First Chinese Self-governing Church Founded by Chen Mengnan

Shenzhen Church, in Guangdong Province
Shenzhen Church, in Guangdong Province (photo: Shenzhen Church)
By CCD contributor: Paul Wu November 19th, 2020

After the introduction of Protestant Christianity into China in modern times, some people with insight into the Chinese church, in order to better spread the gospel in China and eliminate misunderstanding among Chinese people, attempted to contextualize the gospel in the areas of theology and church organization.

There were two approaches used in the independence movement of the Chinese church. One was led by Western missionaries, who handed over the management of the church to Chinese leaders and encouraged their autonomy in leading the church. An example of this was the Zhangquan Conference in Southern Fujian. Another movement was launched by Chinese Christians, and the pioneer of this movement was Chen Mengnan from Guangdong Province.

Chen Mengnan was also known as a lay Buddhist named Meng Jue. Born in 1841 in Waihai of Xinhui, Guangdong, Chen had been an excellent student since he was a child, and had been praised by many people for his character and knowledge. At the age of 30, Chen Mengnan accidentally entered a Baptist church in Guangzhou. After listening to a sermon there, he felt that what he had heard was quite novel. He sat alone in his chair, brooding over the Gospel he had heard.

The pastor of the church, Huang Mei, talked with Chen, helping him to understand better what was causing him confusion, and gave him the book Evidences of Christianity, written by W. A. P. Martin, an American missionary. After returning home, Chen Mengnan repeatedly read this book, which greatly shocked him. After that, he went to talk to Pastor Huang many times and the two became good teachers and helpful friends for each other. Chen acquired a wealth of useful books on faith. With a growing understanding of the truth of the Christian faith, he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was baptized. Before long, Chen Mengnan was hired as a teacher at the school affiliated with the church, where he taught children from poor families. In addition, Chen also preached the Gospel and introduced advanced Western culture to his family. His nephew, Chen Shaobai, believed in God because of this witness. Under his influence, Chen Shaobai became patriotic and developed revolutionary ideas, becoming Sun Yat-sen's right-hand man.

The late Qing Dynasty suffered from bullying by foreign powers, cultural estrangement, and the negative influence of the Movement of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Many scholars regarded Christianity as a foreign religion and rejected it. They also often incited people to oppose Christianity, which was one of the important reasons for the frequent occurrence of modern anti-missionary riots in China. Of course, some Chinese just joined the church with the mentality of making a living under the name of religion, and some even took advantage of the special relationship between the church and Westerners and bullied people in the countryside. Therefore, in addition to the cultural conflicts, the special situation of the church, and the bad behavior of some non-believers, many Chinese people have a very negative view of the Christian faith. This was very distressing to someone like Chen Mengnan who was directly involved in the work of the church.

Chen Mengnan believed that it was necessary to establish independent churches for Chinese people in order to eliminate some people's prejudice against foreign religions and promote the spread of the Gospel. Then he prayed with his brothers and sought the guidance of the Lord. It wasn't long before they got a grant, rented a house on the south bank of the Pearl River in Guangzhou, and set up their own business. To better manage the ministry, Chen quit his job as a teacher at the Baptist free school to focus on evangelism.

In 1873, with the support of overseas Chinese believers, Chen Mengnan bought a house in Chaoyin Street, Changdi. After fixing up the building, it became a church and the "Chinese Alliance Church" was established, which was the first time for Chinese people to independently establish a church. This was an epic event with great significance for the history of the Chinese church.

Chen also engaged in writing, translating various Christian and Western cultural books with other missionaries. Some of these books have influenced people by giving them lofty ideals, including Chen Shaobai, and contributed to the development of Chinese society.

In 1882, when Chen Mengnan was only 41 years old, he fell ill due to overwork. Soon he rested peacefully in the Lord's embrace.

- Translated by Nicolas Cao

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