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Title page for ETD etd-11072013-110739

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Harrison, Stephen Kennedy
URN etd-11072013-110739
Title Communism and Christianity: Missionaries and the Communist Seizure of Power in China
Degree PhD
Department History
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Thomas Schwartz Committee Chair
James Byrd Committee Member
Paul Kramer Committee Member
Sarah Igo Committee Member
  • US foreign policy
  • US-China relations
  • Chinese history
  • Missionaries
  • US and the World
Date of Defense 2013-07-24
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation examines how American Protestant missionaries in China understood and reacted to the Communist seizure of power in 1949. By studying the personal letters of missionaries, the communications of mission boards , Christian publications and mainstream periodicals, this study demonstrates that missionaries often defied widespread public sentiment and offered a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese Communists. It begins in the Civil War period by examining the divide between missionaries devoted primarily to evangelization and those for whom the social gospel was paramount, the latter being much more likely to try to work under the Communist regime. It then looks at how those missionaries who stayed in China after the Communist victory tried to co-exist with the Communist regime. Although some have assumed that religion would make them targets for hostility from Communists, these missionaries were eventually driven out primarily because of their nationality, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950.

After returning to the United States, some of the more liberal missionaries continued to support better relations with China despite the overriding anti-communist consensus of this period. They tried to refute the oft-repeated argument that Communism was antithetical to religion by claiming Chinese Christianity was surviving under Communism without missionary support. They rarely defended the Communist hostility toward religion, but argued that it was not an all-out assault as had been seen in Eastern Europe. They also argued that engaging the Chinese would be much more likely to moderate their policies than isolation. These arguments were largely dismissed by Americans at large who were committed to fight against communism. Their arguments were also undermined by provocative Chinese actions throughout the 1950’s. By the end of the decade, these liberal missionary voices of dissent were a small minority, but their approach would eventually come to be adopted by the Nixon Administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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