped the ministry and program of CEE for the following forty years:


A quick glance at daily news headlines demonstrates how much has changed in China since CEE began in 1981. The early 1980s focused on the four modernizations, the cautious opening of several free economic zones and the oft-repeated “poor and developing country.” Forty years later China is a world power; its actions observed and felt across the world. There is little disagreement that the defining international relationship of the 21st century will be that of China and the U.S. Recent headlines suggest a new Cold War between China and the U.S. and already there are signs that other countries may need to sign up as supporting one or the other. As the U.S. retreats from global alliances, treaties and cooperative programs, China is more than willing to step in, providing funds and its own version of the future. China, its policies, its economic clout, its technology, its ambition, its lending prowess, its soft power, its vision for the world—these impact every country in the world where there are Mennonite churches and where there are North American Mennonite programs supported by church agencies.

                As is true for every sector of Chinese society, the past years have seen increased pressure on the church to conform to the will of Party leadership. This is especially true for the Three-Self church since it is highly visible, large in number and easier to attack than the hundreds of thousands of small house church gatherings. Despite restrictions and an uncertain future, believers and churches desire and need continued contact with the wider church outside of China. Relating to and partnering with churches is a significant challenge requiring sensitivity, patience and prayerful discernment.

                In the past few years MPC has begun relating to some small house church groups who have a very strong interest in Anabaptist theology, history and practice. These groups of educated urban believers aren’t content with the larger registered churches which they see as too impersonal and increasingly focused on large buildings and visions of a Chinese Christendom. They don’t feel comfortable in house church groups dominated by strong leaders or controlled by American or Korean missionaries who often have political agendas. These believers are secure in their identity as Chinese, with limited interest in political involvement, desiring to discover an expression of faith that has integrity for their context. There is a wide-open door to greater engagement with these groups who desire an Anabaptist church affiliation and connection beyond China.

                What is the future of the church in China? Present restrictions make it difficult to predict, but this is a church that has not only survived but prospered despite severe opposition. Evangelism and mission are at the heart of the church—this extends from neighbors to neighboring provinces and also other countries. The role and impact of Chinese Christians internationally, both in evangelism and addressing human needs is yet to be fully seen, but the potential is significant.

                After forty years of engagement with China, the CEE/MPC program as currently shaped is coming to an end. It is the first time that North Americans are making the decision to end a relationship with China, rather than having the Chinese end it. Is there a vision for continued engagement with China, and if there is, what might that look like? What does it mean for Mennonites and Anabaptist groups across the world to have the rise of a powerful nation whose footprint and influence is and will be felt everywhere?

                I am hopeful that the future is not simply walking away from China at a time when engagement is as important if not more important than at any time in the past. The future is more than sending a few missionaries to China to evangelize—a task Chinese believers are taking seriously and in which they are being blessed. It is more than continuing some of the extensive networks that have been established in higher education, as significant as those may be in building understanding. What does engagement with China mean for a church that sees peace and reconciliation as central to its theology when there is still so little understanding between East and West and the potential for conflict appears to be increasing? For the first time in seventy years there are small groups of believers who are calling themselves Anabaptist and looking for persons and groups to walk with them. The Chinese government together with businesses and entrepreneurs are leaving their footprints across the world. Despite restrictions, perhaps the church will not be far behind. How is and how will the world respond to the rise of China? How will we as Mennonite church agencies and schools continue this 120-year journey of engaging with the people of China?


–Myrrl Byler

May 2020