China - Manchuria

In 1892, Danish Missionary Society sent its first missionaries to China. After a short period in Central China, they moved to Manchuria (Dongbei).

DMS in Manchuria 1895 – 1950

In 1892, Danish Missionary Society sent its first missionaries to China. After a short period in Central China, the missionaries in 1895 moved to northeast China or Manchuria – as it was named at the time.The area was originally inhabited by Manchurian tribes, but at the time DMS arrived, the vast majority were Chinese.

Danish pioneer missionaries on the road north in China.

Travel group having lunch at The Great Wall in China, April 1947.

Danish missionaries worked here from Port Arthur (Lüshun) and Dairen (Dalian) in the south to Antung (Dandong) by the River Yalu and a little further north along the river, then to Fenghuancheng (Fengcheng) about halfway to Mukden (Shenyang). From 1911 DMS started work in Northern Manchuria: Harbin and three other places. Within these two areas, we worked among a friendly population. Here we met many smiles and a humor in tune with the Danish humor.

The Dandong bridges. The ‘Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge’ crossing the Yalu River on the China–North Korea border (left). The old bridge (right) was destroyed by USA during the Korean War in 1950 and after this ends in the middle of the river. However, it is still there as a tourist attraction.

The old Pastor (Evangelist) Yen with some of the young girls he used to teach at Dairen (Dalian).

Here we built 12 to 14 mission stations, and around these as well as far into the surrounding area small congre-gations were established. In Mukden (Shenyang) no Lutheran congregation was founded. However, we coope-rated with the Presbyterians at the Medical School, the Secondary School, YMCA, and the Home for blind people.

What did these Danish missionaries want to accomplish in the Far East?

After meeting the Mission Command as a personal request, they strongly felt the calling to tell pagans about God’s love for all human beings and try to make them disciples of Jesus. The missionaries were accepted by DMS and began at a mission school where they had an introduction to the mission field and also got to know missionary colleagues. Among these were female missionaries with a higher education and male theologians as well.

After arrival to China, the first task was to learn the Chinese language. Chinese teachers to Westerners were difficult to find. There was a language school in Peking (Beijing) with excellent teachers and introduction to the Chinese culture and history as well. When arriving to the mission stations, missionaries began to familiarize themselves with local people’s way of life and the life and growth of congregations. Still the major challenge was to learn Chinese. But as the years passed, they managed the language quite well. Tasks of the missionaries were multifarious, and a variety of skills was needed: buying property, building or reconstruction of houses, procurement of materials, provide artisans, and preferably not be cheated too much.

Male missionaries often worked from a street chapel in the busy city center where people dropped in, had a chat, and were told about Jesus and his Good News, e.g. illustrated by biblical images. At temple festivals with many people around, the missionaries were active. And at the Chinese New Year they made special efforts to invite listeners to New Year meetings of the church. During the first years, health care was an excellent way to connect with local people. At that time, help in case of illness was usually hard to find. Most pioneer missio-naries had received a course in medical treatment and had the medical book for sailors. With limited know-ledge, they might nonetheless be of great help, and treatment often became an open door for the Gospel, the missionary was eager to share.

Outdoor patients in front of the hospital, Antung (Dandong).

Our mission hospitals made ​​a great effort both medically and Christian. They were often sought from afar, and many small congregations in the countryside could trace their origins back to someone who had been admitted to a mission hospital. Eventually, we had three mission hospitals. In 1906, Dr S.A. Ellerbek started the first one in Antung (Dandong), and in 1912 he together with others established the Medical School in Mukden (Shenyang). From 1922 to 1940, with a short interruption, he served as rector of this Medical School.

Missionary Nurse Karen Gormsen was assigned for service at the hospital in Antung (Dandong). She became head of the women ministry in the city and the surrounding area as well. When abandoned children were placed ‘at her door’ she could not refuse. It became an orphanage developing rapidly. Along with the hospital, this orphanage contributed in giving Danish mission a good reputation. In 1950, the orphanage had about 240 children under the age of 16. With Mao’s arrival as leader all missionary and social work were closed. Karen Gormsen returned to Denmark, very sad and ‘sick at heart’ for her children.

School Mission proved to be a good working method. At the mission start, this area had no schools comparable to a western pattern. But in this ancient culture and society many Chinese people eventually realized that the future was here. Therefore, several places had a lot of students attending our schools, although being Christian schools was no secret, and through them the Gospel reached children as well as parents. Later as public schools gradually developed, many small schools of the mission were closed.

At Takushan (Dagushan) Missionary Ellen Nielsen opened a small girl’s boarding school with three students in 1903. A middle school and high school followed, and the first kindergarten in Manchuria was opened in 1915. Later she started a college of education for teachers as well as a youth school for girls without school education. Ellen Nielsen became a Chinese citizen in 1931. She bought land and provided cheap grains to her many boarding school students. This ensured work to quite a few men. And here helpless old people got a home as well. It all became ‘The Nielsen Family Village’, as named by Chinese people. She also wrote a short and good catechism for women and biked into the district to conduct women’s meetings. Ellen Nielsen organized and took part in all the practical work. However, she did not forget to preach the Gospel, and for that she had a rare ability. Amazing what this talented and determined woman could manage to help her dear Chinese people and to serve her Lord.

In 1912, Missionary Johs. Vyff opened an unusual boy’s middle school at Pitsaikou (Picaigou), 6 km from Antung (Dandong). He was an ordained missionary but originally educated gardener, and here he created a nursery for plants. The students now had to work three hours a day in the nursery. This should teach them respect for physical work. You might call it a Maoist idea, long before Mao became well known.

Training of staff in mission and church is an important task. Here Missionary C. Waidtløw was a pioneer. As ordained missionary in Port Arthur (Lüshun) and later Dairen (Dalian), he trained several teams of evangelists and also our first Chinese pastor. From 1922, C. Waidtløw became head of a permanent evangelist school at Pitsaikou (Picaigou). In 1924, a similar women evangelist school opened at Fenghuangcheng (Fengcheng). In the late 1930’s, it became impossible to send students from the Japanese occupied Manchuria to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Shekou. Due to this, a theological seminary for pastors and evangelists was established at Pitsaukou (Picaigou) in Manchuria.

Then about the missionary children. There were many graves of small children out there. In the first years, several children were left at an early age with family and friends in Denmark. In 1933, The Danish School started with Danish teachers assigned from Denmark. This was a great advantage for the families. Some missionary children learned to speak Chinese before Danish. And like their Chinese playmates, they spoke the language without a foreign accent. They learned to love the country and people among whom they lived. And they learned to understand why their parents served out there.

What arose from this?  Was the foundation for a church laid out there?

Yes, slowly congregations developed all around. In 1913, the first Chinese pastor Yen Hsing-chi was ordained in the Lutheran Church. In 1922/23, the Church had own constitution with Synod and Church Council. The Chinese Christians insisted that C. Waidtløw should serve as president during the introductory period and in 1927, Pastor Yen succeeded his teacher as the chairman. After graduation of the first team from the theological seminary in 1940, the number of Chinese pastors almost doubled.

From 1929, a revival movement spread throughout the church and lasted for several years. In early years the revival especially meant ‘strengthening the inner life’ of the church. But ‘when the Christians became awakened, the pagans’ wish to listen increased’, as the missionary Niels Buch said. Afterwards a strong external growth followed which partly had an internal reason: The revival movement, partly an external: The Japanese occu-pation with social unrest and robber nuisance – and thus uncertainty and fear. From about 5,000 members in 1931, the church grew to almost 11,000 in 1940.

Dongbei, China. Worship Service with 180 candidates for baptism in Shenyang Church. Photo April 2002.

How did the political situation influence the work?

The political situation was identified in many ways. In 1900, the xenophobic ‘Boxer Rebellion’ started. Most missionaries had to flee and later start from scratch. In 1904/05, the Japanese-Russian war raged on Manchu-rian soil. A ‘white’ superpower (Russia) was beaten by the ‘yellows’, and the Japanese gained excessive rights in the region. Now Pax Japonica started in Manchuria lasting from 1905 to 1931. The Japanese demanded peace and order, and soldiers along the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway put power behind the claim. But despite major Japanese influence in Manchuria, it still belonged to China and Chinese law continued to prevail.

Someone has said that Danish missionaries were better than the Catholics ‘as they did not make people pay for medical treatment and did not interfere in judicial matters’. Around turn of the century, it might have happened that some Chinese people looked for special benefits when converting to Christianity. However, most of them converted for fair-minded religious reasons. The 300 Christians, who lost lives because of their faith during the Manchurian Boxer Rebellion, testified this. They would rather lose life than deny Christ and forsake ‘the foreign devil’s religion’. This was indeed a pejorative term but had become a so common term for ‘foreigners’ that only a few people remembered the original meaning.

In September 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria and created the ‘free and independent Manchoukuo’ with the Japanese as supreme masters. Many Chinese soldiers did not make it out of the country but ‘escaped into the mountains’ as homeland defenders. But they also had to exist, and many returned to their old job, the robbery. Now Pax Japonica was past and times of unrest raged. In rural districts daily life was spent in uncer-tainty and fear. And the missionaries, Dr Niels Nielsen, Siuyen (Xiuyan), and Conrad Bolwig, Takushan (Dagushan), were for some time in the hands of robbers. In the first, also internationally tense period, the Japanese let mission and church live in peace. But as the great war with China intensified in 1937, and Japan attacked America in 1941, pressure by the authorities was experienced more and more.

When Denmark was occupied under WW II, DMS was only able to send money for the missionaries’ personal provision. Due to this, the church from now on had to become fully self-supporting. In the beginning this went beyond expectations. The Church president, Pastor Ch’en took it as a testimony of God’s grace and power – and that the Church had been rooted in the country and was no longer a foreign religion.

In the summer of 1940, the official pressure took a serious turn. The national rites of bending towards the Imperial Palaces in Tokyo was extended with a third bow, towards the new state stamp in Hsinking (Chang-chun) – the Sun Goddess temple. The temple ceremonies were now strongly influenced by the Japanese Shinto religion, and the newspapers rejoiced that the Emperor and the people now had a patron goddess to answer their prayers. But the Prime Minister then stated that ceremonies at the State temple was branded only as national and not religious. Could they trust the Prime Minister’s statement as reality seemed to contradict him? The missions refused, first the Presbyterian, then the Lutheran, while local churches, although hesitantly, said yes, like the Japanese churches had done long ago. Church and mission took different positions on an important issue.

Due to the DMS position to the Sun goddess, the authorities decided to close the high school at Pitsaikou (Picaigou) and take over the schools in Takushan (Dagushan) from the summer of 1942. The Mission felt com-pelled to close the theological seminary and the women evangelist school. Authorities in Antung (Dandong) province withdrew the missionary preaching certificates. Now, several missionaries were unemployed while others (doctors and nurses) had busy years.The missionaries became isolated – they had from 1941 no oppor-tunities for home travel, and only a few letters got through. During the occupation, and especially in the last years of tension in relation to the church and clashes with the authorities, it was good to have the skilled, prudent and loyal Niels Buch as president (1931-46). Both Chinese and Danish trusted him.

Japan’s defeat in August 1945 caused great joy in both Chinese and Danish. After 14 years of occupation, the Chinese flag was waving freely over northeast China or Manchuria. The Sun goddess disappeared to Japan. And now Church and Mission were able to cooperate again. But the hope of most missionaries for a vacation in Denmark in the near future was not fulfilled. There was no peace but civil war and chaos. However, in late 1946 most missionaries reached home while others, who were stranded in Denmark during the war, came back to China.

Now the missionaries were in China between 1947 and 1950. In those years, civil war raged back and forth in Manchuria. The Russians quickly aided the communists back to power, and when the nationalists entered Antung (Dandong) in October 1946, they were met with cheers. Both local Christians and missionaries hoped for a fruitful collaboration. On 1 October 1949, Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) came to power and proclaimed establishment of The People’s Republic of China. With the exception of Ellen Nielsen, all the missionaries returned home in 1950.

The DMS mission in Manchuria was now completed. Shortly after, the Three-self movement reached the area. The Lutheran Church soon joined with this. And the history of The Lutheran Church in Manchuria had in a way ceased simultaneously with the DMS mission in the region. But the Church of Christ in Manchuria (Dongbei) still exists, stronger and more mature than before.

Dongbei, China. Worship Service in the new Harvest Road Church at Dalian. Photo 2006.

A strong commitment to serve the community, is one of the distinguished marks of the Chinese Church. It is accomplished through the Amity Foundation which is a social work started in 1985. In addition to printing millions of Bibles, Amity has been responsible for development projects and health programs. Amity also provides language training, and several envoys from Danmission have served as English Teachers in the Amity Foundation.

Danmission has resumed official friendly relations with the Protestant Church in China. In April 2002, former Vice Secretary General Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen and Anne Hviid Jensen had a research travel to Dongbei (Manchuria) to assess the possibilities of resuming practical cooperation with the church in the former Danish mission area. The two-man delegation took it as an endorsement of their attempt to renew contacts, as they were unexpectedly invited to visit Bishop Ting at his home in Nanjing. Another highlight was a Church service in one of Ellen Nielsen’s previous schools at Dagushan. This visit resulted in annual Danmission group travels to the former Danish mission stations, and here participants experienced that the Danish mission efforts were remembered with both joy and gratitude.

Mary Holm / Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen
November 2015

View more photos from Manchuria / China here


Mary Elisabeth Holm (1900-1989). Missionary in Manchuria, China, 1928-1946.
Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen (1940). Missionary in the Middle East 1963-1973. Mission secretary in DMS 1973-1982. Secretary general of Danish Santal Mission 1982-2000. Vice secretary general of Danmission 2000-2003. From 2002 leader of several group travels to China.

Rev. dato: 29. April 2018
Rettelser eller tilføjelser sendes til