John Livingston Nevius and Far Eastern Christianity
JOHN LIVINGSTON NEVIUS was born on a farm in New York in 1829, but he was not to remain a farmer. At sixteen he entered Union College, and at twenty-one Princeton seminary. There he heard a sermon that convinced him to become a missionary. In 1853, he and his new wife Helen Coan sailed for China.
In China he quickly learned the language and rode about preaching. Dedicated to mastering Chinese, for ten years he scarcely read an English-language book. He and Helen worked for the conversion of the Chinese despite rebellion, plague, and famine. Nonetheless, the people they had hoped to preach the gospel to started many ugly rumors about them.
Nevius tried to enlighten westerners about China and inspire them to missionary work through a book, China and the Chinese. On its closing page he wrote, “When Christians feel that they are debtors to those who have not heard of Christ, and that the blood of the perishing may be found on their skirts, when they are brought into closer sympathy with Christ, and honestly and earnestly desire the triumph of his kingdom, so that they are willing to make sacrifices to bring about that glorious result, and when they pray with faith for the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit—then, as believers in the sovereignty and faithfulness of Christ our Lord, we may look for results such as have not hitherto been witnessed.”
Building on ideas of missionaries Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, Nevius developed the “three-self” concept: the Chinese church should be self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-governing. Fellow Presbyterians in China rejected the concept. However, in 1890, missionaries in Korea asked Nevius to explain his method. Convinced after prayer that his ideas were sound, they adopted them. Converts were to remain in the jobs they had before conversion, support themselves by their own work, and witness for Christ. They were to memorize essential scriptures. Churches would appoint their own leaders and be responsible for their support. The result was the rapid growth of the Korean church.
John Livingston Nevius died quietly on this morning, 19 October 1893 while planning further work.