by William C. Simpson, Jr, Conference Historian of the North Carolina Annual Conference
The exponential growth of Methodist mission work in China can be traced to an almost happenstance occurrence on the North Carolina coast. The story relates to not only Methodism in China but also to the history of Trinity College, later, Duke University.
The story begins in 1880, when a U.S. Revenue Cutter, the USS Albert Gallatin docked at Portsmouth Island at the southern tip of the Outer Banks just below Ocracoke. On board the cutter was a young Chinese cabin boy, Charlie Soong. Charlie Soong (1863–1918), was born Han Jiaozhun and was reared until he was nine years of age in Wenchang, a port on the eastern coast of the island of Hainan, China.
After study in Indonesia, the teenaged Charlie sailed to Boston to work for an uncle at his shop in the city’s Chinatown district. Soon he acquired a job working for the U.S. Revenue Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard.
After the ship docked in Portsmouth, Capt. Eric Gabrielson, of the Revenue Service cutter, was invited to join Samuel Chadwick for dinner. Chadwick, from a prominent Methodist family on the coast, offered to say grace over the meal. Capt. Gabrielson, impressed with the devout demeanor of his host, decided to tell him about the young Chinese cabin boy on the Gallatin. He said that he was bright and wanted to study in America. Samuel Chadwick suggested that he bring him to Wilmington, North Carolina, where Chadwick was being transferred.
In Wilmington, Charlie Soong came to live with Col. Roger Moore and his family, members of Fifth Avenue Methodist Church. Joining the family for church, he responded to the invitation and accepted Christ as his Savior. He was baptized as Charles Jones Soong. The name Soong was probably an anglicized version of his given name Jiaozhun (Chiao-Chun).
In Wilmington he was assigned as an apprentice to a businessman in the printing business. From Wilmington he moved to Durham at the invitation of Gen. Julian S. Carr, a prominent Methodist, a member of Trinity Church and a friend of the Dukes. In 1881, Yao-ju “Charlie” Soong from Wenchang, China, enrolled at Trinity College, becoming the school’s first international student.
Following graduation from Trinity, he studied theology at Vanderbilt before returning to China in 1886. There he married in 1887, and that year joined a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He nevertheless continued his missionary work until 1892 when he drew upon his earlier training and began a printing business with the assistance of Julian S. Carr, his wealthy patron. Soong made a fortune publishing inexpensive Chinese Bibles. He also became the leading Methodist layman in China.
In 1894, Soong met Sun Yat-sen, who helped to transform him into a revolutionary. In 1906, he was officially appointed treasurer of the Revolutionary Alliance and was responsible for financing the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and its revolution.
All of Soong’s children were educated in the United States. His eldest child, Ai-ling (1890–1973) studied at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She returned to China and became secretary to Sun Yat-sen until her marriage to banker and businessman H.H. K’ung (Kong Xiangxi), the wealthiest man in China. In 1914. Qingling, Soong’s second child, replaced Ai-ling as secretary. In 1914, she married Sun Yat-sen, twenty-six years her senior. Both H.H. K’ung and Charlie Soong’s third child, T.V. Soong, were financially significant forces in the advancement of Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist cause in China and the United States.
The youngest sister Soong Mei-ling (1898–2003) was a prominent political leader in her own right. She became the wife and partner in power of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), commander in chief of the Chinese armies and later president of the Republic of China. It was said that when Chiang Kai-shek asked for her hand in marriage, Charlie Soong objected, saying they were all Christians and Methodists. Chiang Kai-shek replied, “Then I will become a Christian and a Methodist.”
A 1997 historical drama directed by Hong Kong film-maker Mabel Cheung, The Soong Sisters, begins with these words: “Once upon a time in distant land, there were three sisters, one loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.” The drama tells how Soong Ailing (the lover of money) married Kung Hsiang-hsi, a director of the Bank of China; Soong Meiling (the lover of power) married Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party; and Soong Qinglinks (the lover of the Chinese nation) married the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Republic of China.
After the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925, the Nationalist Party split into factions. The group led by Sun’s widow, Qingling, was eventually overshadowed by the faction led by Chiang Kai-shek. In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek married Soong Mei-ling, Charlie Soong’s fourth child, later known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. T.V. Soong became an influential member of Chiang’s Nationalist government and, with his sister Mei-ling, was extremely important in Chinese foreign relations. Qingling remained opposed to Chiang’s government. After her husband’s death she became an ardent supporter of Mao Tse-tung. The communists established the People’s Republic in 1949 and gave Qingling a high position–though mostly symbolic–as Vice-Chairman of the Party under Mao Yse-Tung.
China welcomed Methodist missionaries because they brought Western knowledge in areas such as medicine. Healing and evangelism soon began to go hand in hand. The main influx of western missionaries started after China’s defeat in the First Opium War in 1844, which led to the opening of five trading ports. Representatives of the predecessor bodies of The United Methodist Church were among them.
In 1847, Methodist Episcopal missionaries arrived in the Fujian Province. They established training academies including schools for girls, universities and medical missions in Beijing and Tianjin.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, arrived in the Shanghai-Huzhou-Suzhou area in the early 1850s. Later, an East China Conference was established. Methodist Protestants worked in northern China, in the area near the Great Wall.
Charlie Soong was a major supporter of the Methodist work. He helped found Peking University, later re-named Yenching University. The term “Yenching” comes from an alternative name for old Beijing, derived from its status as capital of the state of Yan.
Walter Lambuth, born in Shanghai, China to missionary parents, was a physician who was later elected as a bishop in the Southern Church. His grandfather had been admitted to the Holston Conference in 1795. Lambuth was ordained an elder in the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and returned to China with his wife Daisy Kelly as a medical missionary in 1877. In 1883 with support from the Methodist Church and the financial contribution of Charlies Soong founded Soochow Hospital.
And to think, a simple meal, a Methodist blessing over that meal and a happenstance meeting on the Outer Banks led to much greater things for the Kingdom of God half-way around the world!