"I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." How familiar are the words, and yet how full of new and wondrous promise when uttered for the first time in the history of a new-born Church!
The first two converts of the C.M.S. venture in Szechwan were baptized at Sintu early in 1896, and at Mienchow in September of the same year six people, four women and two men, stood to confess their Lord in baptism. It was a tremendous thing for them to do. They had not only to forsake their old religions, but to face the centuries-old prejudice and superstition of their families in identifying themselves with the despised and hated foreigners. It was inevitable in those days that to the uninitiated Christianity should appear to be a foreign religion. Had it not been brought from abroad by the strangers who had settled in their midst? And were not all sorts of ugly tales circulated and believed about these same strangers? Yes, great courage was needed by that little band.
Eight years before, the Rev. J. H. Horsburgh of the C.M.S. Mid-China Mission, had come on a visit to the far interior of Szechwan, the largest and most western province of China. This remote but wealthy province, with a population of nearly 70,000,000 irregularly distributed over an area greater in extent than France, could only be approached by boat up the Yangtze River. It was a journey marked not only by the grandeur of the scenery but by the dangers encountered in crossing the rapids. Mr. Hors-burgh's journey up the river afforded him ample opportunity of observing city after city on its banks where no ray of gospel light had yet penetrated. Up to that time, although there were some missionaries of the China Inland Mission working in the east of the province, practically the whole of the western side, with an area about the size of the south of England, was still untouched. So burdened was Mr. Horsburgh by the sight of this great unevangelized region that he set himself to work and pray for an open door. Anti-foreign feeling was deep and strong. There was no welcome for the stranger from an "outside kingdom"; those who came must be prepared for hardship, hostility, and perhaps even martyrdom. But Mr. Horsburgh was full of faith and hope. Strong in the power of the love that compels, he went home and pleaded with passionate eloquence for those who were in darkness and did not know it, that some might hear the call to bring them the light of whose existence they had never dreamed.
In 1891 he returned with the first party of recruits and they were given hospitality and much help by missionaries of the China Inland Mission until they could proceed to their own territory. The next eighteen months formed a period of rough pioneer work, difficult to describe. The experience of two women whose work centred chiefly in Mienchow (now known as Mienyang), is typical of what most of the party endured. As yet the C.M.S. owned no houses in Szechwan, and those who know the noise, publicity, and filth of the average Chinese inn will be able to appreciate some at least of the trials of these early missionaries. Crowds of people followed them wherever they went, and even came flocking into their rooms. Some were merely curious, others resentful and menacing. One of these women pioneers, Miss Gertrude Wells, is still with us. After forty-two years of missionary work she is as keen as ever, and an inspiration to all who know her. The other, Miss Alice Entwistle, was called to higher service a few months before the event to which she had so looked forward--the baptism of the first group of converts in Mienchow.
It would be difficult to imagine a more obscure and less influential company than those first converts. A weaver and his wife, two domestic servants, a farmer's wife, and a cook made up the number. We are reminded of those other pioneers who walked along the shores of Galilee, just a few enthusiastic young men, with the older men perhaps looking after them and smiling over the follies of youth. But the same invincible Leader Who caused those fishermen to turn the world upside down, was present in the midst of these humble folk in Mienchow, and behind Him were all the hosts of heaven. Truly those that were for them were more than all that were against them.
Stormy times followed. The faith of these few Christians was tested severely, but their Leader carried them through. The grandsons of one member of that little company are two of the most faithful and tireless workers we have ever had.
Similar groups were gradually being formed in other towns, and in the same year that Mienchow was opened (1894) premises were secured in Chungpa, Sintu, Mienchu, Anhsien, and Shih Ts'iien. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the province the Church of England section of the China Inland Mission, with Paoning as a centre, was already at work under the able leadership of the Rev. W. W. Cassels. Up to this time the C.M.S. work in Szechwan had been under the direction of Bishop Moule, the first Bishop in Mid-China, but it was quite impossible for him to give adequate supervision to a district nearly 2000 miles away from his head-quarters, and it was therefore decided to create a new diocese of Western China. With the whole-hearted approval of Archbishop Benson and of the C.M.S., the Rev. W. W. Cassels was consecrated bishop in October, 1895.
That same year was marked by a serious outbreak of anti-foreign agitation which spread throughout the province. In Chengtu, the capital, the property of three Protestant missions and that of the Roman Catholics was destroyed, and in other towns the work of the C.M.S. stations was temporarily disorganized. The missionaries, however, were able to remain at their posts, and in spite of opposition and occasional waves of intense anti-foreign feeling, the work continued to go forward until the Boxer outbreak in 1900. This disturbance did not affect Szechwan so much as some other parts of China, nevertheless missionaries were obliged by consular orders to retire to the coast. During their absence the Chinese converts made a brave stand for their faith and carried on all the regular services.
When the missionaries returned, a marked change was evident in the attitude of the people. Official opposition practically ceased, and doors of opportunity began to open in all directions. In the C.M.S. area new stations were opened at Tehyang, Chungkiang, Mowchow, Lungan, and Hanchow. During the next few years not only did the work of evangelization go forward by leaps and bounds, but also that of organization and consolidation. Bishop Cassels was a man of prayer and great spiritual power, and he guided his diocese with remarkable wisdom and insight. By 1910 he was able to record that the diocese had been divided into parishes, each with its own parochial vestry. Groups of parishes had been formed into districts, each having its own district council. The parishes in the C.M.S. area formed one of these districts. A diocesan council had been elected by the district councils to advise and assist the bishop. While there were missionaries on all these councils, the majority of members were Chinese Christians who were thus gradually learning methods of church government.
Persecution continued, but not with its former vigour, and the Church grew and flourished. Christ was gradually winning His way, triumphing over prejudice, superstition, and hatred, as love in the end must triumph.