Methodist pastor in turbulent times
Born in Yin County (near Ningbo, Zhejiang Province) in 1900, Xie grew up in a Presbyterian family. He graduated in law from Soochow University in 1924 and then studied in the United States, being ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in New York in 1927. After his return to China in 1928, Xie taught at Soochow University and subsequently worked in the education department of the Methodist Church. His office was moved to Moore Memorial Church following the outbreak of war against Japan in 1937. In 1941, after Jiang Changchuan was elected Bishop and moved to Beijing, Xie took over as pastor-in-charge at MMC, then the largest Protestant church in China. At that time, his wife ran the primary school attached to the church and there were many other social programs, such as evening classes, health clinics and youth groups.
Most of the institutional work at the church at that time was run by the American missionaries, Sid Anderson and Lucy Webb. The Japanese marched into MMC within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbour, taking the building over and using it as the headquarters of their military police. The Americans had to keep a very low profile from then on and were eventually interned in 1943. Xie was now left in charge, with no building to operate from and no foreign missionary board to help. Using his connections with the YMCA, he organised to use their premises to hold services and evening classes. He arranged for many of the staff to seek temporary work elsewhere. Those who did stay on had to be paid in rice, which had been purchased prior to Pearl Harbor.
Following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, Xie again played a lead role in negotiations to re-open the church, and took charge of activities until the return of the American missionaries the following year. Xie went back to study again in the United States, between February 1948 and April 1949.
When the missionaries were forced to leave in 1950, Xie was sad to see them go and he and his wife came to the railway station to farewell them. Former MMC pastor and now Bishop Jiang Changchuan chose to embrace the new regime, participating in major political campaigns and accepting positions of national leadership. Xie Songsan, a much quieter man who preferred to stay out of politics, chose to retreat from the new regime and try to let things run their course, attempting whenever possible to keep the ordinary parishioners out of harm’s way. Sensing the political trends, he moved quickly to dismantle the church’s educational and social work. When told to urge his congregation to sign the “Christian Manifesto,” he simply sent in a list of names, a tactic also used by Watchman Nee, perhaps not coincidentally.
Xie was not one of the original forty signatories to the “Christian Manifesto” and did not play a role on the national stage in the same way that Jiang Changchuan did; nonetheless, he still took part in the accusation movement in 1951, speaking out against the American missionaries that had formerly been his colleagues and friends. He attended the conference held in Beijing in April 1951 to deal with institutions that had previously received American funding, sharing a room with Shen Derong, Qi Qingcai, Watchman Nee and several others. The bedtime discussion must have been fascinating, with roommates from such diverse theological backgrounds! He signed the declaration from that meeting and was also one of five people who later spoke out against the evangelist Gu Ren’en, accusing him of raping his daughter.
After the introduction of “united worship” in 1958, Xie increasingly took a back seat, as he was seen by the authorities as not sufficiently “progressive” in his thinking. Sent into semi-retirement, he was made a member of the historical materials division, headed by Anglican Bishop Zheng Jianye. Until his death in August 1958, Jiang Changchuan had preached most weeks at MMC. After that, Sun Yanli took charge of organizing the weekly schedule for the district, leaving Xie in the background.
A large group of Red Guards arrived at MMC on August 23, 1966. According to Xie, “These people smashed the church! All the windows! They burned all the books! They burned the cross! They smashed our Hammond electric organ!” Xie himself was beaten and placed under house arrest, confined within the church building. Because of his study in the United States and his close connections with the American missionaries, they accused him of being a foreign spy. He steadfastly refused to renounce his faith. After almost three weeks of constant interrogation and more than the occasional beating with belts and whips, he was allowed to go home, but was later imprisoned for two years. The Red Guards came five times to ransack his house. They dug holes in the floor to see if anything was hidden, took away Bibles and anything at all written in English, even harmless propaganda such as Beijing Review. He was treated more harshly than the younger ministers and remained “under the supervision of the masses” with very low pay for a number of years. The family had to sell off their few remaining possessions to survive.
When MMC was finally re-opened, on September 2, 1979, Xie came out of retirement, offering the welcome and reciting the benediction at the very first service. The invocation stated: “The Lord has re-opened this holy Church, bringing together sons and daughters that have been dispersed. The Lord heals the distressed, binding their wounds.” Although advanced in years, he continued to attend services throughout the 1980s, assisting with the visits of distinguished guests from abroad, such as Archbishop Robert Runcie (December 1981) and the Reverend Billy Graham (April 24, 1988). Xie passed away quietly in 1989, survived by his wife, two sons and numerous grandchildren.
By John Craig Keating. He holds a Master’s degree in Chinese Studies and a PhD in Chinese History. He has recently published A Protestant Church in Communist China (Bethlehem PA: Lehigh University Press, 2012), a case study of Moore Memorial Church, one of the largest Protestant churches in China. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and four daughters.
This article is taken, with permission, from the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.
Oral interviews with Xie Chongguang and Gao Tianyu in Shanghai (son and daughter-in-law of Xie Songsan), 2002, 2004, 2006.
Huangpu District China Christian Council, Muentang gaikuang [The general situation at MMC], unpublished manuscript, Shanghai, 1994.
Peng, Shengyong, Yuan Moertang shilue [A history of the original Moore Memorial Church], unpublished manuscript, Shanghai, 1950.
Xie, Songsan, Moertang shilue [A summary of the history of Moore Memorial Church], unpublished manuscript, Shanghai, 1950.
Edwards, Mike, “China’s Born Again Giant”, National Geographic, July 1980, p.33.
Patterson, George N, Christianity in Communist China, London: Word Books, 1969.
Keating, John Craig William, A Protestant Church in Communist China, Bethlehem PA: Lehigh University Press, 2012.