Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Pure Heart Church

From our 30th floor balcony, we look straight down into the courtyard of the Pure Heart Church (from Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. During Easter week and Easter Sunday, the church was even more active than usual. So I was inspired to tell you what I’ve learned about the Pure Heart Church.

The church was founded in 1860 by four missionaries sent to China by the Presbyterian Church of the United States. It was initially known as The First Presbyterian Church of Shanghai.  The founders included John Marshall Willoughby Farnham (b. Lebanon, Maine, 1829. d. Shanghai, 1917) and his wife Mary Jane Scott Farnham (d. 1913), and a man surnamed Lowrey.

Besides compiling one the first Chinese-dialect hymnals and publishing religious tracts, John and Mary Jane developed a successful educational program and introduced radical changes in educational methods. “Instead of rote memory the Farnhams emphasized reason and logic. Even more revolutionary was the merger of the boys’ and girls’ schools. The girls cooked for the boys as well as for themselves.” (G. Thompson Brown, Earthen Vessels and Transcendent Power, p. 49) Mary Farnham Girls’ School and the Lowrie Institute, a boys’ school where John was principal for 24 years, later became the most prestigious mission schools in Shanghai.

Since 1882 all of the church’s pastors have been Chinese. In 1919 the congregation purchased property where the current church is located. The current church building was completed in 1923. Beginning in August 1958, the Shanghai Christian Self-Patriotic Committee, combined the all the Protestant congregations in Shanghai’s Southern District with the Pure Heart Church congregation.

With the start of the Cultural Revolution in autumn 1966, church activities were suspended. In 1979 Pure Heart Church was the second church in Shanghai to reopen. “Shanghai Christian Three-Self Patriotic Committee” appointed its pastors. A photo in the church’s English language brochure shows Rev. Billie Graham preaching to a standing-room-only crowd.

When the rest of the city block was knocked down and replaced with the 2002-vintage residential complex where we live, the church building’s designation as “an important historical structure”, saved it from the wrecking ball. Within a block of the Pure Heart Church are two large public high schools. Both campuses include well-designed Western-style buildings which appear to be of a vintage similar to that of the church buildings. These schools may well be successors of these prestigious mission schools.

Every Sunday morning at 7:30am and again Sunday evening the church bell sounds, oddly without resonance, tolling 20 times. Looking down from our balcony, we can see throngs of people entering through the church’s two gateways and moving about in the courtyard. Again on Wednesday evening, the church opens for services.

I’ve had a look inside the surprisingly large sanctuary. The congregation sits in two wings; each canted toward a central platform with room for a large choir, organ, pulpit and alter. From our apartment, we often hear a crowd of voices raised in vigorous hymn singing. Unlike hymns from Western hymnals, the tunes are simple and Chinese people seem to have a culture that cultivates folk singing. But the contrast with singing during Western church services is remarkable.

Religion in China – a brief overview

Buddhism and “Shenism”, the ethnic religion of the Hans, are family-oriented and do not demand the exclusive adherence of members. Some scholars doubt the use of the term “religion” in reference to these, and suggest “cultural practices” or “thought systems” as more appropriate names. Shenism encompasses Taoism and the worship of the shens. The shens are a collection of various local ethnic deities, heroes, ancestors, and figures from Chinese mythology, among which the most popular ones in recent years have been Mazu (goddess of the seas, patron of Southern China), Huangdi (divine patriarch of all the Chinese and folk god of the Chinese nation), the Black Dragon, Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), and others.

With respectively over 30% and 18–20% of the population adhering to them, Shenism-Taoism and Buddhism are thriving throughout the country as the government is allowing them to spread. Almost 10% of the population is composed of those regarded as non-Han ethnicities who following their traditional tribal religions. Christians associated with sanctioned churches comprise 3–4% of the population. Muslims comprise 1–2%. However, the biggest part of the population, ranging between 60% and 70%, is mostly agnostic or atheist.

With its establishment on October 1, 1949, the officially atheist government of People’s Republic of China, viewed religion as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism . In 1966-67, the Cultural Revolution attacked religions and destroyed a massive number of places of worship of all types.]

This policy relaxed considerably in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980s the government has allowed religious activity but tightly controls it. There are five religions recognized by the state: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. State-allowed religious groups may meet only at state-approved places of worship. In Shanghai, there may be as many as 160 such places of worship. To some degree, the government also controls the institutions of the religions it recognizes.

The 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees “freedom of religion” in Article 46. The policy regarding religious practice in China states that “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities”, and continues with the statement that: “nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”

Since the mid-1980s the government has viewed Buddhism and Taoism-Shenism as an integral part of Chinese culture. Across the country the government has undertaken a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples. To some extent the government has supported these by organizing the 2006 World Buddhist Forum and the 2007 International Forum on the Daodejing.