Called the “Dean of the House Churches,”Wang Ming Dao was born in the foreign legation quarter of Beijing in 1900 while it was under siege of the Boxers. His early life was one of extreme poverty and repeated illness; but he had an inquiring mind and did well at a London Missionary Society school. He later said his poverty had been something of a spiritual advantage because there were many sins that took money to commit.
At first Wang hoped to become a great political leader, and he put a picture of Abraham Lincoln on his wall to remind himself of his goal. However, this goal changed after he was converted to Christianity at fourteen. Wang came to believe “that all kinds of sinful practices in society had their exact counterparts in the church.” He decided that the church “needed a revolution” and that God had entrusted to him the mission of bringing it about. In 1919 Wang became a teacher at a Presbyterian mission school in Baoding, a hundred miles south of the capital, but was dismissed in 1920 when he insisted on being baptized by immersion.
Wang Mingdao believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, the depravity of man, and justification by faith. He criticized shortcomings of both Chinese and missionary churches, emphasizing that Christians should live holy lives. He also believed both that church and state should be separate and that Christians should not be “yoked together with unbelievers.”Wang likened himself to the prophet Jeremiah who had attacked social corruption and false prophets, and Wang especially opposed purveyors of liberal theology such as Western missionaries and the YMCA, which he said had destroyed the faith of young people. Wang believed that the greatest responsibility of church leaders was to help Christians “tread the path of holiness.” He often refused baptism to converts until they had proved that their Christianity was more than a “profession of their lips.”
In 1923, after a good deal of personal Bible study but no formal theological training, Wang moved towards a more mature understanding of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. In February 1925, he began holding religious meetings in his home in Peking, meetings which eventuated in the founding of the Christian Tabernacle, a church which by 1937 had its own building seating several hundred, and which was one of the largest evangelical churches in China during the 1940s. Wang also had an itinerant ministry throughout China, visiting twenty-four of the twenty-eight provinces and taking the pulpit in churches of thirty different denominations. In 1926, Wang began publishing a religious newspaper, Spiritual Food Quarterly.
In 1928, Wang (through what might be called semi-arrangement) married Liu Jingwen, the much younger daughter of a Protestant pastor in Hangzhou. They experienced a long and happy marriage and had a son, Wang Tianzhe, who survived them; but their temperaments were remarkably dissimilar. Wang was obsessive about details, whereas his wife was (in his words) “only concerned about the general effect,” “happy-go-lucky.”
In August 1955, Wang was arrested for refusing to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-controlled church. A few months earlier Wang had written a long article attacking the Three-Self Committee headed by Wu Yaozong as a group composed of modernist unbelievers with whom true Christians should have nothing to do. Wang, his wife, and eighteen church members, were imprisoned, and the Christian Tabernacle was closed. After signing a confession, making a humiliating plea for mercy from those he had previously denounced as “false prophets,” and promising to participate in the TSPM, Wang was released from prison.
After Wang’s release he received numerous visitors to his tiny apartment in Shanghai, including foreigners from Europe, North America, and Asia. The sheer volume of visitors made Chinese security officers nervous, especially since Wang made frank statements about his past treatment by the government. Wang remained unapologetic, and when a member of the Three-Self Church sent him a donation, Wang sent it back.
Between 1987 and 1989, Wang’s physical and mental abilities noticeably declined. In July 1991, Wang was diagnosed with blood clots on his brain, and he died on July 28, followed by his wife’s death in 1992. As one authority has noted, despite Wang’s old age and declining influence, he had “remained an unrivaled symbol of uncompromising faith until his death.”
Lian Xi (2010). Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12339-5.
Wang, Stephen (2002). The Long Road to Freedom. Kent, England: Sovereign World.
ALSO ON THIS DAY
1893 – Eleanor Chestnut was appointed a medical missionary and assigned to south China, where she served selflessly for ten years.