A History of Christianity in Asia – Book Review

A History of Christianity in Asia
Author:  Samuel Hugh Moffett
Publisher:  Orbis Books
ISBN:  1570751625 (Vol 1)
ISBN:  1570754500 (Vol 2)

Book Review by Dr Kang San Tan, Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College.

Samuel Moffett’s two-volume work on The History of Christianity in Asia is becoming a standard reference for students and missionaries interested in Asian Christianity.  Previous history textbooks have generally not given adequate attention to the growth of Christianity in Asia, focusing instead on Western Christianity.  Moffett’s indispensable 2 volumes correct that imbalance.

The early presence of Christian communities in Persia, India, Pakistan and China are all fascinating discoveries for Asian Christians seeking historical legacies.  Readers gain insights into the nature of the ascetic communities which became major mission forces from the third century onwards.

Although heavy reading with massive historical data, Moffett ably arouses the reader’s interests with penetrating questions such as: What is the nature of “Nestorian Christianity” which went to China during the 7th Century?  Were these Nestorian missionaries carrying an orthodox or syncretistic faith?  Why did Nestorian Christianity disappear from China altogether, and what lessons for subsequent missionary work can we draw from these events?  Of interest is Moffett’s cautious support for the tradition that the apostle Thomas carried the gospel to India, which is treated as legend by many historians (pp. 25-39).

Volume 1 ends with a study of how Christianity survived during those challenging years from 1000 to 1500.

The second volume charts the growth of Christianity as a missionary movement in Asia, establishing the fact that Christianity was one of the truly great religions of Asia, alongside what was traditionally known as Asian religions such as Hinduism, Confucianism or Buddhism.  Moffett explores how Christian missionary work advanced in the context of the Buddhist and Muslim kingdoms of South East Asia, and the successive persecutions of Christians in Japan in 1587, 1597 and 1614.  He mixes historical narrative with personal stories of Christian martyrs.

The second volume is a tour de force covering the growth of Christianity in China, India, Korea, the Philippines, Ceylon, Burma and other parts of Asia, highlighting significant events, yet stopping to analyse some of the difficulties in the young church during these early periods.  Moffett’s study also makes an important contribution against the previously held belief that Christian expansion is synonymous with colonial expansion.  While not denying its close relationship, Moffett offers repeated accounts where Western colonial masters could also be hostile against Christian missionary efforts.

His final concluding Epilogue, outlining 5 debatable generalisations regarding the history of Christian in Asia during the nineteenth century is worth further reflections and study. These are:
1) If the measure of growth is the number of Christian adherents, the nineteenth century was a great success
2) The nineteenth century was a Protestant century
3) A century of evangelism
4) A century of ‘women in mission’
5) Its characteristic mission structure was the ‘voluntary society.’ (634-643)

Empires have come and gone, and yet the church of Jesus Christ remained and flourished despite persecutions.

These 2 volumes will strengthen the sense of Christian heritage for all Asian Christians.  Both volumes give a resounding message for Christians worldwide, particularly in the Post-Christian West.  Moffett concludes his massive 2 volumes with the following confidence claim:

Jesus Christ was born in Asia.  Some say that Christianity has failed in Asia.  Not so.  The numbers tell us otherwise.  And the mounting chorus of voices from Asia’s Christians should remind us in the doubting West that God never fails.

Back to Issue 16

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