November 1, 2014

Adventists Get Rare Glimpse of Church’s Work in China

China may not be identified in the Bible as a missionary destination as some Adventists once believed, but the Seventh-day Adventist faith is flourishing there today in a fractured community that is largely homegrown and unknown to the outside world.

That is what a group of about 100 Adventist leaders and scholars heard at a first-of-its-kind conference in Hong Kong this week as they sought to gain a better understanding of the Adventist Church in China.

Estimates vary on how many Adventists live in the world’s most populous country of 1.35 billion, but conference presenters put the figure at about 500,000.

The Adventist Church does not have an officially recognized presence in China, and five major branches of Adventism have emerged since the 1949 Communist Revolution. All five have to deal with the Three Self Patriotic Movement, or TSPM, which together with the China Christian Council form the only state-sanctioned Protestant church in mainland China. 

Today, few Adventists are aware that missionary work was actively conducted in China during the first half of the 20th century.

“The gospel commission is to go into all the world, which includes China,” Bob Folkenberg Jr., president of the Chinese Union Mission located in Hong Kong, said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference. “The people of China have been a major focus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s missionary activity during the 20th century.”

<strong>MAKING A PRESENTATION:</strong> Conference organizer Bruce W.N. Lo speaking to attendees at Hong Kong Adventist College on October 30. All photos by Michael W. Campbell
<strong>TALKING CHINA:</strong> Edward Allen, left, a professor of religion at Union College, discussing China with Lawrence W. Onsager, dean of libraries at Andrews University.
<strong>MISSIONARY PIONEER:</strong> Artwork of the three angels from Revelation 14 top the headstone of the Hong Kong grave of China’s first Adventist missionary, Abram LaRue.

To better grasp present-day Adventism, presenters took a look back at its roots in China. Edward Allen, a professor of religion at Union College, noted that the first serious article about China and missions was written in 1874 by George W. Amadon, a printer at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Battle Creek, Michigan. Amadon believed that the “land of Sinim” referenced in Isaiah 49:12 in the King James Version pointed specifically to China. The verse reads: "Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim."

Biblical scholars today repudiate the notion that the verse refers to China.

Regardless of the correctness of the interpretation, Allen said, the important thing was that Adventists “were beginning to think outside of their box” of only sharing the gospel with people in the United States, where the denomination was formally organized in 1863.

China is close to Allen’s heart. As the son of missionaries who served in the Philippines, he said he grew up wondering about the “forbidden land” that the 1949 Revolution left off limits to missionaries.

China’s first Adventist missionary, Abram LaRue, arrived on May 3, 1888, on his own funds after the General Conference declined an offer to serve, citing his old age. Little is known about LaRue’s life and work other than he inspired other missionaries to follow his lead. Several conference participants visited his grave in Hong Kong.

The first Chinese people were baptized into the Adventist Church around the turn of the century. Missionary J.N. Anderson, who arrived with his family in 1902, also organized the first church and ordained the first Chinese Seventh-day Adventist minister.

“This is a vibrant component of Adventism that needs to be studied,” said conference organizer Bruce W. N. Lo.

Michael W. Campbell is an assistant professor at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines. His area of specialty is Adventist Studies.

Related link

Official homepage for the Hong Kong conference Reflection on Adventism in China and Asia, October 30-31, 2014

ANN, April 5, 2012: "Wilson, Denominational Leaders Visit Adventist Believers in China"