Rereading Kenneth Scott Latourette: Seeking the Balance Between Faith and History

Liu Jiafeng, a professor from the School of History and Culture, Shandong University
Liu Jiafeng, a professor from the School of History and Culture, Shandong University
By Christine Lau November 22nd, 2022

A lecture entitled “Rereading Latourette: Seeking the Balance between Faith and History” as a part of the Chinese Theology Lecture Series was held online.

On October 7th, Liu Jiafeng, a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University, delivered an online lecture on Kenneth Scott Latourette’s life. Latourette did pioneer work in Christian historiography. In the lecture, the professor shared Latourette’s experience of seeking the balance between faith and history in research, writing, and Christian historiography.

Latourette, a descendant of French immigrants in America, was born into a Baptist family in 1884. From an early age, he was asked to recite the Bible, abide strictly by Christian self-discipline, frugality and a diligent lifestyle. He was a devout believer and also took part in the student volunteer overseas missionary movement.

In 1909, Latourette studied under Frederick Wells Williams, a sinologist. In 1910, he came to China as a missionary and worked for Yale Middle School in Changsha. However, he left China in 1912 because he suffered from gastroenteritis. In 1921, Latourette became a professor of missionary studies at Yale University. In 1927, he succeeded Williams as a professor of evangelism and Orientalism until he retired at the age of 69. After retirement, he continued writing books but died in a car accident in 1968.

Latourette won many honors in his life, and Miner Searle Bates commented that he was a “doer of Christian history”.

Latourette wrote 83 books and nearly 1,000 articles in his life, and nearly one million copies of his works have been sold. His book A History of Christian Missions in China established his position as a Christian historian. It has 930 pages, 54 bibliographies and more than 4,000 footnotes. Some people commented that this book was “a standard reference book for studying the history of Christianity in China”. The book still deserves a record for brilliance in writing.

Latourette inherited and developed Leopold von Ranke’s view of religious history. Ranke emphasized “telling the truth”, relying on original materials and tracing the source. The Enlightenment rejected God’s participation in human affairs, while Ranke abandoned the rationalism of the Enlightenment and advocated the religious historical view. He believed that “in all the historical processes, God is everywhere” and “every critical moment proved that God is dominating everything”. He believed that God intervened directly in history.

In Latourette’s speeches, he mentioned his religious view of history. He believed that when God created people in his own image, he also gave people a certain degree of free will. The unique understanding of Christian history was centered on historical events, with Jesus at its core. He firmly believed that God was love and gave himself up as a human being in the way of Jesus and that the historical process was God’s search for human beings.

Latourette’s book The History of the Dissemination of Christianity in China is a typical work of missionary history that includes the three branches of the Christian religion: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Protestantism. This was not common practice at that time. This was his “opening up a new road again” after the history of the Far East. His other works, including the History of Christian Expansion and History of Christianity, have thoroughly implemented the idea of Christian universalism and overcome traditionally sectarian methods of writing.

The focus of Latourette’s writing was the actions of Western missionaries in China. There were few descriptions of what Chinese believers did. However, he also put forward the topic of “China Christianity” and pointed out that the missionary movement was a part of the total Western influence on China. This included not only religious factors but also Western economic, political and intellectual ones. At the same time, efforts were made to understand Chinese reactions to missionaries and their messages.

Latourette’s writing of missionary history led to a new concept of “Christian history” in lieu of “church history" in the traditional sense. He believed that the history of the church only revealed the internal development of the church, while the history of Christianity included the history of the church. He paid more attention to the influence of Christian thoughts and culture in wider society. He called this social dimension “the influence of the environment” and it was a two-way street: The environment affected the church and the church also affected the environment. Therefore, his works paid attention to the institutions established by the church, such as schools and hospitals as well as orphanages and other social services and charitable causes.

Latourette was most concerned about criticism from the church and its theologians.

Among the critics, some said he only knew how to collect data and lacked ideas, mocking him as a “diligent chronicler”. Others stripped Christianity from theology, focused on culture and environment and “made people despair of Christianity”. Theologians questioned his definition of Christianity, saying it was too general, and called the dichotomy between the Gospel and Christianity “disgustingly secular”.

Bates, a student of Latourette, once criticized him for his lack of theological knowledge of faith, while Niebuhr said bluntly that he was a layman in theology. A pastor of the Anglican Church criticized that Latourette’s historical philosophy was not the eschatology of Hebrew Christianity in the New Testament, but an evolutionary perfectionism. Others thought that Latourette’s view of history deviated from the testimony of the Bible.

As an overseas missionary and an ordained Baptist minister, Latourette had a deep Christian faith and a background in piety. He received strict professional training in history, which convinced him that all conclusions must be based on facts. Therefore, his research reflected the tension and balance between history and belief.

Latourette felt that academic work as a Christian should embody the mission of Christianity and serve that purpose. Therefore, the beliefs that “Jesus influences” and that “the divine purpose guides historical events” were highlighted in his works.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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